Merold Westphal does not think so.
Anyone who has ever sat in a small group Bible study knows how hazardous it is to ask, "What do you think this passage means?" Or, perhaps even more dangerous, "What does it mean to you?" These questions open the floodgates of interpretation into a chaos of "To me it means . . .", "I remember when . . .", and "Well, I feel like . . ." Often, the result is interpretive anarchy. Passages of scripture are contorted and manipulated into an "interpretation" that has no grounding in the text. The well-intentioned question becomes an opportunity for people to talk about themselves under the pretense of reading scripture. In the process the Bible is ignored and you wish you had just stayed home.
As someone who spends a lot time reading the Bible I find these questions both profoundly interesting and dreadfully frustrating. I genuinely care what people think about scripture, but I have very little interest in the bumper sticker platitudes that often pass for insightful reading. Many times I've watched in awe as I ask about a passage of scripture only to see people ignore it completely as they talk about what it means. How can people (lay, clergy and scholarly) read scripture together in a productive way? This question becomes infinitely more complex when you ask how people from different traditions might read scripture together in a fruitful way or, more modestly, how they might do so without killing one another.
It is to these kind of questions that Merold Westphal turns his attention to in his most recent book, Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. Westphal is a fantastically clear writer with an uncanny ability to address very complex questions with equally complex answers, but in a clear and readable way. He manages to give a rather sustained treatment of hermeneutical theory in only 150 pages. Hermeneutics, for the uninitiated, is fancy word for the science and art of interpretation. If nothing else, a reader will walk away from this book with a comprehensive introduction to the philosophy of hermeneutics. The brevity of the book is intended to make it more accessible. A goal well accomplished if you ask me. Also, the individual chapters are short, which makes one feel quite productive while reading. I have not found more clear presentation of hermeneutics in such a nuanced and succinct way. Even if you disagree with him, Westphal's book is well worthy of attention.
Despite the fact that the book is short, it is not an easy read. Talking about hermeneutics is like talking about how one thinks. Most of us rarely reflect on our presuppositions and thought patterns. So, when a book invites us to do so, it makes for difficult reading. It's kind of like putting on glasses for the first time. A pair of glasses brings the world into focus, but your eyes need time to adjust to their new lenses and it can sometimes be a painful process. A book on hermeneutics is kind of like new glasses for your brain. It requires rethinking how it is that we interpret the world. Not an easy task, but certainly important if you want to think clearly.
Westphal's book begins by rejecting the idea that anyone reads the Bible with "no interpretation needed" (18). He describes this idea as "naïve realism" (18) because it assumes that the real world can be directly apprehended without any interference or imposition. Drawing from Immanuel Kant, Westphal shows that this is naïve because we all impose categories and judgments on our perceptions of the (real) world. To illustrate this point, he uses the often cited example of the four blind men who stumble upon an elephant and each has a different perception. The man near the elephant's midsection thinks he's found a wall of some kind, the one touching the tusk thinks the elephant is a spear, the man holding the trunk thinks there is an odd snake in his hands and the fourth man, examining the leg, thinks the elephant to be a tree (25-30). Like the blind men, all of us are limited in our perspective and have only a small picture of the whole of reality (the elephant). To impose our perception on the world would be foolish. Imagine doing so with a sacred text like the Bible!
After dismissing the idea that we can "just read the Bible" and avoid the work of interpretation, Westphal gives a history of hermeneutics from the Romantics Schleiermacher and Dilthey (chap 2) to the Objectivists Wolterstorff (chap 3) and Hirsche (chap 4) to the Postmoderns Barthes, Foucault and Derrida (chap 5). Ultimately, Westphal finds Hans-Georg Gadamer's work Truth and Method to be the most fruitful hermeneutical guide (chaps. 6 – 9). Gadamer argues that everyone reads from a certain perspective, or tradition, which is both enabling and limiting. It is enabling because it makes reading possible (contact with the elephant) but limiting in that it narrows our perspective (we grope to understand what we contact). Westphal wants to rehabilitate the value to reading from within a tradition against Hirsch and Wolterstorff who suggest that the only way to understand a text is find an objective method and discover what the author meant.
Before you accuse Westphal of throwing out the author's intention for an "anything goes" method of interpretation, listen carefully to Westphal's argument. It is not that the author's intention is irrelevant to the meaning of a text (as Derrida has falsely been accused of saying), but that the meaning of a text is never entirely limited to what the author meant. Why not? To begin with, writers are not creating "out of nothing," but they are shaping words from something prior to themselves. Furthermore, the author is finite. Again, this does not mean that the author is irrelevant, but that he is only one piece of the interpretive puzzle. The author is finite and so too is the reader, but this does not mean the reader is not involved in the meaning of the text. The reader approaches the text and engages it. Thus, "Author and reader are cocreators of textual meaning" (61), because no one reads a text with just the detachment to wonder, "What did the author mean?" This question is always only relevant in answering a more immediate question, "Why does it matter to me?" Like it or not, this involves the reader in creating meaning.
