Every moment of a person’s life is an act of improvisation: creating something new out of a settled past. A daily routine, interacting with others, spending time alone, reading or listening to music, working at home or elsewhere -- always there are decisions being made, at a small level, on what to do, where to turn, what to say, when to act. Always there is improvisation. Even if the improvisation is a repetition of the past, it is still different from the past and in this sense new. The philosopher Whitehead proposes that the universe itself is a creative advance into novelty. And so it is with a person’s life, moment by moment. Consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally, constructively or destructively, happily or sadly, we are creating something new out of a settled past. We are improvising.
An act of improvisation is inherently relational and self-creative. On the one hand, the improvisation is an act of responding to what is given for experience in the moment at hand. In this sense it is relational. Moreover, it is partly determined by social conditions, by other people, by the earth, by the past actual world, and by the spirit of creative transformation at work in the world: that is, by God. Even if a person is sitting alone in a study, or in a forest, he or she is influenced by these factors. They are part of the “many” that “become one” in the act of experience. They are part of what is given for experience.
And yet, on the other hand, the act of improvisation also contains within itself an element of decision, of freedom, of self-creativity that is not fully determined by these many factors. This freedom is part of the very essence of that person in the moment at hand. How a person responds to what is given for experience is not known or unknowable, not even by God, until the response occurs. God knows the many possibilities available for response, and God knows what the probable response may be, but God does not know the response itself it actually happens, because prior to its happening, there is no actual response to be known. There is newness in God, too.
For many religious people, part of what is given for experience is a sacred text: Qur’an, Torah, the New Testament, for example. What is given is not simply the words on the page or recited orally, but also cultural assumptions surrounding the reception of those words. In many religious cultures, it is assumed that the texts are sacred in some important and valuable sense. As the religious people see things, the texts come from God and contain wisdom for living.
However, one thing that is not given with the reception of the words is their meaning for those who are receiving them in this reverential way. The receivers may know how people in the past have interpreted the words. And they may know how authorities interpret them. But the receivers must choose whether or not to adopt those traditional and conventionally considered “authoritative” readings. No matter how sacred, and no matter how revered the traditions and authorities, the receivers must interpret them.
This act of interpretation is an act of improvisation: of creating something new out of the settled past. It is part of the creative advance into novelty.
Permanent Meanings in Sacred Texts
As the receivers interpret a sacred text, they may well look for permanent meanings in the texts themselves: that is, meanings that are appropriate for all circumstances and not just the circumstances of the receiver. They will speak of these meanings as God’s meanings.
In process theology there is a side of God that is beyond time and space and a side of God that is within time and space but without beginning or end. The side beyond time and space is eternal and the side that is within time and space is everlasting. Here “eternal” means that the categories of time and space do not apply: God is non-temporal. “Everlasting” means that they categories do apply: God always has been and God always will be. These two sides are woven together in God’s life but they are also distinguishable. When receivers of texts look for permanent meanings, they are usually looking for meanings within the texts that have always been relevant, that always be relevant, and that are relevant now. They are looking for everlasting meanings.
Might such meanings be discoverable within the texts themselves? From a process perspective, the answer is Yes. To be sure, the texts emerged from the minds and hearts of the humans who helped give birth to them, and these humans were finite and fallible. But the very act of giving birth to the texts may well have included various degrees of divine inspiration, albeit mixed in with other factors. We process theologians do believe in divine inspiration, not only in the creation of texts but in the living of a life. When people are kind and caring, when they take care of one another and themselves, when they say Yes to life and enjoy its abundant possibilities, they are inspired by God. There is no reason to dismiss the idea that texts, too, can be inspired.
The fact that the inspiration from God is mixed in with other factors is important. It means that the texts will carry with them linguistic, cultural, historical and psychological influences that are not divinely inspired and that may even contradict whatever permanent meanings are in the texts. The interpreter must be discriminating.
Additionally, the very act of interpreting will likewise be “mixed in” with such factors, such that no interpretation can or should claim finality or perfection. The interpreter must be self-critical, acknowledging that the interpretation itself is finite and fallible. There are good interpretations, but no final interpretations.
Norms for Interpretation
Thus the question becomes: Are their norms for discerning the everlasting meanings ingredient within a text?
From a process perspective, how we answer this question very much depends on how we understand God and, for good or ill, our understanding of God cannot be completely derived from the text itself. Our understanding of God, too, will be a mixture of many factors. The recommendation of process theology is that the norm be God’s mercy and compassion.
God’s mercy and compassion consists of two realities: (1) God’s feeling the feelings of all beings in an empathic way, such that everything that happens in the world becomes part of God’s own everlasting life, and (2) God’s active influence in the world through the provision of fresh possibilities, moment by moment, for healing and wholeness, justice and love, relative to what is possible. The first is God as a fellow sufferer who understands, that is, an everlasting companion; and the second is God as a spirit of creative transformation in the world.
Are these two forms of divine compassion revealed in the texts themselves? Are they part of what can be, and should be, discovered in the texts, such that the norms for interpreting the text derive, at least in part, from the texts themselves?
The answer will depend on the interpreters of the texts. Certainly there are Muslims who find such meanings in the Qur’an, Jews who find such meanings in Torah, and Christians who find such meanings in the New Testament. To interpret sacred texts through the norms of mercy and compassion naturally leads to a certain way of reading the texts that will prioritize some themes over others within the texts themselves. For some Jews and Christians, and for a few Muslims as well, it also leads to a recognition that there are aspects of the texts which need to be challenge and criticized.
But what is clear is that there is no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is no need to disregard or refuse the revelatory power of the texts. What is needed is an honest recognition that all interpretation is finite and fallible, that all is improvisational. Process theologians will add that improvisational interpretation, guided by norms of mercy and compassion, is itself consonant with the very will of God.
The holy unity in whose life the universe unfolds is present in life itself, not as an enemy of improvisational freedom, but as a friend to it. Muslims, Jews, and Christians can rightly celebrate that there is no final interpretation of sacred texts, and the very act of interpreting, in a spirit of mercy and compassion, is a creative activity which mirrors the deep creativity who is the adventure of the universe as One. The absence of finality is the joy of human creativity; and this creativity, along with mercy and compassion, are what the permanent side of God is all about. When texts help us discover this side of God, and live with faith in the power of love over brutality, they are sacred indeed.