Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mark Smith: From Scriptures to Bible

We are now reaching the end of Mark S. Smith's The Memoirs of God, but Smith adds a “postscript” - Biblical Memory between Religion, Theology and History - in which he attempts to address some of the issues that he has inevitably raised in the course of the book but has not yet discussed. Smith's concerns center around the nature of revelation.

Biblical Narrative and Systematic Theology

Smith begins by noting that, in the Bible, Israel generated a “master narrative” of God's relations with man, running from Genesis through the books of Kings. As this narrative came to be recognized as “scripture,” i.e., became “the Bible,” it was also transformed from Israel's traditions into what Smith has termed the “memoirs of God.” But this new development could not hide the past, nor the highly complex way in which the individual narratives came into being and were later incorporated into a master narrative:
This master narrative was modified as it went on, with older modifications overwritten by later ones. The modified biblical narrative often left vestiges of older versions of the past, issuing in a text with a dialectic between the master narrative and other earlier, or even contemporary, conflicting versions. Israel's representation of its past in the Bible also incorporates competition and compromise over the meaning of that past. What becomes recognized as revelation is more than a single revelation about the past. (161)
Obviously, to enshrine such narratives as the “word of God” presents theoretical problems, not the least of which is: what could God have intended by this procedure, and how are humans to decide among the conflicting versions and representations of God's relationship with man?

Without directly addressing these issues, Smith moves on to a further point:
... their texts contain an ancient form of metaphysics. ... a fundamental ontology used in the ancient world is embodied in language about power. ... Transposed into traditional metaphysical language, the power of lesser beings in the world participates in Power itself, identified with God.
The forms of ancient metaphysics found in Psalms 74 and 104 as well as Genesis 1 are not original with ancient Israel. They can be found also in a number of ancient Near Eastern cultures. ... These ontologies in Israel and the ancient New East raise a particularly important question for theology, namely, the understanding of biblical revelation. (162)
Now, although Smith makes no reference in his book to the work of Mircea Eliade, we can hardly fail to recall in connection with this “ancient form of metaphysics,” shared among “a number of ancient Near Eastern cultures” (as Smith cautiously puts it), Eliade's own theory of an “archaic ontology” by which all being known to us is said to be real in so far as it shares or participates in the eternal or heavenly archetypes. Smith has portrayed the development of Israel's religion as one which progressed from a typical West Semitic four-level pantheon to gradually more explicit forms of monotheism and culminated in the universal, personal and caring creator God of Genesis (we note, however, that the notion of creatio ex nihilo was the result of further development).

The issue for Smith, clearly, is this: if this content of the Israelite scriptures--as we have just described it--is crucially the supreme content of the revelation of God to man, and if the same or very similar content is to be found in at least “a number of” ancient Near Eastern cultures, in what sense is revelation unique to Israel? Is revelation also extended to these other cultures? Moreover, while Smith cautiously speaks of “a number of” other cultures who share this “ancient form of metaphysics,” we recall that Eliade developed a theory of an “archaic ontology” that is, in its fundamental structure of archetypes and participation, common to all mankind.

