I am interested in the question of how to think about scripture and I am an academic philosopher. One consequence is that I?m also interested in how the two things are related to each other. Here are some not-fully articulated thoughts on that question. They won’t come as a surprise to someone who has read some of my other things?another take on a familiar theme.
As I understand scriptural texts, they are not philosophical and cannot be turned into philosophical texts without changing them drastically. [FN: Ricoeur has discussions of the issue in several places, for example, in Time and Narrative; in Figuring the Sacred; in his essays on the Bible, written with LeCoq; and in his essay in Phenomenology and the ?Theological Turn.?] I take it that is the unreflective folk-view manifest in LDS concerns about philosophers and the standard interpretation of ?mingling the philosophies of men with scripture.? (My own understanding of that phrase is that it means not substituting common sense, in the literal sense of that term, for revealed truth.) Latter-day Saints aren?t the only ones to believe that there is some kind of contradiction between scripture and philosophy. For example, Alain Badiou has argued that at least some scriptural texts, specifically Paul?s letters, are anti-philosophical as well as anti-rhetorical, but that isn?t necessarily a criticism of those texts [FN: Saint Paul, La fondation de l?universalism (Paris: PUF, 1997)].
So, what’s the difference? In scripture, the power and knowledge of God is always other than that of men: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways” (Isaiah 55:8); “Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20), etc. I think that means that if we read the scriptures looking for a rational justification of something, we read them at cross purposes to their own intentions. It doesn?t mean that we cannot read them for understanding, i.e., as quasi-philosophical texts. Just as we can read them as literature, we can read them as a kind of primitive philosophy, and there may be good reasons for doing so. But when we read them in those ways, we do not read them as scripture and, so, we will have to ignore a great deal of what we find in them as irrelevant to our purposes.
For me, the message of the scriptures can be summed up in the phrase from Deuteronomy 6:4 (repeated, according to Mark, when Jesus answered the scribe?s question about the first commandment): “Hear O Israel.” In context (verses 4-7): “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart.”
The scriptures call us to hear, to hearken rather than to understand. They don’t forbid our understanding, but it is, for the most part, irrelevant to their purposes. If there are things in scripture that we cannot understand, that may not be a fault in them. Rather, to point to something in them of which we cannot make rational sense is probably only to point out that they don’t serve the same purposes that texts meant to create rational understanding serve. They call to us, asking us to listen. They do not explain to us, asking us to understand. If we read them like poorly written philosophy texts, which they are if we’re looking for rational understanding, then we will misread them.
The word translated “hear” (shama) could also be translated “pay attention” or “obey.” The scriptures call us to love God, which is not the same as to understand him (though I don’t see that loving him forbids us trying to understand him. To call us to love is not to forbid us to understand; but we ought not to confuse the imperative to love with an imperative to understand). They call us to have his words in our heart. [FN: I think the singular, "heart," is important: it isn't just that I must, as an individual, have the commandments in my heart. We must have them in our communal heart. That is, I think, why the second great commandment is like (i.e., corresponds to) the first.)]
As the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament points out, the heart is “the richest biblical term for the totality of man’s inner or immaterial nature” (entry #1071a). [FN: It is also significant that this word comes from a root that means "to ravish" as well as "to become intelligent," but I?ll leave my rabbinic speculations on that for another time.] We are called to hear, to hearken, to God and to keep what he says in our inner being.
Given the difference between scriptural and philosophical texts, the former require a different reading strategy, a strategy of questioning in order to be questioned. In Hebrew, the concepts “word,” “thing,” and “what was done” are expressed by the same word (dabar). Jewish interpreters have taken this identity to point directly at the creative power of God. Thus, the commandment to hear and to keep the words of God in our hearts is not only a commandment to remember his commandments. It is a commandment to keep all of the things of God in our heart, to remember him as Creator, to remember what he has done. (Thus, without denying the importance of seeing, I think it is more important that the prophet is a Revelator, someone who calls us in the name of God, than that he is a Seer.)
