Friday, 26 November 2010

On Conversation

A conversation is empty
when the verse is without a reader
when the con is by itself
without with
when there is no one hearing the converse

A few years ago, I had a conversation with Iyov, whom I miss. Here is the conversation reworked.

About 165 years ago the Reverend J. M. Neale D.D. began a comprehensive collection of the interpretations of primitive and medieval commentators of the psalms. His work, he writes "is not, in the slightest degree, critical. My acquaintance with the Hebrew is far too limited to enable me to offer anything of value in that way." He strives rather to trace "above all things, their mystical meaning." Yet a paragraph later he also says that "not one single mystical interpretation through the present commentary" (2400 or so pages) "is original; and (if I may venture on the term) that fact constitutes its chief value."

Christians read and hear that word mystical in the prayer that follows communion: that we are members of his mystical body. Mystical and incarnate. Mysterious and flesh. Mystery and body.

It seems to me that what is there in the psalms is the same as what is in the New Testament, the offer and the reality of relationship, mysterious and incarnate, now as then and for ever. In this I find myself unable to consider many discussions and studies as approaching the mystery. Explanation will not do as a substitute for understanding. To the extent that discussion separates the doing and the hearing, the form and the action, the obedience and the presence, to that extent, the discussion becomes a substitute for the reality of relationship. And it is then a distraction.

I like the Reverend Neale's approach, collecting the record. But since we can only come to the record gradually, we must learn something more foundational and secure than a collection of memories or opinions or even confessional truths. But will Neale's appeal to the mystical do? Many would not agree especially since he and most of his collection appeal only to a New Testament Christological view of the psalms.

Applying an adjective to this will prove to be difficult. There are more than two ways of understanding and even the many ways can be distracting. But bear with the catalogue, for it may be useful when the fire starts. If we are to express the mystery of our participation in covenant, we must learn many languages and find how to refine our use of the term Christ, a word derived from the Greek for Anointing.

Harry Caplan in "The Four Senses of Scriptural Interpretation and the Mediaeval Theory of Preaching", Speculum, Vol. 4, No. 3. (Jul., 1929), pp. 282-290 lists nine methods of expanding a sermon from a late Dominican tractate professing the influence of St Thomas Aquinas:
  1. through concordance of authorities,
  2. through discussion of words,
  3. through explanation of the properties of things,
  4. through a multiplication of senses,
  5. through analogies and natural truths,
  6. through marking of an opposite,
  7. through comparisons,
  8. through interpretation of a name,
  9. through multiplication of synonyms.
He then subdivides number 4: "Senses are multiplied in four ways:
  1. according to the sensus historicus or literalis, by a simple explanation of the words;
  2. according to the sensus tropologicus, which looks to instruction or to the correction of morals.
  3. according to the sensus allegoricus... a sense other than the literal.
  4. the sensus anagogicus, used mystically or openly, 'the minds of the listeners are to be stirred and exhorted to the contemplation of heavenly things.'"
A list of nine items with the fourth subdivided is like a long board supported by one leg and is inherently unstable. Of the making of many taxonomies there is no end, but hierarchy and subdivision are useful for visualization and understanding.

Here is another saying: on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets distinctly organizes for us, the hearers, a challenge to interpret the instruction (law) and the prophetic corpus in terms that are subordinate to love of God and love of neighbour. At the same time, we are told that love of God is to be with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and that the second great commandment is like the first. So here we have a laminated board supported by two broad legs or perhaps three if we include the psalms and the other writings. This is a stable and unified structure. One can not only sit under it but one can stand on it with some degree of safety. (I say some degree for the degree must involve learning which will involve both study and correction.) One can also liken the saying to the identification of a pair of handles with which we can lift the canonical texts and watch the hanging pieces as one can watch a mobile in a child's bedroom.

Point 3 above, the sense of allegory, is apophatically defined (a sense other than the literal) in such a way as to allow us to make "anything out of anything" as J. M. Neale puts it in his Dissertation on the Mystical and Literal Interpretation of the Psalms. (p 429 Commentary on the Psalms, Neale and Littledale 1860/1874.)

