Thursday, July 14, 2005

Radiating Disaster Triumphant (e.g. Rom. 1:26-7)

The headline above is an allusion to one of my favorite books, Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment. They identify a kind of rationality actively "disenchanting" the world so that, the hope goes, humans may develop the ability to predict and control their environment, both natural and social. Disenchantment proceeds in part by ruling that only natural facts, accessible to the senses, occur--e.g. what cannot be observed, say miracles and spirits, is to be ruled out and discounted from our understanding of the world. But the Enlightenment project, they claim, inevitably, and catastrophically, backfires: the fully disenchanted world "radiates disaster triumphant."

Right-wing ways of reading the Bible are ironic in this light. On the one hand, many winger-ECUSAns seem intent on reading the Bible so as to preserve the sovereignty of God and God's place in claiming our obedience. They take the resurrection of Christ, his divinity, the dogma of the Trinity and other elements of dogma out of Chalcedon to be genuine truths. Good and laudable: I applaud. But on the other hand, they read the Bible as if it yields up plain facts of meaning: such and such a text plainly read means X, and any attempt to read it as meaning something else, say Y, is twisting the text and perverse. Not good--there are no plain facts of meaning in the Bible. It is not a collection of propositions from which dogma may be constructed. The winger hermeneutic kills the Bible as canon.

Insisting on plain facts of meaning, winger-ECUSAns carry the Enlightenment project of Disenchantment to the Bible. What was a text for Christian liturgy, a text of Christian myth and ritual, gets wrenched out of that context to serve a different function. In our heated contests, impatience and partisan zeal lead too many to read the Bible as containing strings of propositional dogma rather than myth. The text is read so as to be demythologized; its symbolic, liturgical function in the Christian community begins to fade.

Take ECUSA's recent debate over homosexuality and the text of Romans 1:26-27 [26] For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, [27] and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
This bit of Scripture gets cited (e.g. in True Union in the Body available over at ACI) as self-evidently implying all homosexuality whatever, and by implication gay marriage, is forbidden: isn't it clear on its face?
To feel the pull of that temptation, so powerful, continuous and relentless it might even feel like a gravitational field pulling you in, is to feel the pull of Disenchantment--you treat the text as a repository of propositional dogma. But the text alone, such as it is, is not doing that to you; you feel the semantic gravity from already being embedded in and reading from the point of view of a particular ways of life--and not an innocent way of life either, but a way of life, if I may wax theological, subject to and complicit with a destructive Power.

Step back for a moment and recall that at Romans 1:26-27 Paul is in the middle of setting out a mythical history: he isn't doing scholarly historical criticism or interpretation. And the mythical history he writes is for a church audience--it's neither neutral nor acontextual. Before drawing dogmatic conclusions from the text we need to know more than its grammatical sense (supposing, for the sake of argument, the work of "lower criticism" is done and secure here, so that there is a reasonably definite grammatical sense to which we may refer), pace D. Virtue. For instance, Is the text qualified by some other passage in Romans in a way not evident on its face here? Is it qualified by a passage elsewhere in Scripture outside Romans? Is the meaning of the passage is to be identified with what was going on "in the head" of Paul? Or is there a meaning of the passage fully and finally under his conscious control? In other words, to take the last question for instance, even if he intended to forbid any homosexual activity whatever in that passage, that might not be the dominant or best meaning of the passage, should God intend something else by the passage. And maybe God intends for us to argue with Paul there--like Abraham arguing with YHWH.

I am tempted to think many winger-ECUSAns read the Romans 1:26-7 for its grammatical sense, aiming to capture Paul's intended meaning there, as if there were a "plain fact of meaning" to be encountered and appropriated. When they do that, they are embedding their reading-praxis in a world of make-believe, the world of Enlightenment rationality. That is what I mean by Disenchantment. But they might ask me in response, if the text of Romans 1:26-7 is indeed so unsettled, how can we determine its meaning at all? That, I would say in reply, is a task to be performed within the Church, retaining the place of the Biblical text in the liturgy, as part of the Church's myth and ritual. And we might not settle on one meaning for all time--interpretating the will of God is risky, even dangerous, but we have no morally available choice but to remain engaged.

