Tuesday, October 29, 2013

These Essays: Some Objections to Augustine

The trouble is that not all Scripture can be interpreted in love - at least not simply so. Some Scripture has nothing obvious to do with love, such as those narratives of the Old Testament about the destruction of peoples or cruelty and violence against women. 

We are not the first people to notice this. The Augustinian solution, and the solution for many ancient readers of Scripture, was allegory, the strict substitution of a historical reality (ie the Church) for a metaphorical figure (ie the beloved) in a text (ie the Song of Songs). This can change the meaning of whole passages of Scripture, so that the Song of Songs, in perhaps the most famous example, becomes not a series of poems about the erotic love between man and woman but about the chaste love between the soul and the Church. With sufficient work along these lines, even the most inscrutable passages of Scripture can build up the love of God and neighbor.

Now obviously we today have some objections to this. It seems too disregarding of much of the realities of the texts themselves. It’s hard to imagine that when Christ instructed his disciples on the double commandment of love, he desired them to interpret allegorically those passages of Scripture which did not openly support Christian charity. 

Today, the best of our first-tier interpretive criteria, gained through many hundreds of years of scholarship, strive to embrace the contents of texts in a more straightforward manner. So we might say that both Christ and Matthew wanted their disciples to understand love as a way of living in the world that both demanded sacrifice and promised reward in the form of the Kingdom of God – or something along those lines. The point is that where the text itself seems more fluid, ambiguous or complex, we now try to bring our understanding of that text to the same level.

But there is a deeper problem with Augustine. For him, the point of Christian doctrine was that all things must point to the Trinitarian love of God, which sounds great generally but has very specific problems. Ultimately, Augustine would have had the signa, the sign that is Scripture be enjoyed only as a means to (usus casui) the enjoyment of the res, the thing, of God for God’s own self (usus frui). 

And we are going to have the same problem with this that we do with allegory: not all things do point directly to the Trinitarian love of God. We feel that many things are good simply in and of themselves as gifts of God. Song of Songs, for example, truly seems to be primarily poetry about erotic love, which makes the encouragement of erotic love the simplest explanation for why we have it.

We don’t think, and shouldn’t have to think, about the selfless love of the Trinitarian God every time we kiss our beloved, or every time we eat a bowl of cereal. At some point, such considerations actually end up diminishing the quality of things as gifts. This is one of the wisdoms of the Reformation: we are saved in creation as we are and where we are, not through some ascetic contemplation that values only the pure love of God and nothing in between. 

It’s not only our final destination that matters. Even within the Augustinian scheme of loving God and neighbor it surely becomes problematic if we love our neighbor solely because doing so leads us to love our God for the sake of our own salvation. Actually, that doesn’t end up sounding like love at all.

Now this may well be a bad reading of Augustine. I don’t know. Almost anyone has read him more thoroughly than I. But if my reading is correct, then Augustinian interpretation needs a measure of correction. It seems too theoretically simple, too abstract, too weighted toward eternity to allow us to understand the Scriptures in the best way that we are able. It passes far too quickly over many urgent interpretive criteria. 

What about historical context? What about the culture of the reader and the imagination of the author? What about textual form and grammatical structure? A less cohesive, unified understanding of interpretation would allow us to honor the diverse details the texts themselves actually consider. We must attend to the complexities, multiplicities and intrinsic qualities of the Christian scripture that we have.  

Because of its position on the second tier of interpretive criteria, salutary force may allow us to do precisely this. Healing, like Scripture itself, is set clearly and primarily in this world. And healing, like interpretation itself, is judged primarily in retrospect: this interpretation has healed, this fractured bone has mended. 

My own argument is similarly retrospective: interpretations which have healed have hewed more closely to Scripture’s content, form, and transformative purpose than those that have not. (It is only with practice that our judgments will improve: this way of reading a text is often helpful, I can tell by looking at it that this cut is on the mend.) Healing is no excuse, no end-around a Biblical text itself.

That Augustine may have allowed for just such an end-around in his interpretive practice is no excuse for us to do so in ours. Salutary force commits us to the contents of Scripture. If the truth is going to set us free, surely we must first know the truth, or be known by it. Only by being faithful to texts will all our various psychological, linguistic, and historical studies of Scripture carry through the understanding that heals. Only by being true to our understanding of Scripture will our explication of Scripture lead us toward the transformation which God intends to impart. Only if it springs from fidelity to the given words of Scripture will salutary force be a viable, additional criterion for determining the validity of Christian interpretations of Scripture.

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