Showing posts with label Scripture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Scripture. Show all posts

Monday, 7 April 2014

A Note on Phenomenology and the Bible

I doubt anyone is surprised that, philosophically, I fall squarely in the analytic tradition. Analytic philosophy just seems better at all the areas I am interested in: epistemology, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, etc. There is, however, one area where the continental tradition is, quite frankly, vastly superior: phenomenology. Analytics are always trying to be objected, abstracted and factual about things. Analytic philosophy is modelled, to some extent, on the natural sciences. However, this means that phenomenology, which is the study of how we experience things, finds its true abode on the continental side of things.

Some analytic philosophers might not care, thinking phenomenology is a non-field anyway, which should be reduced to psychology and neuroscience, or put into the literature department as poetry or something of the sort. That is misguided, I think. Understanding how we experience the world is crucial to many things, one hugely important one being human interactions. Even if one can theoretically build up to explaining pretty much all the mechanisms, reactions and so forth that allow us to experience relationships, it would not and could not change the point Thomas Nagel made: there's something special about experiencing things, so much so that even complete knowledge about their systems would not allow us to answer "what is it like to be a bat?"

Edith Stein, or St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, 
was a phenomenologist under Edmund Husserl,
who was essentially the founder of modern phenomenology.
Her work, and the work of Max Scheler, powerfully
influenced the work of another Catholic saint and
theologian, the phenomenologist and Pope, St John Paul II.
So phenomenology is a legitimate field of its own because it studies something which cannot be studied other than by being a subject, instead of an object, and for precisely that reason, analytic philosophy is deficient in resources at this point. Very well. There is another reason, however, that phenomenology deserves attention, which is explicitly theological: the incarnation of God in Jesus means that the world, in all its physicality, is of the same stuff as Jesus. So our experiences of it matter. Furthermore, God revealed in Christ can now be encountered and understood by these experiences, these phenomena. In fact, encountering Christ is at bottom the only way of understanding God, insofar as God can be understood. Christ is "the image of the invisible God", so seeing that image is the best we can do.

St Ignatius of Loyola was extremely important in developing phenomenological prayer. By phenomenological prayer I mean prayer which explicitly relies on the senses, a sort of contemplative (sometimes referred to as "Ignatian") prayer where ones utilises the senses and imagination to pray. One way of doing this is to insert oneself in a passage from the Scriptures: for instance, one can take a passage close to me personally, that of Peter asking Jesus to bid him come and walk on water, and place oneself within the boat. What are the smells, the sounds? Does the air have that slightly salty taste, on that sea? What does it feel like to be there? What can you see? How does Peter feel? All these questions are questions about experience, about the phenomenological quality of the events that are happening. This distinctively Ignatian style of prayer is, obviously, at the heart of Jesuit spirituality, and as such, close to my own.

Even more than just a distinctive brand of spirituality, phenomenology is key to understanding the Bible. You cannot, and I mean it, you cannot understand the Gospel accounts, or even many of the more human-interaction based books of the Old Testament, without at least some understanding of phenomenology. One does not, of course, need to know fancy long words like "phenomenology" - in some sense, phenomenology is the only branch of philosophy we do from birth, since all newborns seem to do is process sense data and react to such stimuli. It is crucial to understanding the Gospel accounts because human interactions are crucial to them. I think Bonhoeffer is right, for instance, in arguing that the immediate response of the disciples to Jesus' call to follow him cannot be explained in terms of some quick calculation of self-interest or a prior relationship with Jesus. It must be understood that the call of Jesus carries with it a phenomenal quality which is completely unlike an encounter with any other human person.

This phenomenal quality of encountering Jesus, particularly his call, but also his conversations, must be understood the understand Jesus, and the responses people have to Jesus. If only for that reason, phenomenology is an area worth considering, and for precisely that, I will dedicate some non-negligible thought and writing to discussing that issue.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Commentary and Exegesis of the Bible: Comments on Methodology

Applying one's own method of interpretation ("hermeneutic") to the biblical texts will allow the interpreter to make the Bible say anything. Did the Bible predict the Chernobyl disaster and subsequent poisoning of rivers, seas and oceans? Some make Revelation 8:11 to be such a prediction when it reads:

A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter. (Revelation 8:11)
[Note: Wormwood in Russian and Ukrainian is Chernobyl.]

 Others use numerology to make the number 666 to be about the Pope, ironically using a title that has not been used by him. Still others read into the text any number of anachronisms - my point is, very often people read the Bible with a hermeneutic that suits them.

I have already begun the rather long task of writing my thoughts on the Bible, but it seems an important practical preliminary has been missed: what exactly am I going to write about? And the even more fundamental problem: how am I meant to read it?

The reading plan I have endeavoured to follow has a roughly linear approach, and so I shall try and write down the storyline, so to speak, of revelation in my Old Testament readings, at the same time reading the New Testament starting from the most Jewish text (gospel according to St Matthew) through the epistles of St Paul and going on to a later text with more marked gentile readers (gospel according to St John, although to some extent also St Luke's account), culminating, after reading the other epistles and gospels, with Revelation, for which I will need a solid grounding in Old Testament themes, imagery and metaphor. But I also want to rediscover Scripture, so it will not do to read the text as a Christian from the start: I want to understand the text as it sought to be understood. So historical and cultural considerations become very important.

