Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Brevard Childs: champion of orthodoxy

This is a continuation of my previous post:  the second part of my response to Brevard Childs's critique of Walter Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.1

I began the previous post by saying that the article isn't very flattering to Childs. In this post, it will become clear why I see it that way.

The little texts and the Great Tradition:

First, allow me to juxtapose two of Childs's statements. The point is to demonstrate that Childs's criticism of Brueggemann is unjustified.

criticism; pp. 230-31 summary; p. 228
The biblical editors retained the radical scepticism of the book of Ecclesiastes largely in an unredactored [uncensored] form. But they added in an epilogue a rule for properly interpreting the book, namely, it is to be heard within the framework of Torah (Eccles. 12:13f.). When Brueggemann assigns an independent role to such traditions as counter- testimony, he is running in the very face of Israel's canonical witness. [Brueggemann's approach] would seek to do justice to the radical unsettlement evoked by the new postmodern epistemological situation with its insistence on pluralism. … Accordingly, interpretation is defined by Brueggemann as an ongoing process of negotiating among the full range of conflictional testimonies which avoids any absolute claims — whether historical or ontological — beyond the court of appeal found in the biblical text itself.

The criticism of Brueggemann's method, on the left, has already been explored in the previous post. However, I now call your attention to the statement highlighted in yellow. As long as the book of Ecclesiastes is "heard within the framework of Torah", the biblical editors were content to allow the community of faith to study it.

Now consider Childs's summary of Brueggemann's method, on the right. The claims of the various testimonies are to be adjudicated by "the court of appeal found in the biblical text itself."

The biblical editors insisted that we must hear Ecclesiastes within the framework of Torah; Brueggemann is committed to precisely the same thing. Childs's objection appears to be unjustified.

Brueggemann falls into error, according to Childs, when he assigns an independent role to Ecclesiastes (and other such countertestimonial texts). But Brueggemann emphatically denies the charge:
Of course nothing could be further from the truth. I have consistently said that the different testimonies are endlessly in tension with and corrected by other testimony. None is freestanding, none is isolated, none is cut off. (p. 235)

The slight variation between [Professor Childs's] approach and mine I believe to be a more benign variation than his rhetoric suggests. What is at issue is the endlessly tricky relation between 'The Great Tradition' and the 'little texts.' … It is my concern that in future generations, the Church will be able to attend to the 'little texts,' even as it commits to the Great Tradition. (p. 237)
I think that's sage advice:  attend to the "little texts"; commit to the Great Tradition.

Childs, champion of orthodoxy:

Childs, on the other hand, approves of the subordination of some of the voices found within the biblical text. I am not putting words into his mouth. I quoted his statement to that effect in the previous post:  "the biblical editors subordinated [certain] voices", including the radical scepticism of Ecclesiastes (p. 230).

Childs approves of this work of subordination. Brueggemann errs because "he feels free to reconstruct voices on which Israel's authors had already rendered a judgment" (p. 230).

Indeed — and here's the point I have been building up to — Childs attempts to marginalize Brueggemann's voice. Childs makes himself the champion of orthodoxy:  he argues that Brueggemann's method tilts carelessly toward heresy.
It may be that one is philosophically justified in characterising Brueggemann's approach as postmodern. However, from a theological perspective the closest analogy is found in the Early Church's struggle with Gnosticism. …

One does not have to look far to discover the striking analogies between Brueggemann's postmodernism and ancient Gnosticism. Both operate within an overarching philosophical system in which [Brueggemann's] 'imaginative construal' closely parallels Gnostic 'speculation' as a means for correcting the received biblical tradition. Both approaches work with a sharply defined dualism between a God of creation who is known and predictable, and one who is hidden, unknown, and capricious.
By characterizing Brueggemann's method as analogous to Gnosticism, Childs sets out to consign Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament to a place outside the pale of orthodox Christian teaching.

I submit that Childs's canonical approach has a natural tendency in that direction. If you accept that the biblical editors deliberately subordinated unsettling voices like that of Ecclesiastes, and you regard that subordinating activity as legitimate, inevitably you will be tempted to subordinate unsettling voices like Brueggemann's to your vision of orthodoxy.

The lived reality of the believing Church:

Childs speaks of "an established range of truthful witness". Brueggemann would not disagree with that way of expressing things.

But for Brueggemann, the radical scepticism of Ecclesiastes (and other countertestimonial texts) are within what is, by Childs's admission, a range of truthful witness. Here Brueggemann appeals to the lived reality of the believing Church:
What I have done is to give 'other voices' a serious hearing, for there is no doubt that in Scripture there are voices of witness in profound tension with each other. The issue turns on which witnesses are truthful, but it has been the lived reality of the Church that different witnesses in Scripture have been heard as truthful on different occasions. …

The silence and absence of God is indeed a lived reality that must be fully taken into account. I have not wanted to let any 'large' ecclesial claims censor the lived reality of the believing Church.

(pp. 235-36)
Update:  I wasn't quite satisfied with the ending of this post last night, but I couldn't think what to add. Here's the point I didn't quite get to.

One of the great insights which emerges from Brueggemann's approach is that "postmodern" experiences are not at all new or unprecedented. The silence and absence of God; anomie; alienation; fragmentation; meaninglessness; doubt and confusion — all these postmodern themes were known to the ancient Israelites and reported honestly in scripture.

Brueggemann's approach is explicitly pastoral. He recognizes the immense potential of the "little texts" of scripture to address the distinctive needs of a postmodern people. Hence his determined effort to reclaim these voices in the service of the Church.

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1Scottish Journal of Theology vol. 53, no. 2, 2000, pp. 228-233, with a reply by Brueggemann at pp. 234-238.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Two heavyweight scholars slug it out

Phil Sumpter suggested that I read Brevard Childs's critique of Walter Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. The critique, with a reply from Brueggemann, was published in the Scottish Journal of Theology seven years ago.1

Readers of our respective blogs will know that Phil's theological sympathies lie with Childs, whereas mine lie with Brueggemann. I found the exchange between Childs and Brueggemann illuminating, but not very flattering to Childs.

