The more I read James KA Smith, the more I appreciate his perspective.
The Fall of Interpretation was Smith’s first book. It was an adaptation of his PhD dissertation that he lightly edited and re-released in 2012. Last fall it was briefly on sale and I picked it up because it was written by Smith, without really knowing what it was about.
Like normal for Smith, this is a book that has way more philosophy than I understand. But also like normal, I can follow the argument without always understanding some of the minor details.
Smith’s argument is “To be human is to interpret, to encounter the world and entities within the world “as” something—an encounter conditioned by the situationality of human finitude.” And he is suggesting that our finitude is not something to be overcome, but something to be embraced as a feature of our creation. (Yes the language can be a bit overly academic, but it is understandable.)
The problem is that,
“At root (and roots, of course, are usually buried, unseen and hidden) the linking of interpretation to fallenness may be understood as the product of a dominant Western interpretive tradition, a broadly neoplatonic understanding of creation and Fall, an understanding that is itself an interpretation. I believe that this tradition, which has significantly influenced aspects of the Christian tradition, remains plagued by an incipient Neoplatonism (or gnosticism) that continues to construe creational finitude and human be-ing as “essentially” fallen and therefore ties hermeneutics to such a corrupted condition.”
What was important about this book for me was his discussion of the finiteness of humanity.
“To be human is to interpret—to negotiate understanding between two or more finite entities. Interpretation, then, is called for by a “state of affairs” in which we find finite or situated beings in relation. These two elements—intersubjectivity and finitude—are the conditions for hermeneutics; but as will be noted, they are at the same time conditions that are part and parcel of being human and living in the world. Hermeneutics—the need for negotiation of understanding between finite entities—is therefore an inescapable aspect of being human and not an accidental or fallen way of being.”
I had never really considered our finitude as a created feature of humanity. But once I thought about it, it seems self evident. The common phrase, “God is God and I am not” is an expression of finitude. If we were not finite, then we too would be God.
The problem is not that most Christians believe that we are not finite, but that many Christians believe that we are finite because of sin, and/or that we will no longer be bound by finitude once we resurrected into our new being after Christ’s return. Although Smith does not expressly discuss this, it was clear to me that taking Smith’s argument, the problem with this common idea is that if we were no longer bound by our finiteness after the resurrection, then we would be God.
Smith wanders through a discussion of Augustine, Derrida and a variety of other philosophers and theologians. Part of the focus of the later parts of the book is an attempt to make Derrida into less of a boogeyman for Christians. Derrida is someone I sort of know about, but have not read. But Smith’s reading of Derrida is closer to the one I understood prior to the book. Smith argues that Derrida is not arguing that communication is impossible (as some Christian opponents of his postmodern hermeneutics suggest), but that Derrida is simply suggesting that misunderstanding is part of communication. We cannot expect to communicate without occasional misunderstanding, no matter what our intention.
This is important to our understanding of how we interpret scripture. If Derrida (as read by Smith) is right, then we should expect that we misunderstand scripture, not just because we are sinful, but also because we are human and humanity, as part of our finiteness, sometimes misunderstands. I find the alternative much more problematic. If Derrida is wrong, and communication is dependent on the intention of the speaker, then either God is not intending for humanity to really understand, or there is some problem with God’s ability to communicate. The response to this reading of Derrida is that the problem is not God, but humanity’s sin. But regardless, our understanding of what God is communicating (both through scripture and Christ’s revelation) seems to be understood by different Christians differently. And that traditional understanding means that someone is probably wrong. Smith moves the tension from God’s responsibility, to our humanity, without having to resort to sin.
In the end, Smith’s understanding of interpretation and hermeneutics is found in the church. He believes that we are limited, but that limitation is in place to allow us to be dependent on our community (because we are part of a body, but not the whole of the body ourselves) to assist us with interpretation.
“In other words, our hermeneutics of Scripture will require, first and foremost, an ecclesiology.”
This makes me want to read Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism (2006) and Who’s Afraid of Relativism (2014). I am sure both are over my head philosophically, but I appreciate that Smith is not afraid of postmodern philosophy and believes that while not everything is good about it, we as Christians can gain from understanding the critique of modernism that postmodern philosophy brings.
- James K.A. Smith – The Fall of Interpretation [Feature Review] (Reviewed at Englewood Review of Books)
- Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture by James KA Smith
- Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James KA Smith
- How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James KA Smith