Thursday, December 5, 2013

These Essays: Scripture Unleashes Psychology

Those who read the Bible holistically—as whole people reading whole Scripture—have the best chance of understanding Scripture’s explicatory power. In this vein, Gerd Theissen eschews any particular psychology as he reads various Scriptures in his Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology. By combining learning theory, psychoanalytic thinking, and cognitive understanding into a “hermeneutical psychology,” Theissen connects all interpretations to psychic phenomena we are given to experience. 

The psyche’s pervasive wholeness in both reader and text is such that “the correspondence of an interpretation with the whole of a text” trumps the consistency of any psychological theory. So here we find the textual fidelity I initially addressed: exegesis of the Scriptures reveals such a broad and profound explication of human experience that our own psychological theories fail—any psychological theories fail— to encompass it.  

 A few brief examples must suffice. Theissen’s reading of Paul gives Christ as the center of the transformation of both behavior and experience. The gospel of Christ becomes an unconditioned positive reinforcement of transformation through its annihilation of the law. No longer will we be punished for our sin. Rather, our suffering through Christ will be exalted and rewarded in new life. Such a system frees us from anxiety so that we can seek reconciliation with and provide help for our fellow human beings.

And this transformation becomes psychologically possible because Christ not only extinguishes the power of the law, but through his death allows the darker energies of the unconscious to come into focus. It is not that we are unaware of our sinfulness. Rather, that Christ means that our consciousness of sin—after Christ, we do know what we do—yearns for the integration and redirection of our entire selves toward God.

For example, through the phenomenon of glossolalia, in new life even our unconscious may praise the divine. And Christ as the rule of this new life lives in the members of the redeemed body of believers through the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit, shifting one’s perceptions of oneself, one’s community, and the world. One no longer understands the self as isolated, but together with those of Christ. If Christ does anything at all, Christ changes one’s psychological identity—in terms of behavior, in terms of psychodynamics, in terms of cognitive understanding.  

Perhaps Theissen’s study of 1 Corinthians 3 will better clarify what he means about identity. In this passage Paul criticizes Moses for failing to effectively model transformed behavior. But this failure happened not because Moses was who he was but because the law was what it was. Laws in stone cannot change the human heart.

The transformation will not be legislated. We can understand this as Paul complicates the Old Testament tradition of the veil, which separates Moses from the people, and more importantly, the people from the transforming glory of YHWH. As a result, the glory of Moses fades. But the glory of the Lord, as seen in a mirror, will transform the people from glory into glory.

Christ as model through the Spirit trumps Moses as model through the law because the gospel of Christ lodges in the community. Through Christ the Corinthians become their own message, with new conduct and new identity written on their hearts. Astoundingly, this is also true for Moses, whom Paul has physically turn toward the Lord.

The passages carries a valuation of interiority through the metaphoric comparisons of letters and tablets and hearts and the light of glory. It is possible, then, to read the veil as symbolizing the divide between the manifest consciousness of the law and the latent unconsciousness of the Spirit. If so, its elimination in Christ symbolizes the transformation of the whole person by Christ’s divine glory. More, the passage itself has those who understand the law through the spirit rather than externally as those who have had the veil removed from their eyes.

The familiarity of the language of even this kind of psychological reading should tell us, at least in part, that we are always already reading the Bible psychologically. We read the Bible with psychology in mind all the time, because of course in the mind is where psychology resides. Part of what my criterion of salutary force is trying to address is that there are, psychologically, both better and worse readings of the Bible available, interpretations both more and less explicatory of the human heart and mind. 

And I would suggest that those interpretations which consciously recognize the psychological power of Scripture’s contents would be more likely counted among the former than the latter.

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