The core disagreement:

Here's an excerpt from Childs's article which directs our attention to the key difference in the two scholars' approaches.
The present form of the biblical literature emerged during a long process of collecting, shaping and transmitting a wide variety of different traditions arranged in sections of Torah, Prophets, and Writings toward the end of serving communities of Israel as an authoritative guide of faith and practice.

In this process various editors exercised a critical function in registering from the received traditions that which they deemed truthful and authoritative. This shaping thus involved a Sachkritik [i.e., the editors passed judgement on the texts that had been handed down to them] which was not simply reflective of private, idiosyncratic agenda, but which arose from actual communal practice and belief. Accordingly, Moses not Korah, Jeremiah not Hananiah, were judged to be faithful tradents of divine revelation.

In a word, Israel shaped its literature confessionally to bear testimony to what it received as containing an established range of truthful witness. At the same time, the biblical editors subordinated other voices, either by placing them within a negative setting, or omitting them [from the canon] altogether as deleterious to Israel's faith.

(p. 230; both the emphasis and the paragraph breaks were added by me)
Here we have a concise description of Childs's "canonical approach" to Old Testament interpretation. The editors of the Bible did not pass on Israel's traditional texts uncritically. They shaped the texts during the process of transmission; they contextualized the texts by inserting editorial remarks; and they left other texts out of the canon altogether. Hence the canon functions as a control, subtly determining how the reader interprets any individual text.

There's nothing unique to Childs about the analysis so far. Critical scholars agree that this editorializing activity went on during the transmission of Israel's traditional texts. They also agree that the goal of that activity was to set boundaries on interpretation — i.e., to subordinate certain voices.

Where Childs stands apart from other critical scholars, including Brueggemann, is in maintaining that canon as an instrument of control is good. According to Childs, we must respect the boundaries that have been marked out for us. Evangelicals would likely agree with that statement, but it's unusual to hear it from a critical scholar.

Childs tests Brueggemann's book against this standard:
In contrast, when Brueggemann seeks to describe a category of countertestimony to the so-called core tradition, he feels free to reconstruct voices on which Israel's authors had already rendered a judgment. … [For example,] the biblical editors retained the radical scepticism of the book of Ecclesiastes largely in an unredactored [uncensored] form. But they added in an epilogue a rule for properly interpreting the book, namely, it is to be heard within the framework of Torah (Eccles. 12:13f.). When Brueggemann assigns an independent role to such traditions as countertestimony, he is running in the very face of Israel's canonical witness.

Yet it is also obvious that Israel's genuine complaints before God constitute a major positive witness within a large portion of the Bible. They are present in the Psalter, Prophets, and Wisdom literature as a truthful testimony to Israel's experience before God in order not to contradict, but rather to establish its core tradition of faith.

(pp. 230-31; emphasis added)
Ecclesiastes as a case study:

In the reference to Ecclesiastes, we have a case study of the differences between Childs and Brueggemann.

Ecclesiastes seems to be a very humanistic book. For example:
For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? (3:19-21)2
Clearly this text stands in uneasy tension with other parts of the Bible.

In Brueggemann's view, it is a mistake to try to eliminate that tension. We must allow Qoheleth to testify to his experience. It is an authentic experience that many believers can identify with; it is a legitimate countertestimony to Israel's core tradition. We must not paper over the cracks in the biblical witness.

Childs, on the other hand, says that the editors of scripture have already passed judgement on the book of Ecclesiastes. He agrees that Ecclesiastes is a truthful testimony to Israel's experience. But he adds that the editors have carefully circumscribed (subordinated) Qoheleth's voice by appending a critical comment at the end of the book:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Eccl. 12:13-14)
According to Childs, the apparent problem now vanishes. Ecclesiastes doesn't contradict the rest of the Bible. Because of this editorial appendix to the book, Ecclesiastes establishes Israel's core tradition.


I have more to say, but I will do so in a follow-up post. For now, let's draw some conclusions.
  • The distinction between "liberal" and "conservative" is sometimes facile, and Childs illustrates one way in which it can break down. Childs is "liberal" insofar as he is a critical scholar. Evangelicals typically insist that the Pentateuch, for example, was written by Moses, under YHWH's inspiration. They would be reluctant to concede that editors have altered the text in the process of transmission.

    But Childs ultimately arrives at very conservative conclusions. He champions orthodoxy, insisting that voices like that of Qoheleth must be subordinated to the witness of the canon as a whole. For that reason, Childs is likely to appeal to evangelicals, who engage in a similar practice (the "harmonization" of scripture).

    So is Childs a liberal or a conservative? Answer: Yes.

    And Childs is not so exceptional. James Dunn, for example, is a New Testament scholar who works within liberal presuppositions but often arrives at conservative conclusions.

  • One can see that there is considerable agreement between Childs and Brueggemann, because they both accept the findings of critical scholarship. They agree that considerable editorializing activity has taken place during the process of transmission of the biblical texts.

  • In the end, the difference between them boils down to a value judgement. Childs considers the data and deems the editorializing activity good. Brueggemann considers the data and deems the editorializing activity suspect.

    We all know that the Church (and the synagogue, though it's not my place to say it) has a long, problematic history of suppressing dissenting voices. Leaders in the Church have a vested interest in retaining their position of privilege. To do so necessarily means that marginalized people must be kept on the margins.

    One clear example of this is the subordination of women to male leaders. Consider the data. At one point, St. Paul says there is no male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. But at other points, Paul says that women must not speak in the assembly; and they are not to teach or to exercise authority over men.
    As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1Co. 14:33b-35)
    What shall we make of this text? Is this Paul's voice? Or — as the evangelical scholar Gordon Fee argues — is this an interpolation by a later editor of Paul's letter to the Corinthians?

    If it is an interpolation, should we accept the opinion of the later editor? (That would seem to be the logical conclusion of Child's canonical approach.) Or should we insist that the editorial activity distorts Paul's voice, and allow Paul to have his say? In my view, we should follow Paul's egalitarian principle and open up church leadership to women.

