Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hermeneutics, Thought, Opinion, and Perspective

I learned what I consider a magic word a long time ago, and along with "serendipity," (a topic for later consideration), it has been at the center of my thinking on most subjects these days. Perhaps that's redundant, in a way. Because thinking is always hermeneutical. A thing no human can avoid. I (we) cannot read, observe, listen, or infer without making a judgment or coming to an understanding from our own unique perspective. I remember having an argument, well, let's say an intense conversation, with a man who shall remain nameless, (mainly because I do not desire to have the same conversation with this person should he come upon these words someday). We were discussing matters of faith, and he moved the topic along to the Bible, and the Word of God. He said that he was learning to read Hebrew and Greek, because he learned it was a sin to add or take away from the Word of God. "Interpreting" was his idea of "adding" or "subtracting;" therefore the reading of scripture in English or any language besides the original is a sin. He used, as I recall, the following passage from the book of The Revelation 22:18-19 to justify his position. In the New International Version, it goes like this: "18I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. 19And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book." Strong words, indeed.

But the very fact of reading these or any words in whatever language is in fact an interpretation, an addition or subtraction we may make in our own minds, according to our own level of comprehension, and impossible to avoid! We all understand what we read, see, or hear on a different level, not only from others who read, see, or hear the same things at the same time, but also we often differ radically from our own initial interpretation upon reading, seeing, or hearing those things at a different time or in different circumstances. Of course, all this to me is part of the wonderful "mystery of the Gospel." We are given understanding as it is needed at the time of reading or hearing. I am reminded of the countless times I have read scripture (or any writing for that matter), and though I have read it many, many times previously, it seems as though I have never read, seen, or heard it before. To me, this is a gift. It makes everything new each time we approach it from a different perspective, need, or circumstance. Besides, is not Jesus Christ quoted earlier in the very same book, Revelation 21:5(a) "Behold, I make all things new!"?

The tense conversation was never resolved. We didn't even agree to disagree. Basically, I just walked away from the subject and the person altogether. It seemed the better part of valor at the time. Still does. Sometimes continued conversation yields nothing but consternation, and the place and time of this discussion was not a place or time for such feelings.

This conversation has stayed with me, though, over the last several years since it occurred. My mind drifts back to it every time I hear two or more people speak on the same subject and come to two very different understandings and/or interpretations. And the reality of it is that while I may think that one or the other is right or wrong, even totally off base from my point of view - it is a truth (now there's another word worthy of discussion) that no human understanding is truly right or wrong, it simply is what it is. And this is true because a person's understandings change over time or in different situations. I have been known on various occasions to say, when asked for, and giving an opinion on a subject, to add, "Ask me again later, you'll probably get a different answer." I actually hope that is true, because I like to think of myself as growing and morphing and becoming new as each day goes by. The more I learn and come to comprehend my circumstances, the more I change my understanding of the world around me, and the God Whom I have always loved, and in Whom I believe.

As of this writing, I do not believe that this world will really exist in peace until each human being understands the "hermeneutical perspective." If we could all grasp that there will always be differences in how we view the world, faith, spirituality, or God - that we cannot, in fact, be any other way - the more we will be able to stand shoulder to shoulder in peace. This does not preclude proselytizing. I believe we all reserve the right to try and "change someone's mind or heart," (non-violently, of course), and sometimes we might even be successful; but I don't believe it is a requirement for someone to capitulate to my way of thinking, regardless of whether I believe they would be happier that way or not. We all should have the right to share our views, or faith, our very lives. We all, however, reserve the right to ignore or reject that sharing. That is the essence of free will, as God ordained it. Interpretation, "hermeneutics," is God's gift to all. At least that's my opinion, but ask me again later - I might change my mind.


  1. I love this blog, Paula! All of this is stuff I think about everyday.

    I have a favorite writer named Jeanette Winterson who deals a lot with this topic in her work. In one of her novels her narrator says "There are two sides to every story, each one of them equally true." Although I know that's a simplification of the issue when taken out of context, when seen IN CONTEXT the statement is a lot like what you're saying here. Winterson is talking a lot about interpretation and viewpoint, and fighting hard to get her readers to understand the beauty of multiple interpretations. Sometimes I like to imagine the world as an awesome kaleidoscope of interpretations. None of us can completely "see" the world for what it is without knowing the minds and eyes of others. It's the multiple viewpoints that make up the whole.

    That's when I'm having a good day. When I'm having a bad day, I'm sometimes not as forgiving. It might just be my tendency towards idealism, but there are times when certain viewpoints seem dangerous and frightening to me. But I try to tell myself that that's the reason I need to be outspoken about what I believe - because even if there are perspectives that I find too harsh or too dangerous, adding my own voice to the mix helps to soften and alter the "truth" that's out there in the realm of discourse.

    Another thing Winterson says that I love is "You cannot be another person's honesty, child. But you can be your own." That line makes me cry every time I read it, and I think it's because that's what I have to remember to be: honest about what I believe, about what I see when I look at the world. And I have to respect the honesty of others when I see it, because honesty is a brave and heartfelt thing.

  2. I am constantly learning new things and changing my mind on things, and I feel like my opinions on practically everything are always SO in flux that I'm afraid to tell anyone what I think because I may have to rescind the comment later. I guess I believe somehow that changing your mind is (or maybe just seems to most) to be a weakness. But thanks for, in a way, giving me permission to boldly and proudly say to everyone, "Ask me again later, you'll probably get a different answer."
    Or at least, I'll try to boldly say that. Might not... But I love the sentiment!