Thursday, December 20, 2012

Final cause

The Job manuscript is just about done! I have a few more transitions to write - paragraphs at the ends of sections I ended perhaps a tad too cutely - and then there's the integration of images into the text, and that'll be that! What a pleasure to be able to think about the text as a whole, and see how it, by and large, hangs together. But I'm also tempted to try to add one last larger argument - also, for that matter, an amplification of something that's there already but surely too understated for most readers to notice. Perhaps explaining it to you will help - this blog has offered me that kind of talking cure many times before.

The place where the issue rose to the surface was is in articulating just how modern biblical literalism is different from the "ancient interpreters" for whom, too, the sacred text was, in James Kugel's terms "relevant, perfect and divinely granted." The difference comes in the the last one of the "Four Assumptions" characteristic of ancient understanding of the Bible, which Kugel calls the "cryptic." I'm quoting from his discussion of how they differ. To ancient interpreters 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.  (How to Read the Bible, 673-4)

I need to say more about what it is they are missing and why it matters, something less, well, cryptic, than the coy and cute suggestion that allegory may be true - though that is in fact where I'd like to end up. For one thing, literalists are not as literal about the term "literal" as their critics are! "Relevant, perfect and divinely granted" is closer to what they mean than "historical." It takes considerable ingenuity to read the Bible the way literalists do, given its obscurities and incongruities. I'm including an image of the Ryrie Bible to honor that dedication:
the garlanded margin is in fact a long list of Biblical cross-references to shine light on what's going on in the text. "Bible-believing" Christians take great liberties with the Bible, casting about among different translations for what sounds like what God is trying to say to them at any given moment. They are encouraged to visualize scenes, indeed to put themselves in the scene, to bring it into their world. Accepting the Bible as an "inerrant" foundation is what makes all this meaningful.

Is this really qualitatively different from what the ancient interpreters were doing? I guess I want, with Kugel, to find a way to dismiss these new readings as closed to something of surpassing importance. What is that thing, and on what grounds can I make this claim? The way I've been inclined to make it is ringing untrue... Here's what's in my draft:

For all their suspicion of the “scientific” assumptions of historical critical work, biblical literalists share modern science’s understanding of a univocal reality. The Bible may be a talking book with numberless things to say to numberless people and situations, but it does this by a kind of metaphorical multiplication of literal meaning. Midrash and allegoresis were more than interpretations of a static text but windows on to a world itself governed by more than efficient causality…

You see the problems? Not only will my readers have no idea that "efficient causality" is the last survivor of the four causes of Aristotelian metaphysics. (I could remedy that by mentioning final causes earlier in the text.) I'm pretty sure the "ancient interpreters" weren't Aristotelian, though Maimonides and Aquinas were. And of course most contemporary Americans don't get "modern science's understanding" of anything. Are they really caught in what William Blake calls the illusions of space and time, the "immanent frame" of "buffered selves" acting in "secular time" with "instrumental rationality" which Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age (542) - or is it just us overeducated types? Are they using the Bible as a source book for "moralistic therapeutic deism" in an essentially disenchanted world, or is that me?

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