Interpretations, Interpretations, Interpretation by Carol P. Christ


Carol Molivos by Andrea Sarris 1The Pope’s call for a new study of the possibility of ordaining women as deacons in the Roman Catholic Church and the impasse in the United Methodist Church over homosexuality and abortion, once again ask us to recognize that theories about interpretation and interpretations underlie each of these hotly contested issues. It is not only that individual texts and traditions are subject to conflicting interpretations about their meaning in their own times or in ours. The decision to cite a particular text or tradition, is itself based on an interpretation about which texts and traditions are important or reliable enough to be cited.

The Pope may be convinced that Jesus chose only twelve male disciples, and he may cite certain texts in the Bible, centuries of tradition, and recent church decisions. But others would counter that there is evidence that Jesus had many more than twelve disciples, and that Mary Magdalene was among them. Those arguing that United Methodists should not ordain homosexuals as clergy or permit the sanctifying of homosexual marriage may feel they are on firm ground when they cite Leviticus 18:22 in support of their view that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching. But those on the other side ask why this particular passage is held to be binding on today’s Christian communities, while (for example) the many others affirming a man’s right to have more than one wife are not.

When traditionalists cite the Bible or traditional church teachings as definitive, others may counter that their alternative reading is the “true” interpretation of these same texts or traditions. What is often lost is the fact that all interpretations of texts and traditions are situated. Although it may not be easy to convince traditionalists that the widely accepted theory of situated interpretation is true, at minimum, we should not forget it as feminists.

Thus, if we hope to change inherited traditions, feminists have two tasks. One is to bring forward texts, traditions, and interpretations that have been ignored by those who support traditional (male dominant, anti-homosexual, anti-abortion) positions. But, in doing so, we should not succumb to the temptation to conclude that our new interpretations are unequivocally “true.”

To do so would be to ignore the feminist “first principle” that all interpretations of texts and traditions are situated. If we wish to argue that traditional teachings on the priesthood, abortion, and homosexuality are situated in standpoints we might call “patriarchal” or “anti-queer,” then we must also acknowledge the relativity of our own positions as well.

When this is recognized the ground beneath us shifts. We are no longer arguing about the “true” meaning of inherited traditions. We are no longer asking: “What does the Bible say?” or “What does God say?” Instead we are asking a more nuanced question that begins with the recognition that there is not only more than one interpretation of the meaning of a text, but also more than one interpretation of which texts should be considered central to the meaning of a particular tradition. It is in recognition of the principle that every interpretation is situated that Biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza always insists that the idea that Mary Magdalene was among the disciples of Jesus is true from the perspective of women (or wo/men) seeking liberation.

When we recognize the relativity of all standpoints including our own, we recognize that the right question is not “what God has revealed,” but rather, what kind of communities we wish to create and transmit to future generations.  It is our responsibility, individually, and as communities, to answer this question.  If we wish to create communities that are more inclusive than those we have inherited, then we can choose as “true from our perspective” and even as “divinely inspired in our experience and understanding” those interpretations of texts and traditions that support the kinds of inclusive communities we believe Goddess or God calls us to create.

As feminists, we must present new interpretations of texts and traditions. But this is the beginning not the end of the task before us. We must also insist loudly and clearly that all interpretations are situated. The interpretations we advocate are not any more “objectively true” than the interpretations of our adversaries. We cannot avoid naming and examining our standpoints and justifying our interpretations in relation to them.

Recognizing that all interpretations are situated does not mean that all interpretations are equal. We can and must justify our interpretations on linguistic and historical and other grounds. We can and must reflect upon our standpoints, asking what kind of communities and worlds are justified and envisioned from the perspectives of our own standpoints and those of others. And we can and must discuss contested questions about the meaning of traditions and the nature of divinity.

Though I have been speaking about interpretations of Christian tradition, the principles discussed here apply to every religion, including those newly discovered or created. Recently I have been noticing a tendency among some contemporary Neo-pagans to assume that mythic traditions are “true” and to make definitive statements that begin with the phrase “our tradition teaches.”  But there is no reason to believe that pagan traditions are inevitably true–especially since many of them reflect patriarchal points of view–or that they are not subject to a variety of interpretations. While we can learn from traditions, we inevitably interpret them from our own standpoints. We can and must take responsibility for our standpoints and for our interpretations of every tradition.

Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall: Sign up now for spring tour and save $100. Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolP.Christ, Facebook Goddess Pilgrimage, and Facebook Carol P. Christ.  Carol speaks in depth about the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in an illustrated interview with Kaalii Cargill. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.

A Serpentine Path Cover with snakeskin backgroundA Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the GoddessGoddess and God in the World final cover design will be published by Far Press in 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in August 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.

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Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General

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19 replies

  1. Thanks Carol. The other big scriptural question we could ask, is why was the Magdalene the first person Jesus presents himself to at the time of the Resurrection? And if a woman is indeed the first person Jesus seeks out at the time of his rebirth, how is it possible that women are somehow not worthy enough to become priests in the Catholic Church?

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  2. This is a wonderful and terrific post! Thank you so much for this!

    If I were inclined to tattoos, I’d probably get these across my forearms:
    (you wrote) “When we recognize the relativity of all standpoints including our own, we recognize that the right question is not “what God has revealed,” but rather, what kind of communities we wish to create and transmit to future generations.”

    and

    “Recognizing that all interpretations are situated does not mean that all interpretations are equal. We can and must justify our interpretations on linguistic and historical and other grounds.”

