Whose Community? Which Interpretation?

In the past few posts I have attempted to offer a critical engagement with postmodernism, yet one that also seeks to appreciate legitimate moves within the system.  In this post I will review Merold Westphal’s Whose Community? Which Interpretation? (Baker Academic).

Thesis:  Westphal, following James K. A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation, argues that we should not seek a “pure stream” reading of the Bible that bypasses the act of interpretation.  This position of seeking and *im*mediate reading of the text has precendents in Plato0 when he said the philosopher apprehends the purely intelligible structures (Phaedo 66e)  In other words, our reading of the Bible is mediated to us by our hermeneutical filters, be they cultural, linguistic, philosophical, or whatever.

In less abstract talk:  have you ever seen the advertisement for a particular translation claiming, “No interpretation needed”?  Westphal argues against such naivete.  This should not alarm Reformed folks.  Did Van Til not say that there are no brute facts but all facts are already pre-interpreted by God?

Musing:  Is Van Til a right-wing deconstructionist?

Westphal then examines recent moves in philosophical hermeneutics from the Romantics to Schlieirmacher to Wolterstorff.

But What About the Radical French Postmodernists?

So far Reformed readers will have no problem with the above narrative.  The problem comes with the French trio (Derrida, Foucault, and someone else) who assert, so it is said, “The death of the author.”

But maybe they aren’t saying exactly that (mind you, I have my own questions about Derrida).

Even the French trio doesn’t think the author is truly dead.  “To deny that the author is the unilateral source of a text’s meaning is not to deny that the author plays an important role” (58).  Westphal explains, “For our French trio, the finitude of the author in relation to the text is expressed in a double relativity.   In the first place, human authors ‘create meaning’ only relative to the language available to them…this language shapes and conditions their thought in ways of which they are unaware and over which they do not preside” (59).

To say it yet another way: “The author is not a godlike, infinite creator of meaning” (65).  Humans are finite and our sub-creations (what Milbank would call mythopoesis) are always within the realm of the finite and conditioned.

This is fully in line with Reformed anthropology.

Westphal then comes to the heart of his project: Hans Georg Gadamer.  We must affirm tradition, but in line with our anthropology, we must affirm the “finitude” of our tradition.

Gadamer’s fundamental thesis about tradition is “belonging.”  p.  70.  Tradition plays a double-role.  It gives us a place to stand and it is is plural.  We do not belong to a single, universal tradition.  “All interpretation is relative to traditions that have formed the perspectives and presuppositions that guide it” (71).

“To be historically means that knowledge of oneself can never be complete” (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 301-302).

Westphal then offers several theses on reading tradition and being read by tradition:

Alterity Thesis.  Tradition as other.  Tradition will set before us what it has already done within us.

Authority Thesis.  We acknowledge tradition as a “sub-authority” over us.  “My conscience is a grounded opacity that allows a richly mediated knowledge of its object” (Westphal 74).

Fallibility Thesis.  Question of critique:  “How can we distinguish the true prejudices–by which we understand–from the false prejudices (by which we misunderstand” (75).   Tradition must be open to this critique.  Even worse, the difference between true and false is not always either/or but a matter of degree.

What the French Should have said

Authorial intent is important in understanding a text, but only to a degree. Authors themselves are wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstein, historically effected consciousness.  They don’t have absolute self-transperancy either.  Westphal has an interesting suggestion:  “there is a power at work in finite authorial creation–for Gadamer, tradition–of whose agency and effects the author is never fully aware” (81).

Conclusion and Evaluation

In terms of philosophical analysis the work is first-rate. Westphal may be the only Continental-school philosophy who can write clearly.  Unfortunately, Westphal moves to application–and since that deals with the church, theology.   Here the book suffers from ambiguity or simply wrongness.

Westphal suggests we should follow Gadamer in seeing Truth Beyond [Scientific] Method.  I have no problem with that, but aside from references to beautiful art and literature, I am not exactly sure what he wants me to do.

Westphal offers an interesting paradigm for understand difference in the church.  He highlights the debate between political liberalism (classical liberalism in society) and communitarianism (Alasdair MacIntyre).  Political liberalism affirms difference but in the midst of an overlapping sphere of agreement among the parties involved.  Of course, this is valuable for the church: we will disagree at times, and even traditions (Rome, EO) that pretend to be uniform have to own up to that.  Ironically, though, it is rather strange to find a postmodern writer affirming classical liberalism, which is a child of the Enlightenment.

Westphal realizes that and admits the communitarian model is probably better for the church (but he rejects it for the state).

The book ends with a hopeful suggestion taken from the Roman-Lutheran Joint Declaration on Justification.   The theology behind such a move is atrocious and one is disappointed that Westphal ended a fine book on so weak a note.