Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 25
CONCLUSION: THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE
In the traditional view of the use of words, there is a verbal structure known as A, and a body of phenomena, B. Whenever you read anything, your mind is simultaneously going in two directions, centripetal and centrifugal. In the first place, you're trying to establish a context out of what you read: you're trying to find out what this word means here. At the same time you are recognizing the word or words as having conventional or generally agreed-on meanings in a world outside the book. So your mind is simultaneously seeking out what is in effect your memory of what those words mean. Now at a certain point, you may become aware that these meanings, these conventional meanings in the world outside, are forming a structure which is parallel to the structure of what you're reading. When that happens, what you are reading is descriptive in intention: its intention is to set up a verbal counterpart to whatever the words are describing. And in descriptive writing of this sort, the criterion of truth emerges. That is, truth here means truth of correspondence. You have a verbal structure A, you have a body of facts B, which it is describing, and if your verbal counterpart is a satisfactory replica of the body of facts it is describing, then you say it is true.
But sometimes you find that there is no external pattern which the words are describing at all. You are simply establishing a context and reading a structure of words for its own sake, and all the conventional meanings flow back into that verbal structure. That is a sign that what you are reading is literary in intention: and when the intention is literary, the criterion of truth by correspondence does not apply. Aristotle explained that by saying that the poet makes no particular statements, and it is only particular statements that can be true or false. The poet tells you things which are universally true and are therefore self-contained: so that with literary structures there is a barrier between A and B.
Then you find that literary structures can work on the emotions and on the imagination with a very peculiar degree of power. And eventually you realize that words can achieve descriptive truth only to a very limited extent. As long as you have one word, like 'iron' or 'silver', or any concrete term like that, it may be connected more or less permanently and definitively with something in the outside world which is described. But as soon as you have two or three words, you have started to elaborate a grammatical structure: and a grammatical structure is a fiction. It turns its back on the world outside and sets up its own conceptions of subject, predicate and object. And so when you are discussing the truth as a verbal structure, you have to allow for the fact that the words conveying this truth are conveying it within their own self-contained structures. You might try to get out of it by saying the subjects and predicates and objects are in fact built into the nature of external reality. But eventually you discover that they are not.
The difference between these two kinds of structures could be illustrated by the difference between the words 'story' and 'history', which at one time were the same word. A history is a verbal structure which is supposed to be parallel with a body of events in the world outside. The historian makes particular statements, and they are judged as to whether they are true or false. In the story there is no such systematic external reference. The story is told for its own sake. Now applying this principle to the Bible, you find that the traditional view of the Bible is that the Bible is related to a group of phenomena external to it, historical events or concepts or doctrines, and that the Bible is literally true in the sense that it is a definitively accurate verbal counterpart of historical events outside it. That is what is often meant by the word 'revelation', which means that something behind the Bible is shining through the Bible on the reader, who is here.
Now that view that the Bible is literally true in the sense of transmitting with definitive accuracy a body of phenomena behind it, was originally intended to exalt the Bible to a uniquely sacrosanct position. But by curious paradox it turned out to do exactly the opposite: that is, it turned the Bible into a servomechanism, into something which is subordinate to something else which is not the Bible. Now what is behind the Bible is not simply a record of historical facts or of doctrines, but ultimately, according to those who have been most deeply concerned with it, the presence of God. And traditionally in Christianity, the phrase 'Word of God' is applied both to the Bible and to this thing which the Bible transmits as a revelation, the person of Christ.
At the same time, when you examine the language of the Bible, you begin to suspect that it was never intended to be a replica of facts outside itself, because words can express that kind of truth only vaguely and approximately, as we've just seen. What words do most powerfully and most accurately and most persuasively is to hang together. When we look at the words of the Bible, we find that they do not have the qualities that we would expect from definitively lucid descriptive writing. That is, although nobody would call the Bible a poem, nevertheless it is full of poetic language, of figures like metaphor and simile and metonymy and hyperbole, all the elements of language that relate words to one another instead of to a world outside. Therefore, what the Bible seems to be doing is insisting on its own authority and autonomy as a work. It is cutting us off from anything which is behind itself, and whatever it is presenting it is presenting as something inside itself. As long as we think of the Word of God as a book transmitting the Word of God as the Person of Christ, as something outside it, then the two aspects of the phrase 'Word of God' are simply illogically and ungrammatically related. But if what the Bible transmits is not separable from the Bible, then at least it makes grammatical and logical sense.
