We humans are gifted at interpreting. We are constantly interpreting signs and symbols everywhere we go and in everything that we do. We are so comfortable interpreting that we may not even know that we are doing it.

Interpreting comes to most of us almost as second nature. We pick it up as child in the same way that we learn language and so many other things from imitating adults and our peers. We are conditioned in powerful ways that influence our opinions, convictions, prejudices, and even our desires.

We are constantly interpreting.

We almost instinctively know how to read different facial expressions, body language, gestures, moods, words, tone of voice, intensity, sincerity, pace, volume, etc. We even interpret things like gender, body style, and clothing. We interpret everything from human interactions, to sacred texts – from the clouds in the sky to the road signs as we drive.

We are always interpreting. 

What if you were told that the way you interpret something may be more important than the thing itself?

Would you be comfortable with the idea that your interpretive lens doesn’t just help you process your experiences – but actually helps create those experiences at some level?

Thinking about the way that we interpret things is called hermeneutics. It is a fancy word that would seem completely unnecessary if humans were not constantly interpreting nearly everything. The ‘Herme’ in hermeneutics comes from Greek mythology where Hermes was the messenger of the gods. Hermes was “considered to be the inventor of language and speech, an interpreter, a liar, a thief and a trickster. These multiple roles made Hermes an ideal representative figure for hermeneutics.”[1]

Words and ideas need interpreting because they can be tricky, double-coded, multilayered, and highly situational (contextual).

You may know that I come from an evangelical-charismatic background.  What you may not know is that I am continually contested in conversations with people from that background about the need to interpret our experiences and texts. I am often told that our religious experiences do not need to be interpreted, that they are actually a validation or a sign of faith. That, of course, is in itself an interpretation.[2]

We don’t just have experiences (like we don’t just read and believe the Bible), we interpret. We do it as second nature because to be human – and thus social – is to be thoroughly saturated in language and symbols. We speak, and indeed think, in language. It permeates everything we do and are. It is part of what being human means.

Hermeneutics is quite concerned with the complex set of relationships between an author, the text itself and the original or subsequent audience. The reader, according to hermeneutics, has a lot of power in that relationship.

Hermeneutics is a massive and complex field. Since this an ABC’s series, there are two basic things that are important to know:

  • The word has been in use since the 17th century even though the idea is an ancient one that can be traced all the way back to the Greek philosophers.
  • Everything changed in past 90 years. With the publication of Heidegger’s “Being and Time” in 1927, philosophy, and then subsequently the human sciences, took a hermeneutical turn.

This trickle-down effect has made its way through nearly every aspect of society and culture. The impact of this turn has been so thorough that we are now to the point where everything is analyzed, dissected, and questioned. No area of life gets a free pass and no activity is safe from interrogation. Social media is the perfect venue to exam how absolutely everything is now amplified (first) and then scrutinized.

If you are attracted to someone or not attracted to them, if you comb your hair a certain way or you don’t comb your hair, if you go to church or don’t go to church, if you stand for the national anthem at a sporting event or you don’t … everything means something.

This is true for individuals, families, congregations, people groups, and nations. It is the reality of the world that we live in for the 21st century.

One of Heidegger’s most famous students was Hans-Georg Gadamer. His 1975 book “Truth and Method” was about the world of interpretation and it expanded what is called the hermeneutical circle.

The five elements are characterized as:

  • pre-understanding
  • the experience of being brought up short
  • dialogical interplay
  • fusion of horizons
  • application.

This five-part cycle is really helpful and I often paraphrase it this way:

  1. We all come in with something to contribute. We have different perspectives, experiences, insights, histories, and assumptions. We might be familiar with topic or we might be new to the information. Both perspectives are needed.
  2. When we compare notes we come to realize that none of us have the whole picture and we might not even looking at our part of the picture in the most helpful or healthiest way. We admit our limitations or the flaws in what we were given.
  3. We begin to put our individual parts of the picture next to each other and may need to go outside to find some more or different parts of the picture in order to have a fuller or more wholistic understanding of what we are looking at.
  4. We begin to piece the whole picture together. We might overlap some areas, glue some down, we may choose to expand some elements or minimize others into order to make the project work together as a whole.
  5. We commit to actually do something with what we have made. We have each been impacted by the process and we acknowledge that we leave this phase of the cycle different than we came in.