    Thus I come down firmly on the side of Brueggemann. The editorializing activity really did take place, as Childs and Brueggemann agree. But this tendency of the orthodox to suppress voices that make them uncomfortable — I regard it as suspect, with Brueggemann, pace Childs.
More to come in the next post — probably 48 hours from now.

(update:  the follow-up post can be found here)

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1SJT vol. 53, no. 2, 2000, pp. 228-233. Brueggemann's reply is at pp. 234-238.

2Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A time to tear down, and a time to build up

Some years ago, I knew a woman who had taken a course in pastoral counselling at a local seminary. The course was a syncretistic blend of Roman Catholic theology and Jungian psychotherapy. She had to go undergo psychotherapy sessions as part of the program.

When I met her, she was a mess. Maybe she was emotionally fragile before she took the course — I don't know. But my impression was, her therapists had taken her psyche apart and failed to put it back together again.

Sometimes I think seminaries do the same thing to their students.

You apply to a seminary innocently expecting to be equipped for pastoral ministry. Instead, you are introduced to the modern "science" of critical scholarship, which takes scripture apart, piece by piece. (All science uses this process of breaking a thing apart into its constituent pieces to try to understand it.)

You enter seminary with a heart overflowing with faith and devotion; you exit seminary wondering if you can trust anything the Bible says on any topic. And voila! — here's your degree — you've graduated into pastoral ministry!

The experience isn't unique to seminarians, of course. University studies undermine the faith of many young Christians. Let me quote a post by Avdat, who shared this gem from Walter Brueggemann:
Walter Brueggemann would give a rather cheeky talk about how one's changing view of scripture parallels one's changing view of the family of origin:
  1. "The Bible is the Word of God." This is what we say when we're young and our knowledge of the scriptures is limited to what we learned in Sunday School.

    This statement is not unlike saying, "I have a normal family." It's a statement of love, respect and great naivete.

  2. "The Bible is a mess of contradictions, myths and legends." This is what we say after we take a religion class in college. Or, after we're put through the meat grinder of Biblical studies in a mainline seminary.

    It's not unlike saying, "My family is a dysfunctional mess, and I'm not coming home for Christmas!" The latter statement, like the former, is the product of some distance and new, third-party perspective, the therapist substituting for the professor. Oh yes, and there's anger in both statements.

  3. "But they're still my family." After a while you own them again as your own. You don't pretend that you haven't learned that your father is an alcoholic and your mother is co-dependent, but they're yours, and you still love them, warts and all.

    And if we can say, "It's still the Word of God" (two creation stories and all), then we've made the parallel and necessary third move.
Brueggemann admitted that seminaries are a lot better at moving people from stage one to stage two than they are from stage two to stage three.
Brueggemann's other way of putting this is to speak of a cycle of (1) Orientation; (2) Disorientation; and (3) New Orientation.1 In time, the "new" orientation will suffer disorientation in its turn.

It's a rather cynical analysis, I suppose, but how else would one grow? You can't make progress while keeping everything the same. It is to have one's cake and eat it, too. Thus remaining innocent (ignorant?) isn't an option. God has a way of shaking us out of our complacency, however disturbing we may find the process.

Not so long ago, I left a comment on a blog in which I applied this paradigm to evangelicals and liberals.
I have had some experience in both liberal and evangelical churches. The evangelicals have a blinkered perspective; they duck the hard questions. But the liberal pastors are very, very confused, which of course filters down to their parishioners!

I am fond of Brueggemann's notion that believers pass through a cycle of orientation / disorientation / new orientation. Evangelicals seem to me to be stuck at the "orientation" stage — they need to go on a voyage of discovery, have their world rocked a bit. But many liberals are stuck at the disorientation stage.
They're stuck there because that's where liberal seminaries leave their pastors.

I submit that all seminaries should attend to Ecclesiastes 3:3. Evangelicals need to understand that there is a time to tear down, in good scientific fashion. A time for analysis ("the abstract separation of a whole into its constituent parts for study").

But all scholars and professors need to understand that there is also a time to build up. A time for synthesis ("the combination of ideas into a complex whole").

Indeed, the building up is the most important part — the goal of the whole undertaking. If our seminaries tear the Bible apart and fail to put it back together again, they do pastors — and the Church — a grave disservice.

I've been through this process of disorientation myself. In some ways, I feel as if I'm only now entering the "new orientation" phase. Hence the title of this blog:  Emerging From Babel.

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1This is the outline Brueggemann utilizes in his survey of the Psalms.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Defilement, part 2

Let me briefly recapitulate part 1:
  • Defilement and sin are discrete, albeit overlapping, constructs.

  • Christians ought to learn what the references to defilement mean, because such references permeate the Bible (including the New Testament).

  • We took the following quote from Paul Ricoeur as a summary statement:  "The repertory of defilement appears to us sometimes too broad, sometimes too narrow, or unbalanced."1

  • It is too broad (from our perspective) insofar as it contains some matters that seem perfectly innocent.

  • Second, it is too narrow insofar as it gives short shrift to misdeeds that we regard as serious offences.

  • Third, it is unbalanced
but that is where we pick up the argument in this post.

3. Unbalanced:

The purity / defilement system is "unbalanced", Ricoeur tells us. By this he means that relatively inconsequential matters (from our perspective) are regarded as grave.

We have already seen this in the saying attributed to Jesus in Mt. 23 (quoted in part one). Jesus mocked the Pharisees for scrupulously observing the tithe (tithing even their herbs and spices) while neglecting the "weightier" matters of the law.

