Monday, August 21, 2006

Christian Symbolism

This post per Tuff Ghost's request on allegorical religion.

TG wondering what others, "have to say about the allegorical understanding and reverence for religion, when that understanding is divorced from an imperative to practice: to put it bluntly, respecting Christianity because of its artistic and historical importance. I'm not actually sure what I think on this topic, but I'd love to hear from you all."

His piece was in respone to Matthew, his a refletion (re-produced in Matthew's post here) by Mario Loyola.

Loyola comments on what he sees positive appreciation for religion, in this case Chrsitianity, as a civic duty, way to venerate tradition, connect with ancestors, and to simply admire the symbolism/history in vovled. Matthew connected this with Camille Paglia's views on Christianity as important to artists in the West because it holds such deep symbolism.

There is certainly a great deal that can be learned by this approach. If for no other reason Western society is totally steeped in the Latin Christian theological worldview. Some of the deep cultural differences within the West--between southern Mediterranean Euopre, Northern Europe, and the United States can be traced to the Roman Catholic, classical Protestant, and evangelical/sectarian Protestant forms of the faith dominant in each of those regions (respectively).

And I said Latin Christian because notice the differences between all those groups and say Eastern Orthodox Europe. Or even Jewish gropus within the West.

So, minus an artistic context, from a point of view of living in the Western world, I find it is crucial that one knows the deep structural influences at work. Rationalistic type folks often drop a line about "Ockham's Razor" as a sorta proof of the non-existence of God. Ockham's razor recall is the proposition that in the least complex answer tends to be the correct one---tends. William of Ockham was a Christian theologian, and his Razor was part of his theology, in a Scholastic argument against Metaphysical Realism. He saw the Razor as constitutive of his understanding of God, which he took, at that time like everyone else, to be the "simplest" explnation to the universe possible.

Just an interesting dichtomy as to how it is now commonly used/understood and what it originally meant. There are 2 billion of so Christians in the world of different stripes/flavors, but to not know anything about the religion cuts you off from 1/3 of the planet. Add ignorance of Islam (another billion) and essentially you are deeply dis-connected to the inner thoughts/feelings of half fhe world's population. Whatever else is the case, that can not be good.
In the artistic sphere, which is not my forte, but certainly here it can be of value I think. The great art of the West often was involved in the liturgy (the aristic work) of the Church. Palestrina, Bach, Titian, on and on.

Art since the split of the modern era has not been tied to a "work" greater than itself, it seems to me. Leaving it wide open to being manipulated commericially, socially, and politically.

And the Bible is of course literature, especially of the Near Eastern variety. Even at times very good, even great, some would argue, literature.

You can, as Mario says, go to mass and appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the spectacle, and that no doubt has some sort of liberating, opening effect on the soul.

All of which to me is eminently reasonble.

But as a worshipper, as a theologian, I of course have to say that is essentially no more than dipping your toes in the water--to use a baptismal image.

I think one ultimately has to come to some existential grappling with the text, with the faith, with God, if there be such a reality.

Take the Gospels for example. They can certainly be read for promoting a certain social vision, a gender one, ideas power/authority (i.e Pomos). It can read as literature, as mythology (a la Jung, Campbell).

But it also, from within its parameters, a theological vision. It is "written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ", as the Gospel of John states.

Outside of the context of deep existential belief/encounter, it seems to me, one has never really approproiate the tradition, the works at their deepest level. There are other levels, appropriate to others I'm sure. But I make that claim from within the tradition. I could be wrong no doubt, but I stake a claim on that one.

The Gospels take their perspective from a later date on the nature of the Christ, as per their experience of him, and find OT passages that validate that vision, that open them to experience more deeply the truth they already however minutely have experienced.

As an example from the Gospel of Luke.

"When they came to the place called the Skull they crucified Jesus and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left." [Luke 23:33].

