Friday, July 6, 2012

Whose Community? Which Interpretation?

Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. Grand Rapids, Baker 2009. 160 pp. (paperback). ISBN: 9780801031472

This volume by Westphal is part of a series, The Church and Postmodern Culture, edited by James K. A. Smith. Westphal's Whose Community? Which Interpretation? is written for "Christian theologians of three kinds: academic, pastoral, and lay" (13). This book engages postmodernism, especially the hermeneutical interpretation of Hans-Georg Gadamer and shows how it can be helpful in interpreting classical texts like the Bible. Westphal notes, "It is dangerous for Jerusalem (theology) to turn to Athens (philosophy) for guidance" (13). Westphal, however, thinks it is worth the risk for two reasons: "First, theologies that pride themselves on being free of contamination by philosophy are often, even usually, shaped by philosophical traditions that have become part of the culture to which these theologies belong and that operate without us being consciously aware of them" (14). Second, we might learn something from philosophy that we can apply to theology.

Merold Westphal is professor of philosophy at Fordham University, where he has taught for more than twenty years. He is also a elder at his church. Westphal has many publications including Postmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought and Overcoming Onto-Theology.

The book is divided into three sections.  The first part, chapters one through five, provides the background for understanding Gadamer's theory of hermeneutics. These early chapters describes what the author calls "naive realism." The idea that no interpretation is necessary. He also argues that all interpreters come to the text with presuppositions. In addition, he also analyses Romantic hermeneutics of Schliermacher and Dilthey. His main target seems to be the theory of  E. D. Hirsch's  Validity in Interpretation. Westphal seems to accuse Hirsch and other intentionalists of arguing for a determinate meaning because of a fear of sliding into relativism.

The middle section, chapters six to nine, describes the theory of Gadamer and how it can help us from avoding the ditches of "hermeneutical despair (anything goes)" and  "hermeneutical arrogance (we have the interpretation)." Gadamer's basic view is that we all stand from somewhere. We are part of some tradition even if we do not recognize it. In other words, we all see from some perspective. We all come with presuppositions to the text. Not only the reader comes with influences, but the writer does too. Gadamer and Westphal both criticize the intentional position that there is one meaning in the text put there by the author. Westphal, however, does not believe the author is dead. He believes instead that the author is just one voice in the text. He also thinks that the reader helps bring meaning to the text. That the reader is a contingent being in a specific historical time and that this will influence the interpretation of the text.

The last three chapters applies Gadamer's theory to the church's interpretation of the Bible. Gadamer's theory sees interpretation as performance, translation, application, and conversation. These ideas resonate with the idea of spiritual formation, how we are formed by both the Scriptures and our participation in a believing community. I found the idea of interpretation as conversation as quite interesting. This conversation called for virtues of the reader: openness, questioning, and humility. I like the idea that there are voices in the text that we enter into a conversation. Also, that we enter in conversation with other readers of the text. Our reading of great texts will be more fulfilling when read in conversation with others.

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