Philosophy & Scripture

December 3, 2003 | 14 comments
By

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 Marl讥 Zarader, La dette impens饬 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).

Tags: , ,

14 Responses to Philosophy & Scripture

  1. Dave on December 3, 2003 at 3:09 am

    Thanks for contributing–your participation and comments are much appreciated.

    For what it’s worth, I see scripture as simple narrative, sometimes rough and sometimes rather polished but, like most stories, a bit messy and susceptible of several meanings. Philosophy and theology follow behind the narrative parade, cleaning up piles of inconsistency and creating a cleaner, more coherent whole. Personally, I think the philosophies of men, properly mingled, improve the end product.

  2. Clark Goble on December 3, 2003 at 3:58 am

    I basically agree with Jim, although I’d add the caveat that scripture isn’t philosophy of the sort normally spoken of. However not all philosophy is the philosophy of the sort normally spoken of. Simply look at Thus Spake Zarathustra or even Candide. Or, for that matter Richard Rorty. It seems to me that philosophy can take many forms. Before we say there is a huge gulf between philosophy and scripture we’d best be clear what we mean by philosophy.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on December 3, 2003 at 9:04 am

    Jim, one question:

    Let us grant that the revelations are not best understood as instruction manuals, as statements that tell us what to do. Instead, they are calls to, questions placed upon, our hearts. Is there possibly, however, a rather difficult to discern line between treating the scriptures as instructions, and treating them as sources of particular questions? That is, not solely as words that lead us into and along through acts of general questioning, but as words that may (with a little bit of interrogation) be seen as asking very specific questions, and demanding a very specific orientation? Is there a point, in your view, where such an approach becomes identitical to simply looking for more explanations?

    I ask this in light of many discussions I’ve had with friends of mine about the scriptures, pacifism, the war in Iraq (and President Hinckley’s sermon on such), etc. Some pacifists (just like some warmongers, of course) appear to approach the revelations very much as a manual to be proof-texted: there is a “lesson” on peace (or war) in there, somewhere, and they’re going to ferret it out. But others (Hugh Nibley, perhaps?) seem to want to just look at the story of the anti-Nephi-Lehis and allow the “terrible questions” to pose themselves. But of course the scriptures are editorially shaped narratives; rarely do stories stand in isolation from each other (the tale of the anti-Nephi-Lehis certainly doesn’t). So can there ever be any legitimate attempt to frame, isolate, and therefore construct, for specific purposes, the scriptures so that specific questions “pose themselves”? Or are all attempts of such posing (“What is the Lord challenging me to do or think in regards to (this) war?”) already, in your view, much too technical?

  4. Logan on December 3, 2003 at 9:30 am

    I realize that as a person without a graduate philosophy- or law degree, I may come across as rather uninformed on what seems to me like a rather “deep” topic. Still, I’m inclined to chime in.

    I actually find scripture to be rather satisfying philosophically. As Clark mentioned, we don’t have the definition of “phlosophy” pinned down precisely for the sake of this discusison, but I really like the sorts of questions suggested by Jim toward the end of his post.

    The questions on which I ponder are often along these lines: “what’s the difference between a ‘law’ and a ‘commandment?'” or, “what does ‘obedience’ really mean?” Questioning all the assumptions I may have gained from places like Elder’s Quorum or anywhere else that aren’t supported by what I find in the text of the scriptures can be very enlightening (at least to my untrained mind).

    If, when you call the scriptures “bad” philosophy, you mean that it takes the application of a little faith (which begs the question: just what do the scriptures mean by “faith?”) to understand them, you have a point. And if that diminishes their credibility as philosophical works, so be it.

    I look at the scriptures simply as a tool. One that I have found useful as I work out my own salvation “with fear and trembling.” Perhaps it is because I feel like I am able to compartmentalize my study of the scriptures as an aid to my eternal progression from my study of them as intellectually fascinating (although I am fascinated by such stimulatingly intellectual discussion of them as have been presented here), but both approaches add to my enjoyment of them.

  5. Gordon on December 3, 2003 at 2:52 pm

    Nice post, Jim. You wrote, “They call to us, asking us to listen. They do not explain to us, asking us to understand.” Very nice. You have a poetic style. But I cannot completely embrace these ideas for the simple reason that I believe the scriptures are doing all sort of things. Calling to us? Sure. Explaining to us. That, too. There is not one formula for “scripture.”

    I strive for “understanding,” a word that I use to mean something like: “coming to truth through the interplay of reason and revelation.” Ultimately, we should develop a “complete understanding.” At which point, we are like God.