Texts, according to Westphal via Gadamer, can be interpreted as events performed or conversations engaged. So a passage "is not so much a completed object or a thing to be mastered by the methods of some science but rather an event, an unfinished event that is brought toward (but not to) completion in the process of interpretation" (102). When interpretation is an event, each interpretation is a reenactment of sorts, a repetition of the original text, but in a new way that makes the same object comprehensible in a new context. Again, this does not mean that anything goes. A performance can be wrong if it goes off script or played out of tune. "If the interpretation is not to be arbitrarily subjective, it will have to submit to the constraint of the script, the score, the text" (105). As a performance, interpretation makes the text come alive in a new context, while still being faithful to the original text.
Another analogy that Westphal uses is conversation. As he puts it,
We might think of a marriage counselor who (1) asks, say, a wife to tell how she sees the situation; (2) then asks the husband to tell not how he sees the situation but how his wife sees it; and (3) then asks the wife whether her husband has heard her, has understood her discourse. [pg. 108]Interpretation requires listening carefully, perhaps disagreeing as you listen, but listening nonetheless. It is clear in this analogy, once again, that the authorial intention is crucial to the conversation. The goal is to understand something, in the case of scripture the goal is understanding truth. Gadamer suggests four features of a conversation that are crucial. First, an interpreter in conversation with a text needs to be open to hearing another. This requires a self-awareness of personal limitation, a learned ignorance. For readers of the Bible this means that we ought to allow scripture to surprise us. If Jesus never confronts us in the gospels, then there is a good chance we're not engaging in real conversation with the Gospels. Second, a good conversation partner knows how to ask good questions. The response to good questions is not necessarily an answer, which can silence a conversation, but another question. Third, a skilled conversationalist has the humility to follow a conversation where it may go. One cannot have an agenda to accomplish with a conversation, but must allow a dialog to flow. This third mark of conversation leads to the fourth, "the goal is not win by making one's own original viewpoint prevail" (116-117) but rather, quoting Gadamer, "being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were" (117). Imagine what it might look like for Bible readers to approach scripture as a conversation. How might that change a small group Bible study?
In chapter ten Westphal draws from the theories of political liberalism and communitarianism to bring interpreters together. A good MacIntyrian might object, "One cannot draw from political liberalism and communitarianism because the two are fundamentally opposed traditions." This is perhaps an accurate objection, I honestly don't know MacIntyre well enough to say, but Westphal does not think so. Instead, he finds both traditions useful for different purposes. On the one hand, he finds liberalism quite useful for drawing together people who hold incompatible worldviews without forcing them into another comprehensive worldview. In the current state of Christianity with believers of all strips and creeds, liberalism might provide a useful way to bring believers from different Christian traditions together—not to mention interfaith dialog. On the other hand, "communitarianism argues that a coherent moral life requires . . . a worldview that includes commitments on issues which political liberalism deliberately abstains" (131). Most notably, a communitarian unity requires a common conception of what is good as well as the virtues that embody the good. Westphal wants to use liberalism to bring Christians who differ together, while at the same time use communitariansim to keep Christians firmly rooted in their tradition.
Chapter eleven takes a more practical turn from heady philosophizing. Looking at the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" from October of 1999, Westphal cites an example of different interpreters coming together and agreeing on some fundamentals while remaining steadfastly within their typically opposed traditions. This is an example of Catholics and Protestants coming together on the doctrine of justification, a feat indeed. Westphal cites this as a case of Christians from different traditions coming together without sacrificing their unique traditions to do so. In his last chapter, Westphal briefly describes how the whole process is even more interesting and complicated with scripture as revelation from God.
I find it difficult to imagine that most people will have the patience to listen carefully to an exposition of Gadamer's hermeneutical theory, even one as short as 150 pages. Reading about hermeneutics is like finding which lenses suit your brain. Most people would rather walk around looking at shapes and shadows instead of doing the arduous work of seeing clearly. If we care enough to see the world a bit more clearly, or in this case to read more intelligently, I think Westphal's book might provide us with some needed correctives. To those who are interested in how we interpret texts and how we can do so without killing or anathematizing one another, this might be a good place to start.