Merold Westphal's Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church (Baker Academic, 2009) is the kind of book that you can give to your Aunt Gussie after she queries you across the table at Thanksgiving: "Now I understand you're a postmodern philosopher. Does that mean you're not a Christian anymore, but you're a relativist?"
That kind of parry is a very common "have you stopped beating your wife" sort of question these days. But you suck it up, and as you hand her the book while you scoop out the cornbread stuffing from Grandma's forty-year-old Wedgewood serving bowl, used only for special family gatherings, you simply smile and answer that you're a postmodernist because you're a "Christian post-relativist". Relativism is not a sin. It's just bad hermeneutics.
The term "relativism" nowadays is routinely and indiscriminately used as a handy synonym for "postmodernism" by Christian and cultural mossbacks in the same way that "deconstruction" is taken as the first thesaurus entry for nihilistic devastation of the entire legacy of Western culture. Pondering the "relativity" of the symbolic order - Einstein's special and general theories notwithstanding - is generally regarded in these same circles as akin to taking a puff of Ouachita Gold and then inhaling. That is, it is the first tragic slip on the slipper of the slippery slope to reprobation and incurable insanity.
Never mind that postmodern philosophy in all its sophisticated branchings and windings has virtually nothing to do with the garden variety "epistemological" stance of conceptual or moral relativism, which in the academic literature these days is almost always termed "perspectivalism." Or never mind that no serious medical authority these days would endorse the view popularized in the old 1950s anti-drug documentary Reefer Madness.
Prejudices or presuppositions, as we tend to call them in the theoretical enterprise known as "hermeneutics", are always with us. We tend to regard them in the way that women say they regard men, and men say they regard women: can't live with them, can't live without them. When it comes to reading texts, particularly Biblical texts (which is the business of hermeneutics), we tend to treat our presuppositions like we often do our spouses. We are prone to take them for granted, and frequently ignore them entirely, except when our sense of honor or identity is threatened, at which point we get defensive, even belligerent.
When some supposed "relativist" suggests to us that our presuppositions are really prejudices, perhaps even ignorant prejudices, or that they - well, er - might not be absolute foundational truths on which we can confidently stand and proclaim hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, we have the same kind of crisis as when somebody comes on to our wife/husband/partner/significant other at a social gathering. What we previously took for granted we now single out in our minds and offer romantic justifications (at least to ourselves) for our undying fidelity thereto. "Darling, I know I haven't given you the attention lately you deserve, but you need to know that you always have been, and always will be, The One."
Postmodernism, therefore, is in its critics eyes akin to the slick and captivating Don Juan type who shows up at the party and coos to The One that she, or he, has more going for her, or him, than dull old You. I would argue that postmodernism is really more like the insightful party host, or hostess, who after all invited all concerned and doesn't want to be responsible for creating a slippery spot that begins the slippery slope to scandal. So she, or he, saunters up to Don Juan, The One, and You and says, "come, there are so many interesting people here you have to meet, and you've got friends you didn't know you have."
Now let's pretend that The One is the Church and Don Juan is the more seductive of those many belletristic, perhaps French-sounding, "postmodern" theorists who are rumored to be "relativists", who write a lot about sex, immanence, the ecstasy of eros, and the magical mystery tour of the vast cultural arcade of spiritual and intellectual differance on which you somehow might be missing out because you are, after all, still dull old you, and who come to parties to hand out four-color, embossed business cards with an art nouveau likeness of Nietzsche's madman on the front along with the caption "haven't you heard that God is dead?".
So what would you do? You can become indignant and start trashing the interloper to anyone who will listen, all the while proclaiming that you have the best marriage in the world (option 1). Or you can quietly hope and pray the interloper won't make a move on your spouse, so you start talking to yourself, or to your spouse if they will listen, about how wonderful and sensitive and interesting you really are (option 2).
When it comes to Christianity and the "truth" of its sacred texts, or of the "tradition" for that matter, option 1 approximates what Westphal terms "Hermeneutics 101." Hermeneutics 101 is often summed up in the following expression: "no interpretation needed." Since the Bible is the Word of God, it is what it is, and it says what it says. This approach is familiar to most of us, particularly those whom we tend to call (they really don't call themselves that anymore) "fundamentalists." More charitably, we call them "objectivists," an epistemological as well as "hermeneutical" position that probably the majority of non-philosophers subscribe to with varying degrees of sophistication.
As I argued in my earlier book The Next Reformation (Baker Academic, 2004), this type of "naive" objectivism (often called "naive realism" in more erudite parlance, and not to be confused with the kind of "objectivism" Westphal describes in the subsequent chapter, which is otherwise referred to as historicism), on which fundamentalist readings are based, evolved under the impact of Scottish common sense philosophy in the nineteenth century and diverges considerably from the hermeneutics of the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Essentially Hermeneutics 101 is not really a "hermeneutics", or theory of interpretation, at all. In practice, it is anti-hermeneutical. Before the advent of fundamentalism, hermeneutics - no matter how scholastic or pietistic, was considered a crucial adjunct of theological reflection.