    By the way, this post reminded me of an exchange I had in law school (University of Chicago, not BYU) with a non-Mormon classmate. He asked if I found Mormon doctrine to be intellectual coherent. Boy, what a tough question! I said something like, “Yes, to the extent that I understand it.” Of course, given what I just described in the prior paragraph, this is completely tautological. Nevertheless, the exchange led to a nice discussion about faith, which is a necessary adjunct and prerequisite to understanding.

  6. clark goble on December 3, 2003 at 5:43 pm

    Two talks that might be relevant are from two different Oaks. The first is one I’ve posted a lot but which gets at some of these issues:

    http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll/Magazines/Ensign/1995.htm/ensign%20january%201995.htm/scripture%20reading%20and%20revelation.htm

    The other is very interesting I’m sure to those of us familiar with postmodern hermeneutics as it discusses what we bring to the text.

    http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll/Magazines/Ensign/1998.htm/ensign%20november%201998.htm/the%20living%20prophet%20%20our%20source%20of%20pure%20doctrine.htm

  7. Adam Greenwood on December 3, 2003 at 9:53 pm

    Logan,
    What do you mean that you “compartmentalize my study of the scriptures as an aid to my eternal progression from my study of them as intellectually fascinating?”

    Do you mean that you sometimes use the scriptures as a springboard for speculation, which speculation you find to be intellectually satisfying but not very useful in salvation?

  8. Adam Greenwood on December 3, 2003 at 10:05 pm

    Thanks for the links, Clark. I found both of those articles very edifying.

  9. Logan on December 3, 2003 at 11:01 pm

    Perhaps using the word “compartmentalize” and giving the impression that “intellectually satisfying” and “useful in salvation” are mutually exclusive was a little too strong. Obviously, the two concepts overlap considerably.

    I guess I meant to point out that the answers to questions such as, “Did Adam have a belly button?”, or “Was it essential that Joseph Smith translate the Book of Mormon?” don’t affect my testimony very much, but are interesting to think about.

    By contrast, when using the scriptures as a tool in my spiritual growth, I might consider things like, “If the two greatest commandments are to love God and my neighbor, what exactly does that mean, and how can I do it better?”

    In the context of Jim’s original post, I agree that we can ask questions that may not help us be better people, but I think that those questions don’t necessarily get in the way of our progression (if kept in perspective). We can enjoy the quasi-philosophical aspects of the scriptures on one hand, and use them in working out our salvation on the other. That’s what I meant by “compartmentalize” (although, if I were smart enough to comprehend all the details of Jim’s argument, I might well be convinced that one gets in the way of the other).

  10. Jim on December 3, 2003 at 11:42 pm

    For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to reply to everyone so far at the same time, and serially.

    By the way, I tried to make the link to each of your comments but I couldn’t figure out how. I’m going to blame that on Nate. He said to click on the date that appears at the end of the post and the full text would appear. I clicked on various dates and got nothing. By clicking on “Comments” on the home page under the introduction to my post, I could get the comments, but the box in which they appeared had no web address. By clicking on either “Continue reading” or “Permanent Link” I could get the full text of my post and the responses, together, to appear, but not just the responses. In any case, the text of my post, with responses is to be found at: Click here

    Dave: There’s no question that, from a rational point of view, the scriptures are rough and unpolished stories. Nor is there any question that philosophy and theology come along behind and clean up those stories. The question is whether the rational point of view is the best one for understanding what the stories do and teach. If it isn’t, then the cleaning up that philosophy and theology do is likely to change the purpose and meaning of the original story. For lots of reasons that I don’t have space to get into here, I don’t think the rational point of view is the best one for understanding the scriptures. As I said, that doesn’t mean that they are anti-rational (though, as I also mentioned, there are also anti-rational elements in them). It just means that they are something else. Thinkers like Paul Ricoeur and American narrative theologians have been thinking and writing about these issues for twenty years, so I can’t claim any credit for the ideas and I can only take blame for finding their ideas interesting and useful. (By the way, I’m more sympathetic to Ricoeur, in works like Time and Narrative, than I am to the narrative theologians.)

