interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

Postmodern Dialectics for Bible Study

Westphal, Merold. Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. The Church in Postmodern Culture, James K.A. Smith, Series Editor. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.
[An installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

This marvelous book by Merold Westphal ended up on the “Read Me” shelf because it was cited in a paper I read back in the fall on the convergence of theology and philosophy of religion. [I’d say more about that, but I seem to have lost all trace of the original paper.] It specifically mentioned that Whose Community? Which Interpretation? was intended to be a primer on philosophical hermeneutics for “the church” – that is, the church of regular people. That made it a must-read, and because Christmas was on the horizon – not the Gadamerian hermeneutical one, but the ineluctable calendrical one – I put the title on my Christmas list and my sister-in-law kindly put the book into my hands on Christmas day.

book cover

The book is beautiful and delightful, full of insights and ideas and whole sub-philosophies so compactly expressed in turns of phrase that it makes a reader fall in love a little. I would have read the whole little book for the sake of this one luminous definition:

Dialectic signifies an ongoing tension between opposite elements that can be neither separated from nor dissolved into each other. Luther’s formula simul Justus et peccator is a good example, as is the union of the human and divine natures in Christ (148).

But instead, that little gem was the equivalent of the free gift with purchase.

Westphal starts with the notion that there are three kinds of Christian theologians, “academic, pastoral, and lay,” who each interpret scripture in a characteristic way. “In publication, in preaching, and in private, personal reading, Christians interpret the Bible” (13). It’s an eye-opening way to think about the church.

He spends a full chapter carefully and kindly challenging the fairly common attitude that it’s possible to read the Bible without interpretation, looking at why someone might want to hold that attitude, and then at why someone might need to let it go. Then he turns to one of the the main tasks of the book, which is reviewing and synopsizing the history of philosophical hermeneutics, starting with Schleiermacher, discussing speech act theory, taking the reader on a quick tour of the debate over the relative primacy of author and reader in interpretation, and ending up at Gadamer.

He proceeds to work through the major principles of Gadamer’s development of hermeneutics. In the process he further addresses the role of the reader, the way texts go beyond their “human, all too human” authors, the way the reader’s position impedes, but also facilitates, truth-ful readings, the idea of interpretive horizons, the importance of the community and the continuing interpretive conversation that is tradition.

Classic texts found communities, are sustained by communities, and in turn sustain communities. But this means that their interpretation is also a communal affair, a dialogical and not a monological process. … It belongs to the church’s identity that it is the conversation in which its members and its communities seek to understand the Bible and its subject matter: God and our relation to God (118).

Finally, he offers an extended consideration of what all of this philosophical hermeneutics means for the readers of the Bible in contemporary churches. What does all this tell us about how we go about reading the Bible? Here, he develops a model for the church’s conversation about scripture based on the contrasting liberal ideas of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Alastair MacIntyre’s communitarian Whose Justice? Which Rationality? He sums up his thoughts along these lines with the observation that

it just might be that the vitality of a local congregation depends less on the prevailing theory of how the Bible is the Word of God than on the widespread practice of treating it as such in individual, family, and congregational readings that seek to hear what the Spirit says to the churches through the Word (146).

Westphal concludes with observations on the special challenges raised by the interpretation of scripture in the Christian context, in which the Bible is not simply a “classical text” that sits at the center of a traditioned community, but also transcendent revelation. Here his conversation partner is Emmanuel Levinas, who furnishes him with ideas about “the other,” and the role of the other in challenging one’s inattentiveness and complacency. For Levinas, the voice of the other is a voice that “while remaining true to itself, has the power to break through those prejudices, to disrupt and unsettle them, to call them into question, to show that they need to be revised or replaced, that they are always penultimate and relative, never ultimate or absolute” (153).

For Westphal, scripture itself presents itself to us as this important “other,” and listening to this particular other is never over and done with, but is an ongoing task.

Overall, Westphal’s project is two-fold: to demonstrate that postmodern insights have something of value to offer the church; and to summarize and organize those insights in such a way that Christian readers of scripture can make good use of them as they go about the unavoidable and frankly appealing task of Biblical reading as interpreters. He succeeds at both.

That said, however, the idea that this book is a primer on philosophical hermeneutics for the church suggests that Westphal’s treatment is what people like to call “accessible.” As Westphal himself points out right from the beginning, we have to accept that the necessity of interpretation means that meaning is relative – even if that does not mean that texts can mean anything, in a kind of free for all fashion. “Accessibility” is a good example of something relative – in this case, relative to someone’s standard or metric for being “accessible.”

Westphal has done a remarkable job of making complex and remote philosophical ideas available to a non-specialist audience. That doesn’t mean that he has conquered abstraction or eliminated complex sentences and unfamiliar vocabulary – all things that my experience has been do not play well in church book groups. On the other hand, the church’s theology and philosophy club will eat it up. And if that group were looking for a volume with the charm and relevance to appeal to a few new members, Westphal’s Whose Community? Which Interpretation? would be just the excellent one for that purpose.

Honestly, everyone won’t want to read this book. But the more people we could persuade to give it a try, the better it would be. “Better” from my perspective, at any rate.

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library
What are we reading now?

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