Sunday, June 29, 2008

Embrace the Fog

I've made the observation in the past that Post Modernism, with its love of arcane theory expressed in the form of obscure, specialized terminology, tortured semantics and unparseable language, bears a striking resemblance to Catholic theology. Two essays on the First Things website bear out that observation.

In Scripture as Participation Peter Leithart reviews Matthew Levering's book "Participatory Biblical Exegesis":
From the rise of nominalism in the Late Middle Ages through the modern period, history has been conceived in an atomistic and “linear” fashion. History consists of discrete events, and the forces of historical causation are all immanent within history. It’s not surprising that secularists would gravitate to a linear notion of history, but theologians and biblical scholars have eagerly accepted the same theory. The result for biblical studies, Levering shows, is a gradual but unmistakable drift from theological interpretation of Scripture toward a purely immanent understanding of the history recorded in the Bible and of the goals of exegesis.

He traces this drift by examining selected interpreters of John 3 from Aquinas, whom he arrestingly describes as the last great patristic-medieval biblical commentator, through Nicholas of Lyra and Erasmus, to Raymond Brown. By the twentieth century, historical interpretation of the text has been severed from theological consideration. Brown is an advocate of sensus plenior, but he doesn’t see it as part of exegesis strictly speaking, and in his later work he hands it over to the theologian rather than to the exegete. Levering neatly summarizes the rift between theology and exegesis by noting that neither Scotus nor Ockham wrote commentaries, leaving the task to mystics.

A “participatory” understanding of history, by contrast, recognizes that history is an “ongoing participation in God’s active providence.” To understand history, it’s necessary to consider its “vertical” as well as its “horizontal” dimensions. The implications for exegesis are obvious. If history is purely human, then a nontheological interpretation of the historical record suffices. If, however, “history” is humanity’s participation in God’s providence, then “history” includes robustly theological/metaphysical events and realities, such as creation, the call of Abraham, exodus, exile, return, incarnation, Pentecost, and the ongoing participation in Christ that is the Church. History writing is a record of divine interventions, and if this is history, then a “historical” interpretation of Scripture has to reckon with theological and metaphysical realities.
At times it appears that theological exegesis should be “added” to historical-critical endeavors, leaving the latter modes of exegesis more or less in place. Yet that is at odds with much of what Levering writes. Taken in a stronger sense, Levering is arguing that historical-critical exegesis is simply illegitimate, since the object of its study—immanent history—doesn’t exist. Historical-critical tools, forged precisely to exclude participatory history, need to be retooled in fundamental ways, and all the energy and resources devoted to that centuries-long project should be redirected toward faith-driven theological exegesis. This is what Levering seems to intend, but if so, his proposal is broader than he indicates, because history didn’t stop being “participatory” after the canon of Scripture closed. Should modern historical scholarship as such be abandoned in favor of “theological history”? And what about the other social sciences: If history is participatory, can sociology be anything but “theological sociology”? Aren’t there “vertical” as well as “horizontal” dimensions to economies and polities? A strong Levering thesis sounds quite radically orthodox.

Though centrally concerned with history, Levering also uses “participation” to describe various facets of the practice of biblical interpretation. The goal of studying Scripture is sapiential rather than strictly scientific. Theological interpretation seeks transforming communion with God the Teacher. Biblical exegesis is not interpretation of a dead “text” but a living communion in which the words of Scripture mediate God’s transforming, saving presence. Interpreters should engage in specific “participatory” practices, by which they participate in the Christological and pneumatological realities they study in Scripture. The object of investigation—God’s providential history—is not “out there”; interpreters participate in the reality they study.

To summarize, Leithart/Levering are saying that history is not an objective reality which one seeks to uncover through research, but is created by the observer in accordance with his/her faith commitment. So history bears out Christian truth when you study history from the standpoint that Christianity is true. Is there any clearer way to say it? If this is not a refutation of objective truth, I don't know what is. And I dare anyone to point out to me how this differs in any qualitative way from Post Modernist circularity.

The second article, by Matthew J. Milliner, chronicles the despair of religious academicians over the state of higher education:
There is reason, however, to think this is not the whole story. Were the sixties really a golden age when the humanities were “liberated from religion but not yet subordinated to science and specialization”? The statement caused me to wonder. Might there be a connection between such “liberation” and any subsequent subordination? Furthermore, should the collapse of the humanities, wrenched from any transcendent horizon, come as any kind of surprise? The New Criterion leaves the religious aspect of the academic crisis unexplored, the very perspective that provides a measure of hope. There is a new openness in academia to matters religious, and though frequently artificial and always inconsistent, I find in it cause for excitement rather than despair.

I quoted this paragraph because it highlights a point of overlap between the secular/post modernist and religious/pre modernist academy. Each feels aggrieved by science. Each thinks that science undermines their philosophical commitments and tramples on their authoritarial turf. Each, in their own way, is opposed to some notion of objective truth that science represents.

If the academy is destined to be won by one of these schools, then I'd say that we may as well just close them down. The public is not well served by either of them. Keep the schools of science, engineering and medicine, the useful ones, and scrap the rest. The theological and post-modern schools are really just different strains of literary culture, and until someone can demonstrate to me literature's utility function, then I'd say that they are both just glorified book clubs. Forms of recreation and entertainment.

