The Clay Testament: IV
The Christian Duration:
Gnosis, Writing, God, the "World"
IV.1. Knowledge: what does the word properly mean? There are ways of understanding the word that abuse it terribly, that force the word's and the world's fall further than one could previously have imagined. And these ways are now in the mainstream--they have long been so.
Many will immediately resist this writing because of what they take to be "knowledge." They will insist that any writing about our relations with God must be a kind of hocus pocus about which we should all know better. "God is dead," they echo. "We live in the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages."
I do not agree that our century knows better. I would insist we know worse. As 20th century men and women, we do know "more," in a way, but to know more, for us, is to know worse. The manner in which we know is not better. It is, for many, no longer knowledge.
IV.2. Being, grace, knowledge--the three supreme gifts. Can any of them be given without the others also being given in some degree?
IV.3. Revelation is never complete.
IV.4. History was broken with the coming of Christ. Not just historiography, but history itself: history in its sense as referring to the possibilities and exigencies of our existence.
The coming of Christ, the realization of the meaning of this coming, have broken history. But the realization of the meaning of Christ is not complete: it goes on continuously, it goes on yet. Our lives, to the extent that we follow Christ, continue to fulfill some part of this realization.
If we are thinking aright, we recognize that "history broken" is not a closed book, but rather a deed performed by God and then given over into our hands to realize. To realize here is first to know, then to make actual our part of knowledge in the fallen world. Our knowledge and faith is made actual both through our own creative works and through what we let wither away as being of the outside, as being inessential to the work we recognize.
IV.5. The question of the Fall. It is for me a question of a territory in which God's power is not in full effect, in which this power is present rather as potential, and in which, further, there is another power present. Humanity's turn away from God, figured in the story of the Garden, is always a turn toward another.
I do not believe that Creation is the work of a demiurge, but neither do I believe the Creation is entirely predestined by a God whose being is all of being. No, there is something else, an Other besides God's work, an Other that, at least as regards this territory the earth, may end up undermining this work through the weight of its resistance, the tenacity of its darkness. It is a question for me--and I do think of it in rather Manichaean terms--of a battle for the world and the souls of men. I would not, however, say with the Gnostics that the souls of men are to escape this territory, leaving it to fall into nothing. No, the material realm, this earth or universe which is the territory of God's work, is not to be abandoned in a movement of quietistic pessimism; it is not to be abandoned as garbage. This is not the goal of the battle we are in. But neither is the universe entirely good. There is a worm at the core of creation, a worm that was present at the very beginning.
The traditional doctrines are powerfully formulated as regards these questions. Nonetheless, they are not as compelling as a truth approached, among others, by the Gnostics. The Gnostics, however, have obscured the truth as well.
The truth is neither with certain of the Kabbalists who insist that God needs our constructive attention to maintain his being, nor is it with the Calvinists who insist that our being and our salvation are eternally predetermined by God.
IV.6. If we assert God's omnipotence, then we might suppose that God's full and present power was withdrawn from our territory as a result of God's own will, and that this withdrawal came upon the act of creating the man of free will. This withdrawal, in some respect, would then be simultaneous with the coming into being of the man of free will.
In other words, God's omnipotence is limited by his own will: it is an omnipotence that doesn't assert itself as the absolute director of events in the world.
This is one old solution to the problem, admittedly not a very satisfactory one. Another is to suppose that God is not omnipotent, that the world is truly a battlefield between God and some other force or forces. A third solution is that offered by the Gnostics: namely, that the world was created not by the true God, but by a deficient being such as Yaldabaoth. A fourth solution, perhaps the most sophisticated, is offered by process theology.
In any event, the assertion that "the Lord works in mysterious ways"--meant to imply that the horrors of history are all somehow part of a loving God's plan--this is unacceptable if only because it refuses to pose the question.
IV.7. The first verses of Genesis suggest that God did not create the universe out of nothing. Rather the universe arose obliquely on that site where God's word met the Abyss. It is in this sense that we call God the ground of being. We may call him, to be clearer, the ground of true being.
An Other was present as the universe arose, an Other that was part of the Abyss. This Other's presence corrupted the universe to its core, a corruption reaching even the heart of men. This corruption we call the Fall, and it inaugurated humanity's fallen history.
Our fallen history led eventually to God's second act of creation, his second act of love, namely the sending of the Christ. It is this second act of creation in which we now live, and in which we place our highest hope, for with the sending of the Christ we are given the possibility, through the Spirit, of defeating that which had corrupted the first creation.
To the extent that the message of the Christ, called the Word made Flesh, touches our souls and ignites them, to this extent can we be saved. It is here both a question of our willingness to receive this gift of the Word, and to bring it to its fruition.
The future of the world is thus not entirely in God's hands. Rather the world is an embattled territory, neither abandoned by God, nor ruled by God, but at once fallen and under the dispensation of a potentially saving grace. Our words and actions are elements in a cosmic battle not only for our souls, but for the universe. This should impress upon anyone who can recognize it the true meaning of the phrase "the dignity of man." We here in the fallen world are called to complete some part of God's creation. We are nothing less than this.
IV.8. Luther's compelling thought that he was "nothing" in relation to the grandeur of God. Accepting such a thought also means that God's redeeming love is given to nothing. And what does accepting that mean?
Under such a theological dispensation, God's love for man is beyond mystery: it is a love for nothingness. God's love for man is comprehensible only if man in his own right has being, and if man's soul, in its ground, has something of God's essence in it. To say this is not to say that men are gods or that men can become gods. It is only to say that there is something of God in us, something eternal and indestructible, something at the root of us that means, first, that we exist somehow "in God's image," and, second, that we are somehow worthy of God's love.
