Embrace the Fog
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!