The problem of subdivision is one I have spent my life with as a student and teacher of data analysis. Theology and Biblical Studies require a similar distinction of difference. Data is notoriously difficult to pin down. When are two classes of thing different? When will they subdivide into three? How does one balance a useful subdivision? The emphasis, for the limited time we have, must be first of all, useful. Our birth and death make usefulness a necessity. To be useful, a taxonomy needs to be understood and retained by our limited memory. So we frequently find subdivisions into 4. These are common in teaching. For example the medicine wheel of North American native tribes subdivides many concepts into the four directions, and animals, colours, and so on are used as imagery for pedagogy. This teaching encourages a metaphorical view of life and its many problems and mysteries.

We can see by the title of Neale's dissertation that he is dividing the Interpretations into the Mystical and Literal. His twofold division would not be understood the same way today, for his Mystical is largely Christological and Typological or as he later notes 'spiritual' and his Literal encompasses today's historical critics rather than those who might be named literalists today.

What an enormous problem! Nine items is too long a board for one leg, but everything with only two legs, the mystical and the literal, is equally problematical. Where will we find a 'useful' decomposition?

Neale lists the same fourfold decomposition cited by Caplan which was, he writes, "well known from very early times: Litera scripta docet: qui credes, Allegoria: quid speres, Anagoge: quid agas, Tropologia." So he says "S. Gregory the Great composed his Morals on Job, keeping his skeins of meaning separate."

Let's wonder how we can put new things into the skeins without their breaking and spilling whatever skeins might spill.
  • Docet is teaching, from the written letter. This summarizes the whole.
  • Allegory: similarity, metaphor, image, applicability. These invite consideration: of bread to teaching, of yeast to power, of escape, of promise, of making present an ancient event, of participation, of love. I would seriously question, however, the necessity of allegory for belief. But certainly, such creative work can express the engagement of faith.
  • Anagogy is hope
  • Tropology: this too is figurative but is used of action and moral edification.
It will be seen immediately that this is not a fourfold subdivision but is governed as a whole by the issue of teaching. It is really a threefold division. But surely it is too simplistic to identify, as Neale does, the allegorical with the spiritual! Words are so slippery, and so creative. How will the word slip into us creatively? How will we learn? Our own human limits of comfort in complexity react pleasantly to a fourfold subdivision. But we demand clarity! It will not do to make "anything out of anything".
Caplan has another fourfold division:
  1. Peshat, plain meaning
  2. Remez, allegorical meaning
  3. Derash, homiletic (or midrashic) meaning
  4. Sod, mystical (or hidden) meaning
There are corresponding meanings in traditional Christian exegesis as well. When Neale says "mystical", he means primarily "allegorical" or "homiletic". But today, when we speak of mysticism, we are more likely to refer to the level of "hidden". What if the “hidden” is “incarnational”?

Can we put 8 legs on our table? If I attempt a quick translation: Peshat and Derash are closely related. One is a seeking out of the other. What is plain is not obvious. This is clear from the last 200 years of division among the literalists alone! That means that the allegory related to the plain is hidden and must be sought out. Horrors! The legs are not divisible. The touching skeins have refused to separate their leathery surfaces and become separate legs to truth.
Caplan points out that Augustine had a different four: historia, aetiologia, which considers causes, analogia which studies the text from the point of view of congruence of the Old and New Testament and allegoria. Aquinas subsumed these first three under the 'literal' or plain meaning. Apparently Aquinas escaped into the concept of 'subtype'. This is a common escape from normalization in database design also.

What is an effective subdivision of meaning? Caplan moves onto a seven fold subdivision from Angelon of Luxeuil:
  1. historical,
  2. allegorical,
  3. a combination of the historical and allegorical,
  4. the intimation proper of tropical (sic) of Deity,
  5. parabolic, where one thing is written in Scripture but something else is meant,
  6. with respect to the two comings of the Saviour
  7. moral and figurative
Regrettably, these animals are not well named. Adam! Really!
Here's another one
  1. litteralis, historicus
  2. allegoricus, parabolicus,
  3. tropologicus, etymologicus,
  4. anagogicus, analogicus,
  5. typicus, exemplaris,
  6. anaphoricus, proportionalis,
  7. mysticus, apocolypticus, diuinis atque ineffabilis
  8. boarcademicus, primordialis
(Compendium of the history of doctrines, Karl Rudolf Hagenbach‏)
I would be hard-pressed to follow these as a means of organizing a treatise, even if I could translate them! There are too many to remember. We almost got to the original nine from Aquinas (though on inspection, some of those merge into or become subordinate to others.)

