Biblicism and Scholasticism

There is a spectrum. On the one side is a kind of Biblicism which goes so far as almost to deny interpretation. No creed but the Bible is a motto that is either naïve or duplicitous. You have to interpret the Bible; you have to do that because it is a complex book. If you pretend that you do not interpret, you will only interpret badly: rejecting good interpretations and interpreting without careful reflection. You may get the easy parts right: they require least interpretation; but you will get all the rest wrong, and this will drag on what you got right.

Next on the spectrum you might find those who want to keep interpretation at a minimum. This tends toward literalism: the idea is that anything you interpret means as little as possible, the range of meaning is kept narrow. You control interpretation that way. The problem still remains, however, if the Bible is a book that requires sophisticated interpretation because it is a big, complex book that speaks of big, complex things. It seems to me that the impulse to restrict interpretation to the most manageable narrow band is going to face theologically complex doctrines developed over time, especially more recent ones, with suspicion. Older ones might be grandfathered in, but real understanding or enthusiasm for them will be hard to achieve.

Then you have a more robustly theological interpretation, informed by a tradition of theological reflection. Here it is appreciated that theology is complex because what is revealed is complex, and that the complexity of revelation requires some hermeneutical sophistication. I would mark this position’s place on the spectrum by adding that theological sophistication is appreciated somewhat, but not entirely: philosophy, which contains the tools for sophisticated theology, is not appreciated as it should. The result is partly examined theology because there are unexamined philosophical assumptions. And I wonder if this is not where Evangelicalism in general finds itself.

There are two more positions on my spectrum: ones philosophy for theology rests on modern assumptions. The second rests on pre-modern assumptions. And this is where the Confessional divide can be seen: the Confessions were not written on modern philosophical assumptions, they were written on pre-moderns philosophical assumptions. The system of doctrine they present is called classical theism because it rests on classic metaphysics—classic philosophical ways of understanding and speaking.

This last can be disparaged in this way: we see Aquinas doing theology, we say he is just being speculative, he just wants to accommodate theology to Aristotle and pagan learning, overawed by it. What is the problem with rejecting what Aquinas did? Consider that perhaps he was not accommodating, but instead elaborating something every step of which was crucial, exceeding in sophistication because informed in things we nowadays ignore and therefore do not understand. If he was, and had reason to be, you are shooting yourself in the foot by throwing him out.

When you throw out ancient metaphysical assumptions, on the basis of which orthodox theology was formulated, you are saying you have a better basis for arriving at the same conclusions. You have an epistemology and metaphysics (all your philosophy, in short) that are derived directly from Scripture. People do this: it goes under the name of presuppositional apologetics, but it is a commitment to support 17th Century Reformed Orthodoxy (in its main instances) in ways that exclude what is derived from ancient philosophy. People who do this expect to get the same essential system of doctrine on a surer basis. Some think that is what the Reformers were doing anyway, and they are just making it more explicit. (Historians are not inclined to agree with this evaluation of the Reformer’s effort.) Perhaps all who do so think this way. I think it is a kind of Biblicism.

What if what you get from ancient philosophy is true? Then what you will end up with, if you jettison those classic assumptions, will begin to change and to creep. And this is why those defending their 17th Century confessions, seeking to keep as much of them as possible because they represent a coherent symbol of the doctrine formulated on the basis of careful and age-long interpretation of Scripture, this is why they are starting to become apologists for pre-modern metaphysics.

What if you cannot derive the underlying philosophical assumptions which you use to formulate doctrine from the Bible? What if this is not revealed there, but is rather like learning the languages (Hebrew grammar is not revealed or taught in Scripture, but assumed), a part of your human responsibility? What if it is like learning math, or geometry?  Then when you assume that you get it from the Bible (or your unerring miraculously supercharged Christian brain, I suppose) you will smuggle in, in our day, modern assumptions. You will use Kant warmed over, or some such. And you will do so in an unexamined way, even if it is pointed out to you that is what you are doing, because you are refusing to go where you need to.

Laurus, by Evgenij Vodolazkin

LaurusLaurus by Evgenij Vodolazkin

With Laurus I have at last found one of those rare books, the kind that goes on the shelf of wonder. It is surely no less than one of the world’s few books of wonder.

