Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Confirmation Hearings and Hermeneutics

I have enjoyed listening to snippets of the discussion around the confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor this week. One of the primary issues that has garnished a great deal of media attention has been the speculation in regards to how her personal background affects [or doesn't] her reading of the law. I find this fascinating in that it is clearly a question of hermeneutics, one that apparently affects government as much as it does the church. While obvious differences exist, they are similar struggles to interpret historical texts for current contexts. Both assume that the document is bears relevance and can speak into our context. But both often fail to keep in mind how it is that the interpreter brings context with her and thus has a lens through which the text is read. Her most famous and controversial statement was made in 2001- "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life" [source/context]. While this may or may not be true (in regards to the conclusion being "better"), Sotomayor highlights that interpretation does not occur in a vacuum: it requires wisdom, and wisdom is always acquired through experience- thus, our experience clearly shapes our wisdom. Hermeneutics is by definition a contextual art. We all have lenses, even if we fail to or are unwilling to acknowledge them.
Later, however, Sotomayor was forced to clarify/qualify that statement with the acknowledgment that while life experience shapes who one is, "ultimately and completely" a judge follows the law regardless of personal background [source/context]. Ok, sure. I can appreciate that response, because it indicates a degree of interpretive elasticity inherent in the law. But it must be noted that it is the anxiety around the loss of absolutes that drives the need for said qualifier to be offered. The same is true for the Biblical text- while meaning and truth can be found with the guidance of the Spirit in an interpretive community, the text is alive enough to speak to any context, through each of our unique lenses. This interpretation "from below" sends absolutism packing and opens theology up for contextual readings of the text.


pedro said...

Love the perspective. And you're absolutely right that it is all about hermeneutics. The conservative judges, much like the Evangelicals or Fundamentalists, tend toward a more or less strict interpretation of the constitution according to the Founders' intent.

I haven't gotten a chance to fully read the article on homosexuality yet, but I really appreciate the author's hermeneutic. I'll definitely finish reading it and give you my thoughts.

pedro said...

p.s., I'm jealous you've been able to catch some of the hearings.

Lian said...

I like your comment, "the anxiety around the loss of absolutes". It is such a difficult transition to make, culturally and personally.
I'm not sure I like the metaphor of the "lens" though. It seems to imply a perspective on objective reality. I think in a Biblical community the unity of our perspectives is reality. Not the sum or mean of our perspectives, of course, but the way our collective and historical understanding speaks into our context.
It is wondrous to watch how the Spirit guides us into this unity and makes his word alive by making us its vessels.

Sorry, I might sound nitpicky but I'm really just trying to engage with this idea of a dynamic Biblical truth that is not merely capable of speaking to any context but is contained in the flow of context itself.

elnellis said...

great point chad, about what lenses imply. i think what i mean to say by lenses, is simply that our stories shape the way we see things. this is opposed to the familiar evangelical view of Scripture that there is a correct way to interpret the text, that the absolute truth (for which the literary genres are merely a vehicle) can be possessed if the correct interpretive method is used. its an arrogant and dangerous way to handle the Scriptures.
I love how you said "the unity of our perspectives is reality" in a biblical community. this protects against total subjectivity in interpretation.
I would love to hear more of your thoughts on truth and meaning being fluid in the sense that you describe in the last line. it seems to transition us from a focus on the Bible as a means to itself to a focus on the Word of God as means to relationship with the Word made Flesh. thoughts?

Swift said...

I'd love to just sit and throw this all around with you guys. Let's all meet at the pub.