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Posted by on Jun 7, 2013 | 8 comments

Many Horizons

I grew up just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota in its northwest suburbs. Throughout my childhood, I would excitedly climb into the car ready for a trip to “the city.” I can still close my eyes and see the twist of the highway that would reveal the sparkling cityscape of Minneapolis slowly climbing higher into the sky as I approached. When I grow a bit homesick, this is the Minneapolis I long for. But, this is not the only “Minneapolis.” If you come in from the east, the city that appears is much different than the Minneapolis of my childhood; from that angle there is the mighty Mississippi and fluffy-white of the Metrodome at the forefront of the city, both of which are hidden coming in from the west—but, it is the same city. And, of course, there is a real Minneapolis, which, if someone claimed contained a mountain range in the distance or rivaled the size of Chicago, the city would be able to “bite back” and insist that this description is simply a very bad one.

minneapolisskyline

In similar fashion, I think we approach the world of ideas, texts, human relationships—really the entirety of the world as world—perspectivally. There is simply no way we can come at anything from more than one direction at a time. The twentieth-century German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer helpfully describes this premise as one of horizons. “The horizon,” he writes, “is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point.” As particular people in particular places at particular times, each one of us comes to the world from a particular horizon. And, in the same way that it is human nature to grow, change, develop and learn, so too does our horizon change, expand and become enriched through conversation (i.e. engagement) with another.

Gadamer believed that the place for understanding is in the place of in-between-ness. Understanding is a fusing of past understanding with new potential information. (It would be like the first time I drive in to Minneapolis from the east; the Minneapolis before me would immediately push me beyond my past understanding of the city I have known. It would not simply replace my past understanding, though. Instead, I would come to understand Minneapolis by bringing into dialogue my past knowledge and this new data before me.)

There is a real beauty to this as it does several things for the way I engage with the world around me. First, it forces a kind of epistemic humility. If I am located then I cannot know everything—right now—in this moment (surprise, surprise). And from this incomplete place a second result arises: a growing appetite for outside stories and perspectives. Rather than a seeming cacophony of opinions, a plurality of voices becomes an opportunity to know more and know better. Third, there remains something to be known. One of the greatest elements of Gadamer’s idea of horizoned understanding is that we do come to know something. The world, Gadamer asserts, is the “common ground” for understanding, “trodden by none and recognized by all.” We are never unhinged from our horizon and come to the “city” all at once, yet we all come to the “city.” We all gaze upon it. In our particularity we not only do not see this or that, but we do see fine detail that another eye cannot catch. And the hopeful result is that through conversation, we help one another see better. We realize that we understand best when we are not understanding alone.

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Rachel

Studying theology, baking bread, enjoying the company of a handsome bearded man and two adorable pit puppies.

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  • alex

    So you come into the city from various directions… so this is how you read the bible, from a variety of directions? Like, people contexts or whatever for each reader? Do you try to harmonize everything for the truth? What if two voices say totally different things?

    • alex

      sorry. *like, there are different contexts or whatever for each reader?*

      • Alex, thanks for your questions. They help me to clarify my point. The reason that I like Gadamer so much is that he is not focused on how one SHOULD read, but rather how all people come to understanding any and all things. So, in response to you questions: yes, we are all horizoned understanders/readers. Because we seek understanding in reading the Bible, we inherently come to it from our own horizon. This, I believe, cannot be avoided no matter how hard we try. This is not a whatever goes mentality. Like I said above, this does not mean any interpretation is just as credible as another (e.g. Minneapolis could never be described as mountainous). And you are right in pinpointing that this does get messy. What do we do with two radically different readings? This is something I would like to write on more in the future. But, for now, I will say simply that, at least for Christian readers, the canonical witness of Scripture as a whole and the baseline creedal statements of the Christian faith provide the boundaries for interpretation.

  • alex

    Thanks Rachel for the response.
    Does this mean you think that a passage or part of scripture doesnt have a single correct interpretation? This was how I was raised, but I can’t say whether or not I believe it.

    • This is also how I was trained up in my undergraduate degree.

      I do not think we can lay claim to one single correct interpretation of Scripture. I do think, though, that some texts are a bit more straightforward than others. Many Old Testament readings are a bit more complicated than New Testament because of the Christological/”spiritual” readings particularly of some of the early Christian Church Fathers.

  • Betsy

    It sounds really interesting. Your new school and what you are learning. I have been doing some of my own. I belong to this church now and they have Bible studys that i have been going to. They also have ones just for woman now and then.

  • Derek

    I like what you are saying and agree with everything you say.
    Im curious where would you draw the line between understanding truth from different horizons and truth being relative?

    If I can only understand truth through my experiences, tradition and worldview. Than wouldn’t what I understand truth to be, only be truth to me?

    • Hi Derek,
      I responded to Alex above with a similar question on June 8.

      I am not advocating for relativism. Like I say in the post, there is a time when descriptions of Minneapolis are simply wrong. The same goes for Scripture. The boundaries for reading opens up a broader conversation and a number of questions that I believe are tied to the issue of the authority of the text. This is a huge topic. One that I am just beginning to dip my toes into.

      So essentially, no truth is not simply YOUR truth. There is Truth. But we don’t have access to it outside of our prejudiced horizons.

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