Monday, September 14, 2020

Reclaiming the poetic, imaginative allegory from the facticity of now

 In the last blog entry, the focus on ‘desperation’ dominated….emanating from trump’s elephantine narcissistic desperation to what speculation might lead to many other sources of desperation for individuals and nations, and even for the planet.

Supplementing Ed Yong’s “army ants” metaphor for a spiralling, unfocused, self-sabotaging circular march, absent of leadership, and morphing to what some would consider a cultural “dark night of the soul,” we are seemingly in such a dark place that only disciplined, collaborative, collegial and universal bonding at the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, economic, scientific, philosophic levels seems to offer the spectre of both direction and the reservoir of human energy that is needed to move toward the light of liberation.

Several scholars, fortunately, have scribbled some not-so-insignificant ideas that might be helpful in this moment. Although this scribe has a ‘christian’ background, experientially and cognitively, Karen Armstrong’s latest tome, The Lost Art of Scripture, Rescuing the Sacred Texts, offers illuminating insights into both the contemporary cultural ethos as well as a pathway into the “reading” of the sacred texts that bears examination.

First, Armstrong’s diagnosis:

At the root of many of our problems, global and national, is an inequality that, for all our good intentions, modern society has been unable to assuage. This has been evident in the horrific spectacle of thousands of migrants travelling in flimsy, inadequate boats from Africa and the Middle East, and literally dying ty get into Europe. In London in June 2017, seventy-two people, many of them Muslims, were buried to death in Grenfell Tower, a local-authority apartment block, because the Council of Kensington and Chelsea, the richest borough in the city, had encased the building in cheap but flammable cladding and failed to provide adequate fire-safety equipment. In the United States, the richest country in the world, a disturbing number of people still cannot get adequate healthcare. In agrarian society, the aristocracy…generally regarded their peasants as an inferior species, but at least they saw them working in their fields. But in the modest West, most of us never see the labourers who manufacture the good we are pressured to buy, and who are slaving in substandard conditions for low wages in distant impoverished countries. (Reference, Gregory Brad S. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Cambridge <MA, 2012)

Armstrong continues:

We have become adept in blocking off such inconvenient truths and no longer allow ourselves to feel moral responsibility for others. This attitude has led to the greatest waning of political engagement and concern for social equity since the 1960s.  (Reference: Ford, Amanda, Retail Therapy: Life Lessons Learned While Shopping, York Beach, ME, 2014) Television presenters now seem to be required to warn viewers that spectacles on the evening news may be distressing, giving them the chance to close their eyes or switch to another channel lest they see yet more disturbing footage from war-torn Syria or Yemen. We have become expert in refusing to allow the suffering of the world to impinge on our cocooned existence.

Social justice was crucial to the monotheistic scripture, and like all scriptures, they insisted that compassion cannot be confined to one’s own group. You had to have what Mozi* called jian ai, “concern for everybody”: You must love the stranger, the foreigner, even the enemy, and reach out to all tribes and nations. We have now created a global market that has made us more interdependent than ever before, yet people are retreating into national ghettoes and closing their eyes to the problems of the wider world….The twentieth century saw one mass slaughter after another: from the Armenian genocide during the First World War to the Nazi Holocaust, to the massacre in Bosnia. In the West, we pride ourselves on our humanity, bur during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although we quite rightly mourned our own soldiers who died in the conflict, there was no sustained outcry about the unacceptably highly civilian casualties—ordinary people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Armstrong op. cit. p.461-2)

 One of the primary roots of social and cultural thought is the lens through which all holy texts have been read and interpreted. Throughout Armstrong’s tome, we read repeatedly that the right brain-left-brain tension prevailed, from logos to mythos, from solo ratio to what the Jews called scripture,  “...miqra (a “calling out”), rendering the exegete’s task “to penetrate the written text of the Bible and attend to what (Martin) Buber called its ‘spokenness;’….Buber rejected the idea that the divine revelation had occurred once and for all in the distant past or was simply imparting theoretical doctrines….Jews, (Buber) insisted, must not try to ‘escape from (problems) into a world of logos of perfected form.’….Buber pointed out that during their years in the wilderness, the tension between Moses and his people, who still yearned for the fleshpots of Egypt, was rooted in their desire for a more controllable God. While ‘Israel’ served the God of an open future, ‘Egypt’ was more conservative, worshipping idols that were created in the image and likeness of human beings. Scripture did not provide dogmatic certainty but,…it could enable readers to acquire a new understanding of God’s presence in history and  inspire a scholarship that was more involved in the tasks and challenges of the time. Buber was convinced that the struggle to discover the divine in the terrors of history would lead to personal transformation. Like all great midrash, his exegesis leads his readers beyond the text and into life’s dark enigmas. As an old rabbinic maxim has it: The abstract midrashic study of texts, is not the main thing, but rather the transformation of these texts, through midrash, unto sources of power for the renewal of personal and interpersonal life. (Armstrong, p. 464, Reference: Aphorism recast by Michael Fishbane, “Martin Buber’s Moses in Fishbane, Garments of Torah, 97-98)

