From Ambiguity to Multiplicity

by Stephen Hebert on Saturday - 26 December 2009

in Biblical Studies, Reviews

Merold Westphal: "Whose Community? Which Interpretation?"Christmas 2009 has come and gone. I’ll admit that I was a bit of a Scrooge this year. The Christmas Spirit never really captured me; instead, I focused on the consumerism of the season and lamented the fact that many of us (and I include myself here) can become so fixated on the Me.

Now that it’s over, I must say that I am very thankful to have received some Amazon gift cards. A while ago, I was given a Kindle by some good friends at Friendswood Community Church in appreciation for the Bible Study that I’d taught there for several years. So, these gift cards were especially welcome.

Last evening I surfed around the Kindle Store, and I found a book that I am very happy to be reading: Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church by Merold Westphal (his latest, I believe).

At the moment, I have read only the first chapter, “Hermeneutics 101,” which asks this crucial question: “Can interpretation be avoided?”

What is particularly interesting about Westphal’s project here is audience. He casts a very wide net, intentionally, by targeting anyone who reads the Bible: scholar, pastor, lay person. Consequently, the style of the book is somewhere in between. He regularly brings up other philosophers (Kant, Plato, Wittgenstein, etc.), but always explains what he means when he uses them. Therefore, the book is challenging but accessible (so far).

During his exposition of the topic, Westphal brings up an interesting poem as one of three examples of ambiguity and multiplicity:

There were six men of Hindustan,
to learning much inclined,
Who went to see an elephant,
though all of them were blind,
That each by observation
might satisfy his mind.

The first approached the elephant,
and happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
at once began to bawl,
“This mystery of an elephant
is very like a wall.”

The second, feeling of the tusk,
cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an elephant
is very like a spear.”

The third approached the elephant,
and happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
thus boldly up and spake,
“I see,” quoth he,
“the elephant is very like a snake.”

The fourth reached out an eager hand,
and felt above the knee,
“What this most wondrous beast
is like is very plain” said he,
“‘Tis clear enough the elephant
is very like a tree.”

The fifth who chanced to touch the ear
said, “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
deny the fact who can;
This marvel of an elephant
is very like a fan.”

The sixth no sooner had begun
about the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
that fell within his scope;
“I see,” said he, “the elephant
is very like a rope.”

So six blind men of Hindustan
disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
exceeding stiff and strong;
Though each was partly in the right,
they all were in the wrong!1

For Westphal, this poem represents the way in which we humans attack a text like the Bible. Many communities believe that they can approach the text and “just see” what it means — the meaning is expressly encoded and is easily accessible to anyone who simply looks at it. These communities, however, are akin to one of the blind men approaching the elephant. The community is blinded by the socialization that has created the prejudices that allow them to “just see” their particular meaning. What they are really doing is interpreting, whether they like to admit it or not, just as the blind men feel one aspect of the elephant and build their interpretation from it.

I have started to explore these notions in a previous post called “Multiplex God.” There I looked at the idea of multiplicity, specifically the transmission of several messages along one single line of communication.2 Isn’t this really what we’re talking about here with the blind men and the elephant? The elephant is transmitting several messages about itself (size, shape, etc.) along one single line of communication (its body), but the blind men are each honing in on a single message.

Don’t we do this all the time? Don’t we hone in on our understanding of a given topic without considering all of the other possibilities?

In a previous post, I talked about the virtues of ambiguity.3 There I discussed our attraction to the unknown and how that unknown or unknowability causes us to continue to explore. As I read Westphal, I realize, however, that when it comes to interpreting the Word of God, many of us become scared of the unknown. We feel that the Bible should have a plain-sense, cut-and-dry interpretation and we should be able to know what it all means.

Isn’t this nonsense? If we even begin to make that claim, aren’t we one of the blind hindustani?

Why must we embrace the ambiguous? Because it is multiplex. God is many and one — this is the Christian mystery, three-in-one. God, from a limited human perspective, is ambiguous in many ways, and so is His Word. God is multiplex, and so is His Word.

Consequently, different people, different communities, are going to see God and the Bible differently. What’s wrong with that?

Allow me to make two more items very clear:

  1. I am not at all saying that any and all interpretations or understandings of God are true/good/correct. No, some are going to be crap.
  2. I am not at all saying that God is changeable or changing. No, I firmly believe that He was, is, and ever shall be just the same.4

Okay. I’ve written enough for now. Back to playing with my Christmas toys.


  1. Neither I nor Westphal could find any attribution for this poem. Call its author anonymous.
  2. Thank you, Oxford American Dictionary.
  3. See “Embracing Ambiguity.”
  4. I must admit that my brain wants to backpedal on this some: Doesn’t the incarnation change things? At the moment, however, I am not prepared to abandon this doctrine.

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