[This is a continuation of the last few posts, in which I’m walking through the implications of my reading of Genesis 1. Before I talked about how Gen.1 describes the creation of science; here I say that it also describes the creation of hermeneutics.]
If science is the understanding of what nature means, then hermeneutics is the understanding of what communication means. Over the centuries a variety of hermeneutical principles have informed the exegesis of Genesis 1. If our new interpretation of the text is correct, then Genesis 1 describes God’s creation of hermeneutics itself.
Elohim speaks, a language-user from the very beginning. He speaks not to himself, not to the spirit of the stuff being created, not to the demiurges, but to a witness – the original narrator of the creation event. “Let there be light” isn’t a magical incantation to bring the material world into existence, but a kind of hypothetical proposition offered to the witness: “Let this abstract property of the universe be called ‘light.” And there was light, confirms the witness. Elohim is creating a cosmology and teaching it to the witness, a cosmology that makes sense of raw phenomena in a way that makes sense to other intelligent beings. By understanding elohim’s communicative intent, the witness becomes like elohim: a participant in linguistic systems of meaning. Man becomes a hermeneutician, an interpreter of a verbally mediated reality.
In the beginning the witness lived in a raw world, where meaning systems hadn’t been created yet. The world was proto-reality; the witness, proto-man. In making sense of the raw world, God began to transform proto-reality into reality. By showing reality to the witness and describing it in words, God began transforming proto-man into man. “Let there be light;” and there was light: God speaks first, to reveal the creation; the witness, understanding God’s meaning, echoes God’s words. As he offers the responsorial there was, the witness proclaims that God’s revelation has been received.
We’ve been assume that God was speaking to the witness. Then to whom is the witness speaking as he reports the events that transpired on that first day, offering his verbal vouchsafe of the newly-created reality of light? Not to God: there is no dialogue between God and the witness in the Genesis 1 creation narrative. Does the witness speak to himself? Are there multiple witnesses speaking among themselves? We’ve faced this same puzzle before. Perhaps the answer here is the same as before: the witness too has witnesses. The narrator of any story is addressing an audience. The audience may be a group of people gathered at the feet of the storyteller or a solitary reader separated from the writer by five thousand miles and three thousand years. Either way, the narrator utters the words and the audience, in receiving the words, bears witness to the story. This is the first story ever told, the first meaningful narrative conveyed verbally among human beings.
Elohim sees, imagines, thinks, hypothesizes, speaks. The witness looks, hears, imagines, thinks, hypothesizes, interprets. The ability to understand the world is crucial in human learning; the ability to understand one another, perhaps even more so. Realities aren’t just embedded in language; they’re communicated through language. For the speaker to make himself understood; for the hearer to make himself understand; to achieve a shared linguistic orientation toward the world and it means: this is how realities are established.
Lower animals experience the world but have no conception of it, no words or ideas for making sense of it, no reality. Humans have a collective reality: we use the same words to describe the same phenomena. The words and the acceptable ways of assembling them into statements are the collective human creation of language. A complex cultural artifact, language has been assembled incrementally and cumulatively as a means of orienting one another towards the same things. Language is possible only because of the uniquely human capability to take the other’s perspective. It’s a remarkable feat of imagination, to imagine oneself as the other. But no matter how successful you are at taking my perspective, you remain you. You bring your own perspective with you. And because you do that, you never see exactly what I see or understand exactly what I’m trying to say. This mismatch between speaker/writer and interpreter opens up the realm of creation. Partly you’re filling in the gaps in your ability to “be” me; partly you’re going beyond me, filling in the gaps of meaning, creating something else.