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Jun 5, 2018

Other People's Truths

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Eva Brann Small

Eva Brann

St. John's College

Eva Brann, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, is the longest serving tutor at St. John’s College.

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Other People's Truths

Reading Sacred Scripture in Secular Settings

Eva Brann Books

Our country’s three major religions, in order of their entry into time, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are scriptural. To adhere to one of them is to believe its Book, be it the Hebrew Bible (retrospectively in Christian terms, the Old Testament, or the “Covenant,” anciently referred to as ta biblia, “The Books”), the New Testament, or the Qur’an (“Reading”).

My reflections here concern the study only of the Judeo-Christian Bible in a classroom. I am not competent to opine about the study of the Qur’an, though I know that the works of al-Ghazālī, a major Islamic theologian and philosopher, are centered on the same questions about authority that underlie my own much less learned or intense thoughts.

The dual Bible (Old and New Testaments) became available to a select larger public in antiquity in the Latin Vulgate, and, in modernity, it became accessible to an essentially uncontrollable public through the invention of printing, which evoked translation into every vernacular. Thus, it entered “world literature,” the Western canon of “great books,” on a par with them.

Acquaintance with some works of this canon is now an ever less obvious requirement for students in the humanities. Moreover, the mode of reading its constituent books varies widely—from irritatedly reluctant glancings by students who regard the assignment as a jumping-through-hoops imposition to keen, even gimlet-eyed, inspection by professionals with a fancy vocabulary, or from mildly appreciative engagement to deeply attentive delight. All the great books must suffer quite supinely being disregarded, assaulted, or embraced; were we to hear them thinking, we might hear a murmur: “We asked for it when we assumed that stature of publications.”

Sacred scripture is less permissive than other great books, less tolerant of being ranged among literary works as “world literature”—of being read “as literature.” By being forced into this company, these Books know themselves to be neutralized, castrated, cut down to size, adulterated—housebroken, so to speak. What is being done here, and why does it want doing?

So first, what does it mean to read a book “as literature”? For something to be taken as something, it seems to be a minimal condition that it should be in some aspects like that something. So the Bible must be in some aspect like literature.

What is literature? It has become a term of unmeaning vastness that includes not only deliberate fictions and personal poetry but also commentary and factual explanatory writings, like the technical disclosures that nowadays accompany one’s bottle of pills—indeed, anything composed of letters (Latin, littera).

But in the humanities faculty of a modern university, a work is, so I’ve observed, usually identified as literature by having several features characteristic of humanism. Humanism is the ideological ground, going back to the Renaissance, of the humanities. It is the doctrinal commitment that puts humanity and its values in the place of divinity and its doxology. Thus, the humanistic humanities replace theology, which makes an account of God and humanity’s relation to the divine the central concern. Eventually, the humanities were themselves edged out by the sciences, by the mathematical study of nature.

Consequently, there is a much deplored, though circumstantially encouraged, indifferentism in the educational space. Literature is an “elective,” choice being more than occasionally a matter of practical convenience, passing preference, or mere availability. Accordingly, the academic defense of reading works of quality is flabby, perhaps deliberately banal, and un-deep.

Moreover, criticism is accorded more respect than appreciation. It is a professional pursuit carried on by pedantic practitioners who teach students abstract categories which are hard to regard as anything but diversions, as distractions from really reading. A novel, say, is thus dispersed into its psycho-socio-economic-political background. What was conceived as a mode of universal access and individual authority becomes a form of exclusionary expertise. (It is indicative how often late humanistic terms, such as empowering and giving dignity, intended to recognize natural rights, have instead a tone of bestowal from the powers that be.) Therefore, in the humanities of higher education, certain preconceptions govern the classroom teaching of literature. These are so much taken for granted, so institutionally normalized, as to be rarely overtly acknowledged. With respect to literature, I’ll try to develop them below.