It is the transformation of reading and interpretation of scripture (all holy books) from a rational, literal, left-brain certainty to a much more open, universal, and transformative potential that, Armstrong suggests, (and we concur) that offers the individual in all faith communities escape from the darkness of reading scripture as history. “People forgot that they were written as stories that were merely ‘history-like’ and began to regard them as wholly factual accounts, and therefore for some they became incredible…Hans Frei, (convert from Judaism, Episcopalian priest and professor of theology at Yale) argued, the person of Jesus should establish the norm by which Christians judge the world and current events….Christians therefore had a twofold task. They had to read the gospels and their history-like stories with all the critical, literary and historical acumen that they could muster. They also had to read and interpret their own times with all the historical, sociological and cultural sensibility at their disposal. Like Buber, Frei believed that the Bible should be read in conjunction with a critical interpretation of current events….Politics and the Bible should coexist in a symbiotic relationship, Frei argued, because it would prevent scriptures from becoming a convenient instrument for the clerical and political establishments. Instead of backing up their claims, scripture should call the establishment to account because the gospels were essentially subversive. Jesus’ teachings had inspired hopes and expectations in the crowds who followed him, which were then smashed but reconstituted by his resurrection. The gospels dissident ideas—about God, justice, equity, compassion and suffering—must be brought to bear on our mundane circumstances…

The American theologian, George Linkbeck, (1923-2018) came to a similar conclusion. (Reference: George Lindbeck, “Toward a Post-Liberal Theology” in Ochs, ed. 83-100, and Ochs, Peter ed. The Return to Scripture in Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation. Eugene OR, 1993)..In the monotheistic traditions –the ‘religions of the book’—the sacred text is paradigmatic but, (Lindbeck) argued this is only a problem if we distinguish it radically from other literary classics. Since the printing revolution and the spread of literacy, our inner world has been created by fragments of many different texts, which co-0inhere in our minds, one qualifying another. Our moral universe is, therefore, shaped by King Lear, Middlemarch, and War and Peace as well as by the Bible. These classics also inform our imaginations and the way we experience the world, so, whatever our faith, we have a multi-textual perspective on reality…..(In) the West, there (has) been a progressive move away from allegorising and a greater reliance on the literal sense of the Bible as well as an emphasis on intertextuality—one passage of scripture being interpreted by other biblical passages. As the ethos of the Enlightenment progressed, the old typological exegesis collapsed under the4 increasing influence of rationalistic, scientific, Pietistic and the historical-critical method, so scripture was no longer the lens through which theologians interpreted their world. Instead the Bible ill8ulminated the world, the world explained the Bible. Scripture had become itself the focus of study and traditional interpretive methods had been replaced by exegesis that prioritised facticity. This has led not only to the unhealthy literalism of fundamentalism but also to widespread scepticism.

Instead, Lindbeck concluded, the Bible should be read in a literary manner, so each text must be interpreted in a way that is consistent with its genre….Our reading of scripture…must be innovative. (Armstrong, op. cit, pp. 464-5-6)

Several times, in this space, we have, with James Hillman, bemoaned the default and decimating position of literalism, facticity, into which much of modern western culture has slipped. As in so many other aspects of North American culture, where male domination, balkanization, absolute binary conflicts and seemingly unresolvable debates have prevailed, so too, has the reading and interpretation of scripture contributed significantly, if seemingly under the radar, to the way we tend to think and to see the world.

In order to shift our orientation away from the literal and begin to take steps towards the allegorical, the mystic, the ambiguous, and the ephemeral, we must also avoid sliding into the trap of “trump’s ALTERNATIVE FACTS” imprisonment.

We need our teachers, our clergy, our reporters and journalists, to read more poetry, and to read more poetry into their perspective. When they intone only the literal facts, as supreme, and in contrast to the alternative facts of a cult, whether that cult bear the trump name, the Orban name, the QAnon name.

On September 10, 2020, La Croix International reports that the National Prayer Breakfast has awarded the Christifideles Laici (Faithful Christian Laity) award to U.S. Attorney General William Barr. The Association of U.S. Catholic Priests says that Barr is not deserving of the award. It is given to laity whose work ‘exemplifies’ the teaching of the Catholic Church and to ‘help highlight those good works  and those who serve the Church so well.’ If ever there were a miscarriage of ‘christian justice, and interpretation of the gospel, this proposed award ought to generate the outright push-back from Catholics, as it has in the case of Helen Prejean (Walking Dead).

When the National Prayer Breakfast demonstrates its demise into the trump/barr cult, based on a litany of lies, deceptions, bravado and narcissistic service to the occupant of the Oval Office, rather than to the national craving for integrity, authenticity and compassion, then it is not only Roman Catholics who shudder. The whole world shudders.

And, we have decades if not centuries of intellectual, theological and cultural rejection of the literary genres, the reliance on the human imagination and the deferral to the brittleness of so-called facts.

The current dilemma in governance cannot and must not be laid exclusively on the shoulders of one or two men. However, in order to help each of us rise above the quagmire (intellectual, spiritual, social and political) into which we have slunk, we each need to take a close look at our own social, intellectual and spiritual formation. The sources, teachers, thought leaders, epithets and slogans that have stuck to our memories and have risen to our ‘hit-parade’ of mantras…they all need to be examined critically, and soon and urgently.

The climb out of this cave of darkness will take a unifying thrust of will, of heart and of spirit….from the houses of worship, the ghettoes, the schools and colleges and the courtrooms and the legislatures around the world.

As Rahm Emmanual once said echoing the words of Stanford economist, Paul Romer, “A Crisis is a Really terrible thing to waste.”


*Mozi: Chinese philosopher who taught that everyone is equal in the eyes of heaven. His fundamental doctrine of undifferentiated love challenged Confucianism and became the basis of a socioreligious movement known as Mohism. (From

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