How do we interpret? Pt. 2

*This is a paper I submitted for a class. I’ve been thinking a lot about interpretation lately and had a few discussions on here.

Jacques Derrida’s claim that there is “nothing outside the text” rocked the modern notion of objectivism. With the modern era (beginning from anywhere as early as the Italian Renaissance to as late as the Enlightenment) came an incredible trust (read: faith) in humanity and our ability to create for ourselves Shalom through technological and economic progress. This faith was largely based upon the understanding that man need not be enslaved by archaic tradition or authority. Rather, man was autonomous and could make his own way in the world through the use of reason. There was no need for any sort of oppressive religion and if God did exist he certainly was not interested in what was going on here (thank-you very much!). What resulted was an inherently individualistic understanding of man and a new religion built on the idol of objectivism. The world was ours to discover and we could figure this out on our own and make a good life for ourselves if only we cleared the way for reason to take over. For the modern mind true knowledge was objective, meaning that truth was self-evident, demonstrable and reasonable. However, as the world began to change a shift took place which postmodern philosophers noted. Objectivism was a farce and reason really was not all that reasonable. Derrida was at the fore of much of this criticism. If we take his claims seriously, that everything is text and, therefore, interpreted then the door is opened for the Church to reclaim a more robust, less modern, faith.

Il n’y a pas de hors-texte: Challenging the modernist assumption of objectivism.

Imagine a scene with me if you will. It is a hot summers day and you’re walking along the road when you notice two men. The men greet each other with a warm embrace, chat for a moment, and then one of the men takes the other by the hand and they begin to walk. As they walk hand-in-hand they stop to chat with people and laugh, all the time holding hands. This may seem like some sort of objective action but whether the action is objective or not has no bearing on the viewer being able to view objectively. What if I told you that this scene took place on Church Street in Toronto’s homosexual community? This would undoubtedly effect your understanding of the scene. However, what if instead of Toronto this scene unfolded in a small Masai community in the Kenyan wilderness? Perhaps this would change ones understanding. In fact, this very thing happened to me when I visited a small village in Kenya. Upon arriving I was greeted by the “chief” of the village who took my by the hand and led me around his community introducing me to people as we walked together. In this context, two men holding hands was a cultural norm. It was a sign of friendship and respect. However, it initially took me by surprise because in the city of Toronto where I live two men holding hands as they go for a walk has a whole other meaning. Depending on where you are standing (be it Kenya or Canada) this action may be experienced (interpreted) differently.

The point is that this action is not objective. It requires interpretation and that interpretation is dependent on any number of variants. This is what Derrida supposes when he argues that “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” (“there is nothing outside the text”). Everyone uses language to communicate and it is on this basis that all of us interpret the world as we see it. Interpretation should not be understood as some sort of gymnastic’s that we must engaged in in order to reach an unmediated realm that no longer requires our interpretation. Interpretation is not something we do to reach a place where we can sit back and experience the world “as it is.” Rather, “interpretation is an inescapable part of being human and experiencing the world,” (Smith 38).
Smith points out that Derrida is here concerned with the modern notion of objectivity that we discussed above. For Derrida, there can be no objective truth because all truth is experienced and, therefore, interpreted. When Derrida makes a claim like “there is nothing outside the text,” he means “there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language…to claim that there is nothing outside the text is to say that everything is a text…everything must be interpreted in order to be experienced…all our experience is always already an interpretation,” (39). Here then, interpretation is closely linked with experience. In other words, we interpret truth by experiencing truth. Derrida rejects the notion of objectivity because there are no free-standing, objective people. Rather, all people everywhere were born into a particular place and time, were raised a certain way in a family in a certain culture, were educated at a particular school and so on. All of these factors come into play as we experience and, therefore, interpret the world around us. In order to experience truth objectively one would have to be able to transcend the ground on which they are standing leaving all of their experiences and culture behind, in order to view truth from a neutral ground. However, this is impossible given that experience and culture are all part of the human experience. In other words, in order to view something objectively one would have to be able to view that thing uninfluenced, apart from any context. “There is nothing outside the text” can then also be understood to mean “there is nothing outside context.” “Everything is a text” is then the same as saying that “there are only contexts” and in this sense context comes to “determine the meaning of a text, the construal of a thing, or the ‘reading’ of an event,” (52). No one can be divorced from the context in which they find themselves. Therefore, no one can be truly objective and there can be no objective truth, only subjective. This, however, is no threat to Christianity.

An opportunity to return to a more faithful faith (or, thank-you pomo!).

Christians need not fear a statement like “there is nothing outside the text.” In fact, we ought to embrace this and recognize that objectivism merits criticism, especially from within a Christian worldview. The notion of objectivism is rooted in the modern ideal of the autonomous rational individual. However, according to the Judeo-Christian narrative humans were not created to be “individuals.” Rather, the Judeo-Christian narrative is the story of God and his people. A Body. In fact, from the beginning we are taught that it is not good for humans to live as individuals (Gen. 2:18). After all we are created in the image of a God that is mysteriously three-and-yet-one. The Godhead after whom we are imaged is a relationship of three persons and so this God proclaims, “Let us make man in our image,” (Gen. 1:26). To be human is to bear the image of a God who is a relationship. Paul echoes this same thought in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it,” (12:27). The scriptures are clear, humanity is not autonomous, rather, we are dependent on our Creator whose image we are called to bear. “There are only contexts,” and we find ourselves deeply rooted in a very particular context that being the Judeo-Christian narrative. We are one Body that is rooted in a story, a context. Therefore, we join with the voices of postmodernity that criticize a modern emphasis on objectivism, pure reason, progress and individualism. In fact, we take it a step farther recognizing that both “modernity and postmodernity are characterized by an idolatrous notion of self-sufficiency and a deep naturalism,” (52).

