Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Metaphor in Practice


"[The Israelites] waged war against a foreign nation. The text calls those combining against them Amalekites. For the first time the Israelites were drawn out fully armed in battle array... Moses, standing on a hilltop far away from the furor of battle, was looking up toward heaven with a friend stationed on either side of him.

"Then we hear from the history the following marvel. When Moses raised his hands to heaven, those under his command prevailed against their enemies, but when he let them down, the army began to give in to the foreigner's assault." St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses (HarperSanFransisco, 2006) 17.

"Moses's holding his hands aloft signifies the contemplation of the Law with lofty insights; his letting them hang to earth signifies the mean and lowly literal exposition and observance of the Law." Id, 75.

St. Gregory's bold assertion of the superiority of the non-literal exposition of the Law of the Old Testament over the "mean and lowly literal exposition and observance of the Law" doubtless runs contrary to the instincts of some of the hermeneutic traditions arising after the Protestant Reformation. The literal exposition tends to lead to a more univocal meaning, regulated by the text itself, giving epistemological certainty as opposed to a method that would lead to a multiplicity of meanings that must be judged on the basis of extra-biblical criteria. If the Bible serves as the epistemological foundation of all things Christian, then the Christian would be desirous of finding a method that grants definite certainty, that can be clear enough to delineate those beliefs and practices which may be permitted, and those that may not be. St. Gregory's hermeneutic undermines this certainty.

Another objection may be lodged: the metaphorical meaning of a text abstracts away from any practical value, perhaps for the purpose of freeing the reader from the text's demands, and allowing the text to be reshaped to fit the reader's own purposes, clearing a way for man to usurp God's own word; or, to put it more simply, the metaphorical meaning requires only that one understand, not that one's life be conformed.

Both objections recklessly presuppose the existence of a set meaning that can be elicited from Scripture -- or any other text -- in isolation from both the context in which the text came to be and the context in which the text gets read; epistemological certainty belonging more to the former, and the accusation of mutinous abstraction going more to the latter. That meaning can be constituted and grasped without taking into account the contexts of significance in which the work was produced and in which it is read surely ignores the traditions one necessarily must rely on in understanding the texts (i.e., extra-biblical hermeneutic devices such as: "interpret the unclear passages by the clear ones"), and the obvious fact that reading Scripture itself without the intent to utilize other forms of tradition produces far less epistemological certainty than those who intentionally make extensive use of tradition in Biblical exposition, judging by the continual fragmentation of those who believe in the strict form of "sola scriptura" (a version not really held by most of the original Reformers) and the relative unity of those who adhere to a more traditional exposition.

One can, however, hold that tradition has its place in interpreting Scripture, yet nevertheless privilege literal readings over metaphorical readings--Luther and Calvin would more in this camp than the one above. The reason for St. Gregory's privilege does not, however, arise from a tendency towards the abstract, but rather from quite the opposite. The metaphorical reading of both the Law and histories of the Old Testament has its high place precisely because of its superior practical value.

St. Gregory's intention in, for example, his exposition of Moses' life does not seek simply to find those principles by which Moses lived in his time and place and, by understanding these reflectively, to instruct his readers to live by those same principles in their own time; Gregory wishes to instruct us how we may be raised by the daughter of a Pharaoh, be faced with a burning bush, ascend a mountain to see God's back, or again what it would mean to kill an Egyptian and flee to the desert, to turn water into blood, and to part the Red Sea. In his analysis, then, the events recorded in the history should not be used as fact patterns from which we might derive rules for living (and here, any fact pattern might do as well as another), but rather the history ought to be lived out by imitation; Gregory does not limit the language of participation to the metaphysical conception of the soul's union of God alone, he extends it to those great men of God which we would be well served to emulate. In a way, we must not only live out Moses' principles, but live his life by means of analogy.

