Meaning and Subjectivity

Have you ever entered a conversation or debate only to find that you and the person you’re talking with seem to be at complete odds with each other? I don’t mean that you have completely different ideas. I mean when it seems as if the other person is completely misunderstanding everything you’re saying. As if the two of you were talking past each other.

This isn’t a surprising occurrence. There’s even an entire field of study devoted to analyzing and resolving these issues called dialectics. But I’d like to back up a moment and look at one of the basic problems. That is, the problem of different meanings being invested in the same words. Yes, that’s right. Derrida and Deconstruction, here we come.

To give an example. Suppose I said to someone that Volvo are the best cars ever made?

 Which is an objective and undeniable fact

But then suppose that person responded with: “What are you talking about? Volvo makes commercial trucks! Is that your daily commuter?”

Seats 60 and has a flat-screen TV

Obviously we’re having a basic misunderstanding of what a “Volvo” is. I’m thinking of the passenger cars and my hypothetical person is thinking of the commercial truck company with the same name. Now, my rather silly hypothetical aside, this problem crops up in much more serious conversations.

When I say “baptism,” I perhaps have a very different image in my head than you do. A large part of that has to do with our completely different upbringings. Perhaps you grew up in an Anabpatist-inspired denomination. As Derrida noted, these basic ideas invested behind the words will color our entire discourse. And if we don’t start out trying to understand each others meanings behind the words, then our conversation will go nowhere fast.

Just like some cars

This is one of the main reasons why the layperson tends to get so frustrated with ecumenical discussions. It takes a long time to make sure that we understand what the other person means when they say “baptism.” Often there is 2.000 years of meaning packed into that simple word. Any ecumenical discussion must start out with the two (or more) parties determining on a shared meaning, or at least understanding the other side’s meaning. This can take a while.

Just like a Lada getting to 80 kph!

It can especially be a problem when one encounters some of the outlying and extreme groups that split off from Christendom. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. They use many of the same words, but they are vested with such different meaning, that they effectively mean something completely alien.

That brings us to the question of how we determine meaning. This is a far more difficult question because often it cannot be resolved through mere dialogue. If we each approach certain terms with our own unique background and history, how can we ever arrive at a common understanding? Are we hopelessly stuck in subjectivity? There is, in fact, a literary school of interpretation that makes this claim. It’s called “Reader Response Criticism.” The meaning is created between the text and the reader. The formation of the text, the writer’s intentions, etc. don’t get taken into account. (Please note: Reader Response Criticism is somewhat loose and fluid. I’m describing one strain of it, others who work with this critical method do sometimes take such considerations into account.)

The problem with this strain of Reader Response Criticism is that it is not critical enough. If we take the extreme subjective end of Reader Response Criticism as a guide, then we must end up asking why we should interpret any text or read any other person’s interpretation of a text. It just becomes subjectivity piled on top of subjectivity like a bad car wreck.

Note the lack of Volvos in this picture. Just sayin’

The defense of Reader Response Criticism is that if one is invested in finding meaning in the text, then even extremely subjective Reader Response Criticism can provide new insights into even a very well-known text. So it is not without merit, but it should be kept as one tool (and a very minor one at that) within a larger toolbox of critical methods.

This brings me back to the theological discussions I mentioned earlier. How do we determine meaning now that the subjectivity of individualism is not enough? Especially when there are so many groups within Christendom claiming unique and authoritative meaning for their definition? What makes the Mormons any more or less right than Catholics?

Mormons drive American. Make of that what you will.

I think the answer to this problem of meaning lies within the community. It is the community of the Church that creates and determines what authentic theological meanings are. Now, the first objection to my solution is to again swing out subjectivity. Which church? Which body has the proper interpretation? After all the Mennonites say that the Bible is properly interpreted and understood within the church community. But so do the Orthodox. And they both have a depth of theology and interpretation to back up their various claims.

This is where I get perhaps a bit innovative. Ironically, by moving deeper into Tradition. Meaning lies not just within the contemporary community of living saints. Meaning is also formed by the history and tradition of 2.000 years of the Church. Our ancestors get a seat and a vote.

Leather is gaudy, Recaro is where it’s at!

Meaning is something that is not just up to us with our limited and contemporary views to determine. If it were, then the message of the Church would be random and chaotic; changing from moment to moment. Admittedly, there are some churches like this. Meaning is created within the interaction among the works of the Holy Mothers and Fathers and the Church today. But that’s not all. Meaning is also created mystically through the doctrine of the Communion of the Saints. It’s not just that we have the writings of our ancestors to inform us. We have our ancestors continually present as a great cloud of witnesses. Especially when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist.

Now, some may object and say that I’ve merely performed a sleight-of-hand here. Yes, we take the vote of our ancestors, but that still leaves us wondering which of the now narrowed list of churches has the right meaning. After all, we’ve now only narrowed our focus to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Methodism, and perhaps a handful of other denominations.

I’m afraid the answer to that question exceeds the length of simple blog posts. This is something that requires a far more in-depth historical and theological research. Volumes of literature have been written on this topic. Some people spend their lives in this research. At this point I can only respond with the Catholic/Orthodox statement that while the boundaries of the Church are clear, the boundaries of salvation are known to God alone. I would invite you to read, for example, this blog which has been examining such claims recently.

For another good post about the meaning of a few terms from an Orthodox perspective.


~ by crossingthebosporus on June 27, 2012.

5 Responses to “Meaning and Subjectivity”

  1. an interesting approach. I am certainly in favour of giving the ancestors a vote, but of course, someone always interprets what the ancestors meant, and which ancestors get a vote. Interesting links, which I read with interest – thanks for this, and for the blog, which makes great reading.

    • Yes, it is always layer upon layer of interpretation. I think the best we can ever do is try and look at the long-term trajectory of each church; the scope of their teaching and interpretation that spans longer than any individual’s life. That’s why I find Catholicism and Orthodoxy the most compelling (if only I could make up my mind between the two though!) But at least God works in us with the best that we can do.

      • Yes, you remind me of a profound truth – God does indeed work in us, and I know I must trust to Him, and rely less on my own frail reasoning. I agree with you – Catholicism and Orthodoxy are the most compelling. My difficulty with Orthodoxy is the ethnic question – the churches I know are very Russian in orientation, and as a western woman, I don’t feel at all comfortable with the way women seem to be regarded; that’s a Russian and not an Orthodox attitude – I think!

      • I totally understand what you mean about the Russian Orthodox. I’ve visited Greek, Russian, and Antiochian Orthodox churches. The Russian ones were the… strictest. In many ways. For example, they had no chairs in the particular church I visited. I don’t know about you, but I cannot stand up and stand still for an entire two-hour service. Yes, I am weak.

      • I did a three hour stint in a Coptic Church, and realised why the weak went to the wall. We were allowed to sit for some of the readings and the homily! I was glad I had worn my flattest shoes.

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