Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Sacred Texts II

Jason Kuznicki has a response to my response to his post on sacred texts:

Yet this is exactly the problem with sacred texts: We readers are always students; we can never be judges. Our role is set out for us beforehand, by an extraordinary claim attached to the text itself. We may approach that text literally or figuratively, we may argue over its meanings, but to doubt the value of the text is to doubt its sacredness. Always we are students, and always, when a difficulty exists, the error is presumptively in our own understanding rather than in any relevant feature of the text itself. Sacredness may not destroy all interpretation (although fundamentalism makes an effort at making it do just that), but sacredness certainly does play the interpretive game with loaded dice.

But this seems to me to confuse evaluation of a text with interpretation of it. Consider Shakespeare's Hamlet, for instance, or Dante's Divine Comedy; anyone who sits on such texts as a judge in such a way as to cast doubt on their value has, by that very fact, thrown suspicion on his judgment. But his interpretation of the text may be fine, if it respects the fact of the text as written and as read. A problem with judging the value of a text requires considering more readers than just oneself; and it is not something that can be read off the text itself. This essential element of rational interpretation (of any text) makes the whole notion of reading a text as judge rather more complicated than it might seem. And, of course, when we are reading a text of high value -- e.g., Plato's Republic -- it is often perfectly reasonable to presume that if your reading shows up errors that this is likely due to an error in your reading, for several reasons: (1) People make mistaken readings all the time -- it's a very easy thing to do, so you always have to engage in rigorous self-criticism when you are criticizing any text (which is very hard for any of us to do properly, of course); (2) Again, you have to consider other readers, and if no other readers have been bothered by the alleged error, you have at least to ask yourself why; (3) You have to consider the aptitude of the author -- if the way you read Leibniz, for instance, has him making a simple and obvious logical error, you had better have stunningly good evidence for your reading, or you should go back and look where you made your mistake, because Leibniz was a brilliant logician. All of these come into play with texts that are considered sacred, although not always in straightforward ways. There is nothing wrong with presumptions of value, nor is there anything wrong with such presumptions grounding presumptive guidelines for interpretation. Even with low-value texts we need good reasons for abandoning the principle of charity. It's entirely reasonable to think that the higher the value of the text, the better your reasons should be.

In any case, there are hermeneutics in which the value of the text need not be doubted but the text can still be judged erroneous. One finds such a method of interpretation in Edwin Abbott Abbott's classic work of liberal-modernist theology, The Kernel and the Husk; Abbott, of course, finds the text erroneous all over the place, but its value is unchanged. And this, I think, is another good bit of evidence that we should not conflate questions of evaluation with questions of interpretation. Sacredness does not automatically imply infallibility or lack of error, for instance; even fundamentalists have recognized that you have to argue for it, even though they think the argument is fairly straightforward.


One of Jason's commenters had this to say:

The comment that everyone must approach sacred texts as students and never as judges makes me think of humanity in a perpetual state of childhood with no possibility of attaining adulthood.

Which is a rather odd thing to say, it seems to me; it requires the assumption that only children are students and that attaining adulthood means that you stop learning from teachers. I suppose one can interpret Kant's heteronomy/autonomy account of Enlightenment along these lines (although Kant himself does not). But I'm inclined to think that ceasing to learn from teachers, ceasing to be a student, is to stunt one's maturation at the level at which one stops learning.

Perhaps the real difference between children and adults is that children learn because they have to: they are students by necessity. Adults, when they continue growing mentally and morally, learn because it is life worth living: they are students out of love.


Nathanael Robinson makes an interesting comment on the argument:

Brandon Watson has an interesting take on Jason Kuznicki’s post on sacred texts. I wish, however, that they would have looked at the authority of sacred texts within any given community, how underneath orthodox claims of immutable truth come fluid, dynamic practices that show how communities adapt sacred texts to their interests. Aren’t we ’sacredly’ reading differently after Martin Buber?

I think looking at the authority and the dynamic practices are both worthwhile things to do; but they are well beyond my competence to do in a general way, because there is so much diversity in the landscape. The Sikh sacred text, for instance, the Sri Guru Granth, is a psalter; it is prayed, and to pray it is to sing it, and it has its life and its meaning in its being prayed and sung by what's sometimes called the Sri Guru Panth, the whole Sikh community. The Book is Guru when it is sung, and the people are Guru in their singing of it; in a sense they are one Guru, the Perpetual Nanak. It would take a deep familiarity with Sikh life and Sikh tradition to work out the authoritative role of such a text, and the dynamic practices in their relation to claims of immutable truth. And I think the same goes with any sort of sacred text, since every sacred text organizes a different sort of community, and in doing so is a different kind of sacred text, whose authority, and the relation of that authority to the interests of the community and to claims of immutable truth, will therefore be different. They can't even be studied the same way. The Granth is sung by Sikhs, the Qur'an is recited by Muslims, the Bible is read by Christians. In Islam the Qur'an only has authority in Arabic; any translation of it is an assistance to reading the Qur'an, and cannot claim the authority of the Qur'an itself. The Christian Bible, on the other hand, is from the very foundations of Christianity something that crosses translation, that is always read in translation, that can maintain its authority even in translation. On the other hand, there is a longstanding tradition in Islamic communities of taking the Qur'an as being something eternal; a similar longstanding tradition can be found with the Torah in Judaism. But there is not a whisper of this in Christianity; from the very beginning Christianity shuns the idea that the text is in any way eternal, however inspired it may be. For Catholics Scripture only exists as an authority, only has meaning, in being taught and prayed by the Church; for Protestants, Scripture's authority and meaning is a criterion for evaluating the teaching and prayer of the Church. Such diversity is hard to get a hold of. Nathanael is entirely right that these issues are radically important for understanding sacred texts; but they are also well beyond my ability to say much about. So it goes with many important things, I suppose.

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