How Gregory works this out with regard to the specific events in the history of Moses must be understood as one reads his Life of Moses; for our purposes, we need only grasp the general intent behind his exposition. He reads the history non-literally in order to determine how we are to fight the Amelikites when they no longer exist, or scale Mount Sinai after leading a nation out of Egypt. Gregory's use of metaphor arises not out of any lack of confidence in the relevance of the lives of those who lived long ago, but precisely in order to understand the relevance in each detail of such a life.

Looked at this way, the process of extracting from the history a rule that Moses lived by, even something as simple as "trust in God", makes the history more distant to its practical application and involves a greater process of abstraction than does living the history by analogizing one's own life to that of Moses. A metaphorical reading is not, therefore, more empty and abstract than a literal reading, but eminently more practical, and neither is a metaphorical reading, properly performed, an imposition of one's own intentions on the text and a freeing oneself of the text's demands; rather, it necessarily involves subjecting oneself to Scripture's demands, reforming one's intentions, and actually living out the history by way of analogy.

16 comments:

Lee said...

I don't think the point is whether reading the Bible one way or the other obtains us more "practical" interpretations or deeper ones in some way or another. I think the point is to try to read it the way God intended it to be read, whichever way that happens to be.

And as it happens, we have a record of how God interpreted scripture, since Jesus Himself quoted from scripture on numerous occasions. He never said anything to suggest He did not consider it to be literal truth.

The Catholic Church bases a lot of its theology on tradition, but there are older traditions than the Catholic Church's.

I tend to be a literalist, but I would never suggest that there is no value to reading scripture in another manner. Only that it does open the door to subjective reading, which is a danger if you believe, as I do, that the Bible represents objective truth.

Thomas said...

It's important to note that a non-literal reading of OT history and law does not conflict with a literal meaning. The argument here moves in two steps: (1) non-literal readings bring scripture more fully into the realm of practice and (2) for this reason non-literal readings are superior to readings that do not yield so great a practical value.

It's also important to note that in the quote St. Gregory of Nyssa has in mind the Law in particular. Remember that a literal reading of the law means sacrificing animals and not eating shrimp.

Lee said...

When the law was written, it was intended to be taken literally, wasn't it?

Thomas said...

I would think that if you believe the law was meant to be taken literally, then you avoid seafood, don't work on Saturday, stone adulterers when the occasion presents itself, don't eat pork, and so on. Unless you do these things or believe that you ought to do them, then you take the Law figuratively rather than literally.

Lee said...

> I would think that if you believe the law was meant to be taken literally, then you avoid seafood, don't work on Saturday, stone adulterers when the occasion presents itself, don't eat pork, and so on. Unless you do these things or believe that you ought to do them, then you take the Law figuratively rather than literally.

And of course, you would be correct, if the New Testament did not exist. If, e.g., Peter had not had that vision (in Acts) where God in a vision pronounced many things clean that the law considered unclean.

But at the time the law was written, as I was asking, was it figurative? And when people were stoned for breaking it, were they stoned for breaking a figurative law? Or were they figuratively stoned?

In other words, was the law telling them something objective? And even if we no longer observe the law, are we not observing something that was objective?

In my opinion, you can't break a figurative law in a literal fashion. You can only break a figurative law figuratively.

Thomas said...

I'd grant that the Law was supposed to be performed by the letter; however, if we take the words of Christ seriously, we must also grant that there was a higher meaning that was performed not by simply following the letter of the law.

I think you're getting sidetracked a bit. What St. Gregory does not merely say that the law was once relevant, but has now been repealed and so only has value as a thing to be understood (and understood mostly as belonging to the past). Rather, Gregory maintains the the higher meaning of the Law never loses its significance and has to be lived through practice, rather than through the reflective understanding of a now-outdated code of behavior.

Remember the two central propositions of Gregory's argument: (1) figurative readings yield a fuller practical value and (2) because such a reading involves both the reflective understanding and the practice of the body it is superior to a reading that just involves the reflective understanding.

