Friday, 29 October 2010

I can't stop saying "ontological"

I posted this comment on Facebook and a friend asked me what "ontological" means. My answer turned into a short essay  outlining not only what it means for me but also why I can't stop saying it. Here's my answer:

It literally means "the study of being,” but I’m using it in a particular way. When I say something "is" something, and emphasise that by saying that something "is ontologically" something, it means that I am making a fundamental statement about its "nature." 

It's a vague concept, I know. I'm not actually interested in proposing a general theory of the nature of reality - I don't think human language and concepts can even do this as we are part of what we're trying to describe and we can't stand outside "it" in order to analyse it. Rather, I'm interested in the question of how we should read the Bible. This entails asking what it "is." The answer to this involves saying things like: it's a composite product of an ancient Israelite culture produced over a long time span. 

There is also another element, however, of what the Bible "is," for one finds all over the Bible statements that its purpose - regardless of its human particularity - consists in communicating the will and the identity of God to those who want to know it. It says that this purpose is something that God himself wills, that it is in fact the primary reason for the Bible's existence in the first place, and that God himself makes sure that this purpose is fulfilled within the lives of those who read it. So, if you take this self-depiction seriously, then according to the Bible the answer to the question of what it "is" is that it is a vehicle of divine revelation and salvation. In other words, the Bible sees itself as part of a broader context, a context even broader than the human one, namely the context of a history of salvation in which the eternal God is constantly revealing himself to humanity through this book. 

Yet, there is one further step: the Bible also says that what God himself decides to do in our created space and time is ultimately an expression of something that he himself eternally "is." God himself has a "being" but this being is dynamic, not static. The church calls this the "ontological Trinity," because it believes that God "is" an eternally loving relationship of three distinct persons, who we call the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (this, by the way, is what Christians mean when they say God "is" love; this is an ontological statement; God's being "is" the love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit). It therefore follows that the answer to the question of what the Bible "is" is ultimately related to the question of who God "is." Eternally, the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father and the bond that unites them is the Spirit. Temporally, i.e. in our created time, this eternal relationship "unfolds" to allow us to participate in the relationship. The Son became flesh and through his work of salvation for mankind by conquering the power of death on the cross he "brings" us into the eternal relationship that exists between him and his father. 

This process of "bringing in", however is, from our perspective not yet complete. In other words, those who now in our time put their faith in the Son receive a "foretaste" of a fuller relationship that is to come. This is why Christians are people who are "waiting" for the fulfilment of time, the "kingdom of God" on earth in which humanity can finally enter into the eternal relationship that God is. In the "meantime," that moment between the Son's historical redemption of humankind (around 33 A.D) and his return, humankind itself is to grow in that relationship that has been started but not consummated. And it does this by reading the Bible. The Bible "is" the place where this relationship grows. God already knows us. The Bible "is" the place where he makes himself known to us “in the meantime”, so that we can respond to him in worship and adoration in anticipation of the day when we can finally “come home,” which is into his arms as a son into the arms of his father. 

This has consequences for question for how I should read the Bible, which I won’t go into now as I’ve already written a ridiculously long comment! My point is just this: when most people ask themselves what the Bible “is,” and therefor how they should read it, they often just stop at the human bit and so end up reading it partially. Their decision to do this, however, is not only inadequate to the nature of the Bible, it is based on a prior assumption about what “ultimate reality” really is. Whatever that reality is, it doesn’t look like the one I just described above. They are commited to a different "ontology" than the one the Bible witnesses to. This is why the category of “ontology” is so important for reading the Bible. It helps us think about what the Bible “is” in a way that does justice to what it claims for itself.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Theological parallels between Israel's wisdom traditions and salvation-historical traditions

