Commitment, Ambiguity, and Reading Scripture

I’m working on my paper for the annual Society of Anglican and Lutheran Theologians meeting, and for inspiration combing my back catalogue of quotations — my Commonplace Book. There I found the following quotation:

Liberals believe that facts (of history, justice, science) are independent of the knower, and that it is the knower’s obligation to approach the task of knowing with as few preconceptions as possible so that the understanding he finally achieves is impersonal rather than a reflection of his antecedently held views and preferences; one must come to any situation calling for a decision (about what to think or what to say or what to do) with an open mind, a mind prepared to jettison its most cherished convictions should the evidence tell against them. Liberals believe that evidence lies about in the world waiting to be gathered and then arranged in patterns it itself suggests. Liberals believe that if we are sufficiently careful in our gathering of evidence (careful, that is, to keep ourselves and our desires out of the process) the truth will finally emerge in a form everyone (whose mind is open) will acknowledge. Liberals believe that when the truth is to be determined, the meaning (political, moral, legal) of an action, the previous history of the actor—whether he has in the past been a good or bad man—is largely irrelevant and that we should look only to the shape of the present circumstances when assessing him. And because liberals believe in all of the above, they believe in the efficacy of procedures—scientific, parliamentary, judicial—designed to protect us from the overhasty judgments we make when we allow our commitments and allegiances to blind us. Liberals believe that the most important of these procedures is the machinery of rationality, of those laws of logic attached to no agenda or vision, but sufficiently general in their scope as to provide a normative perspective from the vantage point of which any agenda or vision can be assessed and, if necessary, corrected. Liberals believe that communication and persuasion take place (or should take place) in the context of that rationality and that it is possible to bring anyone—except, perhaps, the mentally impaired—to a clear understanding, so long as he or she is willing to set aside or bracket all biases and preconceptions.*

Juxtapose this account of liberal reason with the overwhelming mandate from conservatives and liberals alike that biblical interpretations be resolved by appeal to a discernible meaning inherent in The Text, that any rational, well-informed reader can excavate. To the contrary, some truth offers itself only to the scientist whose heart is already attuned to it; in order to recognize the truth in poetry, one needs some prior initiation to the world of indirection, figure, allusion, rhythm, harmony. Some truth offers itself only to a seeker who has learned to cherish the regularities of number, the elegance of economical proof, the unwavering dogmas imposed by probability, the transcultural good news that a common language with common axioms can crack open sealed crypts of creation and yield cures, forecasts, remedies, and explanations. But the truth avails always to interested parties.

This, I think, touches on the conflict over Scripture and bunk: not that an uncommitted reader can’t ever arrive at a true interpretation of Scripture, so much as that a committed reader stands to apprehend vastly more richly the common language, the rhymes, the dogmas, the figures that will not have registered on the awareness of the uncommitted reader. And that in an ultimate mode of reading, interpretations that do not conclude in committed practice partake of rejection of the truth. To hark back to Milton’s anti-liberalism, the condition of setting aside and bracketing all preconceptions itself entails a spiritual impediment to recognizing the truth.

As a reader of the comments from which this conversation emerged will note, I resist the dichotomy between “intelligible” and “unintelligible” that fuels much of the controversy. First, my observation of interpretation suggests that “intelligibility” always involves degrees of intelligibility, never complete transparency or utter opacity. Second, I doubt that even a judge much more humble and saintly than I, can or should issue ukases about who can and can not perceive the truth; as Milton would have pointed out, anyone who bears the effects of sin (that is, “all of us”) must say with the Apostle, “I have no word from the Lord on this,” must reckon her- or himself to be one of the field-working servants rather than the harvesting angels who can separate wheat from tares. “Such a man as this rejoices in everything; he does not make himself a judge of the servants of God, nor of any rational creature; nay, he rejoices in every condition and every type that he sees, saying, ‘Thanks be to Thee, eternal Father, that Thou hast many mansions in Thy House.’ And he rejoices more in the different kinds of men that he sees than he would do in seeing them all walk in the same way, for so he sees the greatness of God’s goodness more manifest. He joys in everything, and gets from it the fragrance of roses. And even as to a thing which he may expressly see to be sin, he does not pose as a judge, but regards it rather with holy true compassion, saying, ‘To-day it is thy turn, and to-morrow mine, unless it be for divine grace which preserves me’ ” (Catherine of Siena). Such a reader may decline the invitation to share at the table that nourishes faith, but it would be an odd thing if the spiritual joy-in-diversity that Catherine celebrates didn’t normally involve participating in the faith it celebrates — odd, if that eucharistic nourishing weren’t generally concomitant with interpretive flourishing.

* It’s from Edward Oakes’s review of How Milton Works by Stanley Fish, quoting Fish himself in this paragraph.

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