The next question seems to be: what measures will keep the secular institutions of higher education free from sectarian doctrine in the classroom?1 In consequence of this scrupulousness, the category of “scripture as literature” was devised. What is, as far as I can tell, not often sufficiently considered with the students corralled in a classroom is this question: does the eradication of sectarianism—that is, of preaching or teaching sacred doctrines—result in a preconception-free intellectual space? The assumed answer is often in the replacement of belief, the stabilization of the soul, by rationalism, the processes of the reason.2 A feature generally thought to be intrinsic to rationality—I’m not sure it really needs to be assumed—is objectivity. This is a term that took, under the modern emergence of the human subject and its subjectivity as primary, a hundred-eighty degree turn from the medieval usage. Then, subjectum named the concrete reference that “underlies” thought, while objectum was an item merely represented, and so as “lying over against” the mental faculty. The question not sufficiently entertained is whether our going notion of objectivity—the capacity for focusing on the object of inquiry without interference from our late-discovered individual subjectivity—is viable. To me, the antithesis seems misconceived. It should not be a matter of “objective vs. subjective” but of “truth-seeking vs. truth-aversive.” Of course, I’m not implying that professors and their assistants are not perfectly honest people. I think, rather, that they themselves have devised, or have submitted to others’ excogitation of, so sophisticated a conception of truth or its impossibility that unsophisticated undergraduates are not up to it. And indeed, the question “Is it true?” is generally taboo in university classrooms, especially for sacred books.

Next, what consequences follow from the underlying humanism of the curricular humanities, insofar as it requires that the only acknowledged authority be the human author? An author (from Latin auctor, “creator”), in a setting in which the “creativity” of humanity but not of divinity is accepted, is indeed a more reliable creator than a Creator. Indeed, human authors are so cherished that their circumstances acquire a heightened interest that often overshadows the text itself. Moreover, their biography is regarded as annotating their work—and, occasionally, as nullifying it. Hence, even the authors themselves are overridden by their secular, worldly setting, by that tempo-psycho-religio-socio-economic-political complex which is as unmeaning, as devoid of imaginative particularity, as is the term literature. How does it help me and my students to know, as we think out why a terrifyingly resolute woman goes crazy from guilt, while her initially hesitant husband becomes a boldly illusionless tyrant, that their author was born in 1564, that his father was a glover, and that he was suspected of Catholic sympathies (Shakespeare, Macbeth)?

These devices, this importation of scholarly modes into the classroom, has the intention, if only implicit, of erecting a bulwark between the book and the students, partly to protect their “sensitivities,” lest they be “made uncomfortable” (the social sin of our day, albeit one of a teacher’s duties), partly to deliver the teachers themselves from the difficult business of being thoughtful in the world of imagination, of applying the intellect non-lethally to fiction.

Thus, it seems that the “as literature” rubric is compensatory. With sacredness expurgated from the Bible, something both timelessly fine and temporally engrossing about it has to be substituted. And indeed, the King James version is superlatively beautiful in diction, and the biblical narratives are full of down-to-earth human problems.

Let us examine a well-known example from the Bible: Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac, first demanded by God and then effectively interdicted. Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, offers four interpretations of this world-changing event, and they might be called to aid in a secular discussion of Genesis 22. Here, however, is the difficulty: Kierkegaard himself writes as a believer, albeit in the mode of agonized perplexity, so he is not the specific guide for faithless readers—nor would any illuminating exegete be.

Those readers have what I call a “problem of position.” It is the perplexity that non-believers face in according due diligence to works of authors whose relation to the text is simply not within the realm of acceptability for them. I don’t mean differences in interpretation of the text itself—such variations energize the intellect in favor of the book—but disagreement concerning its very origin, the authority due to its author, and the requirements of trust put upon its readers: how to discount the divine origin, annul the credit of the source, and refuse the call to faith—in short, from what possible position to approach sacred scripture, when to read it as a book like any other is a sort of travesty?

To be sure, as an object, the Bibles are not distinguishable—the leather-bound and onion-skinned format of mine is surely a human embellishment—from ordinary works of literature.3 So, whence are we made aware of the claim that scriptures come more directly from the deity than any other knowledgeable writing? Well, they present themselves as reaching us through a direct conduit from God. That intermediary is an angel from heaven’s side, but, on the human side, a prophet, a “speaker-out,” who communicates divine revelations, “unveilings,” to the people, sometimes injunctions of things to do, oftentimes predictions of things to come. Thus, the perplexity is pinpointed in prophecy, whether it proclaims or predicts.

Now, to the point of this attempt at clarification: what is to be done by teachers so as to read sacred scripture with their undergraduate students in a secular setting, without imposition either of dogma on them or deconsecration on the text?4

In institutions, be they sectarian or secular, that have holistically conceived programs of instruction—examples of each are Zaytuna College and St. John’s College—it would be possible to prepare these readings by a careful, text-based discussion of the problem of prophetic authority, as is indeed done at Zaytuna. But certain pedagogic commitments prevent this at my own secular college, St. John’s. We value our students’ innocently immediate relation to books, what might be called their original, we hope indefeasible, naivety. It makes each of the great books a novel adventure, never subject to learned canons of interpretation, though always to be read in the light of personal experience and sometimes with reference to preceding books. Four academic years are a short time to confirm or revise the teachings of our upbringing, and so we decline to spend even a fraction of those thirty-six months on a somewhat dubious intervention between book and reader.

