Take and Read: Interpretation Theory

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by Sandra Schneiders

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Editor's note: "Take and Read" is NCRonline's newest blog series. It will feature each week a contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."

"Take and Read" will be published every Monday at http://ncronline.org/feature-series/take-and-read.

Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning
by Paul Ricoeur
(Texas Christian Press, 1976) 

How does one who has been avidly reading books of every variety for more than half a century, even if limiting the choice to books read as an adult in an academic and/or ministerial context, select one as the "most important book I ever read"? Obviously, one has to add some further qualifiers, so I refined the question by asking myself what book (besides the Bible) is related most significantly to the most -- quantitatively and qualitatively -- significant aspects of my life? Surprisingly, one book immediately "leaped out" of the stack, namely, Paul Ricoeur's Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, a collection of lectures which Ricoeur delivered in 1973 at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, published in 1976. Coincidentally, 1976 was the very year I began my professional life as a theologian at the Jesuit School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., having received my doctorate from the Gregorian University in Rome just a month before, in December 1975.

That coincidence is one of many that I discovered as I thought about Paul Ricoeur, his work, and my experience. For example, I began my graduate studies not in theology but in the field of philosophy, defending my master's thesis on the metaphysics of free will in the work of the neo-Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain in 1967, the same year that Ricoeur published his stellar phenomenological study on that very topic, The Symbolism of Evil, which was a part of his two-volume Philosophy of the Will. In 1975 I was finishing my doctorate in theology and biblical studies with a dissertation grappling with the issue of New Testament interpretation. Meanwhile, between 1974 and 1979, Ricoeur published a number of essays later collected as Essays in Biblical Interpretation; 1976 saw the publication of the Ricoeur's series of lectures which now constitute Interpretation Theory. And in 1977 Ricoeur published his treatise entitled La Révélation.

I was not, of course, consciously shadowing the great French philosopher, whose work I was only beginning to study seriously as I worked during the 1980s on my own book on biblical hermeneutics, The Revelatory Text, which appeared in 1991. But, in retrospect, I realize that the questions which were burning issues for me even during my first years as a professional scholar -- and which I grappled with in that book -- were not the questions which my Catholic neo-Thomistic philosophical and historical-critical biblical education had prepared me to raise, much less answer. Those questions, which circled around the relationship between revelation and the biblical text, and between biblical revelation and Christian spirituality, were being discussed in other circles -- philosophical, linguistic, literary, psychological, psychoanalytical, inter-religious, and aesthetic -- and probably the most significant, original, and fertile mind at work on these questions was Paul Ricoeur.

During the first fifteen years of my professional theological work, Ricoeur produced major studies in every one of these areas, including work on symbolism, metaphor and language, the nature of texts, narrative and identity, aesthetics, imagination, memory, and, of course, the nature, process, and results of interpretation. It has been said that he nearly single-handedly redefined and revitalized the hermeneutic tradition. And, in a publishing environment in which the shelf-life of most books is a few years at best, very few if any of Ricoeur's major writings on these topics has actually fallen into desuetude.

During the first fifteen or so years of my professional career I struggled, by my participation in what seemed to some colleagues to be two unrelated fields, New Testament interpretation and Christian spirituality as an academic discipline, to formulate my concerns, to limn the contours of my "project" which was more a glimmer in my mind's eye than an articulated question. I was reading the continental "new hermeneuts" and their American exponents, the philosophers of language, theological aesthetics, philosophical hermeneutics, developments in literary criticism of the bible, new approaches to foundational theology and new methodology in biblical studies, and studies of revelation in the theology of religions. When I finally delved into the hermeneutical work of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur I felt like I might be getting "warm."

At a professional conference a colleague, Dr. Loretta Dornisch, who had done her own dissertation on Ricoeur, suggested that the best way to understand his hermeneutical project was to read his Interpretation Theory. I bought the book immediately and read it avidly, more than once, struggling with Ricoeur's luminous but dense prose and being amazed by his enormous erudition and the supple architectonics of his reasoning.

Reading the slim book, whose size massively belies its depth and scope, was a kind of intellectual homecoming for me. Someone actually understood my questions! And, indeed, had some answers. The subtitle of the book itself encapsulated the hint of a way forward: "Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning." The four sections of the book were each directed to one of the spheres of my concern which I had not been able to get into fruitful conversation with each other, but which Ricoeur masterfully sequenced in the trajectory from revelatory discourse to transformative understanding: "language and discourse;" "speaking and writing;" "metaphor and symbol;" and "explanation and understanding."