But Ricoeur doesn't discuss tithing. He focuses on a different characteristic of the "repertory" of defilement:  one that has long puzzled me.
One is struck by the importance and the gravity attached to the violation of interdictions of a sexual character in the economy of defilement. The prohibitions against incest, sodomy, abortion, relations at forbidden times — and sometimes places — are so fundamental that the inflation of the sexual is characteristic of the whole system of defilement, so that an indissoluble complicity between sexuality and defilement seems to have been formed from time immemorial. (p. 28)
To illustrate Ricoeur's observation, I would call attention to 1Co. 6:9-10 —
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived:  neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.2
It seems to me that the Church devotes a disproportionate amount of attention — and emotional voltage — to the sexual sins on Paul's list. For example, I have never heard of a believer being confronted with this text because s/he is greedy. In an acquisitive, capitalist society, am I to suppose there are no greedy people in our churches?

I submit that we do not really believe what Paul says here:  that the greedy will not inherit the kingdom of God. On the other hand, we are prepared to believe it with respect to fornicators, adulterers, and homosexuals. Those people are storing up wrath for themselves on the day of God's judgement — we know it in our very bones.

Why are we preoccupied by sexual sins? Because the fear of defilement still determines our responses at a deep, unconscious level. We acknowledge that greed is a sin; but homosexual activity elicits a greater emotional response from us because unconsciously we regard it as a defiling sin.3

Conservative Christians may dispute what I have just said. It is clear in their minds — indeed, it is a core part of their identity — that society is wrong when it winks at fornication, adultery, and homosexuality. But even conservatives must recognize the validity of Ricoeur's point when we shift our attention to other biblical texts:
When you are encamped against your enemies, then you shall keep yourself from every evil thing.

If any man among you becomes unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he shall go outside the camp. He shall not come inside the camp, but when evening comes, he shall bathe himself in water, and as the sun sets, he may come inside the camp. (Deut. 23:9-11)
Like the law concerning menstrual uncleanness, this law refers to a matter that is entirely involuntary (since the man is asleep at the time). Moreover, we must surely be struck by the fact that an innocuous sexual matter is regarded as a gravely serious source of defilement.

Behind the text is an unstated fear that Israel will lose a battle because of one soldier's defilement. Better to have a mighty man of valour sit out the battle than have him fight in a state of uncleanness due to a nocturnal emission!

  1. Broader, narrower, unbalanced
    The purpose of this post was to demonstrate that defilement and sin are discrete constructs. By comparison to the offences that we usually mean when we speak of "sin", the repertory of defilement is broader at some points, narrower at other points, and unbalanced. In particular, it gives disproportionate significance to sexual matters.

  2. Quasi-material
    Ricoeur suggests that sexual matters receive disproportionate emphasis because of their physicality — the bodily fluids associated with sex. Sexual impurity
    is connected with the presence of a material "something" that transmits itself by contact and contagion. … By many of its traits sexuality supports the ambiguity of a quasi-materiality of defilement. (p. 28)
    Thus the puzzling preoccupation with sexual matters gives us an insight into the nature of defilement:  it is "quasi-material".

    Defilement blurs the distinction between physical contamination and ethical contamination. It is this ambiguity that enables defilement to function as a symbol. Biblical texts can use the language of (physical) defilement to symbolize the stain (on one's soul) which results from sin.

    Likewise, we can take biblical references to defilement and "translate" them, treating them as if they were references to sin. But we should always be conscious of this process when we engage in it. We may be reading something into the text that is actually one step removed from its original scope.

  3. Utility as a symbol for sin
    Finally, I return to Isaiah 6, the text quoted at the beginning of part one. Isaiah cries out (1) "I am a man of unclean lips," and (2) "I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." Note the second statement. Here we are unmistakably in the realm of defilement (as opposed to sin). Isaiah implies that uncleanness is a kind of contagion, communicated from one contaminated person to the next via physical contact.

    Isaiah is seized with dread, for a defiled person must die when he enters the presence of a God who is rightly described as "Holy, Holy, Holy". But perhaps the text ought to say, "Pure, Pure, Pure"? Here the language is already subtly shifting away from defilement/purity toward sin/holiness.

    One of the seraphim flies to Isaiah. He touches Isaiah's mouth with a burning coal, taken from the altar. And he says, "Behold, … your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for." Here we see the same juxtaposition yet again. The altar exists for the express purpose of removing defilement (through rites carried out by priests). Thus, when the seraph touches a coal from the altar to Isaiah's lips, he is performing a rite of purification.

    But the seraph then speaks of guilt and sin, effectively changing the topic from the physical (defilement) to the ethical (sin).
I hope that this (long!) post has clarified the distinction between defilement and sin, and shed light on at least one biblical text.

But it is only an introduction to a topic that warrants a series of posts. More to come in due course!

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1The Symbolism of Evil, transl. Emerson Buchanan, Beacon Press, 1967, p. 26.

2Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

3Cf. Walter Brueggemann's remarks on this topic. It is Brueggemann's impression "that the enormous hostility to homosexual persons … does not concern issues of justice and injustice, but rather concerns the more elemental issues of purity — cleanness and uncleanness. This more elemental concern is evidenced in the widespread notion that homosexuals must be disqualified from access to wherever society has its important stakes and that physical contact with them is contaminating."Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy, Fortress Press, 1997, p. 194.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Come on and join the fun!

The readers of Emerging From Babel have been specially invited to participate in the dialogue over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry.
Stephen of Emerging from Babel and ElShaddai Edwards of He is Sufficient have blogrolls of interest. It would be great fun to get some of the bloggers they list involved in discussions we have.
The quote is from a comment on this post.

I'm honoured to receive John's attention and encouragement. I am no scholar, whereas John is a very erudite individual. He specializes in the translation of Hebrew texts. Recently he has posted a series on the philosophy of translation, which has triggered a lot of discussion with fellow bloggers. John advocates a "literary" translation:
The debate has been hamstrung to some extent because of the thesis I began with:

If a text is literary, its dynamic equivalent must also be literary.

That led some people to conclude that I thought the original language texts of the Bible are written in a uniform literary style. Nothing was further from my thoughts. It is the leveling to an identical, monotonous style and register which has long characterized Bible translation. It is this leveling I protest.
The quote is from the third post, but whole series is interesting (one, two, three). In any event, check out the blog — any biblioblogger is bound to find topics of interest. And after all, you've been specially invited!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Defilement: an alien concept that permeates the Bible

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

       "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
          the whole earth is full of his glory!"