IV. 9. A, B, C, D, . . . . Letters were invented so that we might be able to converse even with the absent. Thus the tradition has it. Letters are signs of sounds, these sounds being, in turn, signs of things we think. Our thinking--that we do think--is a sign of our being created in God's image. It is our thinking more than anything about our outward appearance, our shape, that is suggested by the biblical lines: "Let us create man in our own image."
Yet our thinking and the things we think are shot through everywhere by the marks of the Fall, and these marks seem to be there also in our language, that is to say there already in the very medium of our thought. So that some have been led to wonder if the signs themselves were not carrying the burden of the Fall: the signs themselves dragging the soul into the body of a fallen language and thus molding its thought as a fallen thought. Here the tradition reverses itself, and we may say that our thinking becomes the sign of sounds that we make, or rather the sign of the particular sounds our parents made, and their parents before them, going back to the moment when our language became corrupted. (In turn, the sounds that the generations of men have made can be understood merely as would-be signs of the primal letters, which letters we cannot know. Also, the alphabets in which we write cannot approach that originary divine alphabet, although our human creation of alphabets suggests our longing to do so.)
That thought and language are shot through with the marks of the Fall means also that the language of revelation is itself shot through. The text of the Bible does not escape the vagaries of (fallen) language, (fallen) thought. The Renaissance humanists' supposition that Hebrew was somehow "the language of God"--that one would hear "God's own words" if one could properly read aloud the Hebrew text of Isaiah--this notion was obviously mistaken. And any notion similar to the Muslim teaching, which holds that the Koran is not just a divinely inspired text but is itself an attribute of God, eternal and uncreated, is even further from the truth.
The texts of revelation, the texts of the Bible, are composite: they give the truths of the divine as these truths have been embodied in language. These truths, embodied in language, seem to us both clear and somehow mysterious: they call out for interpretation. But our interpretation, while certainly uncovering something of the divine, will itself be subject to the fallenness of language. One might say it is even more so subject. Thus it is that the interpreter should never hope to present descriptively and clearly what scripture itself could only give forth as paradox or incommensurability. And thus it is that interpretation can never fully answer the call of scriptural texts.
The radical fallenness of language and thought, once it is recognized as such, leads to what I will call the Doctrine of Perpetual Error. This doctrine acknowledges the following: we are always in some manner in error as long as we are in language. And to conceive of our being, the being of men, other than in language is of course impossible. In other words, we are in perpetual error, and we can only hope to formulate something like allegories of the truth, or shadows of a truth that is necessarily beyond our grasp. This doctrine also implies the following: all of the Christian scriptures, all of the Christian creeds and teachings, are in some manner in error: they are approaches to the truth of the divine that are the best our human understanding can attain.
Our attempts to formulate the truth are like shots in the dark. How close have they come to the mark? The answer to this question, if an answer is to be found, can only be found under the two illuminating lights of gnosis and the tradition.
IV.10. I believe the tradition's understanding of the divine sacrifice of the Christ is in large measure correct. Here the love of God, the being of God's love in the world, is known with a sublime knowing. This sublimity arises both from God's act and from our capacity, as God's children, to know that act. For here are the two poles of our relation to God: henceforth our relation to God is confirmed in a new manner.
The sacrifice of the Christ inaugurated a new dispensation. Christ's coming is not a matter of a prophet or a teacher sent by the Father, but of something greater. Christ's coming has only one moment in history that may parallel it: the first creation.
IV.12. Though we are far from God, though our distance makes us feel alienated and leads us often to despair, yet we can know God's presence through gnosis, and hear God's Word through our willingness to listen.
IV.13. We exist in God's image, but can also turn ourselves over to the Other, thus falling away from God. Here are the stakes of the creation. To understand this is to begin to conceive both the grandeur of God's creation and its peril. Its grandeur is not only a matter of forming, but also a matter of giving: the giving of the Christ. God's creation is a divine giving of the gift of further being to the man of free will.
IV.14. Often in writing I use the terms nothing or nothingness to refer to evil. But I am ambiguous about these terms, as I believe all Christians should be. Nothing is both something and nothing. What is there, the thing that is there, the Other that is there at the creation and is instrumental in the Fall, this thing is there. In other words: there is. To assert with the tradition that evil is without being, that it is a mere falling away from being, is dishonest. The most we can say is that it is a falling away from the true being grounded in God.
IV.15. In some respect, Christ is the Work we are called upon to fulfill. Although this sounds like it is potentially an assertion of godhood on our part, it is not. Rather, partaking of Christ is already a partial fulfillment of the Work that is he himself. As we share in some part of the divine through our souls, so we share in some part of the Christ through our participation in the Eucharist.
IV.16. If there is some part of God in the human soul, then the emanationist theory of creation presented in the Gnostic myth is in some respect an allegory of the truth. But where the Gnostic Christians would have the being of man stolen by the Demiurge Creator, I believe the being of man was given by the true Creator God.
IV.17. Often in writing I refer to the world. But I am ambiguous about this term, and use it mainly out of habit acquired from others. That the world has already come to an end is obvious to me. And so my usage of the term the world is to some extent obsolete.
Our planet: that is a different story. The planet persists, spinning on and on after the end of the world. And inhabiting our planet, this wreck of the world, billions of men dig their trenches in preparation for a future that recedes to nothing. What can their future be? So much tells us that their reward will be death, chaos, suffocation. That they will suffocate under the stench born of their own labors.
Is there any way to avert this end? The tradition tells us that there is in the redemption. When it writes of "a new heaven and a new earth," I understand this new earth to be what I mean by world. Thus it will be a "new world." How can we conceive of this? We make our suppositions, as St. John of Patmos made his. And we hope that the redemption will succeed.