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  3. As usual, you make a very thoughtful argument. It seems to me that one answer to the interpretation and situated questions is to keep in mind that all religions, old and new, have foundational myths. Some of these myths are written in the Bible, the Quran, and the Vedas, others are set forth in books by the foremothers of Goddess feminism and the forefathers of Neo-paganism. We’ve all got stories. We all think they’re true. But maybe they’re not true and some gods were (are) not-very-funny stand-up comedians. Who knows??

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    • I know you are partly kidding, but to respond seriously, we should not take anything as true without sifting it through our own experience and values, not scriptures, gurus, teachers, not even (hee hee) me and thee.

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      • When I wrote my dissertation in 1981, my introductory chapter was entitled ” What, Woman, and Who, Myself, I Am” (also the title of a songbook by Rosalee Sorrels). It was my attempt at situating myself as the writer of my analysis. I wrote there, “As Simone de Beauvoir so aptly stated 30 years ago in _The Second Sex_: ‘Representation of the world…is the work of men; they describe it from their point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.’ As a feminist scholar I am attempting to redress this situation by becoming both the subject and object of my analysis. On the one hand, I am collecting the objective data of feminine subjectivity while I create myself in contradistinction to patriarchal definitions of who I am. On the other hand, I view this process from the inside. As a feminist I view the past from the perspective of its effect on present-day women, as I view the present for what it portends of the future….” At least for me as a feminist in the 1970s and 1980s and I think for most of us then, relativity of viewpoint was a given, one that was a necessary antidote to patriarchal “absolutism.”

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      • Carol, that’s for sure. Not even thee and me. I certainly am not the fount of all wisdom. I don’t know anybody who is. But we can certainly listen and read and talk and come to conclusions that work for us. And probably our friends, too.

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      • Amen… to that comment Carol. We have to sift everything through our own experience and values, not scriptures, gurus or teachers…

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  4. Excellent reminder to practice the feminist methodological perspective that interpretations are situated, especially when we, or an influential other such as the Pope, are re-examining texts, doctrine, and narratives. Thank-you Carol for giving such a clear, precise, and thoughtful post regarding interpretations.

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  5. Such courage and clarity from a wise mind. I wish Mary Daly, another brilliant thinker, had understood this essential point.

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  6. Hard to believe your elegantly presented point isn’t simply commonly recognized, understood and practiced.

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    • So if you believe truth is situated and relative, how about respecting my beliefs? I’m a far-right young Christian fundamentalist who does NOT agree that “inclusivity” is the right value when it comes to communities. I have opted NOT to be part of an “inclusive community” by rejecting my Episcopalian parents’ leftist church and filthy views about human sexuality. I have chosen to interpret the Bible in an exclusionary way and I will not compromise. I believe the tradition’s view of sex and the body is right, and that scripture and tradition (absolutely not personal experience) is determinative.

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      • Carol is respecting your beliefs. She states, “(W)e are asking a more nuanced question that begins with the recognition that there is not only more than one interpretation of the meaning of a text, but also more than one interpretation of which texts should be considered central to the meaning of a particular tradition.” That sentence says that there is more than one interpretation of the meaning of a text, including yours. It also says that there is more than one interpretation of which texts should be considered central, including yours. The people who blog here may not agree with your position, but they agree that you have a right to it. I’d call that respect.

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      • Actually I do not accept pro-family Christian’s view that there is one eternally valid text and one eternally valid interpretation of it. This would require not only that God dictated the text and but also that God provided an eternally valid interpretation of it. While I believe texts and traditions can be interpreted in more than one way, I do not accept the hermeneutical position of the author.

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      • Sorry, Carol. I shouldn’t have spoken for you. For myself, I’ve always thought that inclusive understandings make a place for exclusivity, while, of course, exclusivity excludes any other interpretation. I certainly disagree with pro-family Christian’s position, but I think she has a right to her ownopinion.

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      • Pro-family’s interpretation is one interpretation of texts and traditions. That much I accept. There is a more tricky issue, however, and that is Pro-family’s insistence that there is one true interpretation of her tradition and its texts and that this is given via revelation that does not come through experience and standpoint. In other words, Pro-family is denying the hermemeutical principle that all conclusions about the meaning of texts and traditions are made from standpoints. These two views cannot be reconciled.

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  7. I LOVED this essay. As feminists we do have to challenge male dominant traditions, BUT we also have to remember that all interpretations are situated in and relative to a particular story and context including our own.

    Thank you for reminding me of this truth – sometimes I forget that I came to feminism through the back door of eco-feminism – a definition I don’t hear spoken anymore but one that roots my every thought and feeling in the natural world. And as such this is only one perspective although I would argue that it is also one that is grounded in a truth much larger than my own.

    And by the way I am also grateful to be reminded that my love for the figure of Mary Magdalene and my belief (truth) that she was one of Jesus’s disciples is based on a perspective of a woman seeking liberation…

    Although I am no longer a Christian, I have been drawn to the figure of Mary Magdalene since I was an adolescent, and when I discovered her other story I felt a truth slam through me that left me unable NOT to believe that she was the first disciple. The two are related.

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