Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Mystical Theology, Reading the Bible, and Critical Theory

This reflection has its origin in a conversation and argument Brian Merritt and I had a couple of weeks ago on Twitter. At one point in that he asked: How does a mystical experience override a rational interpretation, or something like that. However Brian actually said it, his quesiton contrasts what he correctly saw as my making a mystical theological point in answer to his critical, perhaps historical critical analysis of the text. In some sense this points to the question of how does one read Scripture as the Word of God after taking up critical methods?

I accept and have been trained in higher and lower criticism of Scripture. I have never been taught to distrust or disbelieve higher and historical criticism of Scripture, though for a time I did attend a church that found my use of higher criticism in my Religious Studies classes at university to be suspect. I mention this because what I say could be misunderstood as a critique of higher criticism of Scriptures, rather it simply is meant to allow that criticism of Scripture is itself a limited enterprise that may not be necessary for interpreting Scripture as the Word of God.

Critical methods and tools for interpreting and reading scripture, tend to dissect, seek to confirm authorial claims, and give the location of a text in an historical context. All of this is useful, but also has its limits. Critical methods as often as not need to in some way reconstruct what lies behind the text: the author, community, and/or historical milieu. The limit here is that the author, community, and historical milieu are not given by the text but must be reconstructed by analysis and synthesis that is then also the invention of the scholar who undertakes the analysis. There are various forms of criticism seeking to admit or address this, but they all point to the limits of criticism and an analysed text. To some degree one can argue that following along these lines of thinking and criticism we are left with that all texts tend to unravel and fail to maintain cohesion under extensive critique and analysis. Some even argue that for there to be meaning there is no and can be no stable unity of unchanging meaning within texts, or even any form of human communication.

In the end we can't get beyond the texts of Scripture. We have the texts, in their uncertainty, ambiguity, and at times even offensive plurality. From the perspective of a mystical reading of the Scriptures there is no need to get behind the text to encounter the word of God in the Scriptures . The word of God is not in the intention or theology of Paul or Moses, or Isaiah, but in the texts of Scripture we have that are theirs or is attributed to them. The word of God in the gospels and the Christ we are to follow and worship is not in historical reconstructions and inventions of scholars but in the four Gospels themselves as we have them. The word of God is not found in tracing out the various theological communities that may or may not have existed in the 1st century Church. Granted I may have a broader or greater understanding of the possible meanings of the human words of these texts that may give me more clues as to what God has said, but these things don't bring me into encounter with the Word of God in the Scriptures.

The reason for this is that Word of God is not the texts, the words on the page, but ultimately God, the Second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. A mystical reading of Scripture seeks to hear and see Christ in the Scriptures. This means that in contrast to the critical reading of Scripture mystical reading seeks to read towards encounter before comprehension or understanding. The purpose of the scriptures is not to tell us about the theology of the prophets or of ancient Israel, nor is it to tell us about the theology of the first followers of Christ in the first century. The purpose of the Scriptures is for hearing and encountering the living God.

I don't intend by saying this to mean that critical methods of interpretation and reading have no place in the mystical reading of Scripture, only to say that critical readings of scripture can't and wont give us the encounter with God in the and through the text. There is in fact no technique or method that can ensure this, except waiting upon God and seeking to hear the text in the presence of the people of God. This mystical approach is not an individualistic approach and requires faith in those who have gone before and handed onto us these texts. I have no way of proving that the word of God is to be found in these texts and these texts alone, what I do have is the witness of those who have passed these on and of these texts themselves to be the Word of God.

One may find these texts wanting, and chose to look elsewhere and not take the witness as true, but the critical methods will not tell you whether or not the witness about these texts is true. The critical methods often enrich my reading open me up to various plays of meaning that can if approached correctly be part of the encounter of the Word of God in Scripture. In the end what I found helpful in the critical methods of interpretation was that through reading Derrida I discovered an otherness in meaning, and textuality, and language that could not be tamed and held, that escaped analysis. Through this experience of the limits of the critical methods I returned to what I had always known about the Scriptures, that in them is life, for they are God breathed and they live by the power of the Spirit, and I learned again after engaging in higher criticism to be open to an encounter with Christ in the text even when difference between meanings and intentions seemed irreconcilable in human terms. The mystical overrides the rational by accepting the limits of reason and human meaning creation.
(PS. this post by J. R. Daniel Kirk says something simlilar or at least parralel, I think)