Monday, August 04, 2008

"History does not belong to us, we belong to it"

I have been on something of a reading-jag of late. First, there was Patrick J. Buchanan's Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, a ripping good read. You don't have to agree with Pat on everything--I don't, necessarily--to realize that here is a book of significance, one that may well stand the test of time. Tough on Churchill and other Western leaders of the 20th century, Buchanan makes a strong case against the folly of nations which commit to defend other nations, when they are ill-equipped to do so. More than a historical review, its lessons are as current as today's newspaper headlines. Then I picked up Flannery O'Connor: A Proper Scaring, a series of essays by Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner. I will devour anything by, or about O'Connor. One quote that stayed with me was this: She identified "conversion," that is, a "character's changing," as the only real subject of good literature. All of her stories--full of the grotesque and monstrous--concern this very thing, the often violent experience of grace. After that, I read Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman. Percy was one of those writers that I have always intended to read, but have only now done so. And I'm certainly glad I did. Like O'Connor, he was Southern, Catholic and full of grace.

Finally, there is Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology by Andrew Louth, a noted Orthodox scholar. I spent considerable time with this book--slowly reading, re-reading, underlining. In short, this is an amazing little book. Its lessons are ones that I am trying to incorporate into my thinking. For I live in a region where the essentiality of tradition in religion is largely dismissed, unless of course it is the "tradition" of sola scriptura. Not only that, but I live in a country that believes its foreign policy is based on objective and self-evident truths, rather than merely reflecting our own history and preconceptions. Louth examines the concept and misconceptions of "tradition," the role our preconceptions play in historical interpretation and biblical exegesis, as well as the "lot bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment."

His is a deep, rich little book and I heartily recommend it. I have copied a few of the passages I found especially insightful, below.

What is important for an understanding of the condition of modern theology, though, is an awareness of how much it owes to these currents of thought and their culmination in the Enlightenment. For since then the mainstream of theology has been swept along by the currents of the day, and has, in a fairly direct way, reflected contemporary cultural preoccupations. (p. 6)

The historical-critical method is a way of explaining away what does not fit within a fairly narrowly defined, rationalistic enterprise. As we have seen, it was first used to explain away miracles. Generalized by the Romantics, it explains away the past altogether. Nothing like traditional Christianity can survive in such an environment. (p. 16)

A prejudice against prejudices is an attempt, which was the aim of the Enlightenment, to deprive tradition of its power. Freed from tradition and the prejudices that it bears, the individual can understand the past 'objectively.' not, rather, all human existence, even the freest, limited and qualified in various ways?...'In fact,' as Gadamer puts it, 'history does not belong to us, we belong to it. Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, the society and the state in which we live...The self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgements, constitute the historical reality of his being.' (p. 33)

....a truer theory of interpretation, which does not seek to elide the historical reality of the one seeking understanding, sets the interpreter himself within tradition....Understanding is an engagement with tradition, not an attempt to escape it. (p. 33)

...tradition is the context in which one can be free, it is not something that constrains us and prevents us from being free. (p. 35)

There is no longer any need to try and forget our preconceptions or prejudices when we seek to understand something written int eh past (or indeed someone who lived in the past): 'all that is asked is that we remain open to the meaning of the other person or text...' (p. 35)

Man acknowledges nothing without presuppositions, even nothingness itself presupposes fullness of being, not vice versa. (p. 35)

...our situation is something in which we are inextricably bound up; we cannot jump out of our historical skins and gain objective knowledge of the situation in which we are. (p. 36)

If we accept the implications of this...that this engagement with the past is not simply a process whereby we understand the past, but equally a process of self-discovery which can never be complete...we can begin to see what is involved in any process of understanding within the humanities. It is a process of revising our preconceptions, not seeking to escape from them. It is a growing into what we learn from tradition. The movement in the process is a movement of undeception: as a result of experience and growing understanding we see that we have been deceived and so are freed from deception. It is thus a growth in truth, and a growth in openness towards new experiences. (p.37)