The point of my post is that figurative readings derive their superiority not from an abstract rationalism, but from concrete practice.

Lee said...

> I'd grant that the Law was supposed to be performed by the letter

I think that's the first concession I've ever gotten from you.

> however, if we take the words of Christ seriously, we must also grant that there was a higher meaning that was performed not by simply following the letter of the law.

Agreed. But in determining what that higher meaning happens to be, it's very easy to inject our own ideas about any higher meaning. My original point is that God determines the higher meaning of scripture, not us, and we have to be careful about not making up "higher meaning" out of whole cloth.

> I think you're getting sidetracked a bit.

If so, I had a little help, as I was responding to your sidebar about why I don't observe Jewish dietary restrictions. But I think I raised a valid point: you can't break a figurative law. Therefore, when the law was written, it was intended to be interpreted literally. If we have the freedom now to engage in the search for higher truth about the law, it was afforded us by events relayed to us -- literally -- in other portions of scripture, namely the New Testament.

There is more to a literalistic reading of scripture than simply taking passages out of context; in the Bible, the entire Bible is the context. The law has meaning for us today, but fortunately for us, not in quite the same way. My feeling is that Martin's reading of literalistic interpretations, and yours as well, doesn't do such interpretation justice.

But there is no shortage of analogies and higher meaning even in the scriptures themselves, and I'm sure there are more to be harvested.

Thomas said...

"My feeling is that Martin's reading of literalistic interpretations, and yours as well, doesn't do such interpretation justice."

(I was actually the author of the post, though blogspot's format made that a bit inconspicuous.)

Would you make an argument that literal interpretations actually have as much or more practical value as a metaphorical interpretation? Or that a primarily rational understanding is more important than an understanding that can be most fully practiced?

It also seems as though you primarily determine the value of interpretive methods by their epistemic certainty above any other reason. Is that a fair characterization?

Lee said...

> Would you make an argument that literal interpretations actually have as much or more practical value as a metaphorical interpretation?

Again: just *any* metaphorical interpretation? How do you know when you have a good one?

> (I was actually the author of the post, though blogspot's format made that a bit inconspicuous.)

Well, sorry, I missed that. My compliments for a learned, well-written, cogent post, even if I don't quite buy its central theme.

> Would you make an argument that literal interpretations actually have as much or more practical value as a metaphorical interpretation?

It's hard for me to see how metaphorical interpretations can have more value of any sort, to be honest. Let's stipulate that no metaphorical interpretation of the Bible can even work at all unless *some* parts of the Bible are taken literally.

If Jesus is not literally God Himself, if He is also not God's own Son, if He did not lead a perfect life, if He was not crucified for our sins, and if He did not literally rise from the dead... if none of that is true literally, I don't see how metaphorical interpretations of those passages can offer us very much.

So it seems to me that any metaphorical interpretation of the Bible depends on a foundation of faith in the Bible's literal truth. At least, on parts of the Bible being literally true.

If Jesus was not God and was not resurrected, I really don't have any reason to listen to anything Gregory said.

E.g., "Moses's holding his hands aloft signifies the contemplation of the Law with lofty insights; his letting them hang to earth signifies the mean and lowly literal exposition and observance of the Law."

How does Gregory know this? And what good is the Law at all, if God didn't literally hand it to Moses? We have to agree on that much, don't we?

> It also seems as though you primarily determine the value of interpretive methods by their epistemic certainty above any other reason. Is that a fair characterization?

If I understand you, that sounds reasonably fair. I believe the Bible is important because it reveals the mind of God, not because it allows man to mix his subjective thoughts and sentiments with it and contrive "lofty insights." I think if God inspired it, it already contains plenty of lofty insights.

From your article:

> Looked at this way, the process of extracting from the history a rule that Moses lived by, even something as simple as "trust in God", makes the history more distant to its practical application and involves a greater process of abstraction than does living the history by analogizing one's own life to that of Moses.

