The “Truth” of Interpretation

One of the things that has most influenced my approach to religion (and consequently, life) in recent years is the question of interpretation. We want the greatest possible support for our criteria for understanding the world. Yet in most areas of our day-to-day lives, we operate with principles that look reliable when they are radically contingent.

For example, our usage of cars as a primary mode of transportation is contingent on a number of conditions, including a well-functioning vehicle, good infrastructure, reliable road and traffic signs for interpretation, and the consistency of other drivers. Most of us don’t actively think that every passing car is going to veer into our lane. However, it could happen at any time, and when it does, we are surprised. Do we have any reason to be surprised, though? Certainly this kind of thing doesn’t happen to us all the time, but it does happen to others daily. Our surprise comes from the fact that our false sense of objectivity that helps us navigate our daily living has been temporarily shattered.

With issues of morality or the supernatural, it is comparatively easier to formulate universals because they are not subject to our usual methods of falsification. I cannot prove that there is a God, or gods, or none whatsoever. Even granting the existence of a divinity, however,  there must be an intersection, a point where it connects with our being. This becomes a productive point for the interrogation of questions of universality. We can, and should, also discuss the individual’s experience and understanding, but the most common intersection point for Christianity is the Bible. This privileging of the text is a part of modern Western culture, and not all religious traditions emphasize the text in the same way, but Christianity has.

The problem is that the common methods for grounding interpretations of the Bible are largely circular. For example:

“Why do you believe in the Bible?”

“Because it’s the Word of God!”

“But how do you know it’s the Word of God?”

“Because it says so in Second Timothy 3:16.”

“And what is Second Timothy?”

“A book in the Bible.”

It can, of course, be much more complicated than that. It might go something like this:

“How do you know the Bible is the Word of God?”

“Because that is what the Church believes.”

“What justification does the Church have for believing that?”

“ It has been believed for thousands of years. There are millions of people who have called themselves Christians throughout the centuries. How could they all be wrong?”

“But didn’t there have to be some evidence for those beliefs at some point?”

“Sure. The evidence has been there from the beginning, in the prophets and apostles, and in Jesus himself.”

“So those are all figures that we know about because of the texts in the Bible. How do we know that what they said is true?”

“Because they heard from God.”

“How can we be sure they heard from God? Do you hear from God?”

“Well, uh, not usually, but I could. There’s no reason why God couldn’t speak to me. But He has spoken to many other believers.”

“But why would you think God would speak to them and not you? Why wouldn’t we conclude that those people just thought they were hearing communication from a divine being.”

“Because the things God said to them actually came true. They actually happened.”

“How do you know they happened?”

“The stories are right there in the Bible.”

There are other methods for attempting to provide a universal ground for Christian truth, but they are not exclusive of the Bible. The other common conversation-stopper is faith. “That’s just what I believe.” Not much you can do with that. Lest I be unfair, much the same could be said of any other field of discrete knowledge, including science, which elaborates the same proofs with a sufficient quantity of data to obscure its lack of ultimate ground and takes advantage of an environment predisposed to belief in its principles, a predisposition once given to religion. A field establishes truths that are coterminous with the boundary of the field, and much public controversy consists of individuals throwing rocks at each other from within their respective boundaries.

Coming up, I plan to look at texts and ideas that critically altered my understanding of interpretation. Key questions: If there are multiple different interpretations, how do you know you’re right? If everyone claims the same ground for legitimacy (God, the Bible), then what?

Leave a Reply