On the Sin of Originalism

1.  Words have a magic to them.  We tend to think of them as neutral carriers of meaning, but as any one of a number of impenetrable philosophy texts (mostly French) will tell you, the linkage between "words" and "meaning" is often more complex and ambiguous than we recognize. We've all had the experience of words conveying less meaning than we intend--we say or write something that we think is clear, but turns out to be impossible for the listener to understand.  We've also all had the experience of words conveying a different meaning from the one we intend--we mean one thing, but it is heard as something else.

And, every once in a while, the words we say have more meaning that we intend--our words touch on some power that we were not consciously aware of when we say them, but is present nonetheless.  It is in these moments that the magic of words comes to the fore.  It is in these moments that words become transcendent.

2.  Think about poetry, or song lyrics--which, at the end of the day, are the same thing.  Here's one:


This song ("Nightswimming" by R.E.M., if you are not familiar with it), has a very specific and visceral meaning for me.  For me, "Nightswimming" invokes a feeling, or rather a set of feelings, that can be summarized in one sentence as "what it felt like to me to be a 16 year old."  Or, more accurately, "what it felt like to me to be a 16 year old, as I look back on it with the distance of being an adult."  I never liked "Nightswimming" when I was actually 16 years old (Automatic for the People came out in 1992, when I was freshman in high school--yes, I am that old), I think because the emotions this song generates for me--fear, confusion, the determination to try to "fake it until I make it" despite having no clue how to do that, the sense that everyone else had something figured out that I didn't--were a bit too raw to be accessible at that time.  With some distance, this song puts a name on those feelings, makes them accessible.  It's a powerful song for me.

Now, did Michael Stipe have all of that in mind when he wrote this song?  On a basic level, the answer is clearly no; after all, I don't know Michael Stipe, and he doesn't know me and my life as a 16 year old at Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, Florida.  Sure, it may have been the case that Stipe was thinking about his own experience of being 16, and that experience happened to be similar to mine.  Or, as Frank Strong points out, some of the experiences that resonate with me in the song--especially the sense of dislocation, insecurity, and the idea that everyone else has it together except you--are the universal experience of being a teenager.  And I think it is true that Stipe, probably moreso than most songwriters, intentionally writes songs in a way that the listener will supply their own experiences to "fill in the gaps."

That all may be true, but the fact remains that the song has a meaning for me that is beyond whatver intent or thought process Stipe had when writing it.  There is a sense in which it doesn't matter what Stipe was thinking when he wrote the song--whatever it was he intended, the words he wrote had a dimension that he didn't, and couldn't have, predicted for me and I presume for many other people.  That's the magic of songwriting, the magic of words.  To focus on what Stipe had in mind when he wrote the song is to miss the point.  Moreover, it is remove the transcendent quality, or even the possibility of transcendence, of the song.  It is to focus on the body, and to neglect the soul.

3.  Or, try another set of words, appropriate at the end of this holiday weekend in the United States:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. . . .


What did Thomas Jefferson mean by "all men are created equal"?  Well, as demonstrated by his behavior and the behavior of his conferees at the Continental Congress, something like "all men are created equal. . . well, except for the black folks which I am currently keeping enslaved of course. . . and of course by 'men' I don't mean to include 'women' in the idea of equality. . . and by 'all' I'm not really sure about those folks that don't own property. . ."

If you insist on reading the Declaration of Independence in the manner Jefferson understood his own words, then it is not worth your time.  Jefferson's understanding of equality is so qualified that it barely registers today, and even becomes something of a cruel farce, especially with relation to African-Americans.

But the words of the Declaration of Independence do have power, and they have power because they express something more universal and more powerful than Jefferson could even imagine.  They point to a reality that is beyond the narrow vision Jefferson himself had.  We, in our time, can pick up those words and take them farther than Jefferson would have been willing to go.  That does not do violence to the text, as some would claim; it is actually a fulfillment of the text, a discovery of the hidden seed that Jefferson placed in the document, a seed that he clearly did not fully recognize or understand.  But it's there anyway.

The Declaration of Independence is a transcendent expression precisely because people have been inspired by the words to fight for equality for African-Americans, for women, for immigrants, for LGBT people, for whomever.  That's why we care about the Declaration of Independence 239 years and two days after it was signed in Philadelphia.  If it was just about what Jefferson thought it was about, it would be a historical footnote.  But because its words have meaning that he did not understand at the time, it is immortal.

4.  I was looking back at the post I did on the 40 questions for open and affirming Christians, and I was struck by a pattern in many of the questions.  A number of the questions revolved around the idea that "certainly the Biblical writers would not have supported same sex marriage!"  Unspoken, of course, is the notion that if the Biblical writers would not have supported same-sex marriage, then "the Bible" does not either.

