Named and caught

In the comments to the last post, Rachel wrote:

Though at the same time John fits into certain patterns and expectations – patterns of what an ascetic/world-renouncing lifestyle should look like. I suppose he couldn’t do otherwise, as soon as he’s described.

and I then speculated that

the liminal position occupied by John [might be]… a socially functional necessity: one of the safety valves that allows the functioning of ‘ordinary life’ … John would then be an ‘interruption’ that, as it were, ordinary life used to perpetuate itself – a ruse of power, perhaps.

I went on to say something about how we might say that John escapes this suspicious reading:

The claim that something else, something other, was becoming visible even in this process by which the ordinary self-perpetuates, is fragile…

But thinking about Rachel’s point makes me realise that my response is facile. John, after all, performs his function in the Gospels in part because he ‘fits into certain patterns and expectations’, because he can be ‘described’ (‘as it is written’…). And yet clearly John is not in any straightforward sense simply the expression of that which is written: he exceeds it, simply by virtue of having concrete existence. I have that itch on the back of my neck that you get when creeping through a deserted mine, realising that one should have bought some decent social theory with you… The contrast between the activity of ‘describing in existing categories’ which perpetuates the existing symbolic order, and the eruption of the decisively new that re-makes that order, is clearly too blunt: ‘existing symbolic orders’ are always changing, always being deployed in new ways, always being inhabited differently. The contrast between the ‘process by which the ordinary self-perpetuates’ and ‘something else, something other…becoming visible’ is a childish one – all too closely related to other contrasts between inwardness and externality that I’ve been taught to eschew. I’m on the wrong track. Ho hum.

John the interruption

John was liminal, uncivilized. When people went to him, they went out: ἐξεπορεύετο . He eats wild, raw food; he is dressed as if fresh from Eden. Cooking, weaving, urban habitation – all the trappings of someone who is part of the world of ordinary, civilized, organized life are missing. John is a surd; he defies categorization. He is a disruptive element, and is to be found in the only place he could belong: in the desert. He is an interruption.

This interruption is what the continuity, the ongoing stability suggested by Mark’s “as it is written” looks like.

Literal and Spiritual (still more)

Okay, so here’s how I see it. Now that I’ve thought about it, I realise that all I’m doing is re-phrasing Hans Frei’s work on the sensus literalis – and, indeed, stuff I’ve said about him already – but, hey, originality is overrated.

Let’s say that the Bible is read within some weave of ecclesial practices, habits, institutions, worldview, ethos. Within that, over time, for readers thoroughly woven in to that context, there will be an ‘obvious’ way of approaching biblical texts – a sensus communis or ‘plain sense’.

Note that this ‘obvious way’

  • will almost certainly be slowly evolving;
  • won’t necessarily cover all biblical texts – simply those which feel most familiar and usable to this group;
  • won’t necessarily lead to consensus about meaning: it might, instead, simply be a consensus about the kind of argument it makes sense to have about the meaning of a particular passage in this group;
  • will shade off into other plain senses at the edges as this group is messily mixed in with other groups in a wider social setting; and
  • may, in fact, not be a single ‘plain sense’ at all, but a set of differing approaches to the Bible which manage, at least temporarily in this setting, to reinforce one another – to be held in some kind of stable equilibrium.

Now, it is only within such a practice that we can talk about ‘spiritual’ and ‘literal’ readings – because the practices by which the Bible is approached in this ‘obvious way’/’plain sense’ will be such that the Bible is both made grist for the group’s mill, sustaining and supporting its existing shape, and also in some ways (perhaps only vestigial) allowed a certain objectivity over against the needs, desires and projects of the group. And so we’re back to ‘use’ and ‘resistance to use’, and so to my earlier discussion. The term ‘literal sense’ can be used to mean either ‘plain sense’ simpliciter, or ‘that side of the plain sense that stands in objectivity over against the readers’.

Literal and spiritual (yet again)

Okay, slight wobble:

What I seem to have ended up doing is, roughly speaking, aligning ‘spiritual’ with ‘sensus communis’, both over against ‘literal’. And yet I learnt my hermeneutics from a theologian who insisted upon the connection between ‘sensus literalis’ and ‘sensus communis’. I don’t want to give up on the latter, so I think a bit more precision may be called for. Which means I may have to think, rather than simply pontificate. Damn.

Literal and spiritual (again)

Here’s the relevant extract from the Cross-Currents article:

One way of attempting to pinpoint [the distinction between literal and spiritual] is to say that ‘spiritual’ interpretation is precisely that kind of interpretation which has to find the Bible useful, or tie it into the framework of already-known truth, whereas literal interpretation is precisely that kind of interpretation which pays attention to the ways in which the Bible resists use – the ways in which it is awkward, diverse, and difficult.

Classically, spiritual interpretation arises precisely when the reader encounters something awkward in the literal sense – paradigmatically, something that is not edifying. By following strange strands of subterranean connection that link this awkward text to others, the spiritual interpreter discovers multiple ways in which the text can be woven back into edification. The text’s strangeness, registered by literal reading, becomes a doorway to the questioning and recovery of what is already known, but it will be a recovery which drives the already-known more deeply into the reader – or the reader more deeply into the already-known. Rather than aligning contemplation simply with spiritual reading per se – which might seem the obvious way to go – we might more properly say that contemplation arises within this whole literal–spiritual process: that it is driven by literal reading’s discovery of strangeness, and explored by spiritual reading’s determination to wait until that strangeness speaks edification.

