This article was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Law Schools on January 9, 2009 as part of a panel on "Scriptural and Constitutional Hermeneutics." The panel was co-sponsored by the Law and Religion Section, Section on Jewish Law, and Section on Islamic Law, and the papers will be published by the Michigan State Law Review.
My article compares legal and religious hermeneutics by exploring the dual nature of what I term "faithful hermeneutics." The ambiguity evoked by this phrase is intentional. On one hand, it suggests an investigation of the relationship between legal and religious interpretation by comparing hermeneutical activities undertaken by faithful adherents to these two different textual traditions. In this first sense, it is to compare how these practices are the hermeneutics of the faithful. On the other hand, the phrase suggests an analysis of how interpreters in these two traditions remain faithful to the nature of their practice. In this second sense, it is to compare how hermeneutics can be faithfully accomplished. My thesis is that these two senses of "faithful hermeneutics" are connected. The fact that it is faithful adherents who engage in the interpretive practice in large part defines how they can, and should, remain faithful to the interpretive enterprise.
I anchor my argument in Hans-Georg Gadamer's critique of historicism, in which he references the practices of legal and religious hermeneutics. Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics explains how faith is a prerequisite of understanding, even as understanding revitalizes and reshapes the faith one brings to a textual tradition. I then unfold the critical dimensions of faithful hermeneutics by comparing the work of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) and Gianni Vattimo on the Catholic tradition. I argue that these two thinkers display both the broad range and the non-methodological character of the critical insights of faithful hermeneutics.
I conclude by suggesting that the parallels between religious and legal hermeneutics are instructive, but that we remember that it would be a mistake to conflate these two instances of faithful hermeneutics in our secular age.