In conclusion:

We all interpret. We think, experience, and speak through a lens. None of us are a blank slate and we never start from scratch. None of us come to a text, an event, or to an encounter value-free or judgement-free. We are rich tapestries full of values and laden with judgements.

These interpretations impact our beliefs, convictions, behaviors, practices, decisions, and feelings. Accounting for and attending to our interpretive lens in any situation will allow us to prosper in the complex, complicated, and multi-sensory world of the 21st century.

Bonus Section For Church Leaders:

A helpful example of the hermeneutical circle is employed in my field of Practical Theology. I tend toward utilizing the work of Paul Ricoeur and his ‘second naivety’ myself, but the example I want share is from Richard Osmer who utilizes Gadamer as his framework to talk about a community of interpretation.[3]

Let’s looks at what it takes to be someone who facilitates this for their community.  This understanding engages in different forms of communication because it is a collaborative effort. The following elements factor in significantly for the spirituality required to carry out the leadership that Osmer envisions.

  • The Descriptive–Empirical Task is called Priestley Listening and finds great importance in the power of presence.

The spirituality of presence addresses several levels of what is called attending to the congregation as a community of interpretation. Being present with and being attentive to the diverse perspectives, insights, experiences, and histories of those who make up the community.

  • The second task is the Interpretive Task called Sagely Wisdom.

The interpretive task draws off of thoughtfulness, theory, and wise judgment. Osmer appeals to Israel’s wisdom tradition and to Jesus being the hidden wisdom of God revealed. Facilitating this kind of communal discernment requires a unique set of skills and tools. There is a place for someone with specialized education (like seminary) in a community of interpretation.

  • The third task is the Normative Task, which is called Prophetic Discernment.

This task weaves together narrative, theory, and scriptural illustration. This is the art of this kind of leadership. Like a quilter stitching together the various pieces of fabric into a coherent whole, or a knitter diligently alternating between the required and various patterns required to bring out the texture for the desired finished product.

  • The final task is the Pragmatic Task, classified as Servant Leadership.

Osmer identifies the three forms of leadership as task competence, transactional leadership, and transforming leadership. Playing this role in your community requires three overlapping and interrelated convictions: you want to do this well, you want to do it with people, and you want the community to empowered and liberated for their work in the world. 

A priest mediates between God and God’s people, a sage has unique knowledge, a prophet tells the truth in interesting and creative ways, and servant works on their hands and knees.

The motif of “deep change” is introduced through the writing of Robert Quinn and is woven together with Old Testament imagery in order to illustrate the type of leadership that is required in this task. Quinn’s Four-stage model of organizational change (called the transformational cycle) involves: Initiation, Uncertainty, Transformation, and Routinization.

I share all of these different examples to point out two themes that you find in almost every hermeneutical project:

  1. They form a cycle, a circle, or a spiral – signifying an ongoing (continual) process.
  2. The second stage or step is one of negativity, negation, or something negative (like uncertainty). This is important because it is only after was pass through the unknowing that we come to see-know-engage-understand-assimilate-fuse in a new way.

In summary, interpreting is always and ongoing process and we must address the negative second step in order to move forward.

[1] This is from the Wikipedia entry on hermeneutics.

[2] Like we talked about in F is Fideism, divine revelation or religious experience cannot be privileged to the point that it is exempt from the attention that pay to other ‘ways of knowing’ and other areas of refelction.

[3] He first examines the idea of guiding the congregation as a community of interpretation. Secondly, he addresses the need to guide interpretation evoked by the experience of being brought up short. Lastly, guiding the dialogue between theology and other fields of knowledge. Leadership of this kind is defined as “the exercise of influence.”