A new hypothesis on the cultural and moral degradation of the Scriptures

If our objection to the divine origin of Scripture is to call it a book of crude bronze-age genocidal goat herding patriarchal peasants, then do we expect something with a truly a divine origin be the finest fruit of a perfectly enlightened age, composed by leisured aristocrats, and reflecting the noblest, purest moral ideals and actions? Even if all these traits were compatible (non-patriarchal aristocracy?) an honest look at history tells us that such age would be marred by its love of its own atrocious actions and beliefs.  Our rhetorical jabs would just shift from whatever monstrous moral practices happen at the hands of goat-herders to the the ones that happen at the hands of enlightened, leisured aristocrats and college professors.

Is I missing the point, though? Sure, maybe out mocking of goat-herders is a little xenophobic and elitist, and maybe any culture God chose to reveal himself though would have its own vices and faults. But isn’t the heart of the objection that since God is “morally perfect” his revelation should be morally perfect? Isn’t this practically a tautology?

Not necessarily. Instead of trying to justify the apparent moral degradation of Scripture we might investigate the hypothesis that some moral degradation is integral to its own account of revelation. Since it is complete in Christ, revelation is not just God’s speaking to human beings but speaking with a human voice. Given that God wanted to save human beings, and not just start again after the fall with a non-fallen creation (which would make both salvation and revelation unnecessary) he was committed to speaking with a fallen voice until such time when he would speak though his new creation in Christ. Demanding moral perfection of the revelation before this new creation would destroy the way in which Christ fulfills the Scripture as not just a revelation to humanity but through humanity.

Scripture as language primer

If Scripture is where we hear the words of the Trinity and so learn what words to address them, then Scripture is most like a sort of grammar book or language primer. Part of the way in which it is not a language primer involves its making (some) historical claims, but the revelation need not become questionable when the historical claim is.  Whatever one thinks about the historicity of the conversion of Nineveh, the slaughter of the innocents, the pre-Abrahamic chapters of Genesis etc. they are no less exercises in and paradigms of the speech of the Trinity. For all we know, sacrificing the historical rigor might well make the language easier to learn. Perhaps we will never be able to determine whether Caesar gave a long ship to the great poet, but a Latin primer might well force the student to solemnly speak as though he did.

The defects of Catholic Scriptural theology

As a rule, Anglophone Catholics have stopped reading Scripture as God’s word. On the one hand this happened because, in response to Protestants, we argued that The Bible demands an authoritative interpreter, which led us to defend a Postmodern account of Scripture as incapable of reliably speaking for itself to the heart of the individual believer. Scripture, we are led to believe, has a dangerous and deadly opacity that God remedies by giving an infallible interpreter. One can’t fall into the error of thinking that the Holy Spirit might speak through revelation (!?!?). But if it comes to this, we’ve simply denied that Scripture is revelation.

On the other hand, we have come to see Scripture as nothing but a narrative of salvation history. Taken in this sense, Scripture is a record of events, and principally a record of covenants. Approaching the book in this way makes most of it superfluous. The books of the law, the Wisdom books, most of the prophets, and vast swaths of the New Testament become wheels that spin without being hooked up to anything. Sure, we should read the covenant with Abraham, but why bother reading the Psalms(!?!?) Again, in reading Scripture only as history, no matter how exalted, we force ourselves to be ashamed of all that we cannot assimilate into a larger body of consistent, known evidence. Of itself, this method can only raise the orthodox believer to the point of seeing that a supposedly divine testimony is believable without ever raising the question of what he should do if he believed it.

Both approaches fall short of reading The Bible as the place where we find the words that God both wants to speak to creation and hear back from it in return. In this context both the magisterial interpreter and the historical critic become a fellow reader with us, though they play an auxiliary role, and are valuable to the extent that they are engaged in fundamentally the same sort of activity as the one who comes to Scripture to listen and learn to speak the language of the Trinity. We come to value the Church less for its declarations about what various passages mean (and what percentage of verses needed pronouncements anyway?) and we start valuing it more as the place where the divine office grew and was nourished, and the Scriptures were read in the liturgy.

Trinity as an abstract noun

A first step in avoiding the paradoxes of the Trinity is to appreciate the word “trinity”. The -ity clitic, like “-ness” and “-hood” is a way of turning an adjective into an abstract noun, i.e it is a way of moving from a form in a subject (the red truck or personal car or a stupid question) to considering the form itself (redness, personality, stupidity, etc.).

The peculiar character of abstract nouns is to be both wholly present in individuals and yet wholly separate from them. It is the case both that you have your personality and I have mine, and that personality can continue to exist and be studied after any of us have died. Again, when you try to teach kids two from examples, you are hoping that they both see something in the examples and separate from them.

In other words, we’re used to there being a way of existing that is both entirely unified and distinct from the concrete while entirely present in diverse concrete realities. In calling God “trinity” we want to target exactly this sort of existence, though said of “three”. There will be defects in the description, but nowhere near as many defects as would be involved in calling God triple or threefold. It is straightforward polytheism to pray to the triple god, i.e. the god who was a whole composed from three persons as parts. But to pray to the threeness is not at all the same thing: threeness is clearly a unitary form, even while being wholly present in every triple.

Christ’s sense of “neighbor”

Through the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christ interprets “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” as meaning “whoever you love as yourself becomes your neighbor”. The commandment is therefore also an axiom about how the heart works. Neighbors are those we are near to, but the relevant sense of nearness is measured by the absence of discord and not of distance.

“Neighbor” or “the one near-by” is redefined in a way that need not be symmetrical. If I am close to you distance-wise, you are close to me distance-wise. But to be close in Christ’s sense is a closeness of the heart, and in this way you could be very close to me without me being very close to you. And so the command is to be a neighbor to all even if they are not to us, as God is neighbor to us even though when we are not to him.