IV.18. I conceive of God as the ground of being, but I cannot conceive of God as omnipotent and omniscient as regards the universe we live in. At least not omnipotent and omniscient as these are normally understood. To do so is to project God as a tyrant and ourselves as automata.
There are many mysteries in the Christian faith, but this particular mystery, namely that of theodicy (i.e., how an omnipotent God created and rules a world wracked by evil), is one that shouldn't be upheld as such. I do not consider it a mystery, but rather a falsehood.
IV.19. Regardless of their fallenness, it nonetheless remains that thought and language are the privileged signs of our being created in God's image: they are the marks of our closeness to God. Anywhere one encounters thought or its traces one may sense a sign of God's calling to man and of man's closeness to God.
Thus it is that I sense the miracle of the creation far more in an individual utterance, or in a written text, than I do in any of the scenes of outward nature. For me, the vault of the sky is a far lesser miracle than the discourse of two children overheard in the park.
* * *
It was in 1989 that I began to be drawn down this path.
There was a voice I heard at first, and it became a matter of not losing that voice.
The traces of the voice are there as writing. Writing is what is done so that the voice will not be lost.
I do not consider writing just another technology. Rather I think of writing as a special gift from God, or as a mark of God's greater gift.
Let the other technologies abuse and be abused as they will: only let writing remain as this gift.
I have given texts to others in hopes of finding some who will realize that writing is a sacramental activity.
Of course I know there is much writing that is not part of the sacrament. Witness the billion words of nothing being dashed out everywhere around us. That writing falls into nothing even as it is written; its writing is already the pull of nothing.
Never has so much writing been done as now, and perhaps never has so little Writing been done.
I hope to find those who realize writing as a sacrament.
* * *
Am I part of the body of the Church catholic? Different readers will answer this question differently. I myself will say: Yes, I am a Christian. And: Yes, I am part of the body of the Church. These assertions on my part should be clear from everything I've written.
I would like to say I am part of the Christian Duration. I would like to say I am a Durationist. What this means I will try to make clear in my writing from here on.
IV.20. The conundrum of language is that it has no history. There's nothing available in the way of a partially formed or half-formed language. We don't know how language arose, or if.
It is misleading to think that some time in the distant past we invented language. It's better to say that some time in the distant past language invented us, or rather started inventing us: clearly it isn't finished yet.
IV.21. Disorder is reckoned to be the opposite of order. Evil is recognized as the opposite of good. But this is not to say that order is good and disorder evil. No, there is order that is evil, and disorder that is good. Good and evil are more nuanced, harder to pin down, than by the mere mark of order or disorder.
Stasis is not the epitome of good. The Kingdom of Heaven is certainly not an eternal stasis.
IV.22. Dear Paul: Sorry to take so much time getting back to you. I was glad to hear you'd brought your work to the attention of others. Of those consulted I predict M------'s suggestions will be the most fruitful.
Why have I taken so long to reply? The difficulty is your question as to what Durationism is. I don't know how to answer without sending you the texts that might make it clearer, but, to tell the truth, I haven't finished writing these texts. It may be a while until I have.
Generally speaking, I'm a believer in the Christian message. Yet there are elements of orthodoxy that are unacceptable to me--theological positions I can't accept, positions that, formulated as they are, seem both complacent and insufficient to the problems. Likewise there are elements of Christian Gnosticism that are unacceptable to me. (The latter of course is a much less uniform tradition than Christian orthodoxy, but there's a tradition even so.)
I believe the Christian message remains latent. And I believe it can best be formulated between these two--between Gnosticism and the orthodoxy that forged itself partly in opposition to Gnosticism. The Duration is a term coined to indicate this work: the work of articulating a latent truth.
The Christian Duration, then, would be a heresy. Or it would be a heresy at least to the extent that it ever gathers enough force even to be dignified by that term.
What is a "heresy"? I'd insist that in relation to the truth that exists all our formulations are heresies, including, yes, the orthodox formulations. Because we can never articulate truth in a way commensurate with it--such articulations being always already duped by the snares of language. We are all, as the clichˇ has it, inmates in the prison-house of language.
Some of my initial formulations of what Duration theology asserts can be found in The Clay Testament, vol. IV. In the form of a collection of aphorisms or brief essays, vol. IV contains texts that led me to see the problems more clearly. I'm still working however. Best, Eric
IV.23. The God of creation and the God of redemption are the same God. This God is neither omniscient nor omnipotent.
The Fall and the creation are the same moment. The Fall corresponds to the creation because the creation necessarily occurred in the space of the flaw.
Biblical depictions of God are mythological and legendary, particularly those of the Hebrew scriptures. This is not to say they are without truth, only that the kind of truth they offer is not a literal one.
Yahweh is a "false god" only to the extent that Yahweh is God seen through a glass darkly. The darkness of that glass is that of the flaw. We are also in the flaw.
Jesus Christ, the Messiah, offers us our clearest idea of God and his creation. The creation is on the way to redemption.
Because God is not omnipotent, however, such an outcome is not certain.
And Jesus' teaching, coming through the multiple glasses of the Gospels, must be interpreted. It must be interepreted, then lived. The Holy Spirit is sent to help us in this living, for we, as Paul has it, have died into Christ's death, and must live the work of redemption.
IV.24. God did not create the universe ex nihilo. Rather the creation is a thing thrown here, thrown into a space Genesis refers to as "the deep," as tohu bohu. The creation is thrown here to do its shaping and unshaping.
What is it going to shape? What is it going to unshape?