Set in Medieval Russia, the story is a vision of timeless Russia, of Russia in which the temporal, earthly and mortal have been joined by Orthodox Christianity to that which is not. Eternal, celestial and immortal, in short, the realm of wonder breathes calm and purpose into the tragic events of the novel, overwhelming the child’s question ‘why’ in the childhood, youth, manhood, and old age of Arseny, who is Ustin, Amvrosy, and at last Laurus. There is no understanding the answer without living it, without being connected to that which came before and that which comes after, and with that in which there is no becoming.

There are symbols in this book like the book of the Revelations, there is learning in it like the work of Umberto Eco, and there is pathos in it such as Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner exhibited. This pathos is not senselessly, and therefore sensefully or meaningfully presented. Though I have not yet re-read the book, I know it will bear up. I am sure of it. On the whole, it is probably worth learning Russian for, since what I have is an English translation of the 2012 Russian original. It is timely, also, and here you can find the author’s explanation of what he was aiming for in terms of our times.

You can take Rod Dreher’s word on the novel, if he means anything to you. He is right to bring up the term magical realism, and is right to point out that it is more than magical realism. Magical realism is about the modern predilection for an author’s disappearance as a narrator. It shows the impossibility of such a thing. Vodolazkin uses it to do more, but he uses it at least to do this, and this strengthens his argument.

It is a book about the need for the permanent things, and a book that shows life in relation to the permanent things. In a way, it is an apology of a despised way of life, medieval life, holding back none of the modern horror for the complete absence of prosperity and comfort, but putting it into the context of a better prosperity and consolation.

And it is a book of rich characterization. There is no character who, however minor, is not treated with a deft touch: a brief description, a snatch of dialogue, a concluding observation. Vodolazkin’s concern is humane, and therefore attentive to the human beings, all the human beings, under the judgment of the premise of his tale.

A Good Haul

The chaps at the Harvest Book Sale got a Princeton librarian cleaning out his library. Stuff by Kirk, stuff by Chesterton . . . so many things. Lots of interesting books in excellent condition. Lots of stuff on Samuel Johnson, Acton and on.

They guy who sold me what I bought bought them. Think of that, of the libraries there must be in the region, and the ageing owners, and the used book trade. Of course, there’s NY to see about the books at, but what lies closer to us than to them: think of all that.

Anywhere, of course, I acknowledge. All the books that pour through Amazon daily, and have been all over the country. All the books before Amazon, arriving in trucks, arriving in steam ships and trains, arriving in sailing vessels before that, tracing their origins back to all over the world. And the local printing presses, and all the endless books of all qualities and kinds.

Long Green Tunnels of the Unexamined Life

The long green tunnel of shade that is Forbidden Drive is my haunt. I have hardly been downtown, and in the heat, who really wants to? I walk along the sometimes silent, sometimes merry Wissahickon, right down to where it begins to smell of sewage and meets the wider sparkling Schuylkill. Cities were not much made for summer, I reckon. Not like the leafy suburbs where mature timber casts brooding shadows over quiet, recondite lawns.

Summer was probably made for Maine, where it is cooler yet and the wrinkled North Atlantic stretches away, a featureless path. I hear there are many pines in Maine. There are no trees of which I am more fond.

I noticed the temperature in Bogota yesterday, and for the week, an inviting steady high of 63F. That is a kindly and humane temperature. Not so here. Still, I do like Philadelphia, specially Forbidden Drive along the Wissahickon gorge.

* * *

Politics is in full swing, isn’t it? The unreality is on view. This is the best election ever: nothing for dull sober consideration; no one can browbeat you about the importance of your insignificant vote; you can laugh or you can cry, that is all. Brand is all, and brand Trump is strong: he has the sophist knack of Gorgias, he is much cleverer than the driver of the expensive hulking claptrap machine opposing him, he has, in fact, an ideally repugnant opponent breathing life into his possibilities, he maintains the glamor of a precarious prosperity, he is made for TV and made by TV, and as long as politics goes on on TV he has that edge. He needs attention is all, and he knows how to get it. I have heard it said he is a man wearing a loose-fitting Trump costume, and I find it sufficient explanation. Many wring their hands. There is nothing more helpless than handwringing when handwringing is all you can do. The Republican machinery has become a self-fulfilling curse. The elites of a TV age despise him, but he has a way of turning attacks to his advantage. He will only go away if he’s ignored, but now he cannot be ignored; his grin shows he knows it. He is a creature for this moment.

