Sunday, November 15, 2015

Rehabilitating Allegory

This is my fifth post on the book Discerning the Mystery, by Andrew Louth. The first post can be found here.

Allegorical interpretation has a poor (to say the least) reputation in modern theology. And not just a specific, distinctly modern theology, but very nearly all kinds of theology done in the present time. Louth thinks this is primarily because allegory is seen as fundamentally dishonest, or arbitrary—it seems to interpret a text to make it say something it manifestly does not say, something that you instead want it to say. It seems to not only flirt with, but embrace subjectivity in terrible excess, taking the interpreter away from the actual meaning of the text into the realm of arbitrary fancy. The author's intent in writing a text may not be easy to discern, but we are charged to seek after it, not abandon it as allegory seems to do.

Louth has already explained the reasons he finds this kind of reaction to allegory less than convincing. It assumes that the meaning of a text is objective or "unproblematic": whatever the author meant to say when writing it. Within Protestantism, this assumption is strongly correlated with the principle of sola scriptura, which tends to see Scripture as the objective truth of God's revelation to man, who is charged with discerning this truth from it by right interpretation. From this point of view allegory seems to be a way of avoiding this revelation and replacing it with human opinions. More recently added to this is historical criticism in some form as an apparently promising method for the extraction of this objective truth of revelation from the pages of Scripture, a way of "right interpretation" allowing us to carry out the task laid before us by sola scriptura.

Louth considers this approach to Scripture to be contrary to the one found in the Fathers and not "traditional" in any sense. The truth of Christianity is not basically biblical; "the heart of Christianity is the mystery of Christ, and the Scriptures are important as they unfold to us that mystery, not in and for themselves." (102) Likewise historical criticism's quest for the objective "original meaning" in the biblical text is based on false assumptions about what is involved in interpretation and the role of tradition in general, as well as the significance of the divine inspiration of Scripture in particular. It is a transfer into the humanities of a methodology appropriate to the sciences, which Louth considers to be invalid since "the natural order of physical objects and the moral order of intelligent beings are not at all the same. ... The moral order is transparent to us in a way that the natural order is not ... and the medium of that transparency is tradition, tradition formed by language and custom." (105-106)

With all that said, we are ready to understand how the Fathers handled Scripture. The primary modern complaint with allegory, that the text has a single "original meaning" which allegory deftly sidesteps, is undermined; they saw not one by multiple senses of Scripture, a rich depth of meaning, which is explored through the use of allegory. Interpreting is not a matter of reconstructing the original context of the author and placing ourselves in it, but of listening across a historical gulf that is not empty and in need of a bridge, but filled with the tradition which brings the text to me along with the prejudices that help me understand it. "What unites us with the writers of the Scriptures is the life of the Church from their day to ours." (107) The relationship between Church and Scripture is reciprocal; the Bible emerged from the life of the Church, was recognized as Scripture within it, and is read as life-giving Scripture within it.

As an example of how tradition "echoes" Scripture, Louth gives the example of attending a high mass in a medieval French cathedral. (A divine liturgy in an old Orthodox cathedral would arguably work as well) A lot is going on; gestures and movements of the celebrants, chanting and singing of the liturgy, the so-called "smells and bells". There is detail in our surroundings: the architecture, the art (statues in Catholic churches, icons in Orthodox churches, stained glass in both). These different ways of conveying meaning to us can interact in almost an infinity of ways, calling each other to our attention, inviting analogies between each other, interpreting each other. All of this is drawn from the mystery of the Eucharist, and draws us back to it. This, Louth believes, is a sort of image of the way Scripture is revealed to possess a bottomless depth, a miras profunditas, of richness in the Church's tradition. This richness is the unfolding of or introduction to the great mysteries at its heart. It is this richness, this depth, which makes allegory with its recognition of inexhaustibly multiple senses and meanings of Scripture appropriate.

Louth pauses to ask: does not this focus on depth or complexity make the Scripture and its message too difficult, like a puzzle, into something like the hidden knowledge of the gnostics? Drawing from George Steiner, he considers how there are different kinds of difficulty. The two most relevant ones are "contingent" difficulty arising from lack of knowledge, and "ontological" difficulty, which is not easily resolved (if at all) demands the questioning and reorientation of our priorities and assumptions. This corresponds closely with Marcel's distinction between problem and mystery.

Seen this way, allegory is not a method for obfuscation since it is not meant to solve contingent difficulties (historical criticism has plenty to offer here); rather, it is a way of holding before us the mystery which constitutes the ontological difficulty of the Scriptures—"a difficulty, a mystery, which challenges us to revise our understanding of what might be meant by meaning ... which calls on us for a response of metanoia, change of mental perspective, repentance." (111) The difficulty in Scripture arises from its depth, not from any mistake or lack of clarity, from "not being sufficiently at home in the tradition, not having an unerring instinct as to what resonates and what merely makes a noise." (112) Thus the traditional recognition of the multiple senses of scripture and the use of allegory is a response to the miras profunditas of Scripture seen as witness of the mystery of Christ. Louth denies, as others have claimed, that allegory is a way of solving contingent interpretive problems or glossing over difficult parts of the biblical text. Origen in particular was accused of doing this, but Louth believes that he was really looking for beauty and harmony behind apparently disjointed and disorderly (yet inspired) texts.

