When my two-year-old wants a drink he says, “Up. Up.” When he needs my help with something, he also says, “Up. Up.” “Gra-gra” can mean motorcycle, cracker, airplane, or Grandma. When he says “Oosh” he may mean he wants juice or that he wants to put on his shoes to go outside. If he goes, “Zha-zha,” he may be talking about his sitter, Andrew, his favorite person, Suzie, or the Frozen soundtrack. He refers to himself as “Unh-unh,” but he may do so to indicate that he wants the same treat his brother just received or that he wants to walk in front of the stroller. About the only things he says that don’t have multiple possible meanings are “Mama,” “Dada,” and the sign for hungry.
The wonder of raising a child is that all these things actually communicate. They don’t always work smoothly or without confusion and false starts, but they usually, ultimately, work—I eventually figure out the proper interpretation of his sounds and my son gets his needs met.
Working at a Christian college, I think a lot about interpretation. Protestant thinkers, in particular, are very concerned with interpretation because it seems to represent a problem of getting at the truth. James Smith, in The Fall of Interpretation, engages some major figures for whom interpretation was not part of the original creation and will not be a part of the restored creation. For these thinkers, we don’t want to interpret; we want to just know. Interpretation doesn’t produce the certainty that we want to base our lives upon.
But Smith argues that interpretation would seem to be part of being a finite creature, and though Heaven may entail the conferral of eternal life, it doesn’t obviously entail the conferral of infinitude. To become infinite would be to become equal, intellectually, to God. It doesn’t sound right when put that way, does it?
Part of the trouble is training our minds to get away from a propositional truth and into something different that still preserves the authority of truth. The medievals thought our propositions about God were at best analogically true, that is, were true enough but unable to express the whole truth, but since the scientific revolution, we have wanted to have a propositional truth that was adequate and complete.
Actual language use teaches us otherwise. In the relatively trivial truth that my son wants popcorn or to ride the swings, what communicates does so not because we have found a precise and complete language but because we have worked out a language game within the context of our relationship. The truth of his needs extends well beyond his ability to express it, but we make up for that through knowing one another.
That word "context" was a big problem in the late-70s/early-80s when Jacques Derrida appeared to suggest that, because context can never be finally pinned down, meaning itself is impossible. Smith patiently explains that Derrida never actually made any such self-contradictory claim, but that he in fact was emphasizing the risk of communication, namely, that it won't communicate. Consider how many of our jokes are about failed communication or miscommunication. Every attempt to speak to another exposes our speech to interpretation, but amazingly it works more often than not.
Comedians make us laugh at miscommunication because it is, at times, a source of anxiety and insecurity. But I'm not sure it has to be a scary idea for Christians, however. Extended to the Bible, it suggests interpretation depends on our relationship with God and with the Christian community rather than the direct communication of the translated words. Don't we already believe that? Maybe the problem is that we feel like God is the two-year old saying, "Oosh," and we're stuck trying to figure Him out. Maybe we should assume we are the ones going, "Gra-gra," and have faith that God is able to interpret our ill-expressed needs.