What Westphal terms "Hermeneutics 102" (in chapter 2) is more interesting and more respectable in the eyes of academic, non-fundamentalist theologians, whether conservative or liberal. While hermeneutics 101 is a cheap and bastardized version of the venerable "correspondence theory of truth", hermeneutics 102 comports with what has come to be called Romantic hermeneutics. Romantic hermeneutics derives from the "subjectivist" turn of German philosophy that Immanuel Kant inaugurated in the late eighteenth century, and its locus classicus is the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher.
As Westphal points out, Schleiermacher and those whom he influenced sought to extend hermeneutical method beyond its traditional role as a handmaiden to Christian theology and establish it as a general theory of interpretation that would include not simply Biblical texts, but all forms of written communication, and even cultural artifacts. The historicism of Wilhelm Dilthey in the nineteenth century and the work of Hans-George Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur in the twentieth century are distinguished examples of how this special theory had embedded itself at the ventricles of modern philosophy, though the latter two illustrations might be considered "post-Romantic." Romantic hermeneutics focuses on the inner, or psychological, condition of the author himself/herself. The question "what does this writer mean" is now targeted toward what would later be termed "authorial intent" rather than the independent meaning of the text itself (as is the case with naive objectivism).
Dilthey, like Kant nevertheless, aimed to make this appeal to the state of the subject into an "objective science", something which Westphal, following the cues of Gadamer, finds unpersuasive. Because Gadamer doesn't really appear until chapter 3 (which I'm not supposed to write about), I won't elaborate this point at all. But do stay tuned. What Dilthey did, along with all members of that dominant philosophical tribe that flourished throughout the 1800s and who were known as neo-Kantians, was to take Kant's concept of the subjective faculty for processing "objective knowledge", which he dubbed Verstehen ("understanding") and convert it into a principle of "historical knowledge." So much of this Kantian-Diltheyean tendency in German philosophy throughout the nineteenth century is the real, hermeneutical innovation that underlies what we now know as the "historical-textual criticism" of the Scriptures," which today dominates academic Biblical scholarship while driving fundamentalists, and even Neo-Orthodox as well as Radical Orthodox types, absolutely crazy.
Westphal's book is probably much more readable than anything that's normally called "postmodernist". It's a great primer on the method and history of hermeneutics, including some of its current common theological applications, particularly when it comes to ecumenicism. As I've said, I would feel very comfortable giving it to Aunt Gussie (I wouldn't give her anything I've written). It's both sufficiently edgy and radical enough for people like her, while not at all being in-your-face, and it probably raises enough disturbing questions in her mind for someone like myself to feel justified in passing it out along with the turkey. It may not be in-your-face-enough to give it some sobriquet like Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, but might we dub it something like Rules for Relativists? I find Westphal's concluding poetic flourish provocative in its own right when he prophesies that "the divinely transcendent voice of Scripture will become incarnate in our human language, and we will hear the very voice of God in our finite and fallen interpretations." (Yea, I know I'm not supposed to give away the ending, but, hey, I'm human and therefore fallen as well)
But I do have one serious quibble with the book - not the book per se, which is tremendous, but its location in the church-and-pomoish general project. It's a question I've raised repeatedly in other venues. To what degree is the task of "hermeneutics" really a postmodernist project? Hermeneutics in the Gadamerian sense is a forceful answer to both naive objectivism and subjectivism (in its crudest form - "relativism"), i.e., "Hermeneutics 101" and "Hermeneutics 102." As someone who wrote extensively about Gadamer and Ricoeur in the 1970s, then discovered Derrida, I find the task of hermeneutics pre-deconstructive, and therefore pre-postmodern. Deconstruction is aimed at taking us beyond the seeming intractable aporias of hermeneutics.
As Derrida himself points out repeatedly, deconstruction is not at all about interpretation; it is about the movement and force of signification. Hermeneutics asks "what is the meaning in this text and how do we establish it among the different possible interpretations?" Deconstruction asks "how does the meaning (Stanley Cavell's original question) of this meaning mean, and how does this change how we understand the problem of the text itself? That has always been the difference in my mind that makes the difference, and it is what might be termed the question of the postmodernist divide. And we're not even talking here about Deleuze and semiotics.
I understand that evangelical Christians especially need to understand hermeneutics, because of their intractable legacy of naive objectivism (their own kind of "dogmatic slumber" at la Kant) and their fear of "relativism". But "relativism" is a phoney type of bete noire. Postnodernism doesn't solve the problem of relativism; it strategically ignores it, because it is, as Wittgenstein might say, a pseudo-problem indicated, relativism is a fact that requires interpretation masquerading as an interpreation, which it's not.
Ultimately, it all comes down to "how we do hear the very voice of God in our finite and fallen interpretations," and if that now be called a postmodern problem, I welcome it.