Why it all comes down to interpretation

Communication is interpretation. Just as one cannot not communicate, so one cannot not interpret. Communication always comes down to interpretation.

Seems like pretty basic stuff for most of us, whether or not we’ve ever studied any dynamics of social interaction. Theories of encoding and decoding are hardly necessary to understand this principle we call communication. With our actions as well as our words, we are subject to interpretation by those who see or hear us in this world. That goes for seeing what we have written in this world. Think back, for instance, to a time when your class essay in school may have been, in your own mind, misunderstood or misinterpreted by the teacher, whether in part or in whole. Ever happen to you when you got your  graded papers back?

With that in my own mind now, I have questions about those who would presume to interpret the written words found in foundational documents such as the Holy Bible or the U.S. Constitution. This goes for what in the U.S. we know to be Federal Court Judges, the highest of these being the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).

Debate is soon to ensue on President Trump’s nomination to our SCOTUS. In Senate confirmation hearings, there’s a chance we will hear this nominee use the word “originalist” to describe her or his own pattern of interpretation as involves our original Constitution and subsequent laws of the nation we call the USA.

Constitutional originalists, and even Biblical literalists, for that matter, follow a pattern of narrow interpretation. What this means to me, in my own interpretation of their interpretations, is that they work very hard at putting no additional words in the mouths or even minds of those original writers. This, again according to my interpretation of their work, is motivated by a fear of assuming too much about another’s thoughts. Such interpretations are considered safe. They seek to conserve the original author’s intent as fully expressed in the content of that particular document. An originalist might conclude, “if they didn’t write it, they didn’t mean it.”

As a follower of Jesus, who wrote no primary documents, I must rely on secondary source documents to understand what he said. One of those sayings according to a document widely circulated among early Jewish followers of Jesus known as Mattheans (sharing the Gospel of Matthew, one of the original disciples present with Jesus) was this: “Do for others what you want them to do for you. This is the teaching of the laws of Moses in a nutshell” (TLB).

Here is my point, in case you were wondering if I actually had one.

Jesus lived in a community where what we think of as “fulfillment of the law” was commonly taken to mean “correctly interpreting the law.” Abolishing the law would have meant “paying no attention to it” or just not bothering to interpret it at all. And so within his own context, Jesus made the crux of his own ministry about helping his fellow Jews understand (interpret) the difference between the narrower content of what Moses wrote as God’s law (Torah) and the broader intent of God when inspiring Moses to write that law. The broad intent of God’s law was for us to live in God’s Kingdom of love and empathy and altruism where people loved God best by loving neighbor and self better. And where loving neighbor better meant treating others more like we would want them treating us. (For example, how would I like my neighbor to love me if he or she noticed me after I had been robbed and beaten along a dangerous roadside?)

Throughout his ministry, Jesus emphasized how God wanted us to interpret his law not according to its narrowest content (the error of originalists and literalists) but rather its broadest intent. God is broad minded, not narrow minded. And, guess what? We probably are, too.

Let’s try a mini-experiment here.

Let’s say two different people came up to you and said those nice words, “I love you.” But one of those people understood nothing about you beyond what you had somehow written on paper or screen. If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen. If you really intended it, you’d have put it in writing.  Get the picture?

Meanwhile, the second person read the content of whatever you had written to him or her, but also asked questions about what else you may have intended to communicate beyond your written words.  This person wanted to know about any good intentions or objectives you may have had at the time of your writing. Was there more you had in mind than just what was already documented?

So now practice interpreting for yourself the meaning of those original words “I love you.” Which of these two different “lovers” would you prefer having a closer relationship with? Or let me ask it this way, which of these two “lovers” would have done you “justice” in the best sense of that term?

I ask this because “we the people” of the United States are about to be governed in part by another highest court Judge who will be for her or his lifetime referred to as “Justice (name).” For if this new Judge, who will more than likely love the U.S. Constitution and its authors, fails to do justice to the intent, not just the content in question, then that “Justice” may by the accounts of Jesus come to “abolish” the Constitution instead of helping to “fulfill” it. This is why it all comes down to interpretation.  And this should send up all kinds of red flags for Christians in our United States of America.


One thought on “Why it all comes down to interpretation

  1. I too, often make the same comparison of the challenges of interpreting the Bible, written in multiple ancient languages, to interpreting the Constitution, originally written in an outdated English dialect. I compare Originalists to the Scribes and Pharisees who mangle the original meaning to fit their need to control others while not being uncomfortably limited themselves.

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