We humans are gifted at interpreting. We are constantly interpreting signs and symbols everywhere we go and in everything that we do. We are so comfortable interpreting that we may not even know that we are doing it.
Interpreting comes to most of us almost as second nature. We pick it up as child in the same way that we learn language and so many other things from imitating adults and our peers. We are conditioned in powerful ways that influence our opinions, convictions, prejudices, and even our desires.
We are constantly interpreting.
We almost instinctively know how to read different facial expressions, body language, gestures, moods, words, tone of voice, intensity, sincerity, pace, volume, etc. We even interpret things like gender, body style, and clothing. We interpret everything from human interactions, to sacred texts – from the clouds in the sky, to the road signs as we drive.
We are always interpreting.
What if you were told that the way you interpret something may be more important than the thing itself?
Would you be comfortable with the idea that your interpretive lens doesn’t just help you process your experiences – but actually helps create them at some level?
Thinking about the way we interpret things is called ‘hermeneutics’. It is a fancy word that would seem completely unnecessary if humans were not constantly interpreting nearly everything.
You may know that I come from an evangelical-charismatic background. What you may not know is that I am continually challenged in conversations about the need to interpret our experiences and texts. I am often told that our religious experiences do not need to be interpreted, that they actually a validation or a sign of faith. That, of course, is itself an interpretation.
We don’t just have experiences (like we don’t just read and believe the Bible) we interpret. We do it as second nature because to be human – and thus social – is to be thoroughly saturated in language and symbols. We speak, and indeed think, in language. It permeates everything we do and are. It is part of what being human means.
The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 638-640) defines hermeneutics as:
Hermeneutics: The discipline that studies the principles and theories of how texts ought to be interpreted, particularly sacred texts such as the Scriptures. Hermeneutics also concerns itself with understanding the unique roles and relationships between the author, the text and the original or subsequent readers.
Hermeneutics is a massive and complex field, but in an ABC’s series, there are two basic things that are important to know:
- The word has been in use since the 17th century even though the idea is an ancient one that can be traced all the way back to the Greek philosophers.
- Everything changed in past 90 years. With the publication of Heidegger’s “Being and Time” in 1927, philosophy, and then subsequently the human sciences, took a hermeneutical turn.This trickle-down effect has made its way through nearly every aspect of society and culture. The impact of this turn has been so thorough that we are now to the point where everything is analyzed, dissected, and questioned. No area of life gets a free pass and no activity is safe from interrogation.
If you are attracted to someone or not attracted to them, if you comb your hair a certain way or you don’t comb your hair, if you go to church or don’t go to church, if you stand for the national anthem at a sporting event or you don’t … everything means something.
This is true for individuals, families, congregations, people groups, and nations. It is the reality of the world that we live in for the 21st century.