An instrumentalized Church, however, lives in a broken version of this economy, in which two things have changed. On the one hand the meaning of ‘edifying’ has shifted towards ‘useful’; and on the other the spiritual reading it pursues when faced by texts which do not feed this usefulness is not a form of patience, waiting on the awkwardness discovered by the literal sense, but a form of impatience: a desire to find forms of reading which will not allow this awkwardness to intrude or distract. If literal reading is that kind of reading specifically designed to register and highlight those places where the text is awkward, where it is problematic, where it stands in the way of the uses we would made of it, then we might say that the instrumentalized Church suffers most of all from a refusal of the literal sense.

The kind of literal reading that such a Church needs to learn in order to be saved from itself is one that pays serious attention to the strangeness of the text; it is that reading which ‘resist[s] the premature unities and harmonies of non-literal reading’. Serious attention to textual questions, to grammar, to lexicography, to genre, to redaction, to historical context, to the various hermeneutics of suspicion – all the forms of questing attention which the University encourages – can serve precisely this purpose, and so make true spiritual reading (one which wrestles with the awkwardness uncovered until dawn) possible.

(The quote in the final paragraph is from Rowan Williams, ‘The discipline of Scripture’ in On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp.44–59: 47, earlier printed as ‘The literal sense of Scripture’, Modern Theology 7 (January 1991), pp. 121–134

Literal and spiritual

Let’s get this show back on the road.

Elsewhere, I have tried to relate the distinction between spiritual and literal senses, and connected it to the distinction between the use of a text and its resistance to use.

Today, I’ve been thinking about a rather different way of exploring that contrast. The contrast between literal and spiritual might map on, more or less, to the distinction between the questions, “What does this say?” and “Where does this take me?” – the first being a question expecting an answer, the second a question expecting a journey.

I don’t mean to deprecate either side.

This would, I think, mean that the old idea that you can’t prove doctrine by the spiritual sense is a sound one – because if you’re playing the ‘proving’ game, you’re playing the ‘answers’ game, and so playing the ‘literal’ game by definition. Spiritual reading is about a different sense of ‘proving’: testing, exploring.

Hmmm. Not sure how much water this holds.

Low tide

The Sea of Faith*
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

Ever since I was an undergraduate – and perhaps before – I have found that my faith, or rather my confidence in my faith, ebbs and flows. The tide is some way out at the moment, and I can hear the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of tumbling shingle. At times like this, if I set my compass by felt conviction, I find myself heading towards a somewhat sceptical agnosticism: feeling meaningful patterns, comforting claims, fraying between my fingers. Or, better, losing any sense of rhythm or tune and instead hearing only noise.

I’m not agonising about this. I’m not particularly worried. It’s partly that, to judge by past experience, these things go in cycles for me. And it’s partly that I don’t set my compass entirely by ‘felt conviction’, and do not think that I ought to. And it’s partly that I quite like it here, on the naked shingle, standing too low down to gain an overview.

* and no, I’m not aligning myself at all with another theologian who famously quoted this poem…

Baptised at the beginning

κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν

Mark 1:4

Perhaps one reason why Jesus’ baptism by John stands at the beginning here (one reason why it was found fitting for a Gospel to begin like this; one reason why the idea of Jesus’ ministry starting with his baptism took such strong hold) is that baptism was the beginning for Mark’s community as well. Baptism was what had happened when they heard the voice crying in the wilderness: it was their making-straight, their crossing of the Jordan. It was where they repented, confessed their sins – and were drawn into the orbit of Jesus, the coming of YHWH. That this stands here establishes (wittingly or unwittingly) a connection between the readers/hearers and what they are reading/hearing: the baptized reading the story of one baptized – those who have repented, and prepared themselves for the coming of God, reading/hearing of the form taken by the coming of God. One way of summarising the import of this whole text, therefore, could be: This is what you have let yourself in for.

Supersession again

Another thought that has been disrupting some of my earlier conclusions:

If we take seriously the idea of the history of ancient Israel involving an ongoing series of ideological constructions of the identity of ‘Israel’ – an ongoing series of abductions, to use the terminology I was using a few months back – what does it do to our assessment of that (series of) abduction(s) involved in early Christianity?

Person and text: different depths

One thing that struck me a while back is that I have too easily, when thinking about Christian reading of the Gospels, glossed over the difference between the inexhaustible richness of these texts and the inexhaustible richness of the human being Jesus of Nazareth.

So, for instance, a few years ago I wrote something about the doctrine of providence. At one point, I said:

[H]uman lives are not well captured by sets of principles, or by generalities…. [H]uman lives are, if you like, as particular as existence gets…. Human lives above all are realities that call us to keep on paying attention, realities which undermine and question and irritate and complexify any diagrams or systems we might have. If you’re trying to understand a human life, you never get to a point where your understanding, your grasp of that life, can stand in for the life itself. If you’re trying to understand a theory or a set of principles, maybe you can get to a point where you’ve thoroughly internalised them; but you can’t internalise another person, another life. So to commit to letting one’s understanding of providence be shaped and challenged by a human life – by Jesus Christ – is to relativise reliance upon abstractions; it is a commitment which undermines glibness.

Before very long, however, the piece finds me talking about the disruptive unfinalisability of scriptural reading:

[I]f Christians approach the doctrine of providence in this way, what it points to is not a set of answers to questions about what is going on in the world, nor primarily to a feeling of assurance (and certainly not ‘comfortable assurance’) that the world is in good hands, but to an ongoing process of questioning and inquiry and learning. So, I think constructing the doctrine of providence in this way leaves Christians with, to draw on a famous image used by Karl Barth, the Bible (the primary witness to Jesus Christ) in one hand, the newspaper in the other, and no way of putting either down.

It’s not that I can think of no way of making this transition. But the more I think about it, the more I find that I’m sounding to myself like some combination of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Martin Kähler, and Rudolf Bultmann – which is not who I thought I was at all!