Thursday, January 19, 2006

Demythologizing and Remythologizing Scripture after Wittgenstein (more on the topic of Faith, Fiction, and the Jewish Scriptures)

(This is a short paper I delivered back in 1995. If I had written it today, I would not be so hard on Bultmann, Winch, and Phillips, who are more profound thinkers than I then admitted.)

Throughout the centuries, religious texts have been reinterpreted to suit the spirit of those various times. I will here outline and criticize more recent attempts by Neowittgensteinian philosophers such as Peter Winch and D. Z. Phillips2 to "demythologize" religious discourse. I see in their work an attempt to make religion safe from the onslaughts of scientific thought at whose hands it has suffered since the dawn of the Enlightenment.

I borrow the term "demythologizing"3 from the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, whose project of biblical hermeneutics was the subject of much debate in the middle decades of the century. Bultmann wanted to separate the wheat of the gospel's saving message from its mythological, supernatural, chaff. Don't lose any sleep over the historical validity of miracles says Bultmann, just embrace the essentially Heideggerian message which they convey! So much for Bultmann

On to the Neowittgensteinians. I will call them "N.W.s" for short. The N.W.s' schema for the interpretation of religious discourse is an application of a more universal doctrine of interpretation of social practices in general. According to the N.W.s, different social practices or "forms of life" constitute epistemologically and hermeneutically autonomous units. If, for instance, one wishes to understand or judge the validity of a scientific claim, this may only be done in accordance with the criteria which are internal to science itself. These criteria, in turn, reflect the goals, the rationale, what Winch likes to call the "point" of the practice of science. Similarly, religious practices and discourse must only be understood on their own terms.

So - the correct interpretation of religious discourse will depend on the application of the appropriate criteria of intelligibility, and those criteria reflect the purpose or "point" of religious discourse. What then is the point of religion in general and of its discourse in particular? The N.W.s say plainly: The point of religion is to express and contemplate attitudes towards life. Thus the concerns of religion stand in stark contrast to the concerns of science and technology. Science and technology seek prediction and control of the world around us, religion deals solely in attitudes and values and not in the attainment of practical ends. Science creates a factual description of the world based on empirical observation, while religious language and ritual offer gestures which are expressive of attitudes towards the world.

It is important to note just how seriously the N.W.s take their own claims. Although they might not be willing to put it in these terms, I think it would be fair to say that for the N.W.s the idea that religion deals with attitudes is constitutive of the very category of the religious. In other words, if you see a ritual or text which does not merely express attitudes it simply does not legitimately belong to religion. Generally speaking, the N.W.s deal with such cases in one of two ways. Either they relegate the phenomenon in question to the category of superstition, or they will say that the phenomenon constitutes a mistake, a confusion, in the practice of religion. If, for instance, a cancer patient believes that his prayers, as well as his chemotherapy, contribute to his recovery, he is engaged in superstition rather than in religion. If some people speak of God as actively interfering in history (and mean this literally), they have made a mistake in their use of religious language.

If all prayers which explicitly intercede for the well being of the worshipper are superstition, and biblical accounts of miraculous divine intervention in history a mistake in the language game of religion, what then is left of historically existent religious discourse? The answer is that the N.W.s interpret traditional religious discourse by their own lights. Thus, according to the N.W.s, when generations of Christians have prayed to God that He give them their daily bread, this was not intended to influence their chances for prosperity, but merely to express their feeling of dependence on God. So too - and here the similarity to Bultmann becomes clear; bible stories were not intended to convey historical descriptions, but rather to express, in some symbolic fashion, an attitude towards life. Traditional religion thus becomes thoroughly insulated from any possible factual critique, a situation which the philosopher Kai Neilsen has dubbed "Wittgensteinian Fideism".4

The most fascinating aspect of all of this as a cultural phenomenon is that the N.W.s take a resolute stand against anyone who would call them religious reformers. They insist that they are merely exhibiting the objective, underlying logic of religion. This logic is common to all genuine religious practices in all cultures and at all times. That this logic just happens to be systematically impenetrable to the attacks of scientific criticism, and that the rise of modern science has been the major force for secularization in the modern world, is simply a matter of coincidence.