I doubt many winger ECUSAns see themselves as Disenchanting the Bible or as carrying water for Enlightenment rationality--i.e. deep in league with the cohort of liberalism corroding Christianity over the long term in the West, and now all over the globe. They might cry out "Canonical criticism! Childs!" or "Narrative theology! Frei!"; winger practice betrays these cries as mere rationalization. We are told we should merely observe the plain facts of meaning in the Bible, which in turn report what cannot be observed, e.g. miracles and spirits. Their tolerance, nay--passion for this contradiction identifies them as Postmoderns in spite of themselves, i.e. standing around at the last stop for the train of Enlightenment rationality. As ECUSA and perhaps even the AC prepare to fracture, it seems in the name of fidelity to Christian tradition, Christian tradition is already lost.


At 7:51 PM, Blogger Badger539 said...

I have some difficulty following your train of thought, not, I think, because of any failure in your argument, but simply because it is unfamiliar to me. I have never read any of the works of John Duns Scotus or the other authors you quote.

I grew up in the bible belt. what you call "right wing" ways of reading scripture, aren't they all the more characteristic of fundamentalist/evangelical scripture interpretation? People who insist, for example, that the earth was created in 6 24-hour days 6000 years ago?

I have read that chapters 1-3 of Romans should be read as a unit. I have also read analysis that what Paul is talking about in those chapters are the Galli, the priests of a fertility cult.

are you saying anything that contradicts that advice and criticism?

At 7:52 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks for your comment; my post was a bit obscure, I admit. You may be right for all I know, that Paul wrote Romans 1:26-7 referring to practices of a certain fertility cult. My point was whatever Paul had in mind shouldn't settle what the passage means--the text doesn't belong to Paul regardless of his authorship, but it does belong to the worshipping Church (and, I should say, to God who insppired Paul). Paul's intended meaning, supposing we can discern it, can only be one ingredient among others in our interpretation. Worse--we should remain open to the Spirit moving us as we read it, even if teh Spirit moves us away from whatever Paul himself meant.

At 10:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is a very interesting piece, but I'm completely unconvinced. I don't think that the statement "Scripture clearly teaches X" amounts to "disenchantment" or an Enlightenment reading, and it emphatically does _not_ mean an abandonment of traditional canonical readings. On the contrary, most of us conservatives (what exactly do you get by calling us "wingers"? Do you just get a kick out of it or are you trying to communicate) are reading Scripture precisely in the context of traditional readings of Scripture, and of the consensus of the worshipping Church of the past and present.

I really don't know how you can make the "Enlightenment" accusation with a straight face. How do you think that (specifically with regard to homosexuality) we are reading Scripture differently than pre-Enlightenment Christians (granted, most of us have a far more lenient attitude to homosexuality than most pre-Enlightenment Christians, particularly the scholastics)? Have you never encountered appeals to the authority of Scripture in the Fathers or the scholastics? How do such appeals differ from what you think we are doing?

At 1:36 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks for your comment. Scholastics entertained allegorical readings of Scripture to a point that excited intense reaction among Reformers; the Fathers entertained notions of Scripture containing error and contradiction. Such methods and assumptions came under pressure from historical criticism and positivism, products of the Enlightenment. In response to that pressure, new modes of reading came to the fore insisting on the truth of Scripture in a way that would satisfy positivistic or historical critical standards. That last bit is what I object to.

The Fathers carried out learned disputes ranging over centuries employing the best philosophy at hand--pushing it beyond its limits. How many on the right are willing to do this? Some are--Steve Davis, Plantinga, Stump; but the movers and shakers are not.
Immediately Chalcedon would come into question: we would start conceiving dogma seriously in terms of open or process theology--these would be players at the table; they are not.