You say over and over again that the metaphorical interpretation has more "practical advantage" than the literal one, but it's hard for me to see how that is. What you dismiss as a "simple trust in God" is in fact a practical rule for living. However, it's hard for me, on a practical basis, to know when, e.g., I am metaphorically slaying Amalekites in my own life, or being metaphorically raised by a daughter of Pharoah. Those are fairly abstract concepts, but 'trust in God' is as practical as it gets.

Can we agree on this much? *Some* of the Bible has to be literally true, or those no reason for any of this. As Paul said, if Jesus was not in fact resurrected, we of all people are the most to be pitied -- we have, in other words, staked the entire farm on a lie.

And no, I don't see how any metaphorical interpretation of the Passion and the Resurrection can possibly mean something greater than what it tells us literally, that He is Lord.

I don't rate the value of an interpretation by its loftiness. I don't think the Bible was written just for lofty-minded people.

Thomas said...

Thank you.

Rather than thinking about how broadly a Scriptural maxim can be incorporated into life (which has its own importance, of course), I was talking about how much of Scripture, proportionally, may be practiced.

In Gregory's case, I would argue that his figurative reading comes out of his belief that the whole of Scripture (or at least the lives of the great OT leaders) ought to be practiced, not just principles that might be abstracted from their life. His reading does not come out of abstract concerns or the view that Scripture is not valuable, but the reverse: he holds that more of Scripture can be practiced than just the maxims found within it, that the lives of the saints can be lived in every detail through analogy, and that -- to at least some degree -- practice has an importance over mere reflection.

Given this emphasis, his interpretation is hardly high-flown or abstract; it is practicable and concrete.

Put succinctly: by giving precedence to a figurative reading of the Old Testament history and Law, Gregory method allows more of Scripture to be practiced than does any purely literal reading.

Thomas said...

As to your concerns about the life of Christ, I would just add that the same problem does not exist in quite the same way in the New Testament: to participate in the life of Christ is to partake in the sacraments established in the New Testaments. Analogy functions here too, alongside and within the practices literally laid out.

Lee said...

> In Gregory's case, I would argue that his figurative reading comes out of his belief that the whole of Scripture (or at least the lives of the great OT leaders) ought to be practiced, not just principles that might be abstracted from their life.

From earlier discussions, I have gathered that Gregory didn't even believe the whole of Scripture is even true. Why would he then want to practice it in his own life at any level?

> His reading does not come out of abstract concerns or the view that Scripture is not valuable, but the reverse: he holds that more of Scripture can be practiced than just the maxims found within it, that the lives of the saints can be lived in every detail through analogy, and that -- to at least some degree -- practice has an importance over mere reflection.

But doesn't that depend on what is being practiced? I asked earlier if there is a template to determine whether an analogy is a good one or not. Does *any* analogy drawn from scripture reveal the mind of God? If not, what do we measure it by? The scriptures are inspired of God. Are Gregory's analogies inspired of God, too?

> Given this emphasis, his interpretation is hardly high-flown or abstract; it is practicable and concrete.

So you say.

> Put succinctly: by giving precedence to a figurative reading of the Old Testament history and Law, Gregory method allows more of Scripture to be practiced than does any purely literal reading.

Allows more of scripture to be practiced? Perhaps. More of it to be practiced correctly? How do you know?

Lee said...

> As to your concerns about the life of Christ, I would just add that the same problem does not exist in quite the same way in the New Testament: to participate in the life of Christ is to partake in the sacraments established in the New Testaments. Analogy functions here too, alongside and within the practices literally laid out.

So then, what I'm hearing an assumption that the New Testament is factually true as well as a rich source for analogy, but that we cannot extend the same assumption to the Old Testament. Is that fair?

Thomas said...