It's often said that Israel's wisdom traditions are devoid of the kind of theology one finds elsewhere in the Old Testament. Brueggemann represents the majority opinion: 
wisdom teaching, in the book of Proverbs as elsewhere, completely lacks the primary marks of Israel's history or of Israel's covenantal tradition. As a consequence in this teaching, Israel stands alongside its non-Yahwistic neighbours in pondering the inscrutible mystery of life, even as that mystery permeates the most concrete and mundane dimensions of daily existence [*]
The following is a thought experiment in relation to this. Assuming a single theological pattern, in which God creates a material universe for the purpose of giving it to humanity to enjoy, yet making that enjoyment conditional upon obedience to will, I came up with the following parallels:


i) The ultimate telos of wisdom is "salvation," understood in the "this worldly" sense of a long happy life in the land.
ii) The means of achieving this is through 1) discovering and then 2) implementing the insights of wisdom.
iii) The place where one goes in order to acquire this salvific information is the created order, in both its "natural" and "social" dimensions (i.e. through the observation of natural and sociological patterns and the development of codes of conduct).
iv) The epistemological condition for comprehending this reality is "the fear of the Lord." There is no neutral starting point.
v) The source of this information is the Lord. I.e. God himself, through revelation of himself, creates the epistemological conditions by which we can perceive his will in creation.
vi) The reason why this reality (wisdom) does what it does (i.e. give life) lies within the will of the Lord. It's what he wants.
vii) Identifying this reality (wisdom) is equivalent to identifying the Lord's will/purpose (i.e. to offer us salvation in a material paradise).
viii) Wisdom reveals the Lord to the degree that it reveals his will, which is for a healthy created order (Garden-of-Eden-style).

This seems to correspond to the theological logic found in the Pentateuch:

i) The ultimate telos of history is "salvation," understood in the "this worldly" sense of a long happy life in the land.
ii) The means of achieving this is through 1) discovering and then 2) implementing God's revealed will (Torah).
iii) The place where one goes for this salvific information is the Lord's history with his people, in both its experienced and then narrated/liturgically re-enacted dimensions (i.e. tradition and Scripture).
iv) The epistemological condition for comprehending this reality (i.e. truly understanding the spirit of the law, its purpose) is thankfulness to the Lord for what he has done prior to the revelation of his will (e.g. I.e. redemption from Egypt; this experience provides the categories for understanding how to treat ones own slaves).
v) The source of this information is the Lord.
vi) The reason that this reality (his will in Torah) does what it does (i.e. give life) lies within the will of the Lord. It's what he wants.
vii) Identifying this reality is equivalent to identifying the Lord's will/purpose (i.e. salvation).
viii) History (as narrated in the Pentateuch) reveals the Lord to the degree that it reveals his will, which is a healthy created order (i.e. saved from Egypt for Canaan).

Given these parallels, you can see how the Bible exerted a certain "co-ercion" on early Jewish interpreters (Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon) to collapse wisdom and torah into one reality. This wasn't an attempt to impress the Greeks, it was a response to the total witness of Scripture, a response consistent with the Bible's own logic.

To make the parallels more explicit, you get the following pairings:

Law / Wisdom (object to be sought)
Thankfulness for historical preservation / Fear of the Lord (epistemological condition for perceiving this)
land of milk and honey / a good long life (goal of seeking)
obedience / obedience (means of implementation)
the Lord / the Lord (source)
instruction from priests, parents, Scripture etc. / instruction from wise men, parents, Scripture etc. (vehicle for source)
history / creation (location)

Any thoughts?

[*] Brueggeman, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 306.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Dealing with anachronism in Exod 16:1-36

Assuming one wishes to read the Old Testament as "Christian scripture," how does one deal with the presence of anachronism in the storyline? As part of my general overview of Childs' approach to Biblical exegesis, I turn today to Childs' treatment of the anachronism that is found in the story of the manna and quails (Exodus 16:1-36).

According to the story, God commands that the jar of manna be placed “before the Testimony” (i.e. tablets of the Ten Commandments; עדות; v. 34). The problem is that the Ark, which contains the Testimony, hasn't been built yet. Childs rejects both the pre-critical solution to this problem, which says that God's command was given by way of anticipation, as well as the typical historical-critical solution, which say it was simply an oversight on the part of the redactor. Childs interpretation is also not “post-critical,” in the sense that he does not attempt to bracket out the question of the history of the text and remain within the "story world" of Exodus. Rather, he notes that it is often the case that “chronological inconsistencies usually reflect definite theological concerns” on the part of the Biblical editors[1] and proceeds to deduce that intentionality from the effect created by its present placement. In light of this broader editorial activity, he concludes the following:

