Monday, December 29, 2008

Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The 1988 Erasmus Lecture

In 1988 Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, came to New York to deliver the Erasmus Lecture. The title of his lecture was Biblical Interpretation in Crisis, which reflected his long running concern with the state of modern Biblical exegesis. In the lecture he set forth his critique of the current troubled state of affairs--which he attributed to the influence of the “historical-critical method”--and offered his “hopes” for the future. This appears to be as good a starting point as any for a consideration of the issues confronting the Church in developing a coherent theory of revelation, and especially because Ratzinger's views, as expressed in 1988, remain unchanged in their essentials to this day.  We will proceed with a running commentary on Ratzinger's somewhat rambling lecture.

Ratzinger quickly sets the tone for his lecture, opening his remarks with an anecdote from Soloviev that portrays modern exegetes as the Antichrist! He then suggests that “[t]o speak of 'the crisis of the historical-critical method' today is practically a truism.” He professes to find this state of affairs, which is to say, the state of affairs as he has painted it, somehow ironic, since the historical-critical method had “gotten off to so optimistic a start” 100 years ago. True, he adds, the historical-critical method as originally conceived during the Enlightenment contained an “impertinent presupposition” which regarded “dogma or church doctrine ... as one of the real impediments to a correct understanding of the Bible itself,” yet Catholic proponents of the historical-critical method assured the Church that the method, once freed of such anti-Christian presuppositions, would provide “strict objectivity” and would bring us closer to “the clear and unmistakable voice of the original message of Jesus.” And, in fact, says Ratzinger, that did initially appear to be the case.

This manner of framing the subject is certainly noteworthy, implying as it does that the historical-critical method is part of an illusory quest for “strict objectivity.” From a philosophical standpoint this formulation clearly implies that Ratzinger falls well within the common Platonic tradition when it comes to the the problem of knowledge. For Platonists (of whatever stripe) knowledge is an all or nothing proposition. Either we attain to a complete grasp of the Ideas (the heavenly archetypes of Mircea Eliade's “archaic ontology”) or ... we have no real knowledge at all! Godlike omniscience or total skepticism, the Scylla and Charybdis that has bedeviled man for millennia. Ratzinger is situating the entire project of historical-critical exegesis within the context of this wrongheaded epistemology.

So, then, what followed from the historical-critical method's optimistic beginnings? Ratzinger first complains that the historical-critical method led to a “confused” picture--use of the method gave rise to a number of apparently conflicting theories. The existence of contradictory theories, says Ratzinger, meant that “access to the Bible” was blocked for all those who were not “initiated” into the complexities of the method (note once again the use of a loaded, pejorative term: “initiated,” with its hint of a gnostic fraternity of illuminati). Furthermore, says Ratzinger, those who were “initiated,” the scholars and exegetes, “were no longer reading the Bible anyway, but were dissecting it into the various parts from which it had to have been composed.” (My emphasis.) In other words, Ratzinger suggests that these exegetes were impious men who ignored what “the Bible” was actually saying, in favor of arcane academic game playing that blocked the simple faithful from access to the clear meaning of the text.

It's clear that Ratzinger disapproves of this situation, but he is less than totally forthcoming about his exact reasoning. For example, he appears to be saying that the “uninitiated,” the simple faithful, should have full “access” to “the Bible.” How reasonable is this contention? There are at least two presuppositions behind this complaint, and probably more.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Benedict at Regensburg

"Jihad injures reason, for it honors a god who suffers no constraints on his caprice, unlike the Judeo-Christian god, who is limited by love. That is the nub of Pope Benedict XVI's September 12 [2006] address in Regensburg, Germany." So wrote internet gadfly Spengler, only a week after Benedict's address, in Jihad, the Lord's Supper, and Eternal Life. Robert Reilly, writing at about the same time in Crisis magazine (The Pope and the Prophet), had a similar reaction: "Finally, a leader has spoken about the real, essential differences in the struggle between the West and Islam ..."

Benedict's now famous address at Regensburg bore the title "Three Stages in the Program of De-Hellenization." While Spengler, Reilly and most other commentators focused on what they saw as Benedict's critique of Islam's vision of God--which Benedict presented through a quotation from "the dialog carried on ... by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both"--there was, in fact, far more in Benedict's address than met most eyes at the time.

Benedict, as is now well known, has made the theme of the recovery of reason a key project for his papacy, for he sees the recovery of reason as essential for the spiritual recovery of the West. Benedict shares the quite conventional interpretation of the West as "a rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek inquiry." The very identity of the West resides in this "rapprochement," and the spiritual crisis of the West lies precisely in this, that these two indispensable elements of the Western spirit have been sundered by what Benedict calls the "Program of De-Hellenization."

No doubt Benedict may have been happy to clarify those "essential differences" between Christianity and Islam that Reilly refers to, but his address was far more than facile Muslim bashing. But if contrasting Christianity and Islam was not Benedict's primary purpose, then why did he plunge into the question of Islam at the very outset of his address?