Saturday, March 1, 2014

These Essays: Scripture, Like Meaning, Is An Event

We have seen in these essays how several psychologists and linguists have come to understand language itself expressing or referring to realms otherwise un-vocalized. This remains true whether the dark places are the repressed physical drives of Kristeva’s Freudianism or the untapped Jungian depths of the unconscious in the work of Andres Ortiz-Oses.

Metaphor works in a very similar fashion, invoking the participation of the holistic human mind. Both Paul Riceour and Sandra Schneiders have understood this. And, of course, metaphoric language pervades crucial aspects of Christian scripture: the Pauline imagery of the body of Christ, the parables of the synoptic Gospels, the institution of the Eucharist, the poetic imagination of the prophets, the expressive lyrics of the Psalms, even the quiet tropes of Genesis which themselves once shaped so much Augustinian theology.

So we remain grateful to Sandra Schneiders and her keen explication of metaphoric work. For her, and for this study, the salutary quality of metaphor is its inherent instability, its enduring tension. The death of a metaphor, she notes, is either in banalization or literalization, either an erosion of meaning through over-use or an ossification of meaning in singular fixity.

 This is because a metaphor is actually a phenomenon of predication, of an expansion of meaning. Taken on a literal level, the level to which a metaphor seems to refer, it is absurd, forcing the mind to think of something else. And, indeed, when predicated—that is, referring to—something other than the literal, the metaphor makes sense. Indeed, it makes more sense than a literal proposition.

So there is a tension, an instability, between what a metaphor seems to refer to and what it actually does, an “is” and an “is not”, to use the Riceourian terminology. The metaphor so pervasive throughout Scripture presents something that is disclosed and something that is hidden, forcing our minds, and therefore us, to consider and reconsider what it means.

The meaning of metaphor in Scripture is never fixed or vaporous, neither literal nor banal but always and everywhere tensive and polyvalent. The meaning of metaphor in Scripture is, as it is elsewhere, to use another Riceourian term, “an event.”

This reconsideration of metaphoric meaning as event rather than as object or subject elides the difficulty of so much modern and postmodern thinking. It denies the divide between the two and refuses to sort reality into subjective and objective categories. And it may have considerable import for this study, because the same schema may apply to hermeneutical validity.

One may recall from our introduction that there has been considerable difficulty defining this term “validity. ” Indeed, there is sufficient difficulty that one may simply peace together a working  definition for oneself without significant loss of meaning. I did this when I said that a valid interpretation ought to have both explicatory force over a text and a nature somehow suited to it.

But these can become shifting and somewhat restless qualities. For example, one could never find, in isolation, the caritas residing in an Augustinian sermon. Such a valuation of the rightness or wrongness of an interpretation becomes enmeshed in questions of context, intentionality, and reception.

Under such conditions, validity itself becomes event. Validity happens inter-subjectively between a text and a reader and an audience, rather than something that resides anywhere “within” the words of a given interpretation.

So we join Wilfred Cantwell Smith in considering Scripture itself as a real, actual and extant event. We have understood Von Balthasar’s theology of creation as disclosure. More, we know classical Christianity’s position that creation is ongoing, meaning that revelation, too, continues, so long as the two books of scripture and creation both hold true. And we have understood Scripture’s linguistic nature, implying all of language’s finitude, uncertainty, and partiality.

But most importantly, we have seen Scripture’s authority and empathy alike. Scripture both understands us better than we understand ourselves at the same time as it involves us in its symbolic, imagined world. In other words, we have seen Scripture’s tensive nature, its refusal to predicate its meaning on a literal level.

We cannot say that Scripture is literally the words of God, for it comes through all-too-human hands and hearts and minds. And we Christians cannot say that it is literally human work, for we believe it fulfills its purpose in disclosing the nature of the divine in Jesus Christ. So, always with Scripture there is the problem of predication: on what level does it mean? 

Historically, the instability of our answers to this question seems no less than the instability of literal and figurative in metaphoric meaning. Could Scripture, then, be considered any less of an event? And if we may call Scripture an event, why would we expect our interpretations of it to be any less so, or their validity to occur independently of their effects?

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