The universe we know is a hybrid of God's word and the chaos into which the word is cast.
I say "the universe we know": we know it partially. Does God also know it partially? Does God know the flaw partially?
IV.25. Through our souls we are connected to each other and to God. Our souls are both here in the deep, cast here, and with God, simultaneously. We are in the flaw, yet part of us is outside the flaw, simultaneously.
Gnosis is the illumination of the ladder.
Chaos, the flaw, the deep, tohu bohu on the one side. God, the Word, our souls on the other. There is overlap between the two: the meaning of creation.
IV.26. The tradition defines our three parts as body, soul, and spirit. These terms however are confusing to moderns, who normally use the term soul to refer to what the ancients called spirit.
I will thus name the three parts as follows: body, psyche, and soul (soul equaling spirit: pneuma).
The psyche is there between the body and soul, receiving its impressions from each depending on its powers of receptivity. The psyche receives its impressions from the body through the five senses and the network of nerves. It receives its impressions from the soul on the ladder of the imaginal.
What has been perceived by great prophets as the subtle body or astral body is nothing but a more complete recognition of the soul. The soul is seen as another, greater than oneself, which is also somehow the highest meaning of self.
To experience reunion with the astral body is to experience resurrection.
The soul is not entirely lodged in my body as a place: it is not contained therein. Though the body and psyche are indeed confined by location--they are only present where the person is present--the soul transcends location to the extent that it is present both here, as part of (the commonly recognized) me, and there, as part of the Pleroma. Through the presence of souls, then, part of the Pleroma occupies the flaw.
When the Gnostics refer to the sparks of the divine exiled here in the world, they are referring of course to the soul.
IV.27. The material realm itself is our body.
When the tradition speaks of the resurrection of the body, it evidently means the material body. But our material bodies are part of the material realm and can have no sense outside the material realm. Resurrection must then ultimately refer to a resurrection of the context in which our material bodies exist: in other words, the material realm.
This means that the resurrection body is contiguous with a resurrected world, what the tradition calls the New Jerusalem. "Behold, I make all things new."
Paul insisted that the resurrection body was material but in a different way: whereas our normal bodies are animated by psyche and will die, the resurrection body, though material, is animated by spirit (pneuma). It is a transformation to a different kind of materiality.
And what does Jesus mean in Thomas: "but men do not see it"?
IV.28. Resurrection is linked to the redemption of the flaw, that space in which the first creation occurred. Christ died in order to conquer this realm even unto its furthest reaches--to consume death and the flaw. Christ died in order to begin to use up death through his power as Word. Not succumbing to the powers of this realm, squarely facing torture and death, the man Jesus, empowered by the Christ in him, was executed and then rose. Through Christ we help in conquering this realm: our redemption is part of redemption as such. Resurrection and redemption are not a matter of escaping or transcending, but of fulfilling the creation.
IV.32. I have long thought that the truth of Christianity remains somehow latent, as yet unarticulated, between orthodoxy and Gnosticism. If I have thought such, however, it is because of what I see as the approach to truth in 1) the Gnostic account of creation as an accident, and 2) the Gnostic recognition that, at our core, we hold an uncreated spark, that we are ourselves at some essential level already part of the divine.
As for creation as an accident, I don't quite conceive of it as such. I conceive of it rather as deliberate--both the first creation and the second--but that the first creation was also the Fall.
The crux: Was the first creation also the Fall because of the chaos met by the act of creation--i.e., is creation necessarily a matter of an indeterminate process? Or was the first creation the Fall because of God's willful withdrawal of his power, allowing his creatures to err--i.e., is creation somehow willfully a matter of an indeterminate process?
I usually incline toward the former possibility.
IV.33. I choose the term Duration to suggest several things. For one, it is meant to celebrate the Christianity that endures in me even though I do not believe certain doctrines of the Church. A particular teaching or dogma may not be part of my faith--nonetheless I am still a Christian. I am still a Christian because I believe the essential: Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ.
For the Durationist, the term Christian is one that defines a certain belief about the man Jesus: namely that he was the Christ. For the Durationist, the only essential elements of Christianity are 1) a stress on the importance of the Messiah and 2) the identification of the Messiah with Jesus. The rest, including the understanding of God, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection--these things are not part of the essential definition of Christianity, but are only interpretations.
My own belief has its particular stresses, its particular interpretations. I call myself a Durationist Christian.
IV.34. The Nicene Creed: a summation of the heresies finally accepted by the 4th century bishops. Which is not to show contempt for this great summing up in the history of Christian thought. But the doctrine of perpetual error applies.
IV.35. I have asked the questions and struggled with possible answers. If I have any wisdom in me, I will accept the outcomes of thought for what they are: outcomes of thought, a discursive struggle.
In the most difficult matters--and that of God's omnipotence is the most difficult matter for me--one must know when to surrender the need to know. The struggle reaches an aporia. At best it is an aporia better articulated than at first.
I can't know, and so surrender to the incompatibility of the tradition's assertions of God's omnipotence and omniscience, on the one hand, and my best thought responses, which amount to reasoned doubt and struggle, on the other.
Of course faith in God and the gnosis of God does not necessarily mean being able to articulate the meaning of the creation.
To assert that God is not omnipotent or omniscient is unjustifiable in the light of Matthew 10:29 or Jesus' words in Matthew 6. Of course we know that many of Jesus' words in the Gospels are are not authentic: nonetheless I know no good basis on which to reject these particular assertions. To the extent that he was speaking in the line of the prophets, in the line of Jewish tradiition, these words are not exceptionable. And so it is no small thing to assert: "These particular words--the Messiah probably didn't speak them." It is certainly very possible he did not, but one has no good historical reason to assert it.
