The Written Word (Toward an Integral Hermeneutic: Introduction)

The written word is nothing short of a miracle, transforming patterns of marks on a surface into meaningful communication, across space and time. It should be no surprise, thinking of the miracle that writing actually represents, that understanding the written word is often challenging. Even more than understanding face-to-face oral/aural communication, it is really nothing less than an exercise in mind-reading, an attempt to bridge the gulf between two human minds, hearts, and ways of looking at the world. Moreover, all communication requires us to navigate ambiguity. For example, if I were to say to you ‘dog’ or ‘tree’, the images of ‘dog’ and ‘tree’ that you conjure might be very different from what I had in mind. (I might be thinking of a Jack Russell Terrier; you might envision a Saint Bernard.) While this ambiguity is always at play when we communicate, it is more challenging in written communication because we can’t assume a shared context in the way face-to-face communication can. If I were talking to you, I could point to the dog I was thinking of, for example. I could go on and on about this, but my point is simply that understanding written communication is not easy — like electricity and instant global communication networks, it’s nothing short of a miracle of human ingenuity.

While all written communication is hard, Sacred texts have always presented a special problem of interpretation. These are not just any texts, but texts which form and shape our identity. When I read Paul’s letters, I am trying not only to hear the man Paul and what he is saying to the men and women he’s writing, but also trying to hear the Holy Spirit and what God might be saying to me and to the Church today. And for those of us in an ancient tradition, our Sacred texts emerge out of a very different culture from our own. This has always presented challenges. There were Jewish writers of the early Roman Empire who were just as troubled by the stories of divinely commanded genocide in the book of Joshua as many of us are today. But, of course, the distance of time, space, and culture has only grown over the centuries. Scientific and technological discoveries, unprecedented shifts in how people live, mass migrations of peoples and the mixing of cultures and ideas that comes with them, and the opening up of the public square to historically marginalized voices have all increased the degree of difficulty in interpreting our Scriptures well and meaningfully in our present moment. And, these trends will almost certainly only increase in the future. There isn’t anything wrong with these developments — I feel we have so much to gain from them — but they do add to challenge of interpreting our Scriptures.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately once again about hermeneutics, which is the study of how we interpret texts. One idea that I’ve been finding particularly interesting is what an Integral hermeneutic might look like. In the brief description of Integral Theory in the ‘About‘ page here, I list four major characteristics I feel are at the core of an Integral worldview — or if you don’t like that term, whatever it might be that comes after postmodernism. To my mind, it must be: growth-oriented; integrating of premodern, modern, and postmodern wisdom; holistic or multi-perspectival; and inclusive of ever-increasing complexity.

And so I’d like to take some time over the course of a few posts to start to tease out how the integral characteristics I think are so vital to our future might help to guide our interpretation of these formative texts that are at the heart of our tradition and identity as people of faith.

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