Several books have already been devoted to criticism of the N.W.s' doctrine, but for now I will just touch upon the difficulty of its application to the exegesis of Hebrew Scripture. The N.W.s' largely avoid discussing the Old Testament, and for good reason. If, by their doctrine, the Hebrew Scriptures do not qualify to be read as religious texts, this would appear to constitute a reductio ad absurdum disproof of the N.W.s understanding of religion. The scandal of the Old Testament lies in its combination of theological and historical elements, a combination which is particularly resistant to non-literal interpretations.

I admit that it would be anachronistic to suggest that Scripture was written in the context of an established discipline of historical research. However, in biblical times there did already exist an established social practice which was concerned with formulating agreed-upon, factual accounts of past events according to formal rules of evidence. I am referring to the institution of law. The core of the biblical narrative is concerned with delineating a set of contractual arrangements made between God and the Jewish people, and the miracles of the exodus, the wanderings in the desert, etc. constitute a record of how each side kept its part of the covenant. I find no reason to believe that the historical claims of scripture should be taken in any less a literal sense than the claims made in any other description of a legal nature. Thus Judaism, or at least biblical Judaism, was not immune to historical criticism. If the exodus did not occur, the Ten Commandments lose their self-proclaimed material basis.

Since biblical Judaism boldly claims itself to be verified by historical evidence, it is able to criticize pagan beliefs and customs in terms of similarly pragmatic, factual criteria. If the psalmist (115:5) complains that the gods of idolatry have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see, etc. this obviously implies a contrast with a true God who is capable of interaction with the world. The biblical notion of settling religious disputes by empirical criteria reaches its high point in the story of Elijah at Mount Carmel. Chapter 18 of First Kings tells of how Elijah challenged the priests of Ba'al to a contest which would take place before the entire nation. Whoever succeeded in bringing down fire from heaven to light their sacrifice would prove the reality of their god. What could be the point of this story if the factual claim is not taken seriously?5 I would go so far as to say that the biblical demand for pragmatic, empirical demonstrations of the validity of religious claims constitutes an important contribution to the development of the human capacity for critical thought. Several authors, including most recently the Harvard anthropologist S.J. Tambiah6, have noted the role of biblical thought in the development of the West's critique of mythic and magical thinking. That the very texts which herald the epistemological revolution against traditional mythological thought simultaneously introduce what secular scholars must view as a new myth of God's intervention in Jewish history is a paradox worth pondering.

Beyond the epistemological implications of the literal interpretation of scripture there lay ethical and even political issues. In short, the ethically and politically active God of Scriptures implies the worth of such action for human beings as well. The notion that God actually broke through into human history in order to free slaves in Egypt-that human servitude is a matter which could demand the intervention of the very Master of the universe- is a more powerful message of the importance of political liberation than any offered by a non-literal interpretation of the Exodus story. Only such a "carnal" interpretation of scripture can allow for a similarly "carnal" concern with the solution of this-worldly problems. It should come as no surprise that in contrast with this, Neowittgensteinian religion and ethics tends to the quietistic adoption of correct spiritual attitudes towards the world, rather than towards redemptive action in the world.

ENDNOTES

©Berel Dov Lerner
1) This is a slightly edited version of a short paper presented at the Colloquium on Modern Theories of Allegory: Imaginative Discourse and Historical Continuity sponsored by The Center for Literary Studies of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on November 15, 1995. My thanks to Dr. Jon Whitman for having kindly invited me to speak at the colloquium.
2) Representative works are D.Z. Phillips, The Concept of Prayer (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981) and the essays in Peter Winch, Trying to Make Sense (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987).
3) A classic statement of Bultmann's position may be found in Rudolph Bultmann et al, Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate (New York: Harper and Row, 1961). A good overview of the debate surrounding "demythologizing" may be found in John Macquarrie, The Scope of Demythologizing: Bultmann and his Critics (London: SCM Press, 1960).
4) See his "Wittgensteinian Fideism", Philosophy 42 (1967), 191-209.
5) For more on this point, see my "Faith, Fiction and the Jewish Scriptures", Judaism 39 (1990), 215-20.
6) See Tambiah’s Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 6-8.

2 Comments:

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