A Reflection on the Meaning of Texts


There is a tendency in many Christian circles — even in academic ones where people should know better — to confuse postmodernism with relativism. At many points, this confusion reaches a climax at which the terms postmodernism and relativism are used interchangeably as synonyms.

Properly understood, relativism (moral, ethical, cultural, artistic, etc.) is a consequence of certain themes that are common to a number of diverse postmodern theories. Postmodernism itself is not a discrete philosophy or school with established, defined borders. It’s more of a catchall term that encompasses a broad range of academic and practical fields.

My purpose here is not to give a full treatment of postmodernism, but rather to zero in on one particular area where the relativistic consequences of postmodernism is on full display: hermeneutics.

Typically, when someone hears the word hermeneutics, their attention is directed to the field of biblical interpretation. This is understandable because of the way we employ the word. We speak of biblical hermeneutics and literary criticism. Technically speaking, however, hermeneutics applies to any written text. It is the art and science of textual interpretation.

Anytime that anyone attempts to ascertain the meaning of a written text, they are engaged in hermeneutics. Whether it’s this blog or the back of a shampoo bottle, Shakespeare or the sports page, we typically don’t give much thought to it. Normally, we interact with texts that don’t bear any great significance and languages in which we’re literate.

On a more academic level, hermeneutics refers to the methodologies that can be employed in order to understand a text from different angles and in different contexts. Since the Bible is the text most often associated with hermeneutics, take it as an example. There are methods for determining the cultural context that the biblical writers wrote in and the original meaning(s) the writers intended. There are methods for determining the possible application(s) the original audience(s) would have recognized. And there are methods for extracting theological principles that can be applied in a modern context.

Even for someone who is not inclined to take the Bible seriously as a source of objective truth, this probably doesn’t seem too controversial. And it shouldn’t, because we do it all the time. Even when we don’t consciously apply a technical methodology, we do employ a methodology — phonics, decoding, vocabulary — every time we read. And we take it for granted that there is a meaning embedded within the text which we want to extract, whether it’s a report of the starting pitcher’s injury or the ingredients in our breakfast cereal.

Controversy does arise once we introduce postmodern hermeneutic theory. Like postmodernism itself, postmodern hermeneutics doesn’t have any well established contours. But it does, like postmodernism itself, have common themes. And one of the most important (if not the most important) common themes is the idea that an author’s intended meaning is irrelevant for interpreting a text.

Read that again.

An author’s intended meaning is irrelevant for interpreting a text.

If the thought, “That’s ridiculous,” just crossed your mind, then you’d be correct.

Think about the most meaningful works of literature and philosophy you’ve encountered. Plato, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Dan Brown. Whatever message they intended to convey in their writing is meaningless (Well, you probably already knew that about Dan Brown, but I digress).

But maybe now you’re shrugging your shoulders. “So what? That’s such a violation of common sense! Everybody knows Plato meant to say something when he wrote the Republic, Paul meant to say something when he wrote his letter to the Romans. Even Dan Brown meant to say something in Angels and Demons, even if nobody’s sure what that is.”

“Besides,” you might be thinking, “these are just ivory-tower theories taught to students studying for a PhD in literature.”

And you’re right.

But who teaches the introductory literature classes at the community college where you pay to send your kid or yourself? Who teaches the future English teachers in your child’s middle school and high school?

The answer? People who learned to buy into this stuff when they were earning their PhD in an ivory tower classroom. And whether we like to acknowledge it or not, the ideas — ridiculous or brilliant — that are taught in our colleges and universities eventually trickle down and have an impact in the real world.

When it comes to postmodern literary theory and its ideas about how we can or should find meaning in a written text, it’s easy to just ignore it. We don’t immediately see its impact or think of ways it could impact our everyday lives. It’s not like scholarship in chemistry, computer science, or engineering. Postmodern literary critics aren’t in the business of curing disease, developing new technologies, or building better widgets.

But they do have an impact.

I live in the United States. The United States is a federal republic. It is a nation made up of fifty independently co-sovereign states. The relationships between those fifty co-sovereigns and between them and the national government is ultimately controlled by the principles set forth in a written document: The Constitution of the United States of America.

This same principle holds true in most nations of the West. Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Great Britain, France — the list could go on — are all Western republics whose existence is, in one way or another, predicated on the idea of the rule of law.

Law, for the most part, takes the form of written texts. Because I live in the United States and am most familiar with American law, I will use it as an example. But similar principles hold true in all constitutional republics (even those who don’t actually live up to their republican ideals).

Statutory law is law passed by a legislative body or bodies. In the United States, these are the laws passed by Congress or state legislatures and signed into law by the president or state governor. The life of these laws is traceable. They exist in the original bills, amendments, committee reports, and conference committees that produce the final version that becomes “the law.” They are published and publicly available in bound and electronic formats. Nationally, these are the laws that make up the United States Code.

Administrative law is promulgated by administrative agencies. We (in the U.S.) don’t typically think of these as laws (but they are). Instead, we call them regulations. They are normally narrowly focused on a specific activity or business. For example, in the state where I live, we have the Code of Massachusetts Regulations (CMR). It contains the regulations that govern such diverse areas as the licensing of teachers, nurses, doctors, and other professionals, as well as the types of firearms that are legal to own in the state, and standards for elevators, weights and measures, and a whole bunch of other discrete things. On the national level, these types of laws are found in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). They, too, are published and publicly accessible.

Finally there is common law (in the English system). This is law made by judges who interpret and render decisions on the meaning and application of constitutions, statutes, and regulations. This type of law comes about when two parties dispute over the meaning or application of a law. This dispute is litigated in court, and the judges’ decision on the meaning or application of the disputed law itself becomes law. The most well known types of law in this category are decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court, state supreme courts, and courts of appeal. Like statutes and regulations, these judicial decisions are published and publicly accessible.

So what does all this mean?

It means that, if the postmodern literary theorists are correct, one of the crucial philosophical pillars upon which western democratic civilization is built doesn’t really exist.

The Rule of Law is the idea that the citizens of a nation, state, county, or town have the ultimate say in the laws that will govern them; the law will be objective and equally applicable; that citizens have a right to challenge the law; and, perhaps most importantly, the government itself (and its officials) is subject to the same laws governing the citizenry.

For the rule of law to be true and effective, the laws themselves must have a meaning (the one intended by the people making the law) that is understandable to everyone in the same way all the time (hence the necessity of judicial decisions).

If the original author’s intent is meaningless in interpreting a law (in legal speak, this is known as legislative intent), then we in the United States and every other nation that elevates the rule of law ideal are not really republics, not really governed by laws, and, ultimately, we are thus not really free in any sense.

And for the United States, at least, it doesn’t really exist since its existence is legitimated by a written text (the constitution) whose meaning is ultimately arbitrary and therefore meaningless.

So?

So, this was just one long and hopefully illustrative line of arguing that postmodern literary criticism is wrong — dead wrong — in its assertions about meaning in texts.

If they’re right, then our civilization isn’t real.

Of course, there are postmodern philosophers who’d probably agree with that sentiment.

But they probably agreed in a written text, so they can’t really mean it. And even if they did, it doesn’t matter one bit to what their written opinion means. Right?

As for me, I’ll just go on believing in the rule of law. And in the end, that’s what matters — what people actually believe in — because people’s actions will be determined by what they actually believe.

Which makes me wonder. What would happen if those postmodern professors found out their universities were paying them less than their contracts stipulate? Or how do they grade papers? Or why do they even bother writing anything at all?

It would seem, they don’t even believe what they write. They know it’s meaningless. So what’s their original intent, then?

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