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!"

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for."

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me."

       Isaiah 6:1-81
In this text, Isaiah employs the language of defilement (crying out that he is an unclean representative of an unclean people); whereas the seraphim employs the language of sin ("your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for").

With that observation, we are plunged into the topic that I want to explore in a series of posts.


Defilement and sin are discrete, if overlapping, constructs. Contemporary Christians living in the West rarely give careful thought to defilement. And yet it appears again and again throughout every part of the Bible — including the New Testament!
If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. … [For] the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (1Co. 7:12-14)
What?! But … but … but … I thought that was old covenant talk!

And indeed, I confess that I don't understand the text I've just quoted. Sin and atonement, I understand. But defilement as a contagion that is passed on from parent to child? What are the implications of 1Co. 7 for a child who dies? Did Christ's atonement address the problem of uncleanness as well as the problem of sin?

I am embarking on this series of posts because I have only a partial understanding of the sociological construct, defilement, and yet it permeates the Bible. I don't know yet what conclusions will emerge from the study. I don't have settled convictions at this point; I only have questions.

We don't attend to defilement for two reasons. First, it is utterly alien to us, as will become clear in the next section.

Second, references to defilement are easily "translated" and regarded as references to sin. This is precisely what we see in the Isaiah 6 text, when the language shifts from Isaiah's uncleanness to his guilt and sin. We engage in this sort of "translation" all the time without ever pausing to consider what we're doing.

But there's an interpretive problem lurking in the shadows here. We need to shed some light on it.

Too broad, too narrow, and unbalanced:

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur will be our guide as we consider the topic:  primarily The Symbolism of Evil, a book-length examination of defilement, sin, and guilt.

In the book's first chapter, Ricoeur explains why we are so befuddled by defilement. He writes, "The repertory of defilement appears to us sometimes too broad, sometimes too narrow, or unbalanced."2

1. Too broad:

By "too broad", Ricoeur means that the category, sources of defilement, contains some things that seem perfectly innocent to us. And so they are:  for "innocent" is the language of sin, but defilement is oriented to a different set of concerns.

Ricoeur offers two non-biblical examples of sources of defilement:  "the frog that leaps into the fire [and] the hyena that leaves its excrements in the neighborhood of a tent." Biblical parallels are easily supplied. For example, "You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness" (Lev. 18:19).

Note that the text does not merely forbid sexual relations during a woman's period; it says that the woman is unclean during her period. Rabbis later forebade any physical contact with women. You never know whether a woman is menstruating; thus she must always be regarded as a source of defilement. You can't even shake hands with her.

Once again, we find ourselves stammering incoherently, but … but … but. Avoiding physical contact with a woman because it might lead to lust and sexual immorality — that we understand. But this? This is alien to our way of thinking.

We're shocked to see that intent isn't taken into consideration. For example, in English law there is no culpability unless the guilty act (actus reus) is accompanied by the guilty mind (mens rea). That makes sense to us. But defilement is often involuntary, as with menstruation. According to Lev. 18:19, a woman becomes unclean by virtue of her period even though she has no choice in the matter.

We're also shocked because menstruation is a natural biological function, essential to reproduction — part of God's design! Why should a menstruating woman be regarded as unclean and therefore to be spurned? In this instance, the category is too broad for our liking.

2. Too narrow:

In other instances, the category is too narrow. The impurity / defilement system gives short shrift to misdeeds that we regard as serious offences. According to Ricoeur, theft, lying, and sometimes even homicide are not regarded as sources of defilement.

But you can't say that about the Bible, can you? The sorts of ethical concerns mentioned by Ricoeur are ubiquitous in scripture, appearing alongside the parallel interest in defilement. Indeed, the legal texts surprise us by not making a distinction between deeds that we would separate into different categories. Leviticus 19, for example, says (1) Don't hate your brother; (2) Don't wear a garment made of two different kinds of cloth; (3) When you plant a tree, don't eat its fruit prior to the fifth year; and (4) Don't interpret omens or tell fortunes.

From our perspective, this is a grab-bag of disparate concerns. But at least some of the items on the list (love for one's kinfolk; abstaining from occult practices) strike us as matters of "real" moral consequence. No part of the Bible is concerned exclusively with defilement; sin is an ever-present preoccupation of the biblical texts.

And yet — if you stop to think about this, you realize that Ricoeur's observation is relevant to some very serious theological problems. How could Abraham have lied (twice!), saying that Sarah wasn't his wife? Why does polygamy appear to be an accepted practice in many parts of the Old Testament? How is it possible that a Psalm (used in worship!) should conclude with the benediction, "Blessed shall he be who takes your little [children] / and dashes them against the rock"?!

And how did the Pharisees get things so ass-backwards (from our perspective)?
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. (Mt. 23:23)
Here Ricoeur's observation begins to shed light on the biblical texts. The purity / defilement system can absorb major ethical lapses without blinking. The category, sources of defilement, seems to us to be too narrow. Some very significant offences are left off the list.

On the one hand, the "repertory" of defilement is too broad:  it includes things that ought not to be there, in our view. On the other hand, the category is too narrow:  some very significant things are left out.

[More to come! Because of the length of this post, I've decided to divide it into two parts. Part two is already basically written. I will probably publish it on Sunday evening.]

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, transl. Emerson Buchanan, Beacon Press, 1967, p. 26. The material following the quote is a summary of pp. 26-29.

Monday, October 15, 2007

On preaching the text, not the subtext

Today I have a classic Jon Stewart sketch for you. Full disclosure:  I am a Canadian and, like most of my fellow Canadians, I am counting down the months until President Bush is out of office.

But I'm not posting this video (solely) to make a political point. It's a clever analysis of speech-making, as relevant to preachers as to politicians.