It is much more likely that also here there is a theological point which caused the writer to override the chronological sequence. A jar of manna which is the sign of God's sustaining mercy is kept alongside the tablets of the law. Indeed, the sign of divine grace preceded the giving of the law of Sinai! Still the emphasis of this passage does not fall on establishing the priority of the manna, nor should the chronology be pressed. Rather, the point of the text focuses on the testimony that the manna and the tablets belong together before God. In New Testament terminology, the gospel and the law cannot be separated.[2]

Note that Childs is happy to let the tension stand at the level of the narrative: there is a genuine anachronism. But this is only a problem to a modern reader, for whom chronological consistency is an overriding concern. When seen in the light of its diachronic development, Childs tries to get to the matter that was editor's concern, and that is theology. You could say God's time over against our time. The "divine economy" trumps "profane history," such that we catch a glimpse into the order of events that really matters: in salvation history, grace always precedes law. 

Childs is also sensitive to the issue of over-weighting the editorial concern. In his opinion, the weight of the text does not consist in the fact that it is now placed before the giving of the Law. It still has a degree of independence over against its larger narrative context. The main point is "pericope immanent": gospel and law cannot be separated.

[1]     Childs, Exodus, 291.
[2]     Childs, Exodus, 291-292.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Rosenzweig on the essence of Judaism/Christianity

The context of the following statements is Rosenzweig's critique (yet round-about affirmation) of Mendelssohn's translation of the tetragrammaton as "Das ewige Wesen." As a Christian, I appreciate the way in which he draws the Trinity into the orbit of the Biblical understanding of God, critiquing Maimonides' "Aristotelianism" in the process. I think he is right to say that the essence of Christianity - in its better moments - is at one with both Judaism and Scripture. At the same time, I'm not sure how it is that he can still (implicitly, at least, if I read him right) maintain the validity of the idea that God is יָחִיד, which is more than saying that he is אֶחַד. How is the "pagan/Aristotelian" concept of unitarianism (as Rosenzweig calls it!) still a necessary pre-condition - albeit a limited one - for affirming that the Creator is also the historical Redeemer? Rosenzweig actually says that this formulation was against the impulse do Jewish tradition. What other ways does Judaism provide of conceiving God's transcendence and immanence? In a course with Rabbi Dan Cohen-Sherbok I learnt that Jewish mysticism always stood in tension - even outright conflict - with the philosophical strand in Judaism. Does the doctrine of the sephirot, do a better job of conceiving this? Can it be reconciled with Maimonides' unitariansism? And, as far as questions of "Jewishness" are concerned, when does one cross the boundary thus find oneself outside the fold? 

Mendelssohn hat also die Entscheidung falsch getroffen, beeinflußt durch den Vorgang Calvins und einflußempfänglich geworden durch den rationalistisch-klassizistischen Geist des von Jugend auf verehrten, doch eben hier wie so oft aristotelisch beeinflußten Maimonides gegen den sicheren Instinkt der jüdischen Tradition verbündete. ... Der biblische "Monotheismus" besteht ja nicht in der Erkenntnis einer Einheit des göttlichen Wesens; wäre er das, so ermangelte er jeder Besonderheit: es gibt kein "Heidentum", das nicht ... seinen "Polytheismus" ... in der Einheit eines "Religiösen" überhaupt ... zusammenfaßte. Sondern das Eigetümliche des biblischen Gottesglaubes besteht darin, daß er diese "heidnische" Einheit - mit dem Kusari zu reden: den Gott des Aristoteles - zwar voraussetzt, aber diesen Gott in seinem Einssein mit dem persönlichst und unmittelbarst erfahren - wieder mit dem Kusari gesprochen: dem Gott Abrahams - erkennt. Die "heidnische Einheit" ist dabei nicht etwa nebensächlich; ein teilgebliebener Gott (etwa ein Gruppengott), der beanspruchte, "der Ganze" zu sein, wäre ein Götze und unfähig, in die Ineinssetzung mit dem "Gott Abrahams" einzugehen ... ; aber ihre, sozusagen, monotheistische Pointe erhält jene heidnische Einheit erst durch diese jüdische Ineinssetzung des fernen mit dem nahen, des "ganzen" mit dem "eigenen" Gott. Diese Ineinssetzung erst ist das "Wesen des Judentums" und durch das trinitarische Dogma, wie sehr auch gebrochen und in Gefahr des Rückfalls in die vor- und außerjüdische Spaltung, auch das Wesen des Christentums (den Ernst und die Aktualität deser Gefahr zeigen in der Gegenwart wieder Barth und Gogarten). Und diese Ineinssetzung ist der Offenbarungskern der Bibel und das, was sie zur jüdischen Bibel macht; der Unterscheid der jüdischen Bibel vom "Alten Testament" liegt darin, daß vom Neuen Testament aus allzu leicht der Gtt des "Alten" dem "Vater Jesu Christi" gegenüber weider gewissermaßen auf den "Gott des Aristoteles" reduziert wird. Und eben diese Ineinssetzung ist es, die mit ihrer aus dem ICH BIN DA-Ruf vom brennenden Dorn hervorschlagenden Glut in den Gottesnamen die ganze Bibel in eins schmiedet, indem sie überall die Gleichung des Gottes der Schöpfung mit dem mir, dir, jedem Gegenwärtigen vollzieht, - diese Gleichung, deren Feuer am heißesten brennt an den Stellen, wo der Gottesname und das Wort für Gott aufeinander prallen, wie in den Paradieskapiteln der Genesis oder in dem Einheitsruf des "Hör, Jisrael", überhaupt den Stellen, wo Mendelssohn "der Ewige" nicht genügt und er duch "das ewige Wesen" das Bezogenwerden auf die Namensoffenbarung des Exodus in seiner Weise ganz sicherzustellen sucht."
F. Rosenzweig, "'Der Ewige.' Mendelssohn und der Gottesnahme," in Reinhold and Annemarie Mayer, eds. 
Zweistromland: Kleinere Schriften zu Glauben und Denken (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publischers, 1984), 109-110.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The literal vs Messianic Torah: Quote of the Day

