Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church by Merold Westphal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
You have to like a book when one of its major catch-phrases is wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein (aka ‘historically effected consciousness’).
Well, perhaps that’s not the only reason.
Merold Westphal has written a book on interpretation. He’s most interested in interpreting the Bible, but places Bible reading in the context of reading in general. Westphal spends a few chapters setting the topic in its current intellectual climate. Then the main part of the work is a presentation of hermeneutics directly drawing on the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer.
These chapters (6 to 9) are the working heart of the book, as well as providing a summary of Gadamer’s thoughts on interpretation. Here we read that no readers are objective, and that there’s no objective method guaranteed to produce ‘meaning’ for any text – yet that interpretation is not thereby rendered totally subjective and anarchic.
The final three chapters were a touch suprising to me, though I can see how they flow from the earliuer part of the book. In these, Westphal considers – if I have understood correctly – how it is possible for many people and groups to read the Bible, and to do so productively despite differences in perspective. Westphal uses Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue as a case in point.
This surprised me, I think, because I am less interested in a philisophical framework for respectful ecumenical dialogue (though not against this!). I am more interested in how groups of people can to rightly, though contingently, understand the Bible. At risk of simplifying, I think Westphal’s book is about how to read the scriptures and have (true, Christian) dialogue, while my interest is how to read the scriptures and come to a common (true, Christian) understanding.
Nonetheless, I recommend this book. The chapters are short and lucid, though involving some technical terms. It makes me want to read more of Gadamer. It opened my eyes to previously-undervalued applications of hermeneutics (ecumenical situations). Most importantly, it strengthened my attitude that the Bible is not only great because it’s God’s word, and that the way to approach the Bible is as a humble reader ready to learn.