Stewart pillories the President for delivering the subtext of his speeches instead of the text. Don't we preachers sometimes make the same mistake? If Bush arguably is a meta-President, perhaps sometimes we are meta-preachers!

For example, say you want to convey to a congregation that the word of God is living and active. Do you tell them that:  "I'm here to assure you that the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword"? Or do you deliver a message that will cause the hearers to experience the word carrying out its mysterious work, quickening and convicting them?

So we're not laughing at you, Mr. President. We're laughing ruefully with you.
[snigger snigger snigger]

Friday, October 12, 2007

A recitation of Hebrews 9-10

Hat tip to Knotwurth Mentioning — my university-aged son! — for calling attention to the video embedded below.

It's very cool that my son is old enough to be a partner in dialogue! Knotwurth was responding to my post on philosopher Paul Ricoeur, Spoken Word, Sacred Text. He quite rightly saw that this video illustrates Ricoeur's point:
It is the function of preaching to reverse the relation from written to spoken. In that sense preaching is more fundamental to Hebrew and Christian tradition because of the nature of the text that has to be reconverted to word, in contrast with Scripture.

At one point, people are moved to applause — but tentatively, as if they're not sure it's an appropriate reaction. Later, they just let 'er rip. It isn't often that a congregation is transported by scripture like this!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Now and not yet: Jesus' error, part 2

Thanks to all of you for your insightful comments on the previous post. You have grappled gamely with the problem I raised: Did Jesus make an error when he (evidently) predicted that the eschaton would come within a generation of his ministry?

You offered the following solutions:
  • The Son of Man coming in his kingdom (Mark 9:1 // Mt. 16:28 // Luke 9:27) may have referred to the transfiguration. (suggested by James)
  • In context, Mark 13:29-30 (// Mt. 24:34 // Luke 21:32) may have referred to the destruction of Jerusalem. (again, James)
  • Perhaps Jesus meant only that his prophecies about the end times will all be fulfilled within the scope of a lifetime. (suggested by Cliff)
  • The prophecy may have been conditional. (Jamie)
  • Finally, John observed that we must also keep in mind Mark 13:32 ("But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father") and Acts 1:7 ("It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority").1
Jamie's suggestion is intriguing. Would the kingdom have come then and there, if the Jews had accepted the Gospel and embraced Jesus as their Messiah? If so, would the Romans have crucified Jesus anyway, or would the crucifixion never have happened? The latter possibility is almost unthinkable from a Christian perspective.

We'll come back to John's comment below. I think it's an important counterweight to the appearance of watertight certainty that the other sayings possess.

As for your other suggestions, I think they all have merit. Meanwhile, the fact that there are so many attempts at a solution is evidence that interpreters have struggled to understand Jesus' sayings over the years.

In this post, I want to offer three theological concepts which, taken together, at least reduce the magnitude of the problem.

1. Now and not yet:

In my view, Jesus' prediction was fulfilled in part. The New Testament authors generally agree that the kingdom of God was inaugurated with (a) Jesus' resurrection followed by (b) the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

Both are eschatological events — both were supposed to happen at the end of history, not part way through history. That's why St. Paul refers to the resurrection (1Co. 15:20) and the indwelling Spirit (Ro. 8:23) as "firstfruits". Again, Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit as a down payment. We have received a partial fulfillment now, guaranteeing that a perfect fulfillment will follow in due course.

The eschaton has been inaugurated (it is "now") but not consummated (it is "not yet"). This is the first theological concept we must bear in mind. Scholars use this terminology, now and not yet, to capture the paradoxical nature of the church age. John's Gospel provides a classic example of this now/not yet tension at 5:25 —
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
The concept implies that Jesus' prediction was fulfilled, if only in part. It also explains why the first generation of Christians lived in such fervid expectation of Christ's return. First there were Jesus' predictions; then those predictions were followed by unmistakably eschatological events. Surely Jesus' return could not lag far behind!

2. Jesus' self-emptying:

But Jesus did not return immediately, and so the question persists. Did Jesus err, at least in part?

In my view, there's no getting around it:  what happened wasn't exactly what Jesus expected and confidently predicted. Here we must return to the sayings John called to our attention — particularly Mark 13:32.
But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
This saying is another problem passage. At least, it's problematic for folks who assume that Jesus possessed all of the divine attributes, including omniscience, even during the period of his incarnation. And yet St. Paul says that Jesus "emptied" himself (Php. 2:7, NRSV) during the period of his ministry.

This self-emptying (Gk. kenosis) is the second theological concept we must bear in mind. Logically, Jesus would have to divest himself of at least some of the divine traits in order to be considered fully human. To be human is, by definition, to be subject to limitations which cannot apply to God.

And so it is with Mark 13:32, where Jesus admits that his knowledge of "that day or that hour" is finite. It seems that Jesus, like Paul, could prophesy only "in part".

Robert Peterson introduces a helpful distinction.2 I have added numbering and italics to his presentation for greater clarity:
To understand the timing of the second coming, we have to deal with all the information God gives us, and that information falls into three categories, three types of passages.
  1. There are imminence passages, which cause people to look for Jesus to come.
  2. There are interval passages, which indicate certain things have to happen before He comes.
  3. And most importantly, there are ignorance passages, which tell us that we do not know, that nobody knows, the day or the hour.
… It seems to me that if we hold these three things together, we will be much better off.

3. Prophetic foreshortening:

Finally, let me observe that the prophecy in Mark 13 is an outstanding example of "prophetic foreshortening". This is the third theological concept that we must bear in mind. It is a commonplace of prophecy that events which are separated by centuries of history are "foreshortened", or telescoped together in the prophet's message.

One classic illustration involves someone looking at a mountain range from a distance. (Please excuse my lack of artistic talent!)

The general significance of the illustration is as follows. From a distance, the mountain peaks appear to be close together. It is only as you arrive at the first peak that you realize the second peak is actually quite distant.