Remember the purpose of my post, and note that your concerns are comparatively abstract, while St. Gregory's are, in this instance, much more practical. Your hermeneutic, it seems to me, seems to give a place to epistemic certainty above all else (and what is more abstract than that?), while Gregory is concerned with truth as it is lived in practice, and known not only through a process of deducing truths from the Bible, but living out as much of the Bible as possible (though he gives at least an equal place to contemplation). My point in this post was simply that Gregory's hermeneutic derives from highly practical concerns rather than highly abstract concerns; as far as I can tell, that point stands--I don't think you're really disagreeing with it.

Whether or not the specific practices St. Gregory advocates in the life of Moses are true is a matter either to be discovered by reading him directly or for a more in depth post than this one. And I agree with you, it is an important question, one that deserves a lengthier examination.

Lee said...

> Remember the purpose of my post, and note that your concerns are comparatively abstract, while St. Gregory's are, in this instance, much more practical.

Sorry, I don't see it.

> Your hermeneutic, it seems to me, seems to give a place to epistemic certainty above all else (and what is more abstract than that?)...

How else would we expect the inspired word of God to be?

I'm sorry, Thomas, you've completely lost me. I have no idea how to live like I was fighting the Amalekites daily, or being raised by Pharoah's daughter. No idea what that means. It doesn't sound concrete to me at all. But I do have some idea, or so I fervently hope, how to live according to God's will. You say my idea is more abstract -- I don't see it.

>...while Gregory is concerned with truth as it is lived in practice, and known not only through a process of deducing truths from the Bible, but living out as much of the Bible as possible (though he gives at least an equal place to contemplation).

Sorry, I just don't see it. I don't see what's low about deducing truths from the Bible, and I don't see how "living out the Bible" is anything but abstract. And you still haven't explained how, when taking this abstraction to the Bible, you can be sure you're doing it right.

Jesus said to be like Him. Did He ever interpret the Old Testament like this?

> My point in this post was simply that Gregory's hermeneutic derives from highly practical concerns rather than highly abstract concerns; as far as I can tell, that point stands--I don't think you're really disagreeing with it.

I don't see Gregory, as he has been presented here, as a practical man. I see him, rather, as someone who thinks it's okay to mix his imagination with the scriptures and live by the results.

For all I know, he's right. I just don't see it, and I don't see anyone else in the Bible doing things like that. For me, Gregory is not an authoritative voice. He was probably a very good man, and very learned, and had a lot of good and interesting things to say. But his utterances and writings, so far as I know, were not inspired of God.

Thomas said...

That someone as committed as yourself to a fundamentalist hermeneutic (I don't mean that in a pejorative way) couldn't even conceive of how one might live out, say, the life of Moses through practice was my point, and clearly we agree there.

However, I would not want to be mistaken for conveying the notion that to understand Gregory on this point requires great intellectual exertion. This certainly is the case in some of his theological anthropology or Trinitarian theology, where one must have prior training and must exert a lot of mental energy to follow him, but this is not the case with the issue here.

What is keeping you from understanding is not any lack of intellectual capacity, but a very different starting point, a readily identifiable kind of rationalism that divides theory from practice, demands a beginning from an absolutely certain epistemological foundation from which one can proceed deductively, and thinks of truth as primarily consisting of the correspondence of words with states in reality (as is clear from your flatly false statement that Gregory does not believe the Bible is true).

Although none of this means your rationalistic framework is wrong (that's an argument for another day), it certainly is quite modern and cannot be found either in Patristic writers, apostolic writers, or the authors of the Old Testament. The historical novelty of the idea of positive, certain ground, which as a historical matter originates in the Enlightenment, ought at least to advise caution in imposing it on pre-enlightenment texts.

In any case, to summarize Gregory's position here: a truth that can be both lived out by the practices of the body and reflected on by the mind is superior to a truth that can be reflected on but not lived out. The latter is more abstract than the former, because it stands farther from concrete practice. And, therefore, a hermeneutic method that reveals truths that can be lived is superior to a more abstract hermeneutic that tends to reveal more the truths that belong solely to the mind.