In short, Barth made and still makes a difference--the major theologicalmovements and biblical scholars still, still derive from him, and his animus for natural theology is a spreading stain.

The Church Fathers had neoplatonism; the Scholastics had Aristotle; we have...Barth. There's the difference, anon.

At 12:40 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Addendum: the major players that derive in large part from Barth that I had in mind are Postliberalism or Narrative theology, from Lindbeck (a Scotist, BTW) and Hans Frei (an Episcopalian, I am told) and Canonical criticism, whose major exponent in biblical studies is Brevard Childs--but he has a host of active progeny. Both of these movements are hostile or indifferent to natural theology/metaphysics, which I believe comes at least in part from Barth, and both have been taken up by theologians of ECUSA's right.

At 4:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anglican Scotist,

I'm not sure how one can say that a willingness to see error and contradiction in the Scriptures "came under pressure" from the Enlightenment. I agree that post-Enlightenment conservatives often find it difficult to maintain as open and playful an attitude to Scripture as previous centuries had done. But what came under pressure was the assumption of all Christians (as far as I know) before the Renaissance and nearly all before the Enlightenment that Scripture contained no errors of any kind. Yes, the Fathers believed that a mistakenly literal reading of Scripture would mislead a "carnal" reader into thinking that Scripture contained errors. But that is very far from saying that Scripture did contain error. In fact, Origen's extreme use of allegory rested on an equally extreme commitment to Scriptural inerrancy (though admittedly that's a modern term). Much of Scripture _had_ to be allegorical because if read literally it would be "absurd" (even though in many cases this absurdity arises only if one takes a hyper-literal approach). Thus, the only two options were making everything harmonize perfectly or spiritualizing the passage altogether. I grant that this is very different from the post-Enlightenment approach. But your friends the Scholastics had already begun moving toward a more literal interpretation, and as you note the Reformers moved further in that direction. As far as I can tell, the Reformers were actually somewhat _more_ willing to talk about minor errors and discrepancies in Scripture and _less_ inclined to force everything to harmonize.

There are three separate issues here:
1. Acceptance of errors and discrepancies in Scripture arising from the natural human processes of authorship.

2. Openness to philosophical readings of Scripture.

3. A willingness to engage in spiritual reading of Scripture.

I'm not quite sure what your point is, because you appear to be conflating these three things. I would say that 1 and 3 actually tend to be inversely proportional to each other, while 2 is loosely tied to 3 but has a history of its own (the scholastics were less allegorical but somewhat more philosophical in their interpretation than the Fathers; arguably they were also less open to accepting errors and discrepancies, so the "inversely proportional" business may not be true).

At any rate, I stand by my original claim. The entire pre-Enlightenment Church was comfortable with the statement "there are no errors in Scripture" (although some humanist scholars such as Erasmus were more nuanced in how they understood this) and routinely appealed to the absolute authority of Scripture to decide theological controversies. I think one could argue that the beginning of skepticism on this point is really traceable to certain post-Reformation Catholic apologists who unwisely tore down the authority of Scripture in order to exalt that of the Church.

As for the question of philosophical reading of Scripture, I think that the problem with your account is your use of the word "best." Best according to whom? The Fathers were extremely selective in their use of philosophy, and frequently engaged in antiphilosophical rhetoric even as they were using philosophy right and left. They chose certain elements of contemporary philosophies, especially Platonism, because they saw them as conducive to the task of explicating the already settled truths of Christian faith. Of course this looks naive to us in hindsight--clearly their philosophy influenced their theology far more than most of them admitted--but they certainly would not have accepted automatically the dominant ideas of contemporary pagan thinking (which may not be what you mean by using the "best contemporary philosophy," but if not I'd like to know what you do mean by it). When they did use philosophy (and they did it all the time), they transformed philosophical ideas in radical ways (what would Plato have made of bodily resurrection?). The early Christians who did not do this with sufficient caution often found themselves condemned as heretics (again, Origen comes to mind). It was a commonplace that all heresy arose from pagan philosophy. So I think your conclusions about what a patristic approach would mean for contemporary Christianity are wholly unwarranted. Granted, the Barthian approach is extreme, but Barth was himself hardly innocent of philosophical commitments. We'd need to get down to more specifics for me to be sure that what you mean by a rejection of philosophy isn't really just a rejection of the kind of philosophy you happen to favor. The cry of "Enlightenment rationalism" is an easy one to raise. I've raised it myself, and I understand why you want to turn it back on conservatives. But a rejection of your favorite form of contemporary philosophy hardly amounts to "Enlightenment rationalism." The conservative Anglicans I know are quite aware of the impossibility of an unmediated, wholly objective reading of Scripture. I'm sure you can find many who aren't. But what's the point of that? I can find lots of naive liberals too. Where will that get us?