'...the experienced person proves to be...someone who is radically undogmatic; who, because of the many experiences he has had and the knowledge he has drawn from them is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them. The dialectic of experience has its own fulfilment not in definitive knowledge, but in that openness to experience which is encouraged by experience itself.' (Gadamer) this growth in experience is not primarily an increase in knowledge of this or that situation, but rather an escape from what had deceived us and held us captive. It is learning by suffering, suffering the process of undeception, which is usually painful. (p. 37)

'...what a man has to bear through suffering is not this or that particular thing, but the knowledge of the limitations of humanity, of the absoluteness of the barrier which separates him from the divine....The truly experienced man is one who is aware of this, who knows that he is master neither of time nor of the future.' (Gadamer) Understanding is, then, an exploration of the dimensions of human finitude. (p. 37)

"A person who imagines that he is free of prejudices, basing his knowledge on the objectivity of his procedures and denying that he is himself influenced by historical circumstances, experiences the power of the prejudices that unconsciously dominate him....A person who does not accept that he is dominated by prejudices will fail to see what is shown by their light. (Gadamer) (p. 43)

The air is thick with bastard traditions which carry us captive unawares while we seem to ourselves to be exercising our freedom and our instinct for truth. the traditions of the hour of the age are as indubitably external to us, and as little founded of necessity on freshly perceived truth, as any traditions of the past. the danger of them lies in their disguise. the single negative fact that they make war on some confessed tradition prevents us from discovering that they too draw their force no less from an authority, until it is too late and we have lost or damaged that power of independent vision which is but braced and harmonized by a known and honoured tradition. (Hort) (p. 56)

The idea that theology must work within the alleged heritage of the Enlightenment now looks much less compelling....The way of much theology since the seen to be based on assumptions about how we come to knowledge that are being rendered increasing incredible and naive. (p. 65-66)

For it is not a matter of solving a mystery, but of participating in it. (p. 69)

...the main concern of theology is not so much to elucidate anything, as to prevent us, the Church, from dissolving the mystery that lies at the heart of the faith, dissolving it, or missing it altogether, by failing truly to engage with it. (p. 71)

For the central truth, or mystery, of the Christian faith is primarily not a matter of words, and therefore ultimately of ideas or concepts, but a matter of fact, or reality....words, even his words, are secondary to the reality of what he accomplished. To be a Christian is not simply to believe something, to learn something, but to be something, to experience something. The role of the Church, then, is not simply as the contingent vehicle--in history--of the Christian message, but as the community, through belonging to which we come into touch with the Christian mystery. (p. 74)

...tradition is not something we make up, but something we accept. (p. 85)

...ultimately the tradition of the Church is the Spirit, that what is passed on from age to age in the bosom of the Church is the Spirit, making us sons in the Son, enabling us to call on the Father, and thus share in the communion of the Trinity. (p. 88)

To hear Jesus, and not just his words, we have to stand within the tradition of the Church; we have to put our trust in those to whom our Lord entrusted his mission, his sending. Part of the stillness that is needed for us to hear the words of Jesus is a sense of presence, and it is this that tradition conveys. We become Christians by becoming members of the Church, by trusting our forefathers in the the faith. If we cannot trust the Church to have understood Jesus, then we have lost Jesus: and the resources of modern scholarship will not help us to find him. (p. 93)

The mystery of faith is not ultimately something that invites our questioning, but something that questions us. (p. 95)

...the principle of sola scriptura suggests that the truth of the Christian religion is contained in Scripture, and that the work of the theologian and exegete is to extract this truth by rightly interpreting Scripture....It is curious to realize how this whole approach...has been both scuppered and reinforced by the growth of the method of historical criticism. (p. 99)

The presuppositions that lies behind all this--a presupposition either defended (more or less desperately) or finally relinquished --is the principle of sola scriptura, understood as meaning that Scripture is a quarry from which we can extract the truth of God's revelation: that allied to the more recent notion that the tool to use in extracting meaning from literary texts is the method of historical criticism. We have an alliance between the Reformation and the Enlightenment: not something that inspires confidence....The principle of sola scriptura actually leads one away from the traditional devotion to Scripture as the Word of God which we find par excellence in the Fathers. Scripture is being understood as an arsenal and not a treasury. (p. 101)

