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?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A New Counter-Reformation?

The 11/14/08 issue of the Wall Street Journal featured an article of more than passing interest by David Gibson: A New Counter-Reformation Starts at the Vatican. Gibson has been observing the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican and sees hopeful signs of an initiative that could become a New Counter-Reformation:
For most of October, more than 200 Catholic bishops, along with sundry theologians and experts, met at the Vatican to figure out how to get Catholics to read the Bible -- a project easily dismissed by Protestants and some Catholics as too ambitious and about 500 years too late. After all, wasn't it Rome's fears about letting mere lay people consult Holy Writ that stoked the Reformation? And Catholics don't want to read the Bible anyway, right? They're all about the Mass and the sacraments.
Gibson begs to differ with the notion that Catholics and Scripture don't mix too well. Or rather, as Gibson backhandedly concedes, at least a rarefied clerical and academic elite within the Catholic Church has opened itself to Scripture. Just how far this openness extends we will consider, but Gibson claims, after a brief review of 20th century Church history, that the Church has gradually developed an impressive and balanced cultural blend of Scripture and traditional Catholic piety:

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Scripture as Tradition

In Messy Revelation I opened a discussion on the need for a renewed and deepened understanding of "revelation." Here I will provide documentation that illustrates that the perceived need for such a deepened understanding is recognized on many levels within the Church.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Rise of the World Religions

Christopher Dawson begins Chapter VI of Progress and Religion, "The Rise of the World Religions," by situating these "world religions" within the context of “a cultural change of the most profound significance” that swept the civilized world in the first millennium B.C. This cultural change primarily involved a change of thought rather than of material culture, and was felt across the middle part of the world, from Greece through the Middle East, Iran, India and all the way to China--a geographical spread that lead Eric Voegelin to term this period "the Ecumenic Age.". Dawson associates this far flung cultural change with an outpouring of religious literature--“the writings of the Hebrew prophets and the Greek philosophers, of Buddha and the authors of the Upanishads, of Confucius and Lao Tzu”--and he seeks to find a common denominator. Thus, he poses the question: “What link can there be between the Hellenic vision of an intelligible universe or the ethical humanism of Confucius and the bloody rites and barbarous myths of the old pagan culture?”

In formulating his answer, Dawson first focuses (p. 100) on the violent upheavals that transformed the political landscape--invasions of the older civilized regions by “more warlike but less civilized” peoples who “destroyed the old theocratic order,” and introduced a “dual character” to the new cultures that arose, producing “a spirit of criticism and reflection.” The resulting cultural unease, and a corresponding idealization of the “vanquished order as a golden age,” says Dawson, gave rise to “a sense of moral dualism, an opposition between that which is and that which ought to be,” between the divinely ordained order of the cosmological societies (characteristic of Eliade's “archaic man”) and the new reality of human existence governed by brute force and strife. Under the impact of these new conditions the sacred ritual order of archaic man became “moralized and spiritualized,” focusing on justice and truth more than on ritual and ceremony.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Messy Revelation

In the May/June 2006 issue of Christianity Today, Susan Wise Bauer wrote a review of Peter Enns' Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. It is revealingly titled: "Messy Revelation: Why Paul would have flunked hermeneutics." Bauer begins her review by recounting that, while reading Sumerian poetry, she came across this passage from "a 4,000-year-old epic describing the Sumerian paradise, a garden city free of evil and sickness where
the raven utters no cry …
the lion kills not,
the wolf snatches not the lamb,
unknown is the kid-devouring wild dog."
The connection to Isaiah 11 was as obvious to Bauer as it is to most readers familiar with the Old Testament. This, says, Bauer, is emblematic of the "opening dilemma" that Enns presents in his book. As Bauer states the dilemma:
The uniqueness of the Old Testament as a piece of literature has been seriously dented by the discovery of more and more ancient texts that predate (and anticipate) biblical forms. Creation story, flood story, prophecy, proverb: all of these were in use in Mesopotamia long before the first biblical book was penned.

So how can we claim that the Old Testament—and it alone from all the texts of that pre-Christian age—is divine communication from God to man?
How indeed? And moreover, the question is not only can we, but should we claim that the Old Testament writings are "divine communication[s] from God to man?" Is that, after all, the meaning of "revelation"? That the writings so labeled are "divine communication[s] from God to man?" And if so, what exactly does this mean--is it a useful characterization or, perhaps, a misleading characterization of the nature of these writings?

For the Christian there is, in fact, no particular reason to regard the Old Testament writings as "divine communication[s] from God to man"--that is, there would be no reason, but for the obvious relationship of Jesus to the world of the Old Testament. Even so, it is the fact of Jesus' resurrection that causes the Christian to ponder that relationship and to consider it to be part of a scheme that in some way fulfills God's will.

But in what sense is the Old Testament a communication from God to man, and is such a belief--at least one that is framed in such terms--necessary for Christian faith?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The One Who Is To Come

The October issue of First Things contains a review of Joseph Fitzmyer's new book, The One Who Is To Come. The review is by Gary Anderson, a professor of Old Testament at Notre Dame. As summarized by Anderson, the problem that Fitzmyer addresses is this:
The problem is one of historical anachronism: What beliefs can we determine that people held, before the birth of Jesus, about the coming messiah—when the coming of Jesus and the rise of Christianity so transformed all those beliefs? It is a very old methodological principle that the historian must learn again and again: What comes after does not always follow from what came before.

And so for the Christian claim that Jesus was the suffering messiah, long expected in the Sacred Scriptures. After the rise of the early Church and its claims to fulfill the hopes of the Jewish people, it was simply presumed that the coming of Jesus could easily be plugged into a pre-existent Jewish matrix. Modern biblical scholarship has seriously challenged that presumption. [my emphasis] The idea of a suffering messiah is difficult to trace in the Hebrew Scriptures, and even the notion that a single, royal messianic figure was expected is not easy to locate.