As I noted above, the Eucharistic prayer combines mystical and incarnate. What do we mean by mystical? Is there a subdivision of meaning that we can apply to the Scripture? And to the psalms that we might read them with a new clarity.

When I am involved in data analysis, there are a few questions that help: what are the object classes? how are they distinct? how are they related? what are the elements? does an element describe or identify an instance of an object? does an element run the risk of morphing into an object? What event happens that creates an instance of an object? Once created, can I find it again? If I update it, will that change affect other instances? Will it affect other objects? Can it be deleted? If an event does not happen, what then?

These are the events that give rise to our theological thinking: birth, death, initiation into covenant, failure. Teaching. There must be a better way! Hope, engagement with the presence, time, forgetfulness, hurt, recovery, sin, judgement, a reliable record, love.
As the Magi noted in the poem by T. S. Eliot, 'we had seen birth and death but had thought they were different'.
  1. I think I must retain the historical. This is the Peshat, the plain meaning. 'There was a Birth, certainly'. So there is a plain meaning, a surface which divides the waters from the waters.
  2. I think I must retain the figurative. This is the Remez, the allegorical meaning. I am 'no longer at ease' with the merely historical.
  3. I must retain the hidden. This is the Sod, the mystical meaning. It encompasses the moral but is not itself moral in the sense that we can define separately. I will put it down to encounter and presence. 'I should be glad of another death'. If I use the word mystical, think hidden, and ask.
I would hope to give some regulation to the figurative so that we do not make "anything from anything". But above all, I would decline to say that the hidden is without respect to our historical and literal, material life. And I think all three: the plain, the figurative, and the hidden meaning require seeking out. This is the Derash, the homiletical meaning.

In this fourfold division, I operate then
  1. as an observer and scientist: The text before us is to be considered in all its historical, cultic, and linguistic reality. Historical-criticism is acceptable and useful.
  2. as a reader of poetry: I am attuned to the figurative, and I may apply the poem to the anointed king, to Israel as elect and anointed, to Jesus as beloved and anointed (Christ), to a priest or prophet, to any of the tribes of Israel, to an individual anointed or elect or one who fears God.
  3. as one who expects a response from God: I expect engagement and knowledge from what is beyond me.
  4. as one who searches, I let the questions stand and enter into them, seeking fuller questions.
This is a hermeneutic of faith


  1. Dear Bob, you need to take a look at the work of Peter Ochs, a wonderful human being whom we knew long ago as a young faculty member, before he became famous. He's trained as a philosopher and is an observant Jew. My favorite memory of him is his saying the blessing over an item of food or drink with a mitten on his head - as a mitten was "at hand" and the rubrics required a head-covering!

    Here's a link for "rules of scriptural reasoning" from a group seeking to do something similar to what you're trying to do (if I read you correctly) and this group consists of folks from different Abrahamic traditions:

    I have a suspicion some of these folks might be great conversation partners for you, as, while I'm doing my best (and I actually have some helpful thoughts, which I will send to you soon and which I also intend to post at Casting Words to the Wind once I've added some biblical links - which I'm sure you do not need), I can hardly keep up with your output, Bob! And maybe that's what's left you "in the Dust" here. Pining for conversation. Posting so much that is so rich. I empathize with you, even while unable to keep up....

    I totally agree with your contention about the psalms by the way. They can be read by Jews - who love to argue over scriptural meanings even if they are Jewish meanings. They can be read by Christians, some of whom read Jesus into every one, others of whom read them as related to one's state of soul (even finding the enemies as passions contending there), and likely there are Christian folks who believe every word of them is "true" - whatever that means. They can be read by other religious traditions or people of no religious persuasion. They are timeless poems. Words of wisdom. Every emotion and condition under the sun. Why artificially limit their possible meanings? I'm thinking of Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, who in the ends tells them: "God meant it for good." Well, to me, God means the Psalms for good! (no exclusions or slave-taking necessary!) Personally I'm content with Mystery in a great many places. And glad the Orthodox seem to prefer defining few things and leaving the rest to Mystery.

    Peace be with you.

  2. Thank you - I am aware of Peter Ochs. I have read his essays in the volume Christianity in Jewish Terms ed. Frymer-Kensky. I reviewed the chapters in 2007 on Sufficiency. I am glad to hear a recommendation from you.