What Does it Mean?


Sermon #20 (8th January 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

When people ask me what exactly it is we do here on Sunday mornings – and they do ask me, occasionally, though not as often as I’d like – one of my better responses is to say that we ‘come together to share the search for wisdom, truth, and meaning, gleaning it from wherever it can be found’. I remember a long-standing and faithful member of this congregation, my great friend Patricia Walker-Hesson, who died a little over seven years ago, telling me that on her first visit to this church, just after this building was opened in 1977, she was impressed that the readings in that very first Sunday service she attended were taken from the Qur’an and from the Evening Standard. For her, that marked the Unitarian church out as something a little bit unusual – a church open to gleaning wisdom, truth, and meaning from wherever it could be found.

In most religious traditions one of the primary sources of wisdom, truth, and meaning is scripture. Each faith has its own sacred texts and its own story about their origins. However, I think it’s fair to say that contemporary Unitarianism has a slightly uneasy relationship with sacred texts, at best. There are regional variations, both within this country, and worldwide, but I think I’m right in saying that Bible readings are unlikely to be a feature of worship in all that many of the Unitarian services up and down the country this morning (a few though). Or indeed in the UU services over in the States in a few hours’ time when they’ve woken up.

In our first reading today we heard John Buehrens, one-time president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, make a plea for the liberal religious (that’s us!) to re-engage with the sacred text of our heritage and discover its peculiar treasures instead of tossing the Bible aside and allowing others to have a monopoly on its interpretation. And I would agree that if we choose to ignore this part of our heritage – all the collected wisdom of the scriptures and the tradition that’s grown up around them down the ages – we’re really missing out on some good stuff. So if we’re going to do as John Buehrens suggests – to engage more deeply with scripture and do so with our intellectual integrity intact – I suggest we would be wise to dip our toes today into the world of hermeneutics – that is, the theory of interpretation, the theory of understanding what things mean, if you like. [I need to tell you at this point that I spent a large part of last summer writing an essay about hermeneutics and it was the most painfully mind-bending essay I have ever written… but the good news is that I went through that traumatic experience so you don’t have to! and in a few minutes I will give you my best attempt at explaining hermeneutics-in-a-nutshell.]

To backtrack for a moment though: this is the second month of our themed-ministry project here at Essex Church and the theme we’ve chosen for January is ‘understanding’. We will be exploring a different aspect of ‘understanding’ in each service this month. So today’s service is about understanding texts – things that other people have written down. Anything that was written down by another person, probably in another place / time, which is the least bit ambiguous, and about which we might find ourselves asking: ‘…but what does it mean?’ I’m mainly going to focus on sacred texts today, the Bible in particular, because of the Christian heritage which our denomination is rooted in, but bear in mind that much of what I’m going to say is applicable to texts of all sorts: historical texts, political texts, legal texts, literary texts, philosophical texts (in fact there’s an even wider and more abstract usage of ‘text’ than that but let’s not go there). So even if you’re utterly resistant to engaging with religious texts it’s still potentially useful! But those texts which we might call ‘sacred’ are those which have been set apart and lifted up by our forebears. They are the spiritual classics which can be read anew by each generation, and over the course of each lifetime, offering up valuable new meanings in a changing world. So I hope by the end of today’s service anyone who’s hesitant about reading scripture, or who has just drifted away from it over the years, might consider giving it another chance.

So let us begin. The process of understanding things that other people have written down, especially historical sacred texts, invariably involves some sort of interpretation. The key point about it being a written text from another place and time is that we don’t have direct access to the person who wrote it, or the circumstances they wrote it in, so we can’t just ask the author to clarify what they meant – though even if we could ask them that doesn’t necessarily settle the matter – for hermeneutical reasons that we’ll come back to later on… And there are, potentially, all manner of other obstacles to proper understanding: 1. We can’t just leap in a Tardis to visit the time/ place the text was written to ‘see for ourselves’ 2. Most sacred texts were originally written down in languages that most of us don’t speak and have been translated into ones we do. 3. The contents of the Bible were selected by committee – somebody else chose what was left in / what was left out a long time ago – shaping the text we are working with. And then there’s the weight of Christian history/tradition that has piled on in the intervening years… there are potentially quite a lot of obstacles to overcome when we’re trying to interpret scripture.

A question that is often asked of religious liberals is this: ‘can a text just mean anything you want it to mean?’ This question is sometimes posed with hostile intent by those who are sceptical about the liberal approach (but it’s not an unreasonable question, really: as soon as you move beyond a naïve realism or literalism then what is there to constrain you?). And as we heard in the reading from Mary Wellemeyer earlier, ‘people read the same words and learn different lessons’. Her poem reflects on how people can use the very same text to inspire acts of war and violence or lives of justice and peacemaking. Surely we would not want to say that these two interpretations are equally good? And indeed Mary Wellemeyer’s poem seems to suggest that, if in doubt, we should choose the interpretation that helps to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. The great thinkers of hermeneutics – the hermeneuts! (I think that’s what you call someone who does hermeneutics) – those who developed theories of interpretation over the last few centuries – have, broadly speaking, offered three perspectives on how we interpret texts. Some put their emphasis on the author, some put their emphasis on the reader, and some give priority to the text itself, what is actually written on the page.