Regarding the Torah in its literality, which is the Torah of the mundane world, it is worthless when compared to the Messianic Torah and the Torah of the world to come … Regarding the Mishnah, there can be no doubt that the Mishnah’s literal aspects are but veils, shells and outer wrappings when compared to the hidden mysteries which are inherent and insinuated in its inner aspects (i.e. Kabbalah). [*]
[*] Hayim Vital, Etz-Hayyim [Warsaw, 1891; Jerusalem, 1910], ‘Introduction to the Gate of Introductions’, p. 2. Cited in Elior, R. (1997). "Not All is in the Hands of Heaven: Eschatology and Kabbalah." In H. Graf Reventlow (Ed.), Eschatology in the Bible and in Jewish and Christian tradition (H. Graf Reventlow, Ed.) (58). Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

"Ontological thirst": my new favourite phrase

While perusing the fascinating collection of essays contained in Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments, I came across what has now become one of my favourite phrases: "ontological thirst." We all have it, though I wonder how many theories of "theological hermeneutics" are constructed in denial of that fact?

The context of the quote is the relation between science and theology, rather than theological hermeneutics, thought I do think that Welker's essay has hermeneutical implications (for the relationship between "history" and "ontology" go here and here).

Here's the context for the phrase:
Only knowledge of reality constitutes truth, and only truth can quench the thirst that leads to research. ... The point of departure [for scientists and theologians] is difficult. We recognize ... that we find ourselves in a worldwide cultural communication but with multiple rationalities. .. Within this pluralism of rationalities, however, science and theology share something in common. Both are driven by ontological thirst, by the thirst to know reality as it is. Both shun delusion. Both are pursued by truth-seeking communities." (Resurrection, p. xiii).

Friday, 8 October 2010

Is "canonical exegesis" too difficult?

Christopher Hays, in a review of Childs' The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, has the following to say about the difficulty of doing the kind of exegesis Childs called "canonical":
The intellectual entrance fee for writing good theological exegesis must be very steep. If Childs or his heirs want to claim an elevated status for their project, that ambition should come with an even higher standard of training and preparation than “mere” historical-philological scholarship. Childs certainly met any standard that anyone could set, but not every theological interpreter does. He once called for a “single method” comprising both dimensions of the text, but it is here that his omission of 20th century theologian-exegetes is most lamentable: Younger scholars pursuing a “single method” approach receive no road map from Childs—they cannot learn, in this book, from the successes and errors of their immediate predecessors. (Nor do younger scholars who are less inclined to be sympathetic receive any constructive criticism, unless they are acolytes of Brueggemann.) 