Turning to the specific problem of Mark 13 and parallels —
Point 1 marks the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Point 2 marks 2,000 years (and counting) of Church history. That timespan was evidently hidden from Jesus; at any rate, it doesn't feature in the sayings we have been considering. Point 3 marks the parousia (Second Coming).

In his predictions, Jesus jumbled these events together as if they were all part of the same constellation. And indeed, some of the events may ultimately be fulfilled twice:  for example, an intense persecution of the Church and the coming of false Messiahs. Those predictions may have been fulfilled at point 1 in my diagram. (Josephus spoke of false prophets, who may in fact have been messianic pretenders.) It doesn't mean that there won't be a second fulfillment when history arrives at point 3.

For another example of prophetic foreshortening, consider Joel 2 (= Acts 2):
For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:

"'And in the last days it shall be,' God declares,
'that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.'"

(Acts 2:15-21)
Here we see the pouring out of the Holy Spirit packaged with the arrival of the eschaton. And indeed, this foreshortening phenomenon is a commonplace of biblical prophecy (particularly with respect to eschatological events).

  1. The several suggestions offered in response to my previous post testify that there is no completely satisfactory solution to the problem I outlined.

  2. Several of the suggestions also testify to a partial fulfillment of Jesus' prophesies. In particular, I would emphasize Jesus' resurrection and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. According to Acts 2, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Jesus' disciples is evidence that he had been exalted to the right hand of God, and installed as king (= Christ).

    And yet there is a remainder — various elements of Jesus' expectation which have not yet been fufilled. This unexpected development, a partial fulfillment of prophecy, is articulated in the theological expression, now and not yet.

  3. In my view, the events were not quite as Jesus had anticipated and predicted. But perhaps this is only what we might have expected. St. Paul speaks of Jesus' self-emptying (kenosis), and Jesus confessed that his knowledge of eschatological events was limited.

  4. We should compare Jesus' partially fulfilled prophecies with the general pattern of prediction and fulfillment in the Bible. At that point, we may be surprised to realize that prophetic foreshortening is a commonplace of biblical prophecy (i.e., a clustering together of events that turn out to be separated by centuries of history).

  5. Finally, I wish to reiterate the point that I made in the conclusion of my previous post. That these (and other) "hard" sayings of Jesus were preserved in the Gospels testifies to the Evangelists' unwillingness to destroy authentic tradition. This conservative impulse reassures us that the Gospels are a trustworthy source of information about the historical Jesus.

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2I believe Peterson is crediting David Jones for the three-part categorization of scripture mentioned above.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Jesus' error

Last Sunday, I mentioned that Jesus was apparently mistaken in one of his prophecies. The prophecy is this:
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Mt. 16:27-28)1
There's a similar saying in Mark's "little Apocalypse":
So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Mark 13:29-30 // Mt. 24:34 // Luke 21:32)
The meaning of these two sayings seems perfectly straightforward:  the eschaton will arrive within the lifetime of that generation. Is it possible that Jesus erred? — that he made a prediction that was not fulfilled?

It might help if we could reconstruct how the first generation of Christians understood Jesus' prediction. I suggest that we can get a reasonably clear insight into their expectations by considering the following three texts.

• 1Th. 4:13-18
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
To properly understand this text, we have to read between the lines a little. It seems that the Thessalonian Christians were worried:  some members of the community had died, and the surviving Thessalonians didn't know whether the departed believers could still be saved.

From our perspective, 100 generations later, the Thessalonians' concern is touchingly naïve: even bizarre. Was it really necessary for Paul to explain that departed believers are not lost? — that they will be raised to be with the Lord when he returns?

Such a concern would only arise in a church where Christ's return was expected almost immediately. "This generation" was not supposed to die; the Lord was supposed to return without delay.

And so Paul patiently reassures them:  not only will the departed believers be raised, their salvation will precede ours. ("The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them.")

I might note, in passing, that most scholars regard 1 Thessalonians as the earliest of Paul's epistles. (It's possible that Galatians is even earlier.) This passage is evidence of the letter's early date:  it seems to have been written during that brief window of time when Christ was expected to return almost immediately.

• 1Co. 7:25-31
Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
This is another problem text. (The Bible is simply full of them, in my view — but maybe I'm unjustifiably cynical.) The problem here is Paul's shockingly negative view of marriage. For example, "if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned."

Talk about damning marriage with faint praise! Whatever happened to family values?! This chapter of 1 Corinthians is one of the reasons that Paul has acquired a reputation as a misogynist.

The problematic nature of the text is diminished (though it doesn't completely disappear) if we emphasize verse 29 — "This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none."

Paul isn't concerned about propagating Christianity by making lots of babies (which seems to be the Roman Catholic model). He seems to advocate celibacy, or at least a radical shift in conventional priorities so that sex virtually vanishes from view: "From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none."

How can Paul talk this way? It's simple:  he does not envision 100 generations of Church history ahead. On the contrary, "the appointed time has grown very short".

Once again, we have an indication that Christ's return was expected almost immediately.

• John 21:20-23
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. … He said to Jesus, "Lord, what about this man?" Jesus said to him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!" So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?"
Here we must exercise our imaginations a little. The years pass; one by one, the apostles die off (mostly through martyrdom). Eventually, only one apostle survives:  John, "the disciple whom Jesus loved".

And still the years continue to pass. John is now an exceptionally old man. Death inexorably closes in on him. Gradually the conviction takes shape in his mind:  the Lord is not going to return in "this generation" per everyone's expectation.

But John's church hasn't come to that conclusion. Decades after Jesus made his prediction, the saying has been spun a certain way within the Johannine community:  Jesus promised to return before John's death.

The days of John's life are so many grains of sand in an eggtimer. Before the last grain of sand falls, Christ will return:  he promised! If it doesn't happen that way, John's death could precipitate a crisis of faith.

And so this postscript is added to John's Gospel. (Scholars believe John originally ended at 20:30-31, and chapter 21 was a late addendum.) The misleading rumour must be addressed. "Jesus did not say to [Peter] that [John] was not to die, but, 'If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?'"