In other words, the areas I had been trying to understand in relation to each other and as operative in the mediation of revelation through the biblical text were not only addressed but inter-related: language as meaningful, textuality as mediation, linguistic creativity, the relation between the objectivity of texts and their subjective appropriation, and the participative and transformative character of the interaction between subjects through inscribed discourse were all discussed in remarkable depth and clarity in less than a hundred pages!

In subsequent years I have taught courses, lectured, and published on biblical hermeneutics, spirituality as a hermeneutical discipline, New Testament spirituality, and related topics -- always using Interpretation Theory as background or even as a basic text and finding more depth in it each time I re-read it in a different context. My personal copy is so annotated, underlined, outlined, highlighted and bookmarked that it constitutes a kind of private intellectual autobiography. This probably explains why, when I asked myself what book has been most significant for the most significant aspects of my thought Interpretation Theory emerged from the pile as the singular candidate.

I never had the honor of meeting Paul Ricoeur, even though he held a visiting professorship in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago from 1971 to 1991 and I am fairly certain we were in various academic venues at the same time. But in preparing this essay I came to realize that he has functioned, during most of my mature intellectual life, as both mentor and model. His mentoring of my intellectual development should be clear from the foregoing. But his modeling of what a true Christian intellectual should be has been a challenge and encouragement throughout my professional and ministerial life. I will mention only a few of the traits everyone recognizes in Ricoeur which have been personally important for me.

First was his un-polemical but completely non-apologetic personal synthesis of his vibrant Christian faith with his "secular" academic identity and vocation as a philosopher. From his early absorption in the mystery of evil through his work in biblical hermeneutics, Ricoeur never pretended to be a religiously neutral bystander. As André LaCocque wrote in his obituary for the Society of Biblical Literature when Ricoeur died in 2005, "In a thoroughly dechristianized country as is modern France, such an intellectual position [Ricoeur's openly Christian stance in the academy] demanded great courage." As LaCocque put it, the maintenance of an appropriate distance between his faith and his philosophical inquiry "cannot be understood as an intellectual dichotomy." Ricoeur was anything but a biblical fundamentalist, but he never lost his sense of wonder and gratitude before the divine condescension manifest in revelation.

Second, Ricoeur was renowned among his peers for his capacity to take his intellectual critics and rivals absolutely seriously, without a hint of condescension or arrogance. He strenuously argued with many of the currents of thought and their proponents in the philosophical and even theological world in which he worked, but he dismissed no one and never resorted to ridicule. He was able to find in every seriously argued position, no matter how contrary to his own, the kernel or even the small grain of truth that should be listened to and could be learned from. For example, while much of mainstream biblical scholarship was dismissing structuralism as a "mountain laboring to produce a mouse," Ricoeur folded it into his philosophical hermeneutics as an important testimony to the necessity for, and project of achieving, a certain controllable objectivity in the process of interpretation in which subjectivity could too easily become subjectivism.

Third, even though, as one of the intellectual giants of his day, he could easily have left the late twentieth century's struggles with massive moral evil to others with more time for such than he, Ricoeur was no ivory tower intellectual but a committed and vocal proponent of social justice, and foe of war, racism and sexism.

Finally, Ricoeur's example has validated for me an approach to productivity in the intellectual life that came naturally to me but that, early in my career, I feared represented a lack of discipline or capacity for conceptualization. Probably half of Ricoeur's major works consist of collections of essays on related topics or on a central theme on which his thought had developed and matured over the years. Although Interpretation Theory is composed of four lectures delivered at one event, many of his major works, for example, Conflict of Interpretations, and his volumes on political issues and on biblical interpretation bring together lectures and/or essays written over a span of years in a variety of contexts and for various audiences. This process of "thinking through writing" rather than writing only what has been completely thought out and can be presented as one's definitive position on a subject is, I think, very congenial both for some writers and many readers. It represents, in Ricoeur at least, an embrace of the tentative, cumulative, and self-corrective character of sustained reflection on profound subjects. Such reflection is indeed the "never-ending story" of engagement with reality through written discourse, and the literary genre of collected essays exposes not only the conclusions but the processes of such engagement.

In a way it is appropriate that I selected a work of Paul Ricoeur as the most important book I have read. Given his ground-breaking work on the autonomy of texts and their ability to generate worlds their authors could not have imagined, it is fitting, and a privilege, to express my appreciation for a scholar I never met but who has influenced me more than most I have, precisely and exclusively through his texts.

[Sandra M. Schneiders is professor emerita of New Testament studies and Christian spirituality at Jesuit School of Theology, Santa Clara University, Berkeley, Calif., and author of The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred ScriptureJesus Risen in Our Midst, and Written That You May Believe, among other publications. She is a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Mich.]

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