Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Revelation & reader-response theory

In attempting to justify his conversion to Rome, Al Kimel advocated an ecclesiastical version of reader-response theory. He demoted the historical audience in favor of the implied audience, which he identified with “the Church.”

Ironically, the author of the standard Catholic monograph on hermeneutics has drawn attention to some of the fundamental ambiguities of this appeal:

“According to most religions, the audience intended by the divinity is not the historical audience [i.e. ‘the audience contemporaneous with the author of the text, which is part of the culture to which this author belonged,’ 71], but rather the audience composed of believers throughout history…The intended audience is the audience for which the text is intended,” J. Gracia, How Can We Know What God Means? The Interpretation of Revelation (Palgrave 2001), 72.

“Nevertheless, this position is not without difficulty. The most obvious is that the intended audience cannot be taken as being composed of just the group of believers contemporaneous with the author. It cannot because, if this were the case, it would exclude believers from other times and places; only those believers alive at the time of the revelation would count. But this makes no sense, inasmuch as the intended audience must be composed of all believes, regardless of the times and places in which they live,” ibid. 73.

“This raises a second problem of demarcation. If the understanding of believers constitutes the criterion of interpretation of revealed texts, and believers differ in what they understand by these texts, how are we to settle these differences?…To say that the understanding of only some believers counts and, therefore, not that of others also creates problems. The most important of these concerns the criteria for choosing those believers whose views count. Where do these criteria come from, and how can we know they are the right ones? The text itself cannot provide the answers to these questions…so where do we turn?” ibid. 73.

“The third alternative is that only the understanding common to all believers counts, but this notion of ‘consensus’ itself generates problems of demarcation that cannot be solved with reference to interpretive doctrine…Finally, if it is the understanding common to all believers that counts, how can any believer or group of believers at any given time be certain of an interpretation, not having access to the understanding of those who have not yet lived? This assumes, moreover, that there is access to the understanding of all believers from the past, something that is logically possible but practically unlikely,” ibid. 73-74.

“Of course, an audience, unlike an author, is usually composed of many persons who find themselves in different circumstances. This means that there may not be a single understanding that one can point to and call audiencial understanding. There may in fact be many understandings of the same text in an audience, some even contradictory,” ibid. 165-66.

I’d add that Al Kimel can’t very well identify the intended audience with the Magisterium, for the Magisterium is, itself, a diachronic entity. On the one hand, Catholics don’t restrict themselves to past Magisterial interpretations. On the other hand, Catholics lack access to future Magisterial interpretations.

To identify the intended audience with the contemporary Magisterium is extremely selective. Since, moreover, the present is a moving target—what is today for me is tomorrow for you, or the day before—the contemporary Magisterium cannot supply a fixed frame of reference. So this leads to hermeneutical relativism.

No comments:

Post a Comment