I suspect there is something askew in the traditional understanding, that the created world is not a constant and perfect expression of God's will.
And so the struggle reaches an aporia for me, as it has often done for others. This particular suspicion and my faith have no trouble living together however. As I say above, one surrenders the need to know.
One surrenders the need to know; one continues to pose the question.
IV.36. Marcus Borg and the Language of the Bible: Review. New Testament scholar Marcus Borg is a religious thinker who thinks in stages. A period characterized by certain convictions finally proves inadequate to knowledge or experience and must give way to a new set of convictions. Unlike many modern scholars, however, Borg realizes that these new convictions need not be anti-religious. In an autobiographical essay, one reads of his personal religious development as a progress through stages: he presents the na•ve belief of his youth, followed by a period of troubled atheism, developing in university into a quest to understand Jesus in relation to the political and social problems of his day. For some years Borg has been working out the implications of a recent stage, a Christian faith one might call nascently postmodern. Is the stage he is now pursuing prelude to a new, more spiritually attuned Christianity--as he and likeminded liberal Christians believe--or is it herald rather to the demise of Christianity? This is a question Borg's work everywhere begs.
My focus here will not so much be such general questions however as the question of how Borg reads the Bible. I approach Borg's methods of biblical interpretation by considering his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, where he offers readings of important biblical texts, including Genesis, the prophets, Job and Ecclesiastes, the Gospels, Paul's letters and Revelation. For my concerns, the most interesting sections of the book come before the specific readings, so I will mainly take up his first chapters, in which he addresses the most general questions of biblical interpretation, i.e.: What kind of book is the Bible? How are we to interpret biblical texts?
One can't deny that Borg makes persuasive arguments against the fundamentalists, those who call themselves "Bible-believing" Christians and who define their belief via the insistence that everything narrated in the Bible is literally, factually, historically true. Fundamentalists believe their argument for the inerrancy of the Bible is in line with traditional Christianity. Borg demonstrates that it is not:
They typically see themselves as affirming "the old-time religion"--that is, Christianity as it was before the modern period. In fact, however, as we shall see, their approach itself is modern, largely the product of a particular form of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Protestant theology. (5)
As Borg explains it, Bible literalists, unbeknownst to themselves, have been made pawns of the very Enlightenment culture they struggle against. How could this be? It is a result of the pervasiveness of Enlightenment views of reality and how we ground our knowledge of reality.
All of us raised and educated in modern Western societies have, whether we like it or not, been indoctrinated with generally Enlightenment views. As Borg likes to put it, we are "fact fundamentalists." We learn early on that statements of truth must be factually verifiable: any statement that doesn't correspond to "the facts" cannot be true. Not factually true, it is false, or, worse, simply nonsense. Our culture's deeply ingrained respect for facts is a result of the success of Enlightenment science, which we credit with all the technological breakthroughs of the modern world. As Borg would point out, however, the pervasiveness of science in our world has made us deaf to other sorts of truth than the merely factual or material. Specifically, we've lost the ability to understand broadly metaphorical truths. As "fact fundamentalists," we assume that anyone intending to say something important will use a fact-based manner of presentation. This, after all, is how scientists and researchers state the truth, so it must be the way to state the truth.
According to Borg, religious fundamentalists, who also live in the modern world, have anachronistically imposed this modern perspective on the Bible. They mistakenly assume the writers of biblical times shared our fact-based understanding of how to communicate truth. Fundamentalists are thus led to insist on the factual "inerrancy" of the Bible because, as moderns, they tacitly believe anything not grounded in fact will lose its authority. Indeed, given their narrowly modern perspective, they assume it could never have had any authority to begin with. In this way Borg shows that fundamentalists are duped by the very modernity they struggle against: insisting on the "literal truth" of the Bible, they risk shrinking the Bible down to the size of a high school science textbook. The problem is very clear: the Bible's manner of conveying truth is not and never was that of a textbook. The biblical writers did not share our obsession with fact-based presentation: their palette was more varied, and their works wove history and metaphor with a boldness we no longer appreciate.
Though Borg doubtless somewhat overstates his case, he is here generally persuasive. He shows throughout how biblical texts often contain internal cues as to their metaphorical intent. And he stresses that a literal reading was not necessarily the "normal" way of approaching the Bible even in the early centuries of Church history. Consider the following quote on the Genesis narratives:
What intelligent person can imagine that there was a first day, then a second and third day, evening and morning, without the sun, the moon, and the stars? [Sun, moon, and stars are created on the fourth day.] And that the first day--if it makes sense to call it such--existed even without a sky? [The sky is created on the second day.] Who is foolish enough to believe that, like a human gardener, God planted a garden in Eden in the East and placed in it a tree of life, visible and physical, so that by biting into its fruit one would obtain life? And that by eating from another tree, one would come to know good and evil? And when it is said that God walked in the garden in the evening and that Adam hid himself behind a tree, I cannot imagine that anyone will doubt that these details point symbolically to spiritual meanings by using a historical narrative which did not literally happen. (70-1)
These words do not come from a modern liberal Christian seeking to water down the Bible's authority, but from the distinguished 3rd century Church father Origen. To men and women who lived before modernity, a story didn't necessarily have to be narrowly factual to merit reverence. They recognized other modes of truth. Though Origen affirmed that he saw much of the Bible as historical, he also insisted many things "were recorded as having occurred, but which did not literally take place," and that even "the gospels themselves are filled with the same kind of narratives."