Anytime we attempt to determine what people 2000 years ago, writing in a different language and with a radically different set of life experiences, "really meant" by this or that passage, we run into enormous interpretative difficulties.  Heck, legal scholars can't agree on what the drafters of the Constitution "really meant" by certain passages, and the Constitution is a bit more than a tenth the age of the New Testament.  But even if those problems did not exist, even if we could say for certain exactly was going on in the minds of the authors of the books of Bible, why should we limit our consideration to what they had in mind?  Why should we read the Bible in a manner different from the way we read the Declaration of Independence?  If the Declaration of Independence is transcendent because it means more than what Jefferson thought it meant, why wouldn't that be true of the Bible as well?

In fact, it should be more true of the Bible than the Declaration of Independence or an R.E.M. song, because unlike Jefferson or Stipe, Christians believe that the authors of the books of the Bible were under the influence of divine inspiration.  If we take that idea seriously, if we really believe that, then Biblical texts have a depth that cannot be fully encompassed by the human mind.  To say the Bible is the Word of God is to say that God's infinite depth is present in the text and behind the text.  No human being, no matter how holy or set apart, could possibly understand the full divine transcendence that permeates the Scriptures.  There will always be many dimensions, infinite dimensions even, that were beyond their grasp.  Recognizing this fact makes the Bible more relevant, not less.

Christians in particular should recognize this truth, because our entire approach to the Hebrew Scriptures is based on it.  As far back as Paul's letters and Matthew's Gospel, Christians have seen the figure of Jesus present in the Hebrew Scriptures--in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in the rest of the prophets.  The claim is not that the authors of those texts were consciously aware of this person Jesus who was coming in 500-700 years, and so wrote these texts accordingly (but in code); the claim is that they were writing about something that they did not completely understand, but which in hindsight (Christians believe) clearly referred to Jesus.  The author of Isaiah was expressing a truth, but it was a truth that the author himself did not fully appreciate or understand.  Only later did these other dimensions come to light.

And yet, when it comes to a passage like Galatians 3:28 ("There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."), the same people who insist on seeing a dimension that wasn't on the mind of the Hebrew prophets refuse to countenance the possibility of a dimension that might not have been on Paul's mind.  Maybe it is true that Paul didn't understand that passage as requiring full gender equality in the Church (or, maybe he did--see Romans 16).  But that doesn't, and shouldn't, stop us from asking whether there is some additional dimension to that passage that might require us to reach that conclusion.  Maybe those words had a power that Paul didn't fully understand.  Maybe we should take those words and run with them.

5.  If you remember back to Geometry in high school, I am sure you had to either read, or read about, the book Flatland.  The idea behind Flatland is that it tells the story of two dimension geometric figures who are by-definition unable to process the concept of a third dimension.  When they encounter a three-dimensional figure, it blows up their world.  Many of the characters in the book refuse to accept the notion that there is any dimension beyond the two that they are able to perceive.

The people who refuse to accept the transcendent dimension to a text are like the people in Flatland.  For them, the text is simply limited to the words on the paper, and maybe what the person writing the words meant by them.  They can't, or won't see the dimension extending behind the flat plane of the text itself.  And they tend to have a hard time with people who encourage them to look behind the plane to find those additional dimensions.

I'm not sure this is still a thing, but I remember back in high school in the South the Baptists would use (what they believed to be) a clever acrostic--B.I.B.L.E. "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth."  As if the Bible is like the instruction manual for a microwave.  This approach to the Bible is pure Flatland thinking.  It removes not only its transcendent dimension, but even the possibility of transcendence.  It does enormous violence to the Bible.

It is not only conservative evangelicals who live in Flatland, though.  We saw it on display in the "originalist" rantings of Justice Scalia in his opposition to the gay marriage, and perhaps even more clearly in his disdainful rejection of the possibility of reconsidering the Constitutionality of the death penalty.  It is a reading that rejects the power and the possibility of something like the U.S. Constitution in favor of the flattest, most constrained dimension of the text.  We see it in the literalist readings and interpretations of Ecumenical Council documents, or the writings of the Church Fathers.  Frank Strong has a wonderful post on the desire to strip the mystery out of the Creed, in favor of a connect-the-dots need to lock down a concrete meaning for every word of the Creed (in fact, that post was the initial seed for the ideas in this post). We see it all around us.

Living in Flatland, especially as it relates to religion, is a kind of sacrilege.  It strips the divine out of our holy texts and holy words.  Christianity can't survive without this transcendent dimension, not in any authentic way.  If you strip that transcendence out of Christianity, then Christianity becomes the oppressive, manipulative vehicle of social control that the New Atheists and other critics claim it is.  Christianity becomes something monstrous; at the very least, it has the potential to become something monstrous.

In the end, I think that originalism is a kind of sin.  It is stripping words of their transcendent power.  It forces readers to live in Flatland.  But words have more power than that.

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