Now along with that traditional view of literal meaning came the view that the writers of the Bible were writing essentially from dictation: that they were essentially holy tape recorders who were writing through some kind of external impulse over which they had very limited control. Now if there is one thing that the scholarship of the Bible seems to have established beyond any reasonable doubt, it is that authorship counts for very little in the Bible. We have always traditionally thought, for example, of the author of the Third Gospel as Luke; but with the possible exception of the first four verses of Luke, there is not a word in the Gospel of Luke of which Luke is in any modern sense the author. According to what is still the general theory, Luke used Mark and another document of the sayings of Christ which the scholars call Q, which he shared with Matthew, and he also has some material of his own, some of the parables and some of the hymns, like the 'Magnificat' and the 'Nune Dimittis', which he is most unlikely to have been the original composer of. So that Luke, like practically all the books in the Bible, is an edited, compiled, composite document.
And so if the Bible is to be regarded as inspired in any sense whatever, sacred or secular, then all the glossing and all the editing and all the redacting and all the splicing and all the editing processes have to be taken as inspired too, because there is no way to distinguish the voice of God from the voice of the Deuteronomic redactor.
This kind of editing and compiling and conflating is a highly conscious and deliberate practice. So whatever the authors of the Gospels were doing, they were certainly not working in a trance. They were working with their minds extremely agile and alert. There isn't a page of the Bible where the editing process is not utterly obvious. In the first five books of the Bible, there are four or five major documents generally distinguished by the different uses they make of the word 'God': one of them is called the J account, because it refers to God as Jahweh, and another is called an E account because it refers to God as Elohim: and then there's a Priestly document and so on. And we also notice that certain editorial changes occur. In the book of Samuel we are told that God was angry with David and therefore tempted him to take a census so he would have an excuse for bringing a famine on him. Well, the Chronicler, who was basing his work on Samuel but writing later, is uncomfortable with this, and so changes 'God' to 'Satan', so that it was Satan who tempted David to take the census. And in Mark, which is almost always regarded as earlier than Matthew and Luke, Jesus looks around the crowd 'with anger'. Matthew and Luke transcribe this sentence, but they leave out the words 'with anger'. The conception of a God superior to anger is obviously taking shape. There are hundreds and hundreds of signs of editing and glossing in the Bible of that kind.
Then of course there is also what has been forming very largely the bulk of this course, the tremendous amount of self-reference within the Bible, of typological structure, which says the only proof that the Gospel story is true is that it fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament, and the only proof that the prophecies of the Old Testament are true is that they are fulfilled by the Gospel, that other words all evidence is hermetically sealed within the Bible itself. There is no evidence worth anything that Jesus had any historical existence outside the New Testament; and it's obvious that the writers of the New Testament preferred it that way, because they could easily have collected such evidence if they had wanted it. They didn't want it.
What I'm suggesting is that what the Bible means literally is what it says. That is, the answer to the question: what does the Bible literally mean? is always the same. The Bible literally means just what it says. But there are two ways of applying that answer. One is to make an immediate jump from what the text of the Bible tells you to what you guess about the historical event, or whatever, behind it. The other is simply to accept the Word in the Bible and gain your understanding of its meaning in the way that we gain understanding of all meaning, through its context in the Bible itself. And so the presence of God comes to us not in the form of a history transmitted through a book, but in the form of a story in which the book itself is autonomous and definitive.
The only time you can take the word 'literal' seriously is when you read something in the same way that you read a poem, where you accept every word that is given to you without question but do not make any premature association between every word and something in the world outside. That is, your whole attention is directed towards putting the words together. And that is why, as I tried to explain in commenting on the Book of Revelation, that while the Bible does come to an end, and quite a well-marked end, it is nevertheless a remarkably open end. It adds a few verses at the end saying, this is it, there are no more books. Just before that, there is the invitation to drink of the water of life, which means that the reality beyond the Bible is not behind the Bible but in front of it, and starts in the reader's mind.
The reader in his turn is one of a society of readers. The point of view that I'm trying to express has nothing original about it. It's the view, for example, of John Milton, who speaks of the Word of God in the reader's heart as having an authority superior to that of the Bible itself. And if you say to Milton, 'Well then, how do you avoid the chaos of private judgment, of every individual reader setting himself up as the judge of what the Bible says?' Milton would say that the reader is not an ego, he is not a self-contained individual, he is a man with a socially and culturally determined consciousness; and behind that consciousness, according to Milton, there is the real reader of the Bible, who for Milton is the Holy Spirit. Whatever one thinks of that as a doctrine, nevertheless the general principle is I think true, that by eliminating what critics call the referentiality of the Bible, you are at the same time eliminating what is private and egocentric and subjective in the reader's mind. It would take another course to explain that sentence fully, but the point is that when you have a structure of words of this kind, the ordinary gap in experience between the subject, who is here, and the object, who is here, disappears. You have something in the middle that becomes both subjective and objective.
The Bible is a structure of fiction and a structure of syntax, I think, rather than of meanings. When the Bible becomes an instrument of social authority, as it was through the Middle Ages and the Reformation period, then it becomes extremely important to enclose the Bible in an interpretation which will provide people with the