"Understand the text as it sought to be understood", I wrote. Other ways of expressing this ideology of interpretation include "reading according to genre" and "historical-grammatical method." Trying to understand the text by asking what the author intended to convey is a very important starting point, but I think it falls short of the completeness of what the Bible says, and may even lead into serious errors. When Moses powerfully asserted the shema, "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4), did he deny the trinity? Absolutely not. Did he mean to convey that God is unity and not trinity, or any other number? That is a reasonable reading of the text by the historical-grammatical method. The problem, then, is that this method seems to assume that the author has absolutely no misconceptions about what they are writing down - we say that all our theologies are probably wrong to some degree, but for the biblical authors we assert hidden inerrancy of belief, even.

It is possible that the New Testament authors have such inerrancy of belief, at least in the area they write on. After all, they have received the fullness of revelation, the Word made flesh. The Old Testament authors seem to harbour subtly erroneous theology, even if it only comes through in "how the text feels."

Note: additional to the previous comment, I would point out the odd way in which the Old Testament is used in the New - seemingly not by historical-grammatical methods. See "Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away."

Reading of documents such as Dei Verbum and Divino Afflante Spiritu would be very helpful, but I have to carry on for a little longer without reading them. In the mean time, here are some useful guidelines I have given myself:

 - Reading with eyes of faith: without faith, any reading of the Scripture has the danger of becoming too cerebral, too academic or too intellectual.
 - Reading within the community of believers: without that community, one falls into the problem of "spiritual but not religious" as outlined by James Martin SJ here, my point concerning particularly: "Religion, said (Isaac) Hecker, helps you to ‘connect and correct.’ You are invited into a community to connect with one another and with a tradition. At the same time, you are corrected when you need to be."
 - Reading within the tradition: closely linked to both the previous two, but this goes beyond them. Tradition has two meanings, which I think are useful to distinguish, within the church: one is "sacred tradition" and it refers to the revelation made manifest in Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate, but not expressed in Sacred Scripture. Essentially, this is the collection of oral traditions and words preached to them by Jesus' disciples - of which we have ample references in the Bible. The other tradition that I have distinguished, although it is not really separate, is what I call "living tradition" - it is the build-up of insights and knowledge gained over centuries of Spirit-filled Christians, many of whom are now saints in the Church Triumphant.
 - Reading within the cultural and historical context of the time: that is, reading the text trying to avoid reading into the text anachronisms.
 - Reading within the age after the fullness of revelation in the Word made flesh: this point is why the previous one is not the only principle in interpreting the Bible. What I mean is, reading the text with a christological key, understanding the Scriptures as revealing Christ.

With this foundation I have sketched, I am now comfortable going on to further write up reflections.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Mathean Infancy Narrative (Part 1)

The gospel according to St Matthew is one of the two gospels with an infancy narrative, and the Pope Emeritus published some (reportedly) excellent scholarship on it. Since I have not read it and I doubt I could top it, my reflections on this passage will be mostly things that stick out to me, and bits of background information I found illuminating.


"Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way."

It is common for very important people (kings and emperors, in particular) in the ancient world to have miraculous birth narratives told of them, and so St Matthew tells of a miraculous birth at the onset of his gospel. From a literary perspective, I think the goal is to elevate this figure Jesus, whom he has already called the Messiah/Christ thrice, to this status of leader, of King. Just because something is a literary device, however, does not mean Jesus was not born of a virgin - indeed, the reference in verse 23 seems to indicate that St Matthew believes this to be an actual event. I personally embrace wholeheartedly the idea that Jesus was born to Mary, the Mother of God - but this is something taken from a richer theological framework, from a broader theology of Scripture and revelation. Nonetheless, that is what the text says: that Jesus, the Messiah, was born of the Virgin Mary.

What about the role of St Joseph? He appears as a rather quiet figure. He is spoken to, but he does not say anything. Similarly, the Church has regarded St Joseph as the quiet father figure, giving him a certain nobility and humility of character. In support of this, the text refers to him as "a righteous man" (v. 19).

Other than his title, the Christ, and his genealogy (being the son of David), we do not know much of Jesus until verse 20. Here we learn that his origin, though Davidic, is also divine: "the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." We also learn in the same verse of his mission, or at least, one of his objectives: "he will save his people from their sins."

When we, as Christians, read this "mission statement" given to Jesus by the angel, we might suddenly envisage the cross, and if we reflect on that image in the context of the annunciation, we may be lead to thinking this is a sad passage; the angel announces Jesus' death even before he is born. This image, though accurate, is not the message I think was trying to be made. Instead, I believe we should try and see this section as the birth of the child of the covenant, the promised son of David who would bring to fulfilment God's plan of salvation that had been begun with Abraham. Here is the person who would set things straight in God's plan, dealing decisively with injustice and evil-doings - that is, putting an end to sin. Notice the wording of the text is not "pay the price for people's sins" or "he will be a propitiation for their sins", but a message of salvation. For the moment, St Matthew is feeding our excitement at how the child Jesus is affirming Messianic expectations - it shan't be long before they are subverted, but not quite yet.