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Gracia, Jorge J. E. How Can We Know What God Means? The Interpretation of Revelation.

New York: Palgrave, 2001. xiv + 229 pp. Cloth, $50.95; paper, $18.95--Parallel to the perennial questions about the adequacy of any human language when used of God are questions about the proper interpretation of any divine self-disclosure in revelation. By the theoretical exploration of the latter in this book, Jorge Gracia also sheds a certain light on the former.

In his two earlier books on texts and their interpretation, Gracia provides the general background for the present study. A Theory of Textuality: The Logic and Epistemology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995) and Texts: Ontological Status, Identity, Author, Audience (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996) have been well received by those interested in hermeneutics. In the present volume Gracia advances his general project of clarifying the logical and epistemological issues involved in interpreting texts by considering texts that various religious traditions regard as sacred. Without becoming involved in the detailed exegesis of particular texts, Gracia summons a wide variety of examples to illustrate his general thesis, namely, that there are diverse ways of legitimately interpreting divine revelation, so long as the foundational component of an interpretation is theological.

In a deliberate effort to work a field different from the well-ploughed ground of the analysis of religious language or the relation between religious knowledge and belief, Gracia concentrates instead on the problem of interpreting revelation. After wrestling with the difficult notion of just what revelation is, he plays the role of Linnaean botanist, dividing and subdividing the phenomena in order to discern all the taxonomic complexities. He then sets out to explore the many branches within his typology. Among the helpful distinctions Gracia offers is the differentiation of interpretations that are meaning-based (that is, keyed to the understandings held or intended by the historical author of a text) and those interpretations that are relation-based (that is, keyed to factors that are only brought into play by the interpreter). Separate chapters are given to the study of such prominent types of interpretation as the literary, the sociological, and the explicitly theological. The final two chapters treat the very possibility of there ever being definitive interpretations of divine revelation and the correlative notion of legitimate relativity in interpretation.

The relevance of a book such as this arises not only from the way it addresses certain perennial philosophical issues but also from the curious phenomenon of so many (sometimes incompatible) approaches that are offered in today's marketplace of ideas. Beyond such traditional venues as the historical, the literary, and the political, one nowadays finds perspectives as methodologically diverse as the psychoanalytic, the feminist, and the postmodern. Whatever one's own preferred sniff test, the philosophical examination of the legitimacy of such diversity deserves attention. Gracia's book suggests some interesting ways in which one might want to argue that at least some of these approaches make no sense when applied to religious texts and perhaps make no sense at all, except as attempts to usurp power over the unsuspecting. Yet Gracia carefully remains nonpartisan and removed from the internecine wars of particular religious traditions in his efforts to provide a philosophical account of the assumptions that underlie any given approach at interpretation.

The chapter that may run most against contemporary currents in theology is, curiously, the chapter on theological interpretation. The reason for this is that scriptural exegetes in many religious traditions have been turning to cultural, social, literary, and other forms of interpretation in recent decades as a way of making progress in their discipline. But often they have become rather shy at professing any theological interpretation of these texts, almost as if such an effort would necessarily be eisegesis rather than exegesis. Unlike John Paul II's recent encyclical, Fides et Ratio, whose section on scriptural interpretation urges renewed confidence about the possibility of discovering what God wishes believers to understand, Gracia unfortunately thinks that this kind of interpretation will "turn out to be empty" (p. 121). Yet he tries to rescue theological interpretation as a genre by urging that we should simply recognize all theological interpretation as "relational" rather than "authorial." For Gracia, it is not that theological interpretation provides an understanding of what the divine wishes believers to understand, but that all theological interpretation works by bringing some factors of its own devising to bear, whether these be the presuppositions of some community's faith, the idiosyncratic views of the theologian, or perhaps some philosophical framework within which the theologian (knowingly or not) is processing the data of beliefs and the texts considered sacred.

What Gracia offers in the present volume is a sophisticated analysis of the hermeneutics of revelation. Working one's way through the book will be likely to deepen one's humility by increasing a sense of the difficulty of sound interpretation. But it will also strengthen one's hand in resisting some of the ideologically based approaches whose presuppositions in principle cannot sufficiently respect what has been revealed.

Joseph W. Koterski, S.J., Fordham University.
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Author:Koterski, Joseph W.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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