Such statements may seem odd coming from one of the greatest of ancient Christian writers. But, according to Borg, it is we moderns who have become odd. He writes:
The modern preoccupation with factuality has had a pervasive and distorting effect on how we see the Bible and Christianity. . . . Christianity in the modern period became preoccupied with the dynamic of believing or not believing. For many people, believing "iffy" claims to be true became the central meaning of Christian faith. It is an odd notion--as if what God most wants from us is believing highly problematic statements to be factually true. And if one can't believe them, then one doesn't have faith and isn't a Christian. (16)
For Borg the Bible is neither infallible nor somehow a transcription, written down by dictation, of the words of God. Rather it records the experiences of God of the ancient Israelites and the early Christian movement. The Bible is thus a record made by human beings, a "human product," but one that nevertheless communicates "a reality." According to Borg, God is not a fiction or a lie but a real presence known in human experience:
To see the Bible as a human product does not in any way deny the reality of God. Indeed, one of the central premises of this book is that God is real and can be experienced. I have put that as simply as I know how. At the risk of repetition, I mean that God (or "the sacred" or "Spirit," terms that I use synonymously) is a reality known in human experience, and not simply a human creation or projection.
That "God is real," however, does not mean that there can be any perfect human explanation of God or God's will. And this includes the Bible.
Of course, whatever we say about the sacred is a human creation. We cannot talk about God (or anything else) except with the words, symbols, stories, concepts, and categories known to us, for they are the only language we have. Nevertheless, we also have experiences of "the holy," "the numinous," "the sacred." These experiences go beyond language, shatter it, relativize it. (22)
For Borg, the sacred is mainly to be found in these experiences of God. If any scripture results from such experiences, that is necessarily a secondary phenomenon. If the Bible is sacred, then, it not because it is "the Word of God" in the sense of a Word that came directly from God, but rather because it is recognized as sacred by the community of Christian believers. The sacred character of the Bible is grounded in its status as record of the ancient experiences of God most valued by the Christian community. The Christian community, in turn, is constituted by the Bible through constant dialogue with its texts, which dialogue Borg understands as one of the central sacraments of Christian faith. To put all this another way, one might say that the Bible is not sacred in origin (it is not a direct product of divine composition) but only in status (it is a crucial ground of Christian experience of the sacred). Borg writes:
The older, conventional way of seeing the Bible grounded scripture's authority in its origin: the Bible was sacred because it came from God. The result was a monarchical model of biblical authority. Like an ancient monarch, the Bible stands over us, telling us what to believe and do. But seeing the Bible as sacred in its status leads to a different model of biblical authority. . . .
The result: the monarchical model of biblical authority is replaced by a dialogical model of biblical authority. In other words, the biblical canon names the primary collection of ancient documents with which Christians are to be in continuing dialogue. This continuing conversation is definitive and constitutive of Christian identity. . . .
Yet because the Bible is a human product as well as sacred scripture, the continuing dialogue needs to be a critical conversation. There are parts of the Bible that we will decide need not or should not be honored, either because we discern that they were relevant to ancient times but not to our own, or because we discern that they were never the will of God.
. . . .
To be Christian means to live within the world created by the Bible.
Borg elaborates on what such living entails in his discussion of the Bible as a sacrament: "a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced." (30-1)
Borg's arguments are powerful and well thought out, particularly as regards the blindess induced in modern Christians by our "fact-obsessed" modernity. Though there are directions in which I wouldn't follow Borg, I agree with him on much. Still, I believe in this work he has not adequately addressed the issue of language and the divine.
For Borg--it is a point to which he returns repeatedly--the language of the Bible is human: both its glories and limitations come from its being a human product. As educated Christians, we admire the brilliance of biblical writers even as we recognize their (sometimes obsolete) culturally determined prejudices. According to Borg, humanity most quintessentially encounters the divine in "experiences of God," which are understood to be somehow separate from the language in which they are (later?) recorded. Thus the biblical writers' strictly human language is placed on one side as an instrument used to record what is seen, on the other, as the more essential experience.
There are various problems raised by this model. One is that it simplifies how biblical texts came to be written. For instance, we cannot really say that the writer of the Gospel of John "experienced" the content of his Gospel one day and then wrote it down the next, as if taking belated notes on a meeting he'd had earlier. I would argue instead that the interplay between experience and language is much more complex--even that language itself is in many cases a bridge to experience. Borg's model underestimates both the power and centrality of language: he puts language too exclusively on the human side of a divide between God and humanity. My own understanding of language would certainly be judged eccentric by some, but I would argue it allows for a more accurate grasp of the experience of the divine. I believe our linguistic faculty is itself already partly divine. Through language, and particularly at certain privileged moments, the divine speaks in us. This is how the biblical prophets experienced language, and it explains, in my interpretation, a crucial part of the meaning of Christ as "the Word made Flesh." The Bible is not entirely a human product; to some degree, the language of the Bible came about across a bridge between God and ourselves. Or perhaps one may say: language is itself a crucial component of this bridge.
Though sharing much with other species, we human beings are endowed, very mysteriously, with the power of language. Neither does any other species have anything approaching the complexity and power of human language, nor does any human community have a language that is less than fully developed: i.e., there is no such thing as a human group with a simple or "primitive language." Language, in all its complexity, is part of the human makeup. And with the power of language come other characteristics unique to our species, such as self-consciousness, reasoning ability, and religious sense. But where did our linguistic faculty itself come from, or, in evolutionary terms, how did it develop? Linguists, anthropologists, geneticists and brain scientists have struggled to answer this question, but a satisfying answer remains elusive. I would insist that this extraordinary faculty is the sign of some defining difference between us and other species, and that it is in this faculty, more than in our apelike shape, that we should see the meaning of the line in Genesis: "So God created man in his image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." (Gen. 1:27) For me, to be created in the image of God is to be created as linguistic, thinking beings. (NB: Although I use the language of creation here, I am not with those who reject the theory of evolution. On the contrary, evolution is the most compelling explanation of the physical origin of species, including Homo sapiens. But evolution is not necessarily the most compelling explanation of everything that concerns the universe and life. Creation in my thinking was an oblique event: we are the species evolved in a way that allows the linguistic and spiritual bridge to God to open. That this opening may be in part the result of a multitude of chance mutations does not mean there is no God or no creation; it only means that the material universe is a place where the dice are thrown until such an opening should be made. After which. . . .)
