For those who find the word hermeneutic a bit frightening, it is a word that comes from the Greek word for interpretation, and was coined in the late 17th century by biblical scholars who wanted a suitably fancy word to describe the rules of interpretation that they were seeking to establish and promote. Today, I would like to talk about one of the most important of those rules to have when it comes to dealing with a text, and that is the hermeneutic of charity. Before discussing the rule in detail it would be best to define this rule, which means that to the greatest extent possible, we should give the benefit of the doubt to the text and to the author of the text as to their intended meanings. Not every text has a charitable meaning, but to the greatest extent possible, we should give a writer the benefit of the doubt.
On the surface, this seems like a pretty simple and uncontroversial rule to have when it comes to dealing with texts. We all would like to be given the benefit of the doubt and have people view our texts as charitably as possible. Most of us, however clueless we are in our efforts at communication, do not bear active malice towards the people we communicate with. A given text can be interpreted in many ways, some of them insightful and clever, some of them benign if commonplace, and others with a nasty or ironic bite to them. This is true whether the text is as simple as a greeting message or something as complex as a multi-volume collection of works. And with written texts there are a few disadvantages such as the fact that the text is fixed, but the writer of the text is generally not around immediately to provide the necessary nonverbal communication to understand how the text is to be understood. To some extent, we have to trust the writer, or view the writer with active suspicion and therefore view the text uncharitably, and to treat anything that could have an offensive meaning as an active offense to us.
Obviously, this does not help matters. When someone writes, they intend to communicate. Most often they are involved in an active conversation, seeking to respond to what is going on in their own lives as well as interact with those who are near in heart if more distant in location. Every piece of writing has some kind of purpose. Sometimes that purpose is easy enough to understand–an e-mail or text message from a company that we have bought from in the past that wishes to ensure our continued patronage, or a message from someone we have not talked to in a while that asks us how we are doing and implicitly desires not to be forgotten. Sometimes people have an ambition to talk about a particular philosophy or idea that they have that they want others to share, and other people are engaged in various attempts at personal self-justification. Some people write out of love, out of polite curiosity and interest, or any other number of motives. Some motives are transparently obvious, some motives are hidden but real, and some motives are unknown even to ourselves when we write, and only occasionally noticeable by the audience that reads us.
There are some people who I find to be terribly awkward communicators. For example, from time to time I get a message in my e-mail, usually at the last minute, from one of the elders at my local congregation, and every time I get such a message I cringe a little bit inside, and sometimes even outside, especially if I am sitting alone in bed reading and relaxing before getting ready for Sabbath services. I cringe mainly because I know that such a message is not going to be a pleasant one, and that it is not going to be worded in the best possible way. No doubt you receive such messages yourself from various people. Nonetheless, even in such a case one can at least determine a charitable interpretation of such awkward missives, namely that the person sending it wishes to avoid any kind of awkward scenes that may result from someone going where they do not really belong. One doesn’t want to put it too baldly, but at the same time one doesn’t want to be so vague as to fail to get the point across, and in such circumstances where one is not sure of how to properly deliver such a message, one inevitably ends up saying something awkwardly and then trying to make sure that the person wasn’t offended by it later on. Being an awkward communicator myself, if a somewhat thin-skinned person when it comes to the messages that people send me, I have a high degree of empathy even for those people whose communication irritates me.
Ultimately, the hermeneutic of charity is one of the more formal aspects of the golden rule that we all pay at least lip service to. We all want to be treated kindly, to have every ambiguity and every act of verbal clumsiness viewed in the most polite and inoffensive way possible. We all know how hard it is to say what we want to say, or to deliver uncomfortable messages in a way that does not cause offense, and we all know ourselves to be people who are sensitive not only to the content but also to the tone of our interactions with others. Theoretically, at least, our self-awareness of our own prickliness should lead us to be more understanding of how others may be the same, just as our self-awareness of our desire to avoid causing offense in our communications with others should lead us to understand that most people probably have the same motivation in communicating with us. There are some people who are deliberately offensive for one reason or another, but most people, even those whose sense of wit and irony is a bit sharper than the norm, wish to amuse rather than offend, and should be granted the benefit of the doubt as to the way we take their messages.
It is pretty clear that in our present day and age that this principle is not obeyed to any great degree. I speak not as someone who has mastered the charitable interpretation of what others say and write but as someone who openly acknowledges my struggle to do so and my desire to have others to do so when it comes to my own communication. When operating with the hermeneutic of charity, it would be impossible to have the high degree of consistent outrage that we do, to have the sort of “humor” that we have or the sort of political and intellectual discourse. There will still be grave and serious disagreements between us, but they will be disagreements with some sort of mutual respect, where we may give honor to someone’s concerns and intentions even if we cannot recommend their solutions or accept their judgments. The fact that we do not have such discourse, and the fact that the language of demonization of others regularly fills our discussion about others suggests that we are not charitable at all to those whom we view ourselves at odds with. If we hated others less in our hearts, we might be able to more tolerably listen to what they had to say, and engage them in a conversation to see whether or not they are so far from us as we have thought, or whether they are entirely without some sort of God-given wisdom or insight or some warmth of human tenderness as we may have assumed. And if we find that they are indeed humans, if mistaken ones, we may find that we can converse with them even if we have deep disagreements that prevent anything more than politeness. Even mere polite disagreement would be a vast improvement over sullen silence and intense hostility, after all.