The first, and earliest, group of thinkers – those who prioritise the author – reckon that the meaning of the text is definitively determined by whatever the author intended it to mean. Which sounds like common sense! Now, that’s all very well, but how are we as readers supposed to work out what that is? The author of our sacred text is more than likely long dead and may not be known to us by name [and let’s neatly sidestep for today the question of what happens if we consider God to be the author of the scriptures, particularly for those faith traditions that believe in something like divine dictation]. If we take this view – that the author determines the meaning – then the best we can do is to try and empathise with the person who wrote it, find out as much as we can about their context, the time and place and historical situation they were writing in, the rest of their work, and anything else we can find out about them to help us intuit what they most likely intended. There’s no way we can ever know if we got the meaning ‘right’ but if we are going to give priority to the author’s intention then we must try to establish what was in the author’s mind. And – just to step back from sacred texts for a moment, and think about texts in general – there are some situations where focusing on the author’s intention seems absolutely right: if you’re reading a will, or a love letter, you really want to know what was in the author’s mind. Some people who favour this author-centred approach do concede that there’s a difference between the ‘meaning’ of a text (what the author intended) and its ‘significance’ (what you, the reader, takes from reading it – its impact on you). So in this view the question ‘what does it mean?’ is narrowly focused on the author’s intent but there’s another Q ‘what does it signify?’ and that is more about the effect on the reader.

Then there’s a second group of thinkers – hermeneuts! – mostly postmodernists who prioritise the reader’s response to the text and disregard the idea of a meaning fixed by the author. If we ask ‘what does it mean?’ then their response is more-or-less: ‘well, that’s up to you’. This is easiest to make sense of if we consider those texts which can be thought of as ‘open’ or ‘productive’ – these are texts that may be intentionally ambiguous, to provoke the reader into fresh thought, and to freely generate new meaning. In the context of scripture you might think of parables, poetry, and psalms as ‘open’ texts which can be regarded in this way, where there is more scope for using your imagination. Other texts, such as historic reports or direct teachings, might be considered ‘closed’ texts and are perhaps less suitable for this reader-centric approach to interpretation. The meaning of ‘open’ texts is always provisional and incomplete, so you are free to play (though you might choose to limit the range of interpretations that are considered valid on a pragmatic/ethical basis, such as whether they seem to do you good, or serve your community). The third group of thinkers – those who prioritise the text itself – what’s actually on the page – include two of my favourite hermeneuts: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur. In this way of thinking, once the work is written down, it is separated from the author, the original audience it was intended for, and the conditions it was written in.
One of Gadamer’s most important ideas was the ‘fusion of horizons’ and I’ll try to explain roughly what he meant by that. Brace yourselves. Every person – including the author, and the reader – has their own ‘horizon’. This is their outlook, their way of seeing the world, and it will have been shaped by the time and the place they are living in, and the culture and traditions around them. Every person has picked up a whole bunch of prejudices – literally, pre-judgements – about the world we live in and (for Gadamer) that is not meant in a negative sense. He’s not talking about prejudice in the way we usually speak of it, in the sense of bigotry. These pre-judgements are necessary to help us make sense of everything we encounter. For Gadamer, prejudices or pre-judgements include generalisations based on our previous experience – in fact our prejudices include everything we know, both consciously and unconsciously, even things like the meaning of words, facts, preferences, and aesthetic judgements. Some of these prejudices will be legitimate, well-founded, and helpful. Others will not. This collection of prejudices we have picked up, largely just by accident of where and when we happen to have been born in the history of the universe, makes up our worldview or ‘horizon’.

So: the reader has a horizon, the author has a horizon, and the text also has a horizon. The text’s horizon is not exactly the same as the author’s, partly because the author can’t really consciously express the entirety of their own worldview in a single text, and partly because the text is likely to be shaped by psychological, ideological, and social forces of which the author is unconscious (so, like I mentioned earlier, even if you could ask the author what they intended, there’s more in the text than even they know about: Ricoeur referred to this as a ‘surplus of meaning’). According to Gadamer, to understand a text properly, there must be a ‘fusion of horizons’. The reader must have some sort of encounter/ dialogue with the text, bringing open questions to it, and being willing to be changed by the experience and gain new insights from the exchange. You aren’t going to reach an authentic interpretation of the text if you just approach it with a closed mind, looking to have your prejudices confirmed. However, if you open yourself to it, the ‘horizon’ of the text and the ‘horizon’ of the reader fuse and the reader will be transformed. On the basis of this ‘fusion of horizons’ our provisional prejudices are revised and next time we meet a text, as a reader, we will be bringing a new – broader – horizon to it.

So there is your whistle-stop tour – a beginner’s guide to hermeneutics. Or at least a small corner of it. I did my best! Meaning is not necessarily fixed by the author once-upon-a-time, nor is it always frivolously made-up anew by the playful reader (though there are circumstances where both of these approaches are OK). There is always this possibility of a direct, transformative, encounter with the text itself. And that’s where you will find your answers to the question ‘…but what does it mean?’ When it comes to understanding texts – especially sacred texts – there are a number of different and legitimate approaches to interpretation. As religious liberals we have both the freedom to explore these texts unconstrained by literalism and the responsibility to engage with the texts and offer a progressive interpretation to the world.

I’d like to end now with these words from the UU minister Lynn Strauss, the ones that are printed on the front of your order of service today, in the hope that you will be inspired to have your own encounters with sacred texts, to find new wisdom, truth, and meaning, and to share your findings here with the rest of us. As Lynn Strauss puts it:

‘A sacred text is a text set apart and lifted up…a text that creates life and meaning. The text, the story does not end…we are part of the on-going, eternal, sacred story of life. Revelation is not sealed. We create, beauty and meaning and relationship, out of the very suspension of the ending of the sacred text. Every day is a new page to write upon, to read, to listen to…to discover hidden meaning.’

Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: