Monday, April 17, 2006

Easter reflection, two

I'm continuing where I left off Saturday by placing questions and "new angles" about the Christian story along side Orthodoxy as I know it. These Davinci Code sort of questions are all the rage at the moment, and the fire is helped along by scholars like Bart Ehrman feeding the flames by pointing to supposed problems in the Bible itself. My favourite Gnostic is on it, and so is Scott Adams over at The Dilbert Blog:
Just to give you a flavor of the magnitude of the problems, according to Ehrman, there are more changes (both intentional and unintentional) in the Bible than there are words in the New Testament. The estimates range from 200,000 to 400,000. Yesterday I read that half of the people who voted for President Bush believe that the popular King James version of the Bible is the literal word of God. How does one reconcile that belief with the fact that experts know the Bible is riddled with human additions and errors? Here are the only arguments I can think of:
1. You infidel! 200,000 changes isn't that many. 2. Those document experts are Satan's helpers. There are no changes. 3. I never knew about those 200,000 changes. I renounce my faith! 4. God works in mysterious ways. In this case he used thousands of semi-literate, opinionated morons to edit the Bible until now it's perfect. 5. Let me freshen your drink.
The answer to Adams' question is #4 and it isn't as silly as Adams makes it out to be. #1 and #2 are eyes closed fundamentalism and #3 and #5 are what happens to fundamentalists when they can't force their eyes shut any longer. If the bulk of your information on the subject is coming to you from mass media you will hear very little about #4, which, by the way, Scott has garbled. He's still hung up on the idea that the Bible simply must be a fixed text to be of any value. But there is no such thing as a "fixed" text and there never has been. There is much to be said on this point, which we'll get to. Quick question first though: Why is Adams, as are so many, quick to place his trust in something he read, namely, "half of the people who voted for President Bush believe that the popular King James version of the Bible is the literal word of God." Where is that from? What was the methodology? Heck, Adams does not name his source, so why should I believe it unless I simply place my trust in his honesty and skill in separating real facts from bogus factoids? Let's move along and work our way through Chapter Three of the First Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. From Chapter Three:
SACRED SCRIPTURE, ITS INSPIRATION AND DIVINE INTERPRETATION 11. Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. (1) In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him (2) they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, (3) they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. (4) Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation.
Yadda, yadda, yadda. This is not far off from the standard the Bible is a "book written by the flaming hand of God stuff." If the Vatican document stopped here, scholarship like Ehrman's would be much more of a threat than it in fact is. Providentially, perhaps, the document is considerably more sophisticated than that.
12. However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, (6) the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words. To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to "literary forms." For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer * intended to express and actually expressed ** in particular circumstances *** by using contemporary literary forms **** in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. [edited for emphasis - ed.] (7) For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another. (8)
What this second passage does is remind us that a text is a dead letter until we enter into it, and/or or it enters into us. This does not mean, as some of the post modernists tell us, that in a text we see only our own reflection and never enter into a dialogue with the author. It does mean, as the postmoderns tell us, that no book is ever closed. Every time we learn something new, our interaction with the text has the potential to alter, to deepen. The presumption of the fixed text school of thought - sadly, held by most people it seems, including Ehrman and Adams - is that when we learn something new about a text, there is a high probability that the text will be broken. Adams can perhaps be forgiven more easily than Ehrman. Coming from the world of engineering and computing, where texts are very "brittle" in the sense that they are very precise and will truly need to be rethought if a contradiction is found, Adams might be tempted to carry such a method over to the poetic and prophetic world of scripture. The temptation is understandable but unwise. Ehrman, however, because he is working with the scriptures, should be more adaptable than that. It seems instead that he wants and expects scripture to provide him with clear and positive evidence with which to prop up his faith. This is backwards. One does not read in order to believe, but one believes in order to read. And in reading, one finds food in which to nourish belief. That's a logical circle and unacceptable to many; I'm well aware of it. It also happens to be true, and not just of religious texts. Any syllogism you construct will present you with a number of premises which you have to accept or reject in your evaluation of it. Determining the truth or falsity of any one of them could draw you to another syllogism, ad finititum, until you bump up against the sorts of metaphysical constructs that can't be falsified or verified. Like what? Like "time exists", "some things are alive and some are not", "I have an idependent existence from other people", "other people do exist and are like me", "events are caused by other events", "the world behaves in largely predictable ways", and "I have the mental skills to work out a reliable way of thinking". Any school of thought one can name stands on any number of foundation stones like these. There is nothing dirty or dishonest about recognizing that we have mental lenses through which we look at the world, and we cannot pick our lenses objectively because until we try one on we are completely blind. This is not to say that all such mental lenses are equal. People really do have heartbreaking moments when they can no longer accomodate incoming data with their lenses. At these moments, which we can call "conversion", the lens must be changed or altered in ways that can be extremely disorienting. Ehrman gives every appearance of having passed through such a moment. From where I sit, he's reshaped his lense in the wrong spot, keeping his positivism and ditching his Christian faith; he could have ditched the positivism and learned to be more nuanced in his faith. Returning to the Vatican I document we get to the meat of the matter, a rebuttal of Erhman and a mature response for Adams:
since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, (9) no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God. (10) 13. In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous "condescension" of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, "that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature." (11) For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.
The seeming openess of texts is a result of our inability to grasp the world - including texts, sacred and otherwise - as they truly are. The Word is fixed and eternal but we never enter it fully in this life. An example might help to clarify. One of the ceremonial elements in Catholic worship that I really like is incensing the Bible just before the gospel is read. Often this creates a stunning image of just what I am talking about. One sees smoke appearing to rise from the book towards the priest doing the reading. It is an image of the text leaving the confines of the page and entering us in the hope that we might enter into it. This smoke wafts its way to the pews, continuing the image, and one does not just see it, but also smells it. The smell is warm, attractive, and above all brief in duration. It comes and it goes and usually by the time the reading is done there are only traces left. Underscoring the above, before the text is read, the priest says "May the Spirit be with you", and the congregation responds, "and also with you." In other words our helplessness in fully grasping the Word is made plain, and the aid of the Spirit is invoked to help overcome that gap (for lay and religious alike). This approach is not unique to Catholics. There are Protestant groups who invoke the Spirit to guide them as well. The difference and the scandal is that for Catholics the Spirit takes form in the Church's Magesterium, narrowing the bounds of interpretation and roping off false trails. For both groups, however, invoking the Spirit underscores that being a Christian is not merely a matter book learning, a matter of getting the facts and the ceremonies right. It is a about a relationship with the Divine person, and the Divine book is a tool to that end. All of the poetry, history and imagery it uses has to be understood in that light. I include in this not only the intellectual challenge posed by a story like Lazarus' rising from the dead, but also challenges like those Erhman raises. His issues do not bother me inordinately because the Bible is not a dead canonical letter but a ring with a fuzzy boundary in which the Spirit may be tussled with. One should not expect the matter of interpretation to go away. One should embrace it like an athlete going to the gym.

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