Tuesday, 2 March 2010

One thing I like about Mowinckel

I was recently asked what I thought of the work of the psalms scholar Sigmund Mowinckel (in response to this quote of his). Thus far I've only read the opening chapters of his key work, The Psalms in Israel's Worship (if you follow the link you can read these chapters, plus a helpful preface by Crenshaw, for free), but he's said enough in order for me to formulate an initial impression.

What I like most about Mowinckel is - what at least appears to be - his sensitivity and openness to the reality and impact of the divine within Israel's history. In a German language biographical sketch of his life I read that at some point he went through something of a "religious awakening."[1] Perhaps it is this is that comes to expression at various points in his work on the cult (apart from his dependence on the anthropologist Grønbech) ...

For example, he summarizes his entire work on the psalms as follows:
The present author has ... endeavoured to apply a really cult-functional intepretation, and ... to prove that the psalms of the Psalter, on the whole, are real cult psalms and an expression of that experience of God which the cult seeks to further (p. 34; emphasis, here and elsewhere, mine).
According to this perspective, the cult functions as one of a number of possible vehicles of divine revelation within Israel. There is an experience of God - to which the psalms are a response and for which the cult is a medium.

Again, Mowinckel says the following concerning the function of music in the cult:
Like rhythm and tune it is a way of expressing the sense of rapture and sublime abandonment. It is a reaction to the encounter with the holy. ... Together with cultic song goes the dance, which is a common way of expressing the encounter with the holy. ... At a higher level it develops into an expression of joy at the encounter with the Holy One" (p.9; note the move from "holy" in general to "the Holy One" in particular).
Unlike many scholars today,[2] Mowinckel doesn't reduce Israel's spiritual life to socio-psychological categories. His language here smacks of divine immanence. In other words, there is a transcendence (however vaguely and inadequately Mowinckel may conceive it) which enters into Israel's time and space, an ontological (?) reality which Israel experiences and to which it responds. In fact, this reality even impacts the shape of Israel's institutions. See, for example, Mowinckel's statement that the cult is
the visible and audible expression of the relation between the congregation and the deity" (p. 16).
These presuppositions are expressed most explicitly on pages 16-17:
It may often look as thought he initiative lies with the congregation, on the human side. But seen from the point of view of cult and religion it is rather the other way round: the initiative lies with God. True enough, it is man that 'searches for God,' 'seeks God,' but he can, and odes so, because the deity first 'revealed himself' and taught man where and when and how to seek him. This is a fundamental idea of all religion, and not least in Israel. The deity represents a reality and a power which is different from the human, a belongs to the sphere termed 'the holy', he is experienced as something 'different' and 'separate' - ... Through the cult this effective [!] and wonderful 'power' is imparted to the partakers, the congregation or the society.
"... seen from the point of view of cult and religion .. ." Is it the case that Mowinckel is just using emic categories, like a good phenomenologist of religion? Or is this in some sense his perspective too? What modern psalms scholar would talk with such confidence about the "effective ... 'power', not of the cult, but of the deity that is mediated through the cult? And what impact would giving space to this possibility have on modern interpretation of the psalms?[3]

[1] 1934 erlebte er durch die Begegnung mit der sogenannten „Gruppenbewegung“ (Oxford Group Movement) so etwas wie eine religiöse „Erweckung“, nach der er in vieler Hinsicht ein aktiveres Kirchenmitglied wurde und sich schließlich (1940) auch noch ordinieren ließ.

[2] In a seminar here in Bonn, Prof. W.H. Schmidt bemoaned the way in which contemporary Biblical exegesis has been reduced to a form of cultural analysis.

[3] It seems to me that some kind of account of divine immanence is required in order to give theological substance and methodological nuance to the justifications usually made for form criticism. See, e.g., my post Justifying form criticism of the psalms.

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