Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sacred Texts

Jason Kuznicki has an interesting post on sacred texts that, I think, gets some things right and some things wrong. On the wrong side:

Second, the difference between a sacred text and other texts is very simple. A sacred text commands obedience. An ordinary text must stand or fall on its own merits, but a sacred text is never thought capable of error.

“Sacred,” when applied to a text, means that apparent difficulties with the text are a priori more likely, or even certain, to be the fault of the reader than of the text. The more sacred the text is thought, the more likely the reader is presumably at fault.

This is a lousy way of reading, and it means that — in Nietzsche’s wonderful phrase — the art of biblical interpretation becomes the art of reading badly. Texts alone should not command obedience. They should command a thoughtful, respectful, and very earnest struggle, one in which the intellectual outcome is not a foregone conclusion. When reading a text — any text — it must remain possible, from the outset until long after the text is set down, that the reader may have varying relationships with it or with any of its parts. He should be able to interrogate the text without the intervening argument from authority. Sacred texts, however, demand not our engagement, but our submission. This is a remarkable epistemological gambit, and I think a fatal one.


I can think of no serious rational grounds for such a view either of sacred texts or of reading. It sounds good enough if you don't stop and critically think about it, but I think there's plenty of question about whether it can be seen as defensible if we pause a moment to examine it.

Consider a Sikh singing the verses of the Sri Guru Granth. He is reading the text. But it's not quite right -- even in the strongest and most narrow-minded forms of conservative Sikhism -- to say that the Sri Guru Granth is not demanding his engagement with the text, or that there is no room for interrogation of the text. On the contrary, Sikhism requires that there be such an engagement or interrogation, because it sees the Sri Guru Granth as a perpetual teacher, and such engagement or interrogation is essential to the process of learning. It just requires that you also allow yourself to be engaged by, and interrogated by, the Guru.

Now, I grew up Southern Baptist, and I have met many narrow-minded and fundamentalist (the two overlap but do not by any means coincide, since you can find narrow-minded non-fundamentalists and more open-minded fundamentalists than one might expect, since the reasons people become fundamentalists are legion) Baptists in my day, and the view of Scripture in such circles is not different in its basic outline. What is required is that you come before the text as a student, not as a judge. You may question and puzzle and struggle all you wish; just remember that you are there to be taught, to let the passages speak to you. Indeed, it's not uncommon for even fundamentalists to view their engagement with Scripture explicitly along the lines of Jacob's encounter at Peniel -- certainly a more nuanced view than Kuznicki suggests, whatever its limitations. And, of course, as we move away from people who can seriously be considered fundamentalist toward those who can't, the less the terms 'obedience' and 'submission', understood as obedience and submission to the text, make any sense.

Moreover, there is nothing about this method of reading that makes it distinctively of the sort that goes with sacred texts, nor is it the case that only sacred texts present themselves as teachers to which one must undergo a sort of apprenticeship. Some teachers are more authoritarian than other -- Kuznicki's description describes your typical student reading your typical school textbook or reference work much more accurately than it describes fundamentalists in Sunday Schoool or Bible Study, and such works are certainly more explicitly concerned with their own authority than sacred texts generally are -- but one can, in fact, see all texts along these lines. You come to learn and that is, by its very nature, a "thoughtful, respectful, and very earnest struggle". But there is nothing here that singles out sacred texts, even for fundamentalists; and if it doesn't fit fundamentalists, a fortiori it doesn't fit others.

What marks out a sacred text, of course, is that it is regarded as sacred, holy; but this tells us nothing about how it is to be read. It only tells us that it serves as a locus of respectful devotion because it is taken as a special symbol of the divine; this is consistent with any number of approaches to reading.

However, Kuznicki is right, I think about this (which deserves quotation in full):

We are told that sacred texts may often be read literally or figuratively, and, as far as it goes, this is true: One may believe in a literal Noah, a literal Flood, a literal Ark full of tree sloths and hissing cockroaches and stegosauruses — or one may think that this is an allegory of something else, rather than a literal series of events. It’s a moral story about stewardship of the earth and about obedience to God. Each of these is in a sense a strategy about how to read, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The problem arises, though, when someone claims that the literal reading of a sacred text is the more unvarnished, purer, truer reading, that it is free or at least more free from human interpretation, and that fundamentalism is therefore closer to God. This is a dangerous delusion for two reasons.

Reason one: Fundamentalism is an interpretive strategy. Fundamentalism is not a divine command; it is a human decision about how to read a text, and it should be made to prove itself against all of the other equally human approaches to reading. No one has a magical hermeneutic key descended from Heaven, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe from the outset that fundamentalist readings are any closer to God than any other. The fundamentalist interprets his text just like anyone else does. The only difference is that he claims not to interpret, and the sacredness of the text causes many people to believe what would in any other context be an obvious imposture.

Reason two: Fundamentalism does not yield a single reading outcome. One man’s “literal” reading may well conflict with another’s, whether because the text contradicts itself or because many things seem obvious or literal only in reference to a particular set of cultural understandings. Even those who strive to approach a sacred text the most literally of all are going to bring with them interpretive filters that go entirely unnoticed and uncriticized. This happens precisely because they, as readers, have declared that they are free of such things.


I think this comes much closer to capturing fundamentalist reading -- the fundamentalist takes a stance in which the plain sense -- what he takes to be the plain sense, that is -- involves minimal interpretation, and in which other forms of reading are naturally understood as evasions of the obvious. The danger here is precisely what Kuznicki suggests; and the irony, of course, is that it often ends up being the case that the fundamentalist stops taking the text as teacher (despite his claims) and ceases to let himself be judged and interrogated by it. All I would add to this is to point out that it is not merely religious fundamentalists who make the assumption that the fundamentalist reading strategy is "the more unvarnished, purer, truer reading"; I have come across many atheists who clearly assume exactly this. Of course, they don't hold that this truer reading is closer to God; but they dismiss any other reading as dishonest or hypocritical. This runs into precisely the same problems in the atheistic case that it does in the fundamentalist case. As Kuznicki goes on to note, those who read differently (and this is true whether they are religious or nonreligious themselves) will at least be giving themselves reminders to be self-critical in reading.

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