Friday, January 31, 2014

These Essays: The Paschal Imagination

What if there were a kind of empathy that did not presume estrangement, as Augustine's does? And what if there were more than one direction of empathy possible when we read Scripture? What if the Bible were not only something that we understood, but rather a revelation that sought profoundly to understand us, and that asked us to imagine together with it

As the hermeneutical scholar Sandra M. Schneiders surveys the New Testament, she finds that Scripture has its own imagination, particularly in the four gospels and the Pauline epistles. For her, empathy does not depend solely on the imagination of the lover of God who reads the Scripture, but requires also the imagination of the Scriptures to produce a Christ which people can understand, empathize with, and even participate in.

Schneiders’ literary analysis, owing much to the work of Paul Ricoeur, shows that Scripture seeks to convey a paschal imagination, the symbolic world occasioned by the proclamation of the historical Jesus. Paschal imagination is neither the reconstruction of memory nor they construction of fantasy.

Paschal imagination is, rather, our capacity to form whole images of Jesus Christ. It is dynamic rather than static, interpretive rather than immediate, formative rather than finalized, and loaded with affect rather than abstract. The paschal imagination is both historical and transhistorical, unified in a tensive, or complexly contradictory, image that transcends either category.

Are we to feel what Jesus felt? We might, perhaps, but the New Testament itself gives no language to this effect. Rather, the paschal imagination, the particular empathy, that the New Testament makes possible is that we see the world as Jesus saw it; we share in Christ’s reality. We participate in Christ’s atonement, which Biblical scholar Anthony Thiselton has named as the second-most prevalent theme of the New Testament, behind only the crucifixion itself.

The symbolic nature of the reality of Christ expressed in Scripture encourages precisely that participation in Christ through language. Empathetic, imaginative invocation is the nature of the encounter between the reader and the New Testament.

We may say all this somewhat differently, as Schneiders herself has done. One may read, she says, for either information or for transformation, “to be intellectually enlightened or to be personally converted.” The reality she recognizes, of course, is that these two undertakings, particularly in the case of the New Testament, seem inextricably related.

One may read the New Testament purely for information, though one may rightly question such an approach to a document so openly intended to persuade of spiritual reality. Yet one may not read the New Testament or, one supposes, any Scripture, with the sole intent of being transformed regardless of its content. Such an approach borders on the nonsensical: what, if we ignore the cognitive content of a text, have we been transformed into?

The imagination of Scripture is constructive, Schneiders notes, but it is not constructive from nothing. Yes, Scripture contains historical moments that either did or did not happen and which are subject to interrogation, but one must ask the question what those moments are in the Scriptures for.

This does parallel our Augustinian understanding of first and second-tier criteria established so much earlier: yes, we may understand Scripture, but what is that understanding for? But the question on the table now is how the authority of our texts expressed informationally in understanding works with the empathy of Scripture expressed transformationally in empathy to produce imaginative participation. 

What, in other words, is the form of Scripture for?

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