Notes on Eschatology

-For a Christian to put all their hope in a disembodied post-mortem existence is to limit themselves to a Gnostic eschatology. This is not a call to cast out disembodiment, but to work it into a more complete eschatology.

-If disembodiment is transitory, it shares this character with our life now.

-Eternity will always involve some negation of history.  In calling the universe eternal, Aristotle meant inter alia that going back in time provided no new information about it. One simply saw rotating orbs, blossoming trees, and cows birthing cows ad infinitum. Einstein goes beyond Aristotle by saying that the “passage” of time does not involve anything becoming real that was not real before. Time “passage” involves new ideas arising in a finite mind but not any new realities in the universe (what sort of ontology of knowledge would this require?)

-Ratzinger is the first theologian I know of to insist that the disembodied are still involved in history, though the Church wasn’t hiding the point. The saints give patronage, intercede, and were once seen as far more involved in the life of believers. All liturgies are conducted in a crowd of disembodied witnesses. The disembodied are integral to the incomplete universe.

-It is unsatisfying to see the cosmos either as indifferent to us or as destined to be a ghost-town. But these are our only options if disembodiment is not transitory.

-The ancients tended to see logos as read off the universe, science shifted to seeing it as imposed on the universe, though in such a way as to still be objective. What sort of ontology allows for “imposed objectivity”?

-Say some alien race finds the voyager record, plays it, and perceives what we perceive as sounds as shifts in color. What are they talking about when they talk about our color signals? Is this imposed objectivity? Say they marvel at the beauty of the colors. Are they marveling at our art?

-Say the universe is just the signal, that is, a pure order that can be encoded in multiple ways just like a message might be encoded in sound or color. But if this is all it is then it is no longer sensible or even physical. We saw off the branch that intelligibility is sitting on. No, a physical universe must be defined – it must exist – relative to an intelligence knowing through sensation. But to make such an intelligence exhaust its existence, as though it projected itself into non-being, also fails to explain the intelligibility of the universe.

-The upshot is that humanity and the cosmos share a common destiny. Resurrection is part of this common destiny.

Notes on theology

-For the Christian, philosophy is the handmaid of theology only so far as Mary is the paradigm for handmaids. In affirming power and insight beyond herself, she ends up concretizing it out of her own body and being a new source of its existence.

Benedict: The Christian message is made in history, and so the historical-critical method has an indispensable role to play in its explication. Is this an equivocation? Was the Christian message made within an attempt to give a rational, unified account of available evidence from an assumption of the uniformity of experience?  We are scandalized that God could not write historically, but only in the same way that Augustine was scandalized that God could not write rhetorically, the Neo-Platonists were scandalized that he could not write Platonically. But we’re right, of course.

-The wisdom of God is folly to men. This is not for lack of cleverness in argumentation. Who else can know a man’s thoughts, except the man’s own spirit that is within him? So no one else can know God’s thoughts, but the Spirit of God.

-Religion, like sex and the desire to intoxicate ourselves, is an inveterate element in the human experience. We will go though times of irreligion like we go through times of prohibition and sexual morbidity, and with comparable levels of success.

After the Ontological Argument

Everyone knows the Ontological Argument, far fewer about what Anselm does with it. Having proved to his satisfaction that if we cannot think something better than X, that X is true of God, he points out that X = the supreme good. Other divine attributes follow by conjunction: is the supreme good better with _____ or with non-_____? If with _____, then it is clearly better to have it with no limitation. The blanks then get filled with power (and then omnipotence) knowledge (and then omniscience) blessedness (and then intrinsic and utterly non-contingent blessedness) self existence (and so simplicity, eternity, unity…) etc.

Even if one proved God’s existence another way, it’s hard to beat the fertility of viewing God as that-than-which.

Ontological Argument

1.) If we can think of something better than X, then X is not God.

(The can indicates logical possibility for a informed knower. Said another way, our assertion of “greater” is assumed not to result from our ignorance. “Greater” is on any scale of greatness.)

2.) So God is that than which a better cannot be thought. (by contraposition)

“Can” keeps same meaning.

3.) If God had no existence outside our idea, in thinking of an existent God we would think of something better.

The argument assumes an ideal knower, that is, a being who knows his judgments about what can or cannot be the case are not the result of ignorance.

Principle of Identity

First off, what is it?

It can’t be reduplication or a generalization of saying an apple is an apple. This makes it a mechanical act which hits no term. You might as well say an apple is an apple is an apple is an apple is….

We need something stronger than “is”, since the principle is uninteresting as a matter of fact (oh look, that apple is still an apple! Let’s check again in twenty minutes, ‘kay?) It only becomes interesting for reasoning as indicating necessity, e.g.

The same thing must be itself. 

(Where “same” has the same scope as in the principle of contradiction, sc. when it refers to the same time, in the same part, in the same respect, etc.)

So taken, we avoid mechanical repetition of predicates and get a principle that does real work, like in this the last sentence of this argument from St. Thomas:

[W]hen I say, “What the soul understands is immaterial,” this is to be understood that it is immaterial as it is in the intellect, not as it is in itself. Likewise if I say, “If God knew anything, it will be,” the consequent must be understood as it is subject to the divine knowledge, i.e. as it is in the present time when it is happening (presentalitas). And thus it is necessary, as also is the antecedent: “For everything that is, while it is, must be necessarily be,” as the Philosopher says in Peri Herm. i.

ST. 1. 14. 13 ad. 2

Whenever a thing is, when it is, must be. That is, the same thing must be itself. To say that is not a vacuous repetition, but an interesting statement about what it is to be at all. It turns out that same is contrary to contingency. There is a whole theology in that.

« Older entries


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 193 other followers