This is sometimes an alarming detail for Christian readers.
How does Fitzmyer's inquiry fare?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Misfortune and History - Continued

In “Misfortune and History” (from The Myth of the Eternal Return) Mircea Eliade deals at considerable length with “Hebrew” thought. This is, to my mind, perhaps the least satisfactory section of The Myth of the Eternal Return, due in part to its reliance on scholarship that has now been pretty definitively superseded but also due to faulty analysis.

Eliade characterizes as "Hebrew" thought what is now known to modern scholars as the Deuteronomic ideology, accepting the now discredited view that Israelite thought essentially underwent no development from the origins of Israel to the fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Modern scholarship has conclusively demonstrated both that the Biblical accounts of Israelite origins (the Exodus and Conquest) are not historical and that Israelite conceptions of divinity as well as religious practice underwent significant development and change. What I have characterized as the Deuteronomic "ideology" attained social effectiveness during the years between the fall of the northern Israelite kingdom (722 BC) and the final fall of the southern kingdom of Judah (586 BC). The so-called Deuteronomic "reform" was politically dominant especially during the reign of Josiah (649-609BC). The Deuteronomic ideology combined a rather advanced development of Israelite religion in the direction of monotheism, away from a more traditional West Semitic pantheon of gods, with a basically conservative "archaic" worldview. Where the "archaic" worldview saw misfortune in history as either a defeat of one set of gods by an opposing set of gods, or as the result of a failure to conform to divine will, the Deuteronomic ideology interpreted misfortune in Israelite history--and the misfortune that threatened in the form of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires--as the result of Israel's failure to conform to the Deuteronomic theology of Yahweh as the sole god of Israel and obedience to Torah. The history of Israel was rewritten to conform with this view. Thus, according to this ideology, the history of Israel could be understood according to a very simply logic: when Israel followed the commandments as set forth in the Deuteronomic books of the OT, all went well. When Israel failed in some respect--as when the Israelites followed their more traditional West Semitic religious traditions--things fell apart.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Religion and the Origins of Civilization

Christopher Dawson's Progress and Religion is a remarkable book. Written in 1929 when Dawson was not yet 40 it is, in effect, Dawson's attempt at an overall theory of history. While in many ways it addresses scholarship that is now dated, especially with regard to theories of the "origin of religion," it also has much in common with the later work of Mircea Eliade--in fact, in some respects Dawson goes beyond Eliade (whom Dawson preceded by several decades) by more explicitly relating archaic culture to later developments of large civilizations, world religions, and Christianity. (Eliade does seek to draw parallels between archaic thought and modern “existentialist” thought, but fails to fully consider much in between.) Nevertheless, because Dawson lacked an understanding of the archaic ontology of archetypes which Eliade elaborated, he was unable to fully exploit his unquestionably valuable insights. In what follows we will therefore attempt to evaluate Dawson's insights in light of Eliade's understanding of archaic man's ontology of archetypes and repetition.

In Chapter IV, “The Comparative Study of Religion,” Dawson set forth his views on archaic culture. In doing so he was at pains to oppose the materialist views of human culture that were current at the time. Then, in Chapter V, “Religion and the Origins of Civilization,” Dawson addresses the transition from “primitive” societies to the earliest civilizations.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Terror of History

In the final chapter of The Myth of the Eternal Return Eliade contrasts what he terms "traditional man" (the man of archaic culture) with "historical man (modern man)." Eliade maintains that traditional man had a negative attitude toward history and sought to "abolish" history through various means, primarily through the philosophy or ontology of archetypes by which historical events were assimilated to constantly repeated or unchanging patterns. Thus, for traditional man, historical events have no value in themselves--their value is dependent upon the possibility of assimilating historical events to divine or heavenly archetypes. Historical man, on the other hand, says Eliade, "consciously and voluntarily creates history," giving historical events value in themselves. This "modern" view Eliade terms "historicism." But how much of a difference is involved in this distinction?

As a preliminary, let us observe that in point of fact historical man and traditional man both seek to endow history with meaning and value. It may well be, however, that traditional man is more clear sighted in this regard, for implicit in his view is the conviction that finite existence can have no meaning or value absent an explanation for its existence. Thus, for traditional man the explanation for existence is found in a cause: God. Historical, or historicist, man seeks to posit a meaning absent such a cause--his demand or declaration is that finite existence should have a meaning and value in and of itself, a meaning and value that is assigned by man as the primary actor in history. It can be said, then, that "historical man" simply wills the value or meaning of historical events--it is a declaration of meaning rather than a discovery of meaning.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Misfortune and History

In Chapter 3 of The Myth of the Eternal Return Mircea Eliade takes up the question of suffering, and the ways in which "archaic" cultures seek to "normalize" the suffering in historical existence. Of course suffering is inevitable and man is to a great extent powerless in its face, but suffering can be made bearable by a process of normalization. Briefly, we have seen that in archaic man's ontology what is truly real are the the divine or heavenly archetypes--it is these archetypes that confer reality upon the individual. It is natural, then, that archaic man should seek to find meaning in suffering by assimilating suffering to the divine order of the cosmos. Eliade notes that while pre-Christian humanity did not ordinarily grant value to suffering as an “instrument of purification,” suffering was “regarded as the consequence of a deviation from the 'norm.'” “[S]uffering is perturbing only insofar as its cause remains undiscovered.” Thus, if suffering can be assigned to a fault (a deviation from the 'norm'), “suffering becomes intelligible and hence tolerable.” In other woreds, it is "normalized." Notable in this is the implicit idea of a natural law--an intelligible norm that man can discover and violation of which is a violation of man's meaning in existence.