Much of Judaism has developed this identity of word, thing, and act into an emphasis on exegesis and word play. But that exegesis isn’t merely for the purposes of retrieving the sense of the words, and the word play isn’t merely for the poetic pleasure of playing with language. Rather, both are part of what it means to discover the meaning and significance of the world. If we generalize from the particularities of Jewish methods, we can say that the Jewish tradition understands language as a guide for taking an orientation among the things there are, the created world and the things in it; the language of scripture orients us in the world in a particular way. On a Jewish understanding, the scriptures have the potential to put us in the world in the way that God meant us to be, and the point of scriptural exegesis is less to tell us true facts than to orient us truly. To hear God and to keep his words in our heart is to orient ourselves (or, perhaps, more accurately, to be oriented by God) in the world in the way that is revealed through scripture. It is hear God’s call to repent, in both the Old Testament (shub ? ?to return?) and New Testament (metanoeo ? ?to change one?s noos,? ?to convert?) senses of the term.
Judaism has developed quite fully various methods for reading scripture as a means of taking up the orientation in the world that is given by the Divine. However, I don’t think one must adopt kabbalistic or rabbinic methods in order to do that. (On the other hand, I think we could do with a whole lot more of Jewish approaches to scripture than the approaches we often adopt; in my experience, “Book of Mormon as technical manual” isn?t very fruitful.) Nevertheless, I think their general understanding of scripture as orienting is right. Key to their understanding of how to read scripture is something that ought to be key to ours: scripture is less an order of discourse than it is a struggle with language, not a struggle for understanding and clarity (at least not the clarity and understanding of reason), but a struggle to find ourselves in the world in relation to God and his creation. [I borrow the analogy of struggle from Marlè®¥ Zarader, La dette impensé¥¬ Heidegger et l?heritage hebraï±µe (Paris: Seuil, 1990), 68.] The prophet speaks in the name of God, struggling to allow the call of God to speak in his voice. We respond to the prophet?s struggle with our own, struggling to hearken to the call and to keep the words of God in our innermost being, struggling to make them constitutive of our being-in-the-world.
I think it was Nachmanides who said, To speak, one must bow. In other words, to speak, one must have already heard and recognized the authority of at least the person to whom one is speaking. Most importantly, one must have heard and recognized the authority of God’s call. When we listen to what demands response, I think we most often hear a question. Thus, what seems to me to be most important in reading scripture is to read, as I said above, in order to be questioned. I don?t read in order to understand God, but in order to be brought up short by God, to hear his questions rather than to answer mine. I read scripture in order to find the orientation in the world that he would have me take, in other words, to repent. None of this requires that I give up my rational faculties; it only requires that I not read merely to indulge them.
Strategically, I find that one of the best ways to hear the questions that God poses to me in scripture is to pay close attention to the text, asking questions about it as a text. (Whether this ought to be everyone?s strategy is doubtful.) The questions to ask are things like, “Why does this story have the narrative structure that it does?” and “What is the significance of the fact that God uses word X rather than word Y?” My experience is that such questions open me to the possibility of being questioned by the scriptures, especially when they have become so stale that I?m sure that I already know exactly what they say.
Philosophical questions, like, “Why does God allow evil?” (to mention perhaps the most frequently asked of such questions), though interesting and not without their place, can get in the way of understanding scripture as divine call. They seek for understanding, turning the scriptures into resources for philosophy. The scriptures, however, don?t ask for our understanding, they ask for our repentance. [FN: Most of our teaching methods in the church rely on an understanding of scripture as poorly written technical instruction or bad philosophy, though obviously that way of putting the matter wouldn?t be what most people would say. I think that is why most church teaching is so unsatisfactory.]
In summary, on my view, reading scripture is an act of welcome and response: Ideally, I welcome God and the questions he raises, hearkening to his words, his things, his ongoing creation, responding in love (which means also in obedience, though not mere obedience).