theological musings

April 26, 2010

i suppose before i start, i should qualify the following remarks with a bit of autobiographical framing:

i am religious, yes.  jewish to be exact.  however, my type of jewish is an odd duck to hunt and then mount.  it’s rigorous, but it’s leftist.  it prefers the ecstatic fervor of the hasidim, but (and!) it is radically egalitarian.  it is clearly un-orthodox.  you might even call it heterodox.

so, this brings me to my musings.

the one thing that bugs me the most about the theological debate as it stands is the pathological obsession with biblical inerrancy.  first of all, the idea of the bible as lynchpin of faith is a distinctly protestant notion.   it is clear to anyone with the barest understandings of interpretive history that there is not really any such thing as “biblical literalism.”

even the debate surrounding this principle has ceded ground from the outset to this ridiculous position.  to be forced to represent yourself as “not believing in a literal interpretation of the bible” already positions you as a weak-tea version of the true religionist who has enough strength in his convictions to override modern lily-livered qualms and put the whole world in G?d’s hands.

whatever.

the jewish (and catholic and muslim and even protestant) traditions have a long and rich history of biblical interpretation.  but not only that.  there are whole scores of religious literatures which make reference to the bible and are grounded in it, but serve their own function as well.  in fact, the study of the bible in the world of the yeshiva (advanced jewish study academy) has relegated the bible to a distant fourth behind the talmud, jewish law, and ethical texts.  the bible is present, of course, but it functions more as the ground whence texts bloom than the dominant focus.

now, all that being said, i want to acknowledge the feeling of needing perfection.  the books of psalms tells us, “the Torah of the Lord is perfect.” (Ps 19:7).   i want to propose a radically difference understanding of perfection.  from plato on down, we have felt compelled to understand perfection as implying stasis, wholeness.  i want to suggest a more fluid understanding of perfection.  it is an organic perfection, one emerging from the amazing adaptations happening around us all the time.  michael jordan was perfect in that game, because he was able to provide what was needed at the time.  the clash was perfect because they were able to create the most wonderful friction.

the Torah is perfect because it is able to provide us with what we need in every time.  the bible is perfect because it will never stop being an incredible textual resource and framework.

we must loose ourselves of this silly notion of “biblical faith.”  all faith is “biblical” in some way.  we are always conditioned by the externalities that help form us into the people we become.  our bible hums around us at all times.

perfect.

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2 Responses to “theological musings”

  1. Everett Says:

    Interesting and well-written! My sister is pretty much a “biblical literalist” Protestant, and this came out pretty strongly when we were talking about the book of Ecclesiasticus (Wisdome of Sirach for Jews, I think?) Since it’s not part of the Protestant canon, she wanted to know if it was still “the Word of God.” I didn’t quite know how to answer the question. Were all the authors of the diverse biblical texts divinely inspired? If so, were the clerics at the ecumenical councils that assembled the biblical codex (and the Protestant theologians who later revised it) themselves also divinely inspired? Were the modern translators? Where does it end?
    I feel like another explanation is possible. I believe (as a Christian) that the Holy Spirit intervenes not necessarily at the level of the author but at that of the reader, inspiring him or her to see divine meaning in a text which perhaps the authors themselves did not see at the time. Especially for us moderns, who do this all the time in literature, psychology, etc.!

  2. kataphasis Says:

    hey everett!
    thanks so much for posting your thoughtful response.
    from the jewish side, there is a very provocative and inspiring teaching that says that the revelation at Sinai actually encompasses the innovations students provide in studying the Torah. that is to say that revelation is continuously unfolding. (whether the radicalism of this kind of statement has been plumbed is a different question).

    re: the specific example of Ben Sirah, it’s an interesting and complex case, as it is also not included in the Jewish biblical canon, but there is textual evidence of the rabbis quoting from it in the Talmud as scriptural proof. the place of post-biblical literature is a tricky one, as it truly exposes the limits of canonicity.


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