At 7:41 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks for your detailed post; it was very helpful in clarifying what our topic should be. We are ranging over several divergent topics now (Enlightenment thoought; 2oth century theology; et al), and it may take some time to do justice to them. But I think it could be time well spent.

I. On patristic theology: Surely you are right that the Fathers selectively appropriated concepts from philosophy contemporary with them, even while criticizing the pagan culture from which those philosophies arose. And in the process, pagan notions were transformed or "baptized" in the context of Christian use, so that Christians employed them, strictly speaking, in a unique way; think of the term "ousia" in christology from Nicea to Chalcedon.

I wish to infer from patristic practice that, (A) for the most part, the Fathers felt permitted to employ pagan philosophy, transforming it as needed, to explicate dogma and settle controversy--not that their use of philosophy was merely in the service of apologetics or was seen as an end in itself.

In the process of using pagan philosophy, (B)they treated the Bible as if (i)it could not everywhere be taken simply literally, and (ii)it did not explicitly settle all dogmatic questions on its own.

I am not trying to "make waves" with (A) and (B), and there is more I want to say about patristic thought, but first, let's find common ground. Would you agree with (A) and (B)? I see myself as spelling out your (2) in the post above.

I claim not only that (A) and (B) are historically true, but that they indicate ways of treating Scripture that are sound today as well: (A')today we should feel free to employ philosophy, transforming it as needed, etc. and (B')we should treat the Bible today as if (i)it cannot be taken everywhere literally, and (ii)it does not settle.... Personally, (A') and (B') do not sound extreme, they sound reasonable, judicious. Would you agree with this second step?

My third step: influential contemporary theology rejects (A'): for instance, narrative theology and neo-orthodoxy do not have a place for natural theology, and there is question as to whether they look to "external points" relative to Scripture in settling truth-claims.

I'll stop there for now--I want to say more, but again, it might be best to proceed slowly through, what from my point of view seems to be, this difficult and contested terrain.

At 9:00 PM, Blogger Pontificator said...

Trackback Pontifications

At 12:37 PM, Blogger Craig Goodrich said...

... if the text of Romans 1:26-7 is indeed so unsettled, how can we determine its meaning at all? That, I would say in reply, is a task to be performed within the Church, retaining the place of the Biblical text in the liturgy, as part of the Church's myth and ritual.

In other words, since any attempt to actually impute coherent meaning to Paul's letters (or any other part of the bible) is hopelessly Enlightenment, and guilty of helping "corrode Christianity", then perhaps to maintain the purely liturgical and mythic character of the Biblical text, we should revert to using St. Jerome's Latin version exclusively -- or better, perhaps some rendering of Scripture as Hindi poetry. Or better yet, simply can the traditional Scriptures altogether and simply use the Rgveda, since actually transmitting the plain meaning of the Scriptures in a tongue understanded of the people is so "risky, even dangerous."

By ignoring 99.9% of Christianity, three thousand years of Biblical scholarship and intensive study of Scriptural text, including its cultural context, and assuming both ignorance and simplemindedness on the part of his readers, "Scotist" has here raised incoherent self-serving armwaving to new and impressive heights.


