Sunday, December 23, 2012

Coming together

So here's what I ended up with, with the help of some e-mail buddies:

The historical critical understanding of the Bible has not gone unchallenged, of course. Indeed the main reaction to it – inerrantist biblical literalism – is the view taken by the majority of Bible users today. This approach is often misunderstood as naïve but literalists take “literal” less literally than their critics do, and are capable of vast erudition in their efforts to use only the Bible to understand what the Bible is saying to them. (See the Ryrie Bible, illustration 9) Literalism may seem a return to the world of the “ancient interpreters,” and it does indeed share many of the four assumptions Kugel describes. In fact, “relevant” and “divinely granted” are a pretty good account of their view. (Whether contemporary forms of apologetics treat the Bible as “perfect” in Kugel’s sense is less clear.)

Biblical literalism does not, however, share the foundational assumption that the Bible’s meanings are “cryptic.” This makes a huge difference. The idea:

that almost everything Scripture says is literally true … is one that would certainly have puzzled the ancient interpreters. On the one hand, they would have readily agreed that what the Bible reports did indeed happen ... On the other hand, they would also have dismissed such statements as obvious; Scripture’s important message, they would say, is often hidden, so that only by going beyond the obvious can one arrive at its true meaning. It is precisely that message, they would tell fundamentalists, that you are missing. (Kugel 673-4)

For the ancient interpreters the Bible didn’t just bring the transcendent into our world, but showed us to be participants in a different order of causation and signification entirely. For all their suspicion of the “scientific” assumptions of historical critical work, biblical literalists share the modern world’s understanding of a univocal reality. The Bible may be for them a talking book with numberless things to say to numberless people and situations, but it does this by a kind of metaphorical multiplication of local and fixed meanings.

The findings of historical critical scholarship have forever changed the ways in which the Bible is read and lived. Whether we absorb its suggestions or confine ourselves to a received text for theological, traditional or literary reasons, we are making a decision. These decisions are not made lightly, and are so shaped by communities of worship and interpretation that they may not feel like choices. But in a pluralistic age choice is inescapable, even if it is the choice to accept the tradition you were born into. [fn ref to Berger, Heretical Imperative, Taylor Secular Age] The challenge is to own the ways in which our choices of methods and interlocutors make biblical texts into books we can use. This need not be an occasion for mutual recrimination. It can be an opportunity for solidarity and learning.

Abiding with Job can be valuable here. Job too suffers the loss of a foundation for making sense of his world, and seeks resources in received wisdom, personal experience, the baffling processes of nature and God himself. Job’s exchanges with his friends provide an object lesson in the difficulty of collective meaning-making. As Maimonides suggested, the reactions of incompatible positions against each other might clear a space for deeper insight. The Book of Job itself, like its protagonist, has undergone afflictions that undermine its certainty and resist the comforts of closure. Keeping patient company with it may be a way to glimpse truths beyond the types and shadows of modern understandings of the world and its meanings.

As for "final causes," they wound up a bit earlier in the book:

the confident discoveries of the scientific revolution led to an enhanced assessment both of human capacities and of the possibility of making a home in this world. The discovery of exceptionless natural laws showed the world to be solid and safe enough for human flourishing. The mechanical philosophy of the 17th century rendered all but one of Aristotle’s four kinds of causality obsolete. The “efficient causes” so successfully mapped out by modern natural science rendered the “material,” “formal” and “final” causes moot. Conceptions of God’s relationship to the world changed, and understandings of the agency of those created in the divine image followed suit. 

The existential threat of chaos faded along with fear of demonic powers (though not without a struggle). Scientific discoveries did not displace religious faith but reframed it. God worked his wondrous ways through benevolent natural laws. As a result, however, evil – especially human evil –  came to be experienced as the signal exception to an otherwise providentially governed world. How could God have permitted it? Paradoxically evil becomes a discrete philosophical problem as it ceases to be a taken-for-granted and universal experience. 

There's a lot packed into these lines, I grant you! The hope is that the reader who's just skimming won't be tripped up, but the reader taking her time might encounter some interesting new ways of thinking...

How can one weigh each of 52,289 of one's own words? Thank goodness the text will go through the winnowing of a professional copy editor; I leave final questions of clarity and style to her/him!

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