Here (sixty years later?) we have travelled a long distance from Jesus' original prediction. But the issue is the same:  "there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."


Did Jesus expect the kingdom of God to arrive within a generation? The evidence suggests that he did. First we have the prima facie meaning of the two sayings quoted in the introduction to this post. Second, we have the clear expectation of the first generation of Christians. Everyone "knew" that Jesus would return almost immediately — certainly before the last surviving apostle died.

I'm going to leave the reader hanging at this point. I want to pose this question as a theological / exegetical problem. Theologically, can we accept that Jesus made an error? If not, how do you exegete the sayings to make them appear true?

I will follow up with part two later this week. I plan to broaden the question to encompass Old Testament prophecies as well. Jesus' saying is not the only instance of a prophecy that seemingly fell to the ground, unfulfilled.

But for now, let me offer one positive conclusion that we can derive from the above data. The Gospels were relatively conservative in their handling of Jesus' sayings.

Yes, some sayings are of doubtful historicity. Yes, each of the Evangelists had his own theological perspective, and they were not above "spinning" Jesus' sayings to make them fit a preferred theological paradigm.

But a careful reading of the Gospels demonstrates a second tendency, moving in the contrary direction:  a conservative tendency. Some very difficult sayings were preserved for posterity when the tradition was committed to writing. This tells us:  (a) that the tradition became relatively fixed at an early date — presumably while "this generation" was still alive; and (b) that later copyists were unwilling to destroy authentic tradition, even when it gave rise to significant problems.

This survey of the data leads me to a Janus-faced conclusion; one that is fundamental to my understanding of scripture. On the one hand, we shouldn't be so naïve as to deny that real problems are present in the text. On the other hand, we can trust that the tradition preserves authentic information about the historical Jesus. The tradition thus provides an adequate foundation for Christian faith.

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The state as a necessary evil

[A follow-up to Church and state: four theses]

I'm currently working through an anthology of essays by philosopher Paul Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination. I've just finished "A Philosophical Hermeneutics of Religion: Kant", in which Ricoeur summarizes Immanuel Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.

Tough slogging? Yes, easily the most difficult of the four Ricoeur essays I've studied so far.

In this post, I'd like to call attention to Kant's view of Church and state, as summarized by Ricoeur. The Church's raison d'être is to effect what the state cannot:  the liberation of human beings' bound will.
No political institution can satisfy the requirements of a community devoted to the regeneration of the will. …

Historical action can engender only a relative state of public peace, motivated by the antagonism Kant calls our "unsociable sociability." The civil peace we call a state of law is not virtue, but rather an armistice in the war among interests. …

Kant even goes so far as to say in his essay "Perpetual Peace" that "the problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils." Establishing peace "does not require that we know how to attain the moral improvement of men but only that we should know the mechanism of nature in order to use it on men … in such a way that they must compel themselves to submit to coercive laws."

For this reason, no political philosophy, and more generally no philosophy of culture, can satisfy the requirement of a community that aims at the regeneration of the will through specific public means.1
I agree with Kant's view of the state. I would sum it up in the following propositions:
  1. The state cannot accomplish what the Church sets out to achieve:  namely, the regeneration of humankind's corrupt will (= the liberation of humankind's bound will).

  2. The state has a lesser, but still significant (and, I would add, God-ordained) role:  to establish social order despite the evil that is always present everywhere among human beings.

  3. The state employs unethical, coercive means to achieve its end.
Kant's cynical perspective on human beings is captured in the pithy phrase, "unsocial sociability". We stubbornly persist in forming communities, despite our constant prickliness toward one another. Moreover, within any given community, there are sub-communities:  tribes or cliques bound together by shared interests, inevitably opposed to other sub-communities with competing interests.

The best we are capable of, Kant observes, is an armistice of interests. When we arrive at that modest achievement, we call it "the rule of law".

Kant sums up the state's limited role in his remark about a race of devils. The state does not have the capacity to effect an improvement in humankind's morals. The human will remains corrupt but still the state manages to establish (relative) peace.

The state does so by using the "mechanism of nature" on human beings in such a way that they are compelled to submit to coercive laws. It isn't clear, from Ricoeur's essay, what precisely Kant means by the phrase "mechanism of nature". But I think the gist of the statement is clear:  the state assumes wickedness on the part of human beings, and establishes institutions (laws, police forces, courts, jails) to contain wicked conduct within tolerable bounds.

Thus the state is not a benign institution:  it employs coercive tactics. Nor, on the other hand, is the state absolutely evil:  it responds to a real need (the need to contain human wickedness) and accomplishes a significant good (social order).

The state is a human institution, corrupted by the evil that is always present everywhere among human beings. (So is the Church, as I argued in my earlier post.)

The state may be relatively good or relatively evil; in exceptional cases, it may be extremely good or (more likely) extremely evil; but it is never absolutely good or absolutely evil. Hence Paul could instruct us to submit to the state "not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience" (Ro. 13:5).

[For the crucial importance of the Church as a check on state totalitarianism, see my post on Outside the Box.]

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1Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, Fortress Press, 1995, p. 89.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


Let me begin by describing bin Laden's view of history less inflammatorily — not as anti-Semitic, but as Judeocentric. He believes that Jews exercise disproportionate control over world affairs, and that world affairs may therefore be explained by reference to the Jews. A Judeocentric view of history is one that regards the Jews as the center of the story, and therefore the key to it.

Judeocentrism is a single-cause theory of history, and as such it is, almost by definition, a conspiracy theory. Moreover, Judeocentrism comes in positive forms and negative forms. The positive form of Judeocentrism is philo-Semitism, the negative form is anti-Semitism. … In both its positive and negative forms, Judeo-centrism is always a mistake. Human events are not so neatly explained.
Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in "The New Republic". Via Andrew Sullivan (in order to get past the requirement of a subscription).

Lest I leave the wrong impression by quoting Goldberg out of context, he does regard Osama bin Laden as an anti-semite. The article isn't ultimately about bin Laden. It is a scathing review of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University.