Revelation, Tradition, and the Idolatry of History

Smith is neither a theologian, a philosopher, nor an historian of religions. It's natural, therefore, that rather than addressing these issues from the standpoint of comparative studies he focuses on the issue of historical truth in the Bible, or, as I prefer, the Israelite scriptures.
... many in both camps [those “devoted to the Bible” and those critical of “religious faith”] operate with the assumption that the truth of the Bible stands or falls on whether the Bible is always historically true. ... it is true that some basic “biblical events” stand on biblical claims about their actually having occurred. ... However, this is not the same as saying that the Bible stands or falls as revelation depending on whether or not every single fact recorded in the Bible was historically true. (164)
This whole discussion hinges on what the “truth” of the Bible is, what its intent is, and ultimately on the question of what we mean by revelation and what is being revealed. As Smith has shown, the transformation of biblical tradition into scripture means that the Israelite scriptures, “the Bible,” has essentially become “God's memoirs,” and that God's credibility is on the line in the debate over whether the Bible is historically true. But, as Smith and others have also shown, this view of the Israelite traditions as “scripture” was late in developing. One is left with several unattractive and implausible alternatives. At what point did the Israelite traditions become revelation—when they were written, as they were modified, or only at the point that they were incorporated in “the Bible?” And there are many other similar conundrums that confront those who believe that the essence of Biblical revelation is God's recording of ancient history. Smith frames these issues briefly:
The idea that the original biblical revelation could be a product of biblical tradition, secondarily retrojected and created as an original moment of contact with the Divine, can be unsettling for people who regard the Bible as divine revelation. (163)
Not surprisingly, Smith sees these endless debates as missing the essential point of revelation (my emphasis):
Whether one accepts or criticizes the Bible as historical truth, historical veracity is hardly the single biblical standard for truth. Instead, the Bible fundamentally proclaims the reality of God in human lives and the implications that flow from that reality: It is not the Bible but our culture as it developed over the last half-millennium that has elevated the category of historical truth above other sorts or categories of truth. It is this exaltation of history as the absolute or primary measure of truth in the Bible that I view as the “idolatry of history.” (164)
"Over the last half-millenium,” of course, dates this deformation of understanding of the relevance of the Israelite scriptures to the Protestant revolt. This was an event that Eric Voegelin has characterized as the inbreaking of gnostic speculation into the institutions of the West, where previously it had been confined to heretical sects. However, Smith's phrase, “the idolatry of history,” is less than precise. Recall that the preoccupation with history as revelation began with the rise of the Deuteronomic school, which sought to create a conceptual construct—an ideology—that would explain in some rational way why Israel should remain hopeful for its future and committed to the vision of Israel that the Deuteronomists themselves embraced. To do this they needed to justify God's relationship to man, and especially to Israel, in a way that could be easily understood and easily applied. The result was a simple ideology, according to which misfortune in history or even in daily life was the result of Divine punishment for some fault. To say that this ideology has, in the course of its history, created more problems than it has solved would be to understate the matter. For most Jews, the Holocaust marked the breaking point for the Deuteronomic ideology. It has, nevertheless, retained its popularity even in Christian circles, despite Jesus' specific rejection of this ideology.

For our purposes, Smith's next section, The Paradox of Revelation: Eternal yet Temporal, does little more than expand on themes that he has already raised. In the following section, Revelation and the Limits of the Biblical Canon, Smith returns to the question of other religious traditions.
... while Christian tradition sees the basis, the genesis, of revelation ultimately with the Scriptures themselves, the biblical tradition also reveals a model for engaging the world beyond the Bible. In a world (even a universe) that is becoming smaller and more threatened by humanity, tendencies to restrict discourse about the Divine in the world to the Bible runs a risk of denying the full meaning of biblical revelation. (170)
This is an interesting question, because it asks: why should the basis of revelation be ultimately in a collection of books, if those books purport to be a record of history, the history of a people, Israel? For Christians, revelation is first and foremost a person: Jesus of Nazareth. From the standpoint of both ancient Israel and of Christianity, the primary subject of revelation must be the existent subject: for the former, Israel, and for the latter, Jesus. And in both instances the written records are the written tradition of a people, but not revelation itself in the primary sense. Certainly, with regard to the Israelite past, the archaeological record must be relevant. And what is the point of the history of this people, Israel? Smith has identified it as the development of a vision of God—a God who is one, personal, caring, and creative beyond man's imagining. It is this vision of God that is a necessary condition for the human reception of God's ultimate self revelation in Jesus.

As Smith correctly sees, the “ancient metaphysics” or “fundamental ontology” of other traditions has something to teach us, because in its basic structure it is valid. It is also what binds man together as one, as a unity in a single human nature. In this sense, all human tradition is to some extent preparatory for God's self revelation in Jesus, but it is only in Israel that we find man coming to the fullest natural grasp of God's identity. This should be the starting point for Christian outreach to other traditions, for it offers the surest understanding of our common human nature. Significantly, this fullest grasp of God to which Israel attained is not contained expressly in the Israelite scriptures, although we find it in the earliest records of Christianity.

These are issues that we addressed in two earlier sections. In The One Who Is To Come I wrote:
I suggest that Anderson needs to reconsider his whole notion of revelation as it applies to the relation between the Old and New Testaments. Anderson is following a model by which God inspired books to be written that could only be understood as coded messages--so much so that their true meaning was sometimes based on what reason tells us is a misunderstanding of the clear meaning of the text! Having laid out the path of salvation in this bizarre code, God then fulfills it--to the utter bafflement and scandal of one and all. And who, after all, could blame the unbelievers by this account?

A better approach, in my view, is to see the history of Israel as a whole, as the preparation of a people that would serve as the vehicle of God's self revelation (in Jesus) , not as the compilation of a collection of books containing embedded coded messages. The real point of Israel's history is the preparation of a human environment in which God's self revelation, accomplished by human agency as well as by divine agency, would be able to sustain the seed that became the Church. Such a theory of revelation could address the difficulties that arise from the presumption "that the coming of Jesus could [comment: or should] easily be plugged into a pre-existent Jewish matrix." It would also do justice to the Christian notion of incarnation--of God revealing himself by "taking flesh" rather than dealing in obscure coded messages--and open the way to an understanding of why the messiah had to suffer.