Our religious tradition, its understanding of God, forefronts language like no other. According to the first chapters of Genesis, creation itself was effected through language: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Gen. 1:3) The God who created through language is subsequently shown ordering the human world through it. The first human beings were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they ignored God's express verbal command (and it was the verbal wiles of the serpent that undid them); the Tower of Babel story shows human pride defeated through a newly instituted multiplicity of languages; the patriarch Abraham is not given a kingdom or some special power but is rather made party to a covenant (a verbal agreement); both Mosaic law and the prophets are a matter of getting the correct verbal expressions of God's will for humanity. In the New Testament, Jesus comes teaching like the prophets, and is called "the Word made Flesh." His common refrain is: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Our religion, in short, is everywhere concerned with the role and potential power of divine/human language.
At one point in his presentation, Borg argues against seeing the Bible as a part-human, part-divine product:
[A]ffirming that the Bible is both divine and human leads to the attempt to separate the divine parts from the human parts--as if some of it comes from God and some is a human product. The parts that come from God are then given authority, and the others are not. But the parts that we think come from God are normally the parts we see as important, and thus we simply confer divine authority on what matters to us, whether we be conservatives or liberals. (27)
I agree that this will happen. Nonetheless the Bible is certainly such a divine/human product: the text is both shot through with divine formulations--expressions the Spirit forged in the crucible of the human mind--and inflected throughout by the dross of human mania and error. There is doubtless no single section of the Bible that is not in this way an admixture of the divine and human. Yet though we recognize the Bible is such a work, we will still be forever unable to separate out what comes from God and what is merely our own prejudice about God. This is an attendant part of the human condition: we see "though a glass darkly."
The closest Borg comes to my own view of biblical language is in a discussion of the Bible as "the World of God," where he writes:
"Word" is being used in a metaphorical and nonliteral sense. As with metaphors generally, this one resonates with more than one nuance of meaning. A word is a means of communication, involving both speaking and hearing. A word is a means of disclosure; we disclose or reveal ourselves through words. Words bridge the distance between ourselves and others: we commune and become intimate through words.
. . . . The Bible is a means of divine self-disclosure. (33-4)
By evoking speaking, hearing and a distance to be bridged, Borg is getting close to contradicting himself. According to his repeatedly stated principle, it is not God we hear in the Bible, but men speaking of God. How then is the Bible a means of "divine self-disclosure"?
Though I find Borg's solution to the problem of the origin of the Bible to be unsatisfactory, his chapter on basic reading approaches, in which he explains the "historical-metaphorical" method, is excellent. Many of his points here have long been understood by readers, going back even to ancient times, but in our world of atheist materialists on the one hand and biblical literalists on the other, such ideas need the kind of clear presentation Borg gives. He concludes the chapter by presenting three stages Bible readers may go through: precritical naivete; critical thinking; postcritical naivete. I believe his stages are roughly right for many modern Christians, but think he'd be better served calling the third stage postcritical belief. Perhaps he doesn't because of his stress on the experiential and sacramental over the, for him, more fraught term belief. In any case, for me a postcritical belief would imply a belief in the sacred character and central importance of the Bible, not a belief that all its narratives were factually true. As Borg points out, many pre-Englightenment cultures accepted that factually untrue stories could nonetheless be profoundly true:
Postcritical naivete is the ability to hear the biblical stories once again as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend upon their factuality.
This way of hearing sacred stories is widespread in premodern cultures. In Arabia, traditional storytellers begin their stories with "This was, and this was not." . . . A favorite of mine is the way a Native American storyteller begins telling his tribe's story of creation: "Now I don't know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true." If you can get your mind around that statement, then you know what postcritical naivete is. (50)
There are many aspects of Borg's book I haven't addressed. Most obviously, I haven't referred to any of his readings of biblical texts. As stated above, the bulk of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time is given to explicating important biblical books in terms of his historical-metaphorical method. Much of it is well worth reading, especially the chapters on the Pentateuch, the Gospels, and his well-balanced poetic defense of Revelation.
In an epilogue, Borg writes:
[This] book reflects my personal perceptions. I do not have an objective vantage point outside of my own history. . . . For me, this book comes down to what I have been able to see thus far about how to read the Bible. (297)
Such disarming statements are ultimately true, of course, but they are also somewhat belied by the amount of scholarship behind Borg's readings. After all, he has decades of study shaping his perceptions of the Bible; his "personal" interpretations are, to no small degree, a matter of what modern scholarship has allowed him to see.
In this work and elsewhere, Borg struggles to be responsible both to his Christian faith and to what modernity has revealed to him. Whether he has been successful in this double allegiance is up to the reader to decide. He might argue, of course, that it is not a double allegiance and that it is not up to the reader to decide in any case. He might insist that success or failure here is a matter to be worked out in his personal relationship with God, in his own experience of the Christian tradition as a multifaceted sacrament. According to such a vision of the Christian life, this--and not adherence to any creed--would be the truth of Christianity for the postmodern faithful. Many discard the lot of Borg's perceptions, some embrace him as a brother in the Spirit; others, like myself, toss back some of Borg's catch, but keep a few fine fish.