He moves on to how allegory actually operates. When we think of the doctrine that Scripture has multiple senses (often three or four: literal, moral, allegorical, and maybe anagogical), it's easy to think that the nonliteral senses are alternate ways of using Scripture that ignore the literal sense, and therefore seem arbitrary and frivolous. Against this, Louth says we should think of it not just as a list of senses, but as an order or movement, a recurring pattern: from history to allegory, old to new, shadow to reality, letter to spirit, fact to significance, promise to fulfillment in Christ. The literal sense helps us discern the mysteries at work in the text; the allegorical sense attempts to understand them. This pattern is still somewhat extant in some parts of Protestantism, though it is more commonly called typology. Ironically, typological interpretation was one of the things in the evangelical tradition that used to cause me doubt and confusion; this was probably because its ancient grounding in patristic theology clashed with the much more modern way in which I was used to reading Scripture.

To warn against the excesses of allegory (which are rightly deplored), Louth notes the distinction between allegoria facti and allegoria verbi. The latter, he argues, is concerned purely with the words of the text rather than the reality they speak of and "is only justified as a kind of embroidery of allegory of fact, not as a freely created, merely literary conceit." (119) As an example of bad allegorical wordplay he refers to the interpretation of the "two swords" in Luke 22:38 (which Jesus says are "enough") as justifying the division of ecclesiastical power wielded by the Pope and temporal power wielded by kings and rulers (or, as in Unam Sanctum, the subordination of all earthly authorities to the spiritual authority of the bishop of Rome). "This word-play", he says, "has no basis in any allegoria facti," in other words is not in any way a movement from the literal meaning of the text, and "is in no way an attempt to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of Christ." A better example of the two kinds of allegory working together positively is the parallels frequently drawn between the xylon or lignum (both words referring to wood in general, a tree, or something made out of wood) by which Adam and Eve fell and that by which Christ, the second Adam, redeemed their fall. (I wish this wordplay transferred better to English; I still don't appreciate hymns calling the cross a "tree")

This movement from fact to significance, faith to understanding, is not merely intellectual, but of realizing our participation in the mystery of Christ with our whole selves. Tradition does not merely disclose to us a normative way of interpreting Scripture; the dogmatic fruits of interpreting reveal to us the mystery of Christ, a mystery which is not merely timeless but eternally present, a mystery which draws us into itself, invites our response that it might be fulfilled in us. Thus, Louth argues, allegory is hardly arbitrary because it is "firmly related to the mystery of Christ." (121) It is a way of relating the whole of Scripture to that mystery, of glimpsing a single vision out of all the images and events in the Bible.

The allegorical way of understanding especially comes into its own in the liturgy. For it is in the liturgy first and foremost that the central mystery of Christ is celebrated and displayed. The readings from Scripture and the rhythm of the liturgical year are meant to draw out different aspects of this mystery for us to perceive. As an example, Louth describes how the liturgy celebrates the baptism of the Lord. This event is considered to be a revelation of the Trinity (the Father as a voice from heaven, the Son being baptized, and the Spirit descending from heaven as a dove). The imagery of the Spirit as a dove is expounded on, and applied to how we should be: innocent, gentle, and responding with a soaring desire to see God. As the heavens were opened at the baptism, so through Christ the heavens are opened to us. All of these themes are picked up not just at the festal liturgy for the baptism of Christ (Theophany), but also in the baptismal liturgy, in which we are considered to reenact the events of Christ's. The allegorical interpretation of the scriptural text and the liturgy both serve as "echo chambers" that help us to see the resonances of the significance of this event in the life of Christ.

In closing, Louth explains that the apparent complexity of allegorical interpretation is meant to lead us to a simple message: love. Just as "the Scriptures tell the story of God's way of leading men back into unity, and the way has to be from the fragment to the unified" (130), so allegory helps us to see Scripture as a kaleidoscope, fragmented but looking forward to the unity and simplicity of the One who restores all things. Allegory not only helps us discern this pattern, but also to restore within ourselves this lost unity and simplicity, coming once again to love. "The heart of Scripture is the end"—that is, the goal—"of Scripture: the love of God in Christ calling us to respond to that love." (131)

This chapter was a really helpful explanation of allegorical interpretation: the rationale behind it, dispelling many myths I've grown up with, and how it functions. Louth's idea of a movement from history to significance, from literal to allegorical sense, echoes the intuition I had already been developing about allegory: allegorical interpretation must grow out of the literal sense, be rooted in it, not ignore it to make some other point reflecting extraneous biases (like the "two swords" theory). Thus there is a place in Orthodox hermeneutics for Bible/historical scholarship; for all the value of the allegorical interpretation of the Fathers, there is still plenty to learn about the literal, historical meaning of the text.

Louth's reflections on sola scriptura and the need to allow Scripture to bring us to the mystery of Christ, within tradition, put a damper on the idea of simply expecting people to encounter Christ in the pages of Scripture with no context. Of course this does happen, and God can work this way, but Louth helps explain why plenty of people find nothing in the Bible except things to deride or scorn. The context in which the Bible is read is important—modern western culture, at least, is deeply at odds with the mind of the Church, and people formed by it (unless they are already influenced by Christianity somehow) will more than likely misunderstand Scripture when reading on their own. It may even do more harm than good. People may build up a deep resistance to Christian claims because of their perception that their God is a violent tyrant, or that Jesus was merely a moral teacher worthy of respect but not worship. Such misconceptions, which keep people from discerning the mystery to which the Bible witnesses, are inevitable if we claim that our faith is defined by the biblical text and that this text is clear enough that anyone can understand (it also doesn't help that some who call themselves Christians actively teach these things, and tend to get significant media exposure). It is much more accurate to say Orthodox believe that the Bible is the "book of the Church" than that they are "people of the book".

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