Belief and Interpretation: Mediations on Pelikan's "Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution"
Jaroslav Pelikan's recently published collection of essays considers the similarities between biblical and legal hermeneutics. Although Pelikan offers an erudite and subtle account, I argue that he fails to consider a central question raised by the comparison: the extent to which belief is a prerequisite of interpretation. But the claim that we cannot genuinely interpret a document if we do not believe that it has something to say to us, if we do not anticipate that we can learn from the text, raises a difficulty. If belief is central to interpretation it would appear to consign interpretation to a wholly conventional practice immune from critical insight. Drawing on the work of Gianni Vattimo, I make the somewhat paradoxical argument that belief is not only central to interpretation, but also to critique. I conclude that hermeneutical responsiveness and rhetorical elaboration are entwined expressions of a faithful relation to the text; belief nourishes a critical exegesis, which in turn enriches our beliefs. This is true not only in religion and law, but in life as well.