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How Can We Know What God Means?

3690 words - 15 pages

How Can We Know What God Means?

Given the variety of approaches one could take when interpreting a text, should special interpretive treatment be
given to texts believed to be divinely inspired? What approach is most appropriate when interpreting revealed
texts? Do we take into consideration features of the language or the cultural context in which the text was
written? Perhaps there are significant psychological characteristics of the human author that are relevant for
understanding the meaning of the text; or perhaps we should just address the text as it stands and hope for
divine inspiration where the text is most obscure. Of course introducing divine inspiration itself introduces a
number of other problems. Religious traditions include interpretive traditions and include theories on how to read
sacred texts. So should these theories guide our interpretations? Or need an interpretation be neutral with
respect to these traditions to provide for the possibility of adjudicating among conflicting traditions. And if we are
reading texts from within theological traditions, are there any definitive interpretations of texts? Wouldn't such
contextualization invite relativism? These are the issues at the center of Jorge Gracia's book How Can We Know
What God Means?

I hope you can see very quickly that Gracia has embarked upon a series of questions of tremendous intellectual
richness and importance. These are not simply questions of theology. Take as a particularly relevant example the
debate about "intentionalism"-the view that the meaning of a text is shaped if not determined by the author's
intentions when writing the text. There are a number of classic arguments for and against that view, however,
clearly, the debate shifts if the author of the text is understood from the start to be a divine being, or even an
omniscient one. While before one might make the argument that historical hindsight puts us in a better position
than the author to understand his or her text, such arguments will no longer work. There is nothing omniscient
beings don't understand about a text they author. In fact, that fact-that an interpretation could never be adequate
to the divine author's understanding-may present a problem for intentionalism in the case of revealed texts.
(Indeed Gracia argues that it is such a problem.) So questions of divine authorship shed light on and transform
standard, philosophical issues of interpretation theory. They force us to be more articulate about our interpretive
projects; and on that score Gracia's work introduces a level of conceptual clarity unprecedented in the literature
on this topic.

We have a severely tangled set of issues in front of us and I consider it my responsibility as the first respondent
to lay the groundwork of Gracia's project so that in the course of further discussion today we can be sure we are
more or less on the same page. Also, although any good book leaves you wanting more, as...

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