At 1:56 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

It does not follow that keeping the Bible within the liturgy as a text for our ritual practice makes attempts to find coherent meaning in Paul's letters hopeless.

Surely you find liturgy meaningful, even when Biblical text is used? If a text were read in the liturgy around whose meaning no settled consensus existed, that would not render the text, or the liturgy meaningless.

It is up to God to determine what Scripture finally and ultimately means--not us. As what is received can only be received in the mode of the receiver, and we are imperfect--indeed fallen--we can only receive God's revelation imperfectly. It does not follow, as you seem to suggest, that "Anything goes" but rather onlythat we must acknowledge our imperfect condition, and not seek to put ourselves in the place of God when we interpret Scripture. That is, we must admit that we might not be correct in our reading, and that we may need to be corrected--to think otherwise, to presume closure on Scripture's meaning, would be sin.

At 1:12 PM, Blogger Craig Goodrich said...

"Scotist" discovers comparative hermeneutics:
That is, we must admit that we might not be correct in our reading, and that we may need to be corrected--to think otherwise, to presume closure on Scripture's meaning, would be sin.

Precisely. This is one of the dangers of an extreme protestant position that depends entirely on an isolated individual's interpretation of Scripture, and is why ALL of the major branches of Christian tradition use hermeneutics that involve checks and cross-checks to avoid error -- one major such control is expressed in Article XX: "... neither may [the Church] so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."

Given that the conclusion is inescapable under every known hermeneutic principle that homosexual acts are ipso facto sinful according to the Bible, that this conclusion is so obvious that NO scholar attempts to even deny it any longer (principally due to Gagnon's exhaustive and unanswerable analysis), to the point that ECUSA's brief for the defense To Set Our Hope on Christ makes no attempt to deny that its conclusions are counterscriptural, and given that the purpose of Scripture is to communicate God's will to humans, what's your point? That some utterly plain and clear point, pervasive throughout Scripture, may be reversed when viewed in the context of liturgy?

If so, please provide a specific example; this makes no sense to me. The Anglican view has always been quite the opposite: that the meaning of the liturgy is explicated by Scripture. This is why the BCP is based so heavily on Biblical quotations.


At 3:04 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

We are agreeing more and more, though still not enough it seems.

Indeed, it seems your "the conclusion is inescapable under every known hermeneutic principle that homosexual acts are ipso facto sinful according to the Bible" and "this conclusion is so obvious that NO scholar attempts to even deny it any longer (principally due to Gagnon's exhaustive and unanswerable analysis)" are mere hyperbole--Gagnon cannot be answered? The conclusion above cannot be escaped? No scholar, none at all? Awfully strong claims--too strong.

In fact, I gave a scriptural argument for gay marriage here. And it is still standing, so far as I know. All it takes is one sound argument, you know.

At 3:31 PM, Blogger Craig Goodrich said...

Gagnon cannot be answered? The conclusion above cannot be escaped? No scholar, none at all?

None has in any event answered Gagnon's arguments; either they have dropped the subject (like Walter Wink, for one) or simply responded with ad-hominem abuse. I stand by "NO scholar" here -- and since that implies an ontological claim (to echo another discussion), all you have to do is cite ONE clear refutation of a central Gagnon claim... Go ahead.

In fact, I gave a scriptural argument for gay marriage here. And it is still standing, so far as I know.

It never stood in the first place, as is clear from your own numerous qualifications, just-waits, and so on, as well as the comments. It amounts at this point to arm-waving in the general direction of a line of argument, rather than as the argument itself.

The line of suggested argument is in any event quite weak, depending entirely as it does on precisely what is intended by "model" and "analogy" in a particularly mysterious (original meaning) case.

All it takes is one sound argument, you know.

Yep. Still waiting.


At 7:01 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

OK--I'll take you up on it. For all I know, you might be right. Where would you locate the more interesting of Gagnon's "central claims" from his book? Or, what would you take to be two or three of his most important assumptions, without which his case would not go forward?


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