IV.37. In the first creation God's Word touched chaos, forming a composite unforeseen, from which arose life, finally us. And we looked back to our origin and the structure we were in, we sensed God, and declared it was God who made us. Which is correct, except that the composite was also partly responsible for our form in that it was the composite infused with God's Word that began the production of forms. To call this producer God is thus only partly correct: the composite is not itself God, but rather something closer to the Demiurge or Yaldabaoth--two mythical figures that are personifications of the composite, as Yahweh, the god of Mosaic law, is in large measure such a personification.
The Messiah, the second creation, reveals the Word at the core of the composite. The Messiah shows us that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. Thus one should not bow down and worship God in mechanical rituals (such mechanics is the stuff of the composite) but rather one should realize one is a child of the Father and begin to bring about his Kingdom.
The Gnostics perceived that Jesus seemed to be teaching of a God different from that of the Hebrew scriptures. Marcion built his whole movement on this perceived difference. Yet Jesus was not teaching of a different God: he was only teaching us to separate God from what in the traditional teachings was not God. As the Word of God himself Jesus revealed the creative Word active in the world. That world was and is the composite: it is chaos inflected by the Word.
IV.38. Dear Paul: Many thanks for your two letters. I find your remarks about Jesus' divinity as challenge to be entirely congenial. For me this has always been the point: the challenge of interpreting what Christianity is. Somewhere in the tension between the system of orthodoxy and the speculations and enthusiasms of Gnosticism is a vision more commensurate to the truth than either. Still off from the truth, certainly, but closer to the Christian meaning.
Off from the truth, I repeat, because we cannot finally seize the truth in language--though I believe we can get closer than we have. Literature, with its more nuanced relation to both the powers and lack of power in language, is doubtless our best means to such truth.
I'd be very interested to hear your ideas on the texts in The Clay Testament. My basic theological understanding hasn't changed much since the bulk of them were written. I'm always grateful for the interest of someone with kindred concerns.
It sounds however that you've a lot of projects you're working on, and besides you describe yourself as overwrought. So I'd hope--since you mentioned you'd be reading some of my writing--that you feel no obligation to take it up as yet another project.
Me too I'd like the chance to meet you in person some time. I value our correspondence. Best, Eric
IV.39. Dear Paul: What I wanted to write you about was The Clay Testament. I discovered many things in writing those texts. They were mostly written by a young man who held to the Mallarmˇan principle that everything that happened to him happened in order to end up as writing. Writing subsequently was realized as a kind of sacrament: that is how I lived it, and continue to do so.
Most of The Clay Testament was written during the 1990s, after my time in France and overlapping somewhat with my time working on French literature in Madison's graduate program. Some of the stylistic models and allusions come from French Renaissance literature, as anachronistic as that might be. But the quest was biblical, or biblical parodic.
I don't think scripture is a closed book. As I've said, I think Christian truth in large part remains to be revealed.
We have the orthodox understanding(s), we have the heresies, we have the Jewish tradition, we have our own experience of the world, we have the gnosis: these together must work as the forge from which we might take a more complete understanding of the truth.
The four Gospels remain the most authoritative written sources. They also remain authoritative, I believe, as a genre model.
Genre models are important if, as I would insist, writing is sacramental.
I believe one can affirm the following: Reading the scriptures is always also a kind of writing; writing is sometimes also a way of reading the scriptures.
These few comments are to explain how I understand the work of The Clay Testament. This work remains unfinished. I still seek others who might realize writing as a sacrament. Best, Eric
IV.40. Dear Paul: Your question about your namesake is one I've been asked before. Often it is fellow Christians who are surprised that in my Durationist Bible project I didn't include anything from the letters of Paul.
I should stress that I take the authentic letters of Paul as authoritative, though I don't believe they should be accorded the importance given the Gospels. Paul may have been the earliest writer of the New Testament, but the Gospels offer our most complete picture of Jesus.
Paul's story and his role are crucial in the history of the revelation. It is Paul who taught us that we too, we Gentiles, are invited through Christ to become sons and daughters of Abraham. But Paul's giant role in the history of revelation should not make us forget one thing: Paul is small next to Christ.
Paul's understanding of Jesus is crucial: it is essential. But the nature of Paul's writing, mainly exhortation and exposition of theology, has had an unfortunate effect. It has somehow made Paul more quotable, more of a model of Christian discourse and action, than Jesus himself. I think the pre-eminence given to Paul's particular stresses, the constant quoting of Pauline formulas in instances when one should be thinking of Jesus, is a great error.
We should seek the truth in the rhetoric and gestures of Jesus more than in the rhetoric and gestures of one apostle. Would not Paul himself agree?
For me the records of the life and words of Jesus, though scholars have shown them to be written later than Paul's letters, retain priority. Best, Eric
A Durationist Creed
IV.41. I believe in one God, the Father, origin of the human soul, in whom we are grounded; from whose power meeting the Abyss the universe arose, creation flawed from the Abyss, shaped and unshaped by the Word and Spirit of the Father, toward redemption.
And I believe in Jesus his son, the promised Christ, who came to men as the Father's Word, and taught the way of the Father's Kingdom. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; conquering death, he arose from the dead, and sits at the right hand of the Father forever.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the helper, the bringer of the Father's grace, who speaks through the prophets.
I recognize the many catholic and apostolic churches, each part of the one Church, each following the light given it toward the coming of the Kingdom.
I believe in the eternal life of the soul, the soul seeking redemption for itself and the world. I look for the resurrection of the body, the redemption brought through the Kingdom. Amen.
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