This provides the Church with a unique (historically speaking) opportunity to reclaim a more robust, a more faithful, Christian faith in the aftermath of modernity. In the words of a certain professor at the University of Toronto, “we are in desperate need of a postmodernism and postmodernity has failed to provide that. But, I think the Gospel has a shot.”1 Smith suggests that this insight ought to push the Church to recover two important emphases: the centrality of Scripture for mediating our understanding of the world as a whole, and, the role of community in the interpretation of Scripture (23).

Centrality of Scripture.

If all the world is a text as Derrida suggests then, as a text, the world is subject to interpretation. We have already touched on some of the interpretive factors that come into play here and this leads to the conclusion that Smith points out for us, namely that “there is no uninterpreted reality, no brute facts passively sitting there to be simply and purely seen. Rather, we see the world always already through the lens of an interpretive framework governed by ultimate beliefs,” (54). This may seem obvious to some but it stands in conflict with the modern notion of objectivism, that we can see the world purely apart from any “lens of an interpretive framework governed by ultimate beliefs.” This proclamation of subjectivity is no threat to the Christian faith. If we are always interpreting the world then, for the Church, the Judeo-Christian scripture is the narrative that informs our very understanding and view of the world. As Smith puts it, “we should see the world through the Word,” (55). However, this forces us to reflect on our own life and the lives of our local churches. Are we, in fact, being shaped by the Biblical narrative and bearing God’s image, or, are we being shaped by an alternative narrative and thereby bearing an idolatrous image? These are not easy questions to ask but if we allow this discussion to take place, both with ourself and with others, then perhaps we can be drawn back to a more faithful relationship with God. Often we are guilty of neutering the scriptures and reducing them to some sort of pietistic, private moral compass. However, if we are really to recover the scriptures to mediate and shape our understanding of the world we must acknowledge that there is not one inch of our experience that is not governed by the revelation of God we are confronted with in the scriptures. In other words, “there is no aspect of creation to which God’s revelation does not speak,” (55). We must abandon the idolatrous narrative of our consumer culture and return once more the scriptures to be shaped by God’s Word.

A community endeavor.

We have already seen that modernity can be characterized by a deep sense of individualism and autonomy. The Church in more recent centuries has often been influenced by this idolatrous modern notion. One of the ways that this has occurred is through the idea of private interpretation which would suggest that the meaning of the scriptures is plainly observable and objectively so. This was not always the case of course. After all, it is really only since the invention of the printing press that Christians were able to possess their own individual copies of the Bible. I find it helpful to consider first-century Judaism. In this context a town was fortunate if they had a single copy of the Hebrew Scriptures. If a town did have a copy it was kept in the local synagogue. Therefore, in order to hear the scriptures the community had to come together. Reading and subsequently interpreting the scriptures was a community endeavor. The same can be said about the early church. Nowadays though, Christians are able to sit privately in their own homes and interpret. Derrida wants to reject this sort of move and suggests (like first-century Jews and the early Christians) that community has a role to play in interpretation. In fact, communities are interpreting bodies.

The Apostles’ Creed proclaims that we believe in “the holy, catholic church” and also “the communion of the saints.” We are one church, a communion. There can be no isolated Christian. Smith notes that Derrida’s critique of modernity and emphasis on community “helps us appreciate the way in which postmodernity pushes us to recapture the central role of community not only for biblical interpretation but also for teaching us how to make our way in the world,” (56). For Derrida, language is inherently communal and, therefore, interpretation requires the guidance of an interpretive community. To interpret the scriptures privately is then to miss out. In order to interpret the scriptures well “I cannot shut myself off from the community that is the church; rather, I need to be formed and informed by the breadth of this community,” (56). Yes, the Church is governed by the scriptures, yet the scriptures are only properly understood and make sense in the context of a believing community. “The same Spirit is both author of the text and illuminator of the reading community,” (57). The Church then is the interpretive community in which the scriptures come to life. However, this interpretation should lead towards an embodied participation in the story of scripture. There must be a link between the words that we read and the Word that was involved in creation who continues to speak today whom we are called to follow. The emphasis here then is on application rather than explanation which only comes as we wrestle communally with the Bible in order to gain a better understanding of the nature of the scriptures and to uncover how the text might shape and transform our lives and also our communities and all of creation.

As we have seen Derrida’s challenge to modernity was well deserved. The modern understanding of the autonomous, objective individual betrays the reality that we are all located within a particular context and use language to communicate. In other words, it is impossible to speak from ‘no where’. We are all rooted and grounded in a particular story. This presents an opportunity for the Church to abandon a faith influenced by modernity and to acknowledge the subjectiveness of their story which is rooted in the Judeo-Christian narrative and requires the revelation of the Spirit. The Church then is free to reclaim the scriptural narrative as the lens through which we view and understand the world. However, we must recognize along with Derrida that this requires an interpretive community, the Church, who together wrestle with the scriptures and how the Word might speak to us and shape us today.

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1 comment
  1. Christina Turtle said:

    very interesting stuff!

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