I recalled a recent hard-hitting article by the Reformation historian Brad Gregory in an academic journal that finally calls “secular confessional history” to task. Gregory mandates a “thick description,” thicker than the kind famously proposed by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. He unearths the materialist assumptions that unconsciously inform so many of his colleagues and makes a compelling case that historians need to “proceed as if the religious beliefs of their subjects might be true.” Examples of such an “open” methodology, at least in my field of medieval history, are not difficult to find. Thinking along the same lines as Gregory, University of Chicago professor (and recent Guggenheim award recipient) Rachel Fulton writes that medieval historians must “explain what it means to have faith and thus to act in the conviction that there is a reality other than that which may be ‘objectively’ perceived.” Her historiographical approach is nothing less than a declaration of independence from postmodern skepticism. Barbara Newman, a medieval historian at Northwestern, goes even further. She represents a new generation of feminist historians, ones unafraid to trample tired orthodoxies. Thus her rather striking declaration: “It was not because of their commitment to feminism, self-empowerment, subversion, sexuality, or ‘the body’ that [medieval woman] struggled and won their voices; it was because of their commitment to God.”

Or consider art historian Jeffrey Hamburger, who recently called for a reconsideration of neglected theological sources in medieval art history. “The critique of theology,” Hamburger wryly suggests, “must itself be deconstructed.” A keen sensitivity to theology is a mark of all of Hamburger’s scholarship. He takes pains to show that, when pitted against theory, theology–long a domain of sophisticated, multivalent textual engagement–can more than hold its own. Hamburger’s rhetoric is all the more interesting considering his position. Tenured at Harvard, his is not exactly a voice from the margins.

Does anyone else see the irony of these religious academicians adopting/coopting the tropes of their post-modern antagonists? So medieval women "won their voices?" What does that even mean? But they've learned to mimic the most important tactic of their opponents. Get students to drink the Koolaid first, then set about to teach them. Don't try to prove or persuade students that Christian religious dogma is true. Make them assume it is true from the outset, and then teach the humanities in a manner that is slanted to that dogma.

A pox on both houses!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read this post several times to try and understand exactly what you are saying. What I'm getting is that you are upset that some people who believe there is a reality beyond the material are arguing that those who believe similarly should try to know that reality and use it to interpret and guide their understanding of history and their place in it. And that such people are so crazy or dangerous that they, along with poets, artists, philosophers, etc. should be banned from institutions of higher education, which should be restricted to doctors, scientists and engineers and others clever with sums despite the fact that there are, as you point out, at least two widespread groundswells of opposition to dogmatic materialism and scientism. In other words, you only want what you believe taught to the kids.

Have I got it?

July 01, 2008 4:08 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


But, of course, you miss the finer points. There is only one (real)history, there are not feminist histories and christian histories and oppressed brown people histories. One set of events actually happened, and it is up to the historian to figure out what that set of events was. It's called truth. I no more want my child to learn history from someone who tells them they have to assume Jesus is Lord than I do from someone who tells them that all sex oppresses women.

July 02, 2008 5:49 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

This quote should have tipped you off to what is going on:

"neither Scotus nor Ockham wrote commentaries, leaving the task to mystics."

Mystics. The fog-bringers. Ockham, it is well known, was too busy inflicting nominalism on western thought, that mode of thought that freed scholars from the need to reconcile reality with kooky Platonic metaphysical theories about forms and essences. And now we suffer from dogmatic materialist heresies like physics and biology and medicine. Can the pre-modernists and post-modernists save us in time, before we do ourselves in?

July 02, 2008 6:00 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

There is only one (real)history, there are not feminist histories and christian histories and oppressed brown people histories. One set of events actually happened, and it is up to the historian to figure out what that set of events was.

Well, not quite.

That set of events constitutes first order knowledge.

But historians must do more than just catalog events. Historians also attempt to provide a theories: the whys behind the whats.

Which is what "theological interpretation" is doing.

That doesn't make it defensible, though.

[Duck is] upset that some people believe there is a reality beyond the material are arguing that those who believe similarly should try to know that reality and use it to interpret and guide their understanding of history and their place in it.

Leaving aside the advisability of asserting a reality about which no one knows anything, there are a couple far more serious problems here.

First, what to do when immaterial reality is used to explain material first order knowledge, only to have the first order knowledge subsequently proven false? Exodus springs to mind here.

Second, and possibly more fatal, using "theological interpretation" becomes an empty exercise when it used only to explain the convenient, while ignoring the inconvenient.

As an example of such a history, consider someone whose house is spared a close call by a tornado, and provides appropriate thanks to God.

That inevitably also means thanking God for flattening the house across the street, and killing everyone in it.

Doing so, after all [is a] “participatory” understanding of history, [recognizing] that history is an “ongoing participation in God’s active providence.”

July 04, 2008 10:06 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

But historians must do more than just catalog events. Historians also attempt to provide a theories: the whys behind the whats.

Actually they don't. They don't have to interpret, but they do. Theories are fine, but they are generally wrong, or overly simplistic. Stuff happens for reasons far more complex and ineffable than most people can imagine.

July 04, 2008 6:31 PM  

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