Christianity is not, properly speaking, a 'religion of the Book': it is a religion of the word (Parole)--but not uniquely nor principally of the word in written form. It is a religion of the Word (Verbe)--'not of a word, written and mute, but of a Word living and incarnate.' (Lubac) (p. 101)

...tradition is that by which we receive Scripture and the context within which we interpret it. What unites us with the writers of the Scriptures is the life of the Church from their day to ours. It was in the life of the Church that the Scriptures emerged, but in the Church that they were recognized as Scripture, and in the Church that they were recognized as Scripture, as in the Church that they are read as Scripture--as opposed to being read as ancient Hebrew literature and the writings of one of the new religions that infested the world of late Roman Hellenism. (p. 107)


Ranger said...

"Scripture is being understood as an arsenal and not a treasury." To true, to true.
You have helped me pick my next read, thanks. Another little book with a lot in it is "The Way of The Ascetic" by Tito Colliander.
I took a trip down to the Texas Panhandle and passed by a church called something like "Ancient Paths Primitive Baptist Church" I wondered if you would have any insight into that.
THanks for your blog.

John said...


I have the Colliander book, but have only read parts of it. I will definitely revisit on your recommendation.

Ancient Paths Primitive Baptist Church, huh? To me, that sounds more Church of Christ than Primitive Baptist. This is a little unusual, as for both groups their names were nearly always locative in nature.

Back in my CoC days, a preacher or elder would occasionally get on his soapbox about returning to the "old paths," which probably is what your PB church is driving at. It comes from Jeremiah 6:16:

Thus says the LORD: “ Stand in the ways and see, And ask for the old paths, where the good way is,And walk in it; Then you will find rest for your souls..."

Of course, "old paths" was a code word in the CoC. It usually meant the speaker was on a rant about "innovations" in the church, often having to do with contemporary music, modernism, grace, fellowshipping the Baptists, etc. What was so funny was that the "old paths" they had in mind, usually only harkened back to the way they did things back in the 1920s, or at best, the mid 1800s--which in their minds, was the exact way it was done in the 1st century. To anyone with any historical consciousness, this was laughable on the surface. But a lot of that sort of thing went on.

In recent months, I made a quick trip to NW Arkansas, and later to Jackson, MS and the Delta--all family-related. I've compiled a list of roadside churches to go with your Ancient Paths Primitive Baptist. That will probably be my next post...

Thanks again.

James the Thickheaded said...


Thanks for all the quotes! Guess it kind of drives you to conclude perhaps coming into this Church we are coming into an entirely different engagement with scripture than we've known - neither historical nor narrative, but experimental... putting ourselves into the story here and there, letting the story unfold in our life and not just in our heads. Think Fr. John Romanides had something to say on this... but you probably know that.

Gonna check out ol'Pat's stuff. Never read a Pat book... probably for the reasons you almost suggest. But a contrast between Winnie and Adolph... offers some draw. Thanks for that, too.

Ian said...

As you read and re-read, I read and re-read your post over the last few days; a great deal in there. Thank you; I will have to look for Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology.

As James wrote above, the difference in "engagement" is what first drew me to Orthodoxy, and something I still love -- and yet often struggle with. How much easier to learn from a book [a caricature of "the Western Churches" I know, but it was the way in my churches] than struggle inwardly. And Tradition is indeed freeing and freedom: it sounds paradoxical, but I have found it thus.

Thanks again.

beinganddoing said...

This sounds like my next book! Thanks for the excerpts.


James the Thickheaded said...

Checked out Pat's book at Borders. Read Intro and Conclusion... and seems a good library "borrow" rather than a "read to own". Interesting perspectives... but think I agree with you... that it's... uh... it's... uh Pat, right? The imprint of the axe when he gets to the Bush family... which in different ways I can't say that I disagree with... is well... still grinding away.