Thursday, January 18, 2007

Poetry and Scripture

Gagdad Bob was inspired by my recent posts on the Bible and poem deafness to write about "scripture and revelation." I'd like to address some of what he said today.

I am not going to provide a link, because I don't want to needlessly embarrass the person or make them feel self-conscious.

I wouldn't have written about it in the first place if I felt unduly embarrassed or self-conscious about it. Besides, my humble blog could have used the publicity. :-) On the other hand, I don't need a bunch of true-believing proselytizers either.

Basically, the dilemma has to do with an integral-type person who says he does not comprehend Christian scripture, so he must reject it.

I don't "reject" it in the sense of resolutely concluding that it reveals no important truths. But I DO wonder what truths it may reveal and how we can know what they are.

He is particularly appalled by Old Testament stories of God expressing his frustration and disappointment with mankind by effacing them from the planet and starting over. Viewing the situation in wholly humanistic, rationalistic, and literal terms, this person can find no possible justification for God's act of mass-killing. And if we interpret this story in an allegorical way, who's to say that we can't interpret everything else in the Bible in such a way, including, say, the resurrection of Jesus? So this person has jettisoned Christianity entirely, in favor of a more abstract and impersonal Buddhistic notion of God.

What justification IS there when the story's taken literally? What compelling allegorical meaning does it have about any true God? Why should we interpret Jesus' resurrection literally? Do we need to interpret it literally to be "saved"?

Now interestingly, in a subsequent post, this person may have provided a hint of insight into his own spiritual infirmity -- indeed, if that is what it is -- by pointing out that he has never in his life been able to comprehend poetry. He doesn't believe this equates to stupidity, since he certainly understands plain English and has no trouble expressing himself. But when it comes to poetry, he either derives no coherent message or a flat and literal one. He cannot intuit the specifically poetic sense of the poem, which obviously rises above the literal.

This is an excellent summary of my difficulty, except that I said it appears to be true of "most" rather than all poetry I've encountered. I guess the same goes for the Bible. I don't seem to grasp the inner truth of many of its verses, but I think I may understand and even resonate with some of them.

For the whole point about scripture, as far as I am concerned, is that it is not so much the "word of God" per se. Rather, I see it as a message from man to man -- a divinely inspired message from man's higher self to his lower self, expressed in a language that the lower self can comprehend.

If scripture is inspired by God and is "man's higher self" speaking intelligibly to his "lower self," what relation does "man's higher self" have to his "lower self" and to God?

if scripture were purely in the language of the celestial realm from which it arises, man, as he is presently constituted (and certainly ancient man) would not be able to comprehend it.

If man's "higher self" wrote it, didn't it translate this writing from the "language of the celestial realm"? That is, didn't it already understand the "celestial language" before it could express it in scriptural language? If so, why does it need to translate the "celestial" language into something simpler? Why does the "lower self" need to understand it, and can it understand the "celestial language" in any meaningful way from reading the simplified translation?

How do we respond to the person who rejects the entirety of scripture based upon this or that seeming absurdity?

Speaking for myself (and I suspect for many others), I don't "reject the entirety of scripture" based on "this or that" dubious literal passage. I acknowledge that if one looks hard enough, one can probably find "meaning" in virtually every biblical passage, much the way one can "find" objects or even an entire story in every Rorshach ink blot. So, I don't necessarily "reject" any scripture. What I do is question whether parts of scripture that seem incredible on a literal level should be taken that way, even if they're officially supposed to be, and, if some fundamental parts that are supposed to be taken literally are exceedingly dubious when taken that way rather than as allegories, what this means for the entire faith. For instance, if one can legitimately doubt, even if one can't outright dismiss, the unique divinity and resurrection of Jesus, how should this affect our interpretation of scripture as a whole and our allegiance to any Christian church's teachings?

When Scripture is envisaged in its totality it imparts global value and its supernatural character to whomever is not blinded by any prejudice and who has been able to preserve intact the normally human sensibility for the majestic and the sacred."

I may be somewhat "prejudiced" against taking ancient stories of miraculous people and events as actual history, but I don't know that my degree of prejudice in this regard constitutes pathological "blindness." Rather, it seems quite prudent. But what I'd really like to know is what "global value" and "supernatural character" is "imparted" to someone capable of "envisaging" scripture "in its totality." What does this graced person understand about God and Jesus, and how does he feel and live?

Thus, we might say that the "poetic sense" is analogous to the "musical sense" of the sophisticated listener who is able to pull together all of the diverse musical connections as they are deployed in time (i.e., melodically) and space (i.e., harmonically)...While I am unable to appreciate either opera in general or Wagner in particular, that doesn't detract from the deeper point that I am trying to make about scripture and the poetic sense.

If the "poetic sense" is, indeed, "analogous to the musical sense of the sophisticated listener," and most readers of the scripture are no more sophisticated in their poetic sense than most musical listeners are sophisticated in their musical sense, just how well does scripture speak to the "lower self" of most of us, and, if it's truly "divinely inspired," why doesn't it do a better job of speaking to most of our "lower selves" than it seems to?


copithorne said...

Back in July of last year Gagdad wrote a post in which he described the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac as an story written in bad faith. Gagdad interpreted the story out of existence, saying that it is a story of the Jews overcoming a false, barbaric "God."

So as is characteristic with Bob, he is criticizing the things he does himself all the time. I stopped participating at that blog because Gagdad doesn't have a pretense of intellectual integrity. His purpose is just to scavenge for enemies.

cousin dupree said...

Yes, by all means read Bob's essay and decide for yourself if Copithorne is an abject idiot or a mere imbecile.

Nagarjuna said...

Without reading the essay, I already know that you pose a false dilemma. For the person in question is clearly neither an "idiot" nor a "moron." However, what remains to be determined is whether he's right about the essay and its author.

Van said...

"What justification IS there when the story's taken literally?"

Uhm... Nags? It's Poetry not history, to take it literally is to destroy it. Why do you have difficulty with poetry? Two possibilities.

One, the 'poetry' you read isn't poetry. Rhyming words, or obscure imitations of depth don't a poem make - singing them with superb harmonies may make them into a good song, but still not poetry.

Two, without recognizing that there is Truth, and not many little equaly valid though opposing relative truths, you've no depth to draw the poems meaning from. Where you should have a deep well, instead you've got a gazillion dixie cups. Difficult to dip a bucket into a dixie cup. Integrating all the dixie cups will just make a big puddle.

You need a Well Nags, a single deep one with sweet clear water in it.

copithorne said...

God told Abraham to sacrifice his son. The bible doesn't say that Abraham was hearing voices, or that he was tricked, or drunk or having bad judgment. The bible says God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son and Abraham obeys. And Gagdad calls God a "psychotic, child-hating 'god'."

Then Gagdad pretends to look down his nose in ridicule at the oafishness and insensitivity of someone who wonders how to make sense of the narrative cruelty of God. Gagdad is criticizing Nagarjuna for something he does himself. That contributes to the hostility.

I appreciate that Nagarjuna has the integrity and the faith to recognize that his doubts are serious. It is a false piety to say that God is 'psychotic' and 'child hating' and present it as though it were a compliment.