Even if Childs had explained his “single method,” there are few who can and will ever master all of the necessary skills. It may be that the array of tools one needs to conduct theological biblical criticism is so extensive that canonical criticism is not really a young scholar’s game. How then could theological exegesis be carried out without requiring one person to master both biblical studies and theology?[*] 
I appreciate the final question. I'd say that one must strain to master both. Perhaps the solution to the problem lies in the way that university/seminary curricula are structured and integrated? Can they be adapted so that future students can receive the foundation they need to go on and wrestle with the "substance" of the text?

[*] "Bard Called the Tune," JTI 4.1 (2010), 151.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The significance of B.S. Childs?

Much of this blog has been dedicated to extolling the praises of a man whose work has deeply influenced me, both spiritually and intellectually: Brevard Childs. I rarely come across statements that express something of the depth of my appreciation, though perhaps Seitz's comments come close. Recently, however, I read a eulogy that tops anything I have said on this blog. In fact, the praises are so high I'm left wondering whether I can fully agree with them. Perhaps my lack a full breadth of knowledge of the field disqualifies me from being able to make an informed judgement, but based on my experience to date I do think I can identify with McGlasson's sentiments. The following is taken from the preface to his Invitation to Dogmatic Theology:
The third decisive influence [on my approach] is the biblical work of Brevard S. Childs. I attended Yale Divinty School primarily in order to learn directly from Childs, and my eager expectation was met by an even greater reality. It is now clear that the work of Childs on canon amounts to nothing less than a brilliant new vision of scripture without parallel in the history of the church, though deeply rooted in the church's tradition of reading scripture. Every theologian worthy of the name has turned directly to scripture as the one source for the knowledge of God. Where else does the church learn to know Jesus Christ? However, never before has the church been closer to the shape and subject matter of scripture than in Childs's work on canon. The confession of canon was the first and foundational creedal affirmation of the ancient church; yet not until Childs's work have the full implications of that confession been so crystal clear and inviting for reflection. Once again, a new era has begun. Theology can never again go back behind Childs when it wrestles with scripture, nor can it count as genuine Christian theology unless it sees with precision the full force of the vision he articulates. The future of dogmatic theology lies with realizing the connection of the discipline with the Bible, and that connection depends upon a firm theological grasp of the issue of canon. The confession of canon is an ontological necessity for dogmatic inquiry and the proper beginning of all valid theological reflection (14-15).
So, how do people feel about that?

Saturday, 2 October 2010

A further (Jewish) critical thought on the Oxford Psalms Conference

In my last post I shared some critical thoughts about the recent Oxford Psalms conference. Given that I'm a Christian and one of my issues with the logic of the conference had to do with that fact, I'm delighted that a Jewish friend of mine shared her critical thoughts on the matter in response to the post. She wasn't present for various reasons, but one of them will become clear in her comments (which I post with permission):
I'd like to add my own pesky little issue here which has less to do with the content (although ultimately it most likely does) but rather the organization of the conference. If it was the intention of the organizers to foster a dialogue between communities I do wonder what prompted them to schedule the conference exactly on one of the important Jewish festivals, i.e. Sukkot? By this scheduling blunder they effectively excluded and silenced one particular segment of the Jewish academic and clerical community (namely the Orthodox). I do realize that there were some Jewish participants; however these would not represent, speak for and from that particular segment which is also part of the larger Jewish group. This is interesting because it is exactly that absent group that takes the Psalter (or they would prefer Sefer Tehillim) very seriously as a living tradition, both in liturgy as well as in individual petionary prayer. So, as far as the organizers are concerned – for the umpteenth time in comparable circumstances: it’s their loss. Sad thing though is, they probably don’t even realize that they did suffer a loss and will whisk it away as an irrelevant irritant….
This fact was pointed out at the conference, for which the organizers apologized. I'm not sure of the reasoning, but I think there were organizational complications that couldn't be avoided. However, given that the explicit agenda of the conference was to encourage a mutual "moving beyond" differences in Christian and Jewish exegesis, the absence of an incredibly significant segment of the Jewish population - a segment which stands in most continuity with the traditions that define Judaism - seriously limits the conference's capacity to make progress on its stated goals.