    Clark (1): Though not all philosophy is the sort normally spoken of and, in fact, I’ve spent most of my professional career devoted to the sort of philosophy not normally spoken of in North America, I don’t think that the examples you give—Nietzsche, Voltaire, Rorty, and we could add Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and others—are in the same ballpark as scripture. The simplest way of saying what the difference is doesn’t require that I decide what philosophy is. (I don’t think I could do that.) It only requires noticing that scripture calls us to love God and repent and offers the kind of understanding appropriate to doing so. Philosophy doesn’t make that call nor does it offer that understanding. One might argue that some philosophers, Augustine and Kierkegaard come to mind, do what scripture does. If so, and I’m inclined to think that there is something to that possible objection, they do so derivatively, based on the call and understanding that comes in scripture (or in prophetic utterance), much as one of us might when giving a talk in Sacrament Meeting.

    Russell: I think you’re right that there is not much difference between treating the scriptures as “how-to” manuals and assuming that they are the sources of particular question (questions that just happen to be our favorite ones). Perhaps there’s no difference at all. I’m suspicious of all attempts to frame the scriptures so that the questions I would like to deal with appear in them. For me, the most fruitful experience with scripture is when the question comes without bidding, and the best of those questions have been questions of me in particular: When you dealt with so-and-so today, did you fulfill your obligation to love your brother and neighbor? Or, as happened to me last week, “Have you been true to the calling and election you received at baptism?” Of course “without bidding” doesn’t mean “without work.” I often have to work hard at scripture study.

    Logan: Since the topic has an anti-philosophical ring to it, you should feel free to chime in. I’m not sure what you were referring to when you said you liked the questions at the end of my post, but the kinds of things you say you find interesting strike me as good questions (though they may or may not be philosophical). But I think that a great deal of our discussion of them is informed much more by the hearsay we picked up in Primary or from a Seminary teacher or friend or parent—the kinds of things we say to each other all of the time, assuming that we know what we are talking about. Ask a class of Latter-day Saints what a covenant is and almost immediately someone will describe it as a contract. That can be the beginning of a good discussion: is it really like a contract? However, too often we end the discussion with the comparison rather than beginning a discussion. It may sound as if I’m speaking only of those in the Church who don’t have Ph.D.s, but I’m not. I think we all do that; we respond from habit and custom and what we have already decided rather than from a thoughtful response. Some have habits they got in graduate school, others do not, but habits are habits, and habits generally cover over the possibility of being brought up short. I think that the scriptures can be an antidote to habitual response. If we read them carefully, waiting for the questions that arise while we ask questions about what they mean, we will learn a great deal. So I would be interested in looking at how the scriptures use the words “law” and “commandment” rather than asking in an abstract way, “What’s the difference between the two?”

    Gordon: I didn’t intend what I wrote to be a formula for scripture. I intended it to be a description of our relation to scripture, a description of how understanding occurs when we read scripture. But I recognize that many thoughtful Mormons, such as you, will disagree with what I said. Your disagreement isn’t just a sign that you didn’t understand me or that I didn’t explain myself well (though the latter of these is certainly possible). The difference between us is perhaps one of temperament. In your response you said that you strive for understanding and that ultimately we should develop a complete understanding. In contrast, I don’t see becoming like God as a matter of gaining understanding (though that comes along with it). I see it as a matter of learning to love as he loves. For me, therefore, even the passages of scripture that explain things should be understood as fundamentally provocations to love rather than to understanding.

    Clark (2): I have always liked the two talks by Elder Oaks to which you referred us, and I also liked the talk by Elder Merrill Oaks. In it I especially liked Elder Lee’s question: “Have you ever thought that what was contrary to the order of heaven in 1840 might not be contrary to the order of heaven in 1960?”

    Logan (2): Notice that the important questions, for me, are not the questions we ask, but the questions that we are asked as we study.

  11. clark on December 4, 2003 at 4:20 pm

    Jim, I certainly agree that there is a huge difference between Nietzsche, Rorty and the scriptures. That wasn’t really my point. My point was about the *how* of what was said and less the *what* of what was said.

    I think that when we speak of the scriptures not being philosophy it has much more to do with the how than the what. After all one can, from within the analytic philosophical tradition, discuss a lot of the same “whats” that scripture does. (I should hasten to add that typically they aren’t the focus of philosophers though)

  12. Jim on December 4, 2003 at 4:50 pm

    Clark, I agree completely that the difference is primarily in the how rather than the what. That is one way of putting why I think it is impossible to turn scriptural texts into philosophical texts without doing violence to them.

  13. Clark Goble on December 4, 2003 at 9:30 pm

    Perhaps, but I’m not sure that the range of “hows” found in philosophy is as different from the range of “hows” found in scripture as you do.