In this last regard, it is noteworthy that while the Gospels repeatedly attribute this view to Jesus--that the messiah must suffer--at no point does Jesus produce a proof text to settle the point. A crucified messiah was "a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Greeks." In other words, a crucial issue from the very birth of the Church. The lack of proof texts suggests that the explanation that Jesus offered to the disciples went beyond simplistic appeals to fulfillment of a coded message in scripture. Certainly Jesus' view of the Jewish writings that have become the Old Testament was more complex than is usually granted, as evidenced by such reported sayings as Jesus' impugning the Mosaic teaching on divorce as non-divine in origin (despite its presence in an "inspired" book) and his charge that the Pharisees transformed human traditions into supposed divine commands. Jesus did not see himself as merely playing out a role that was scripted in coded messages from scripture. He saw his revelation in his life, death and resurrection as radically transformative--as inaugurating a new relationship between man and God.
And in Messy Revelation I wrote:
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? If other nations pondered similar questions as did the Israelites (and they did)--such questions as the meaning and purpose of the world as we know it, of national life and of the societal structures that defined human life for each nation--and if those reflections led to expressions that were strikingly similar in literary form and imagery, the Christian is left to consider whether those other writings are also divine communications, or whether, perhaps, none of them are.

There is, however, another possibility regarding the relationship between the Church and what came before it, the nation from which the Church was, humanly speaking, derived. Jesus was not born from a book; he was born from a nation. If, then, we are to consider that the history of Israel is in some sense revelatory and relevant with regard to the Church, we should consider the whole history of Israel to be involved, not merely the writings of the Israelites. That is to say, the findings of archaeology and history, of linguistics and anthropology, of art and sociology as it bears upon the religious life of Israel is very relevant. What is revelatory is, so to speak, the whole package of Israelite history in so far as, in the hindsight that the resurrection of Jesus provides, we regard this history as a preparation for God's self revelation in Jesus.

How are we to understand this preparation? Of course, the major part of what we know about Israel is known through its writings, but did the preparation that we call "revelation" consist in the embedding of coded messages within the Israelite writings? Passages that, centuries later, could be said to "predict" or "prophesy" Jesus? (We prescind, here, from the nature of Israelite prophecy.) Or, rather, is "revelation" the lived history--including the literature--of a people in search of God, whose religious life was gradually and incompletely--yet nevertheless decisively--shaped in such a way that "in the fullness of time" God deemed that the time was right for his ultimate revelation to man? In other words, messy as incarnation was bound to be, inevitable as rejection and failing was to be even within the small circle of Jesus' disciples, God shaped Israel over centuries so that the human environment was prepared in such a way as to provide fertile soil for the seed that was sown--Jesus himself, from whom the Church draws life. This view of revelation and of the relationship of Israel to the Church, which is the continuation of Israel under the new covenant in the blood of Jesus, should transform our approach to the Old Testament writings, and free us from the straight jacket of past exegesis based on frankly non-Christian understandings of how God deals with man. In this way we can take fully seriously the new way in which God has dealt with man, in Jesus and in his Church.
Of course, for the Christian, the guarantee of the meaning and value of man's history—exemplified in Israel—is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

1 comment:

  1. There are other definitions of the word "Christian". The one that I favor is: 'Anyone who believes that Jesus was giving us the Straight Poop, & intends to act accordingly.'

    What Jesus actually was saying and doing -- and why -- becomes quite important in this way of looking at it; but equally obviously, we were not given a Gospel According to Jesus, but four more or less discrepant interpretations. That is, we don't get to copy The Answers In The Back of the Book, but have to do 'our own math.'

    This may look like a bug, but I consider it a feature.

    The 'True Religion'? I like Stephen Gaskin's formulation:

    "You don't do it through intellectual processes. What you do is you telepathically tap in to the one great world religion,
    which is only one,
    which has no name,
    and all of the other religions are merely maps of that."

    That is, "revelation" is bigger than any one religion's scriptures. But they are maps of one very real 'Thing'.

    Also, any of them can be considered as messages from God. Not only addressed to different audiences -- but probably not redundant!

    That is, there is probably a specific, essential element that Christianity contributes (quite apart from intolerance, chauvinism, and smugness, which really aren't all that unusual.)

    Those all-too-human fingerprints in the Hebrew Scriptures? Tool marks?