How, then, can we incite in our students a position, or at least an approach—a way that might serve also in the even less leisurely and more professionally led classrooms of the ordinary elective-driven curriculum—to works that present themselves, or have been presented to readers, as sacred?

Here is my suggestion: have recourse to one of our most remarkable capacities. Its terrific power is explained neither by the therapeutic approach of analytic psychology, which regards the human being as essentially in need of a physician, nor by neuroscientific laboratory science, which postulates an explanation of humanity as emerging from matter and its motions. This is our power of at once being and not being in a certain condition. It gives us a way to do justice both to self-avowed fictions and to other people’s truths.

This capability is imagination. It practically defines our inwardness, what used to be called the soul. It can serve that function because it brings into awareness an aspect of inner life that is at once pervasive and inexplicable: internal images. These visions before the inner eye are immaterial shapes. If they image external objects, they leave outside, leave behind, their “reality,” meaning their immattered being, their “thinghood.” If they are internally produced, it is without our having any knowledge of their origin, or of our part in it, and without their shape settling in some graspable material, unless they are externalized by some art, say poetry or painting.5 Though they are without matter, they can be more potent than the material objects that matter to us: the dearly departed loved one whom we summon and who is not embraceable matters maybe more to us than seven billion contemporarily live human bodies.

Imagination, then, is our capacity for harboring entities within that are not what they are, or are what they are not, just as an external image—say, a statue—is rightly said to be, say, a lion, and equally truly not to be a lion. (“I’ll show you my granddaughter,” says a colleague, and, after lots of swiping, produces a lovable kid on the screen of his iPhone.) This capacity empowers us to be what we need to be for the present case: we can be at once heart-whole and soul-divided.

By “heart-whole,” I mean that we feel entirely undriven to give up our deeply lodged and well-thought-out beliefs; by “soul-divided,” I mean that we can faithfully imagine, envision, even enter into others’ worlds, without in the least losing the intellectual ground on which we stand—that we can at once experience along with others imaginatively and still stand apart from situations wholly diverse from our own intellectually—intellect and imagination being different but entangled within the soul.

The same in other words: the capacity called imagination is the power of image-making, of having or producing mental images, of inner perceptions: immaterial scenery, bodiless people, canvasless pictures, soundless songs—which are sometimes even more poignant than embodied tones:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter.
-John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Such images both are, and are not, what they “re-present,” what they make to be “again present”—that is, derivatively, not originally. Our ability to harbor such duplicities within us enables us to be in several conditions at once: to remain, if we wish, wholly unaffected by the Book’s designs on our committed love, and yet to engage the text unreservedly both with the critically appreciative intellect and with the world-representing imagination. Thus, our heart and our apprehending soul are together engaged in reading the Book in a manner as those closest to it might wish.

So, a non-subverting reading of sacred scripture in a secular institution seems to me to demand an assiduous exercise of the imagination: a deliberate, detailed visual realization of the verbal setting, an acute listening to the voices that ring through in these settings, and, finally, the imaginative superposition of these situations on the real, current world they are meant to inform: the application of an old text to a current context. It is also the non-believer’s way of experiencing the world as it looks and feels to someone who sees it in the light of the Word, while the intellect is at work apprehending.

This image-enlivened, intellect-grounded reading is not, as I mean it, empathy—what the Germans call Einfühlung, feeling our way into others’ hearts and souls. I think that we cannot truly enter feelingly into the affects of those who believe as we do not, though we can, if our hearts are large enough, feel in our way along with them, which is called sympathy. Imagining, on the other hand, implies that distance which attaches to vision, since vision is the distance sense, the very opposite of touch. Thus apprehension by images is at once closely regardful and retiringly discreet, a psychically courteous mode of interest, in sync with both heart and thought.

I will end with an anecdote. I once had a fine colleague; he left my college to pursue therapeutic psychology. We had just finished an oral examination on the New Testament of a student who, it turned out, was a fundamentalist. My colleague expressed amazement at the phenomenon of one of ours being of that persuasion. I said, “Maybe he knows something we don’t know.” My friend again looked astonished: “Eva, you can’t mean it!” I thought but didn’t say, “There are more things in heaven and earth”—here, I deviated from Hamlet’s words—“friend Gary, than are thought of in your philosophy.”


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