TV, remember, is an entertainment medium; the medium is the message; anything you see on TV comes with the loud message “this is not serious.” That is the inevitable message if the medium is the message. Turns out, it probably is. And so America is ready for Trump, and I am ready to cast my vote.

I notice that cellular telephones are all screen nowadays. Screen and camera: made for TV and made by TV. Can they represent the televisionification of all of life? Have you got yours? From what I can tell, they are portable entertainment many consider necessary. Necessary in the age of Trump. Trump is the message of the media of our age.

Lord Monster, I shall call them, the phones and him. And I’ll vote for him without taking a selfie or anything, with just the satisfaction of knowing there is nothing more outrageous one can do, paying my respects to the spirit of an age than which few have been more outrageous. It is like living in a Monty Python sketch, in which, by the way, the medium’s message matched the content. I have been there, I can now say. It is interesting. I may whistle the Sousa march as I cast my vote.

I have this unsolicited advice: there is no taking it seriously. It is not serious, and it cannot be. And that is what I take my vote to mean. All I have read and seen add up to this. I am open to persuasion, but only from a person who does not own incriminating cellular telephony. I know the message of that medium: Trump.

* * *

I am reading Laurus, a marvelous work, at least in the middle thereof. Set in medieval Russia, magical realism deftly done, evocative but not purple prose, and the heavy-handed black humor without which Russians would not be Russians—to my seeming. It is very good. It is another thing to enjoy, and probably more lasting.

Henry Writes Tom

Henry Eliot wrote his brother about The Waste Land in March 1923, and I have found it the most interesting of letters for various reasons. The first being that he thought the poem was some kind of spoof, agreeing with one of the critics. In fact, he said, “it wearies me a little, like the continual exploits of a practical joker. The obscurantism, moreover, seems to me a little too willfully striven for.” Good thing this came after, not before publication. On the other hand, Tom probably knew who to ask and who not to ask for critical insight on his own writing. Clearly, his brother was good for some advice but not all advice; Henry was a successful businessman. A few pages earlier in the second volume of the letters were Quinn’s comments (in a footnote summarizing a reply to Eliot’s letter to him) on how Ezra Pound, it seemed to him, had cut too much of the original poem out. Pound was the one who made sense of the thing! It really makes one wish for a letter in which Eliot reflects on these kinds of things, showing what he must have felt about it. I will be surprised if it exists, however.

Then Henry said this: “The question of how much intent to attract notice there is in the poem is a good deal similar to the question of the same intent in women’s dress. No nice woman, of course, will admit any reasons for the open bosom, the sheer waist fabric, the gauzy stockings, the high heels, the skirt drawn tight over the haunches, the cosmetics, the aphrodisiac perfumes, save that these things are the fashion, that she likes to look sweet and dainty. Strong sub-conscious inhibitions to frankness, and world-old hypocritical complexes prevent her having any conscious knowledge of her motives.” Which is a most interesting observation in and of itself, curiously naïve of Henry, who obviously thinks he’s pretty shrewd, but astonishing coming as a comment on The Waste Land. I think Henry is the older brother.

“If a petty motive is discernible it lowers the dignity of a work of art.” You did not just say that to T.S. Eliot! “Petty motives inevitably produce bad art, and it is perhaps a matter of only metaphysical importance whether it is the motive or the result that offends.” Not a man to muck around with the metaphysical side of things, Henry.

“The only other criticism I have to make of the poem is that it is too excessively allusive.”

So that was all.

T.S. Eliot had some quite unhelpful correspondence in his life. At one point, in the letter alluded to earlier, Eliot had complained that he was so busy that he had not been able to see a dentist or get his hair cut. Quinn had the obtuse and patronizing effrontery to explain to Eliot that he should see a dentist because it was important, and not worry about the haircut since that wasn’t. Eliot was on the verge of a second nervous prostration from overwork and he had these numbnuts to deal with, some of them nearly obsequiously. It comforts one. It brings Eliot closer. You hear his shoes on the pavement, watch his expression surreptitiously, can imagine his sigh as the paper rustles, and as you continue reading his private letters.