Saturday, April 26, 2008

Historical Criticism - More Thoughts

As often happens, I received a very fascinating series of follow-up emails from DFB in response to my previous post on historical-critical method and the possibility of its eventual incorporation into 'faithful' exegesis. He sent this link to James Kugel's thoughts on the matter.

Kugel essentially says that criticism of the Bible and faith-based reading are methods that are irreconcilable with one another, and that faith commitments of scholars (or at the very least a felt need to reverence the Bible in some way) color their judgments, causing them to distort what the Bible actually says.

I agree with Kugel almost entirely. On the other hand, I would like to stand behind what I wrote two days ago, that discoveries from critical methods simply raise new areas of discord in the text, but that perceived discordance has traditionally been seen by Catholic commentators as a spur to further exploration and 'disputatio' in the sense of explaining what it all means (as distinct from what episodes in isolation mean or meant). In this context, I used the word 'harmonize' to describe what traditional commentators do. Having given this more thought, I should qualify or at least define what I mean by that.

I do not mean that commentators are necessarily aiming to display that different places in the Bible say the same thing on the literal level. This certainly has been done, and the gospel 'harmonies' are the best example of this. If Matthew tells us that Mary and Joseph lived in a 'house' in Bethlehem, then it must have been purchased after their sojourn their for the census (when they had to stay in the stable), to give an example. Personally, I don't believe that this sort of literal and historical harmonization is necessary to safeguard the Faith against the possibility of it being untrue.

But these narratives do need to be harmonized in the sense that they each carry a 'leitmotif' about the Incarnation that invites us into contemplation of the condescension of God's logos in human flesh. Harmony does not mean 'homology' in the sense that all parts of Scripture must say 'the same thing'. Part of the essence of Catholicism is what some call the 'both/and' approach (in contrast to the Kierkegaardian Either/Or). We hold in tension things that appear not to go together, but in light of the mystery of God can be understood as cohering. For example, the world is fallen and is a source of temptation, but Christ came into the world not to condemn but that it might be saved through him. Works are of no avail for salvation, and yet faith without works is lifeless. Jesus Christ is both God and man, inseparable and yet without confusion of natures. And so forth. Each datum must be inserted into the entirety of the mystery, where it finds its fullest meaning.

At times, apparent contradictions are simply left to stand as they are within the Tradition. This approach is not unlike the paradoxical koans of some Buddhist traditions. If enlightenment were something that we could grasp totally by our own reasoning, then we would not have needed Revelation and Tradition in the first place.

Because Tradition is a translation into human terms of mysteries that transcend any linguistic representation, the doctrine of the Church, while never 'changing' is always developing and filling out. Historical criticism of the Bible assists this process by drawing attention to tensions within the text that Tradition has not yet addressed. But the essence of the Tradition is not in the end dependent on human readings of the Bible, but on the teaching of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Scripture provides a touchstone, but the fullness of the Truth is the encounter with Jesus Christ, not the doctrinal structure that we can derive from Biblical witness.

I will end with an analogy, hopefully helpful to you.

Von Balthasar's saying that 'Truth is symphonic' can give us an idea of what it means to 'harmonize' ideas. The opening melody of Beethoven's Eroica: what does it mean? Plunked out on the piano, absent the orchestral substructure, it doesn't sound like much at all, but with the accompaniment, and following on the heels of two sharply sounded major chords to open the symphony, this melody sounds 'heroic'. It returns in other contexts and its meaning is altered subtly; it undergoes development and potentialities in it are demonstrated that we might not have imagined at the opening of the piece.

Finally, at the recapitulation, the horn plays this melody in the 'wrong place', four measures too early. Our heroic melody has become a kind of light-hearted spoof. Does this ruin the piece? Actually, for many lovers off Beethoven, it is the moment they cherish above all, precisely because we see that B was not an automaton, but an artist.

Our Creator God is an artist and a lover, not an author of systematic dogmatic treatises.

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