Now compare that passage with this one from the Prophet Isaiah--the "he" referenced is The Suffering Servant alternatively interpreted as the Messiah or the People of Israel:

"Because of his affiliction
he shall see the light in fullness of days;
Through his suffering, my esrvant shall justify many,
"Therefore I will give him his portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoils with the mightly,
Because he surrendered himself to death
and was counted among the wicked [note: wicked];
and he shall take away the sins of many
and win pardon for their offenses." [Isaiah 53:11-12]

Now this isn't exactly on target of TG/MD, but it's important point nonetheless, I think. Namely other interpretative ventures, which give access to all other sorts of wonderful truths/experiences, don't get to this background.

Jesus died and his disciples kept alive his vision and sought for a meaning, a justification, a "prophecy", if you like, for these actions.

So they returned to their own Scriptures. There was no NT then, so the Scriptures they read were what Christians calls the OT or the Hebrew Scriptures/Bible.

They created a theological narrative--using OT passages to create "belief statements."

Jesus didn't literally die with two criminals on his side. The point of the story, the author original intent, was to allude to the Prophet Isaiah. To say Jesus was the Suffering Servant.

He read the Suffering Servant Passage which states that he was killed among the wicked, and then creates the story of two criminals around Jesus. Which later people read and say either Jesus did get crucified next to criminals and the Bible is right or he didn't and therefore it's lying. Neither of which is right. The question is whether the meaning is right.

Remember that the two criminals argue with one another, one mocking Jesus telling him to save himself, the other rebuking him. He says that Jesus is innocent and asks Jesus to forgive him, to which Jesus, in one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible, says, "Today you will be with me in paradise."

Which is to "prove" the words of the Prophet apply to Jesus: "he shall take away the sins of many and win pardon for their offenses." [Isaiah 53:12]. From the same passage quoted above.

All roads then lead back to the question and the encounter with this man. And that to me means prayer, worship and that includes whether we take on faith the theological visions of the Biblical writers. Whether we can in any way seem them as "inspired."

There are certainly other "allegorical" meanings, symbolic readings and their application to new contexts, to life events in our world now. Seeing Christ crucified in the millions of poor dying of AIDS, of God's power being his weakness. Of AIDS as a great "blessing" to reveal our weakness so that we may finally love one another beyond our boundaries. Beyond our skin, our most intimate boundaries--beyond neuroticisms about sex, drugs, loneliness.

And Christ's words again here: "When I was hungry you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me to drink." And the righteous and the unrighteous both ask--when did we do this Lord. "When you did it to the least of my brothers/sisters you did it to me."

All of which is massively profound and condemning of our world, ourselves.

But the tradtiional meaning of the allegorical reading of Scripture is in fact the mystical one. Also called the Spiritual reading.

It reads for example the Biblical Song of Songs--a Hebrew wedding poem--as a love song between the Soul and God in mystical embrace. This reading, however literate the interpretation, is again making, by conventoinal standards, a crazy claim--i.e. that mystical union with God is real.

This reading can only be "proved" or "disproved" by actually undertaking the mystical paradigm and seeing if in fact the Bible after the fact describes this union. Whether that love song is indeed a correct, however symbolic interpretation, of the Soul's embrace by its Creator.

I believe it is. As someone who has both studied the Bible from its historical method and practiced the mystical path and is familiar with the spiritual reading, I believe that both (and more) readings are true. The mystical one only being available in a higehr state of consciousness.

So all other forms of interpretation have their place, some much wiser and more humane than others. But the Christian, of course, must always say that the text/tradition/ritual is never truly understood except through faith. And that faith mysteriously is somehow a gift of God. A God that seeks humanity out and desires to break through the walls of our heart and the world and bring justice, mercy, and love.

A frame that can never be proved or disproved by interpretations from political-historical-sociological-literate, even artistic (only) points of view.


At 12:23 PM, Blogger MD said...

Hey CJ,
I commented on The Woodshed on parts of your post. That I'm confused why you mischaracterized what Loyola both said and implied, and that you resort to watered-down strawman in a couple places, shouldn't get in the way of something more important, which I'll say here: I really like your close reading of the two examples from Scripture, and would love to see more of this. Really, quite interesting about the "To say Jesus was the Suffering Servant" stuff. This sort of close reading makes all the difference, doesn't it, in revealing profound, beyond-word, mysteries at the root of scripture.

Also, I raised a question about the nature of poetry-training in seminary, which may be completely in left-field, but if you have something to add to it, I'd appreciate it.

all best,

At 11:04 PM, Blogger CJ Smith said...

I originally posted some thoughts below as a comment over on VC. But that was before I read this comment from you.

Reading this comment and re-reading your post has cleared up some of my questions and I think will answer some of your criticisms.

I certainly didn't mean to demean a person's faith--definite no-no in my book. Though coincidentally I was a Jesuit (funny his name is Loyola). And I was raised Roman Catholic so I know deep down what he means by being Roman not always Catholic. I was getting at that point, which is a kinda in-house jibe that probably doesn't come across for most.

I still wonder what the implications of a "deep reverence", being moved and so on is. Ur writing for the artistic endeavor and I can definitely see how that type of emotion can work there.

And certainly I'm sure such feelings have a beneficial effect towards being a better human being.

But I'm writing, as you said, as a theologian. My question is still, what, if any, clues are there to be discerned in those experiences.

My "criticism", if it was that, was not his experiences but that they didn't seem to be followed up. Granted it's a short piece. it would help if he reflected more deeply on how those experiences have affected his life.

The dipping toes analogy was that it didn't seem to me he had asked himself or thought about what those feelings he has represent, whether they are pointing to anything important. Something he might be missing.

You take those feelings and run with it for artists, so the dipping toes thing doesn't seem to apply there.

I can't tell that he follows those experiences up in any way.

Though again I'm writing biasedly from a religious standpoint. It would help me get a better sense of where he has at, so to speak, if he fleshed it out.

Plus I think I was probably responding more to Tuff Ghost's thoughts on say a Harold Bloom, why I focused on the text of the Bible.

And TG referred to allegorical religion outside of practice, which struck a wrong chord in my head. That was the quotation I placed at the top, so in my defense I think maybe it should be read more in light of that, than Loyola, although I don't think that came across.

In terms of the Bible as poetry--I usually refer to a post-literal/pre-mystical reading as "faith statements" "theological narratives" "religious meaning."

But for others that is better encapsulated as "poetic" for sure. I kinda like mythic over poetic (because say the Psalms are specifically poems, the parables are not, different form/structure). But mythic is no good because everyone takes mythic to mean "unreal" or a fairy tale. Or worse an illusion.

What I mean by thinking/feelng mythically is basically in agreement to what you are calling poetic. My Armstrong to your Paglia.

I only see that form of seeing, interpreting the text/ritual as one layer though. A much better one that a non-critical literalist one to be sure. A beautiful, essential one no doubt as well, but still just one.

But for me there is also a social-ethical reading. It's not just about aspects of my own psyche--although that is certainly there--but ideas that challenge the way I see and act in the world. Although that isn't necessarily in conflict with a poetic-allegorical reading. But I think the conscious intention needs to be there to balance it out.

Like in liberation theology, which as it were uses a symbolic non-literal approach, but does so to promote a vision of society, the church, etc. Of action in the world.

Not to mention I believe there is a mystical reading to the text, which is not exactly the same (although some overlap) as the more allegorical-poetic reading. And for me that is the most inclusive reading of the text.

That to me is just a modern formulation of Origen's (2nd c.) concept of the "senses" of Scripture: literal, allegorical, ethical, and spiritual.

But I do like your proposal to take the perspectives of the characters/images of the Bible. That is in fact basically the Ignatian (Loyola) style of prayer.

So in that general sense I did learn the poetic style of Biblical interpretation and of course, religion is a sorta art form and most do a poor job of it.

But no I don't think a typical conservative Baptist seminarian is getting that kinda schooling.

Depends more really on whether they are open/closed off to a modern historical critical method. Whether of course The Bible is allowed to be symbolically true.

But even there tends to religiously symbolic, more as what I was doing, and not as specifically poetic-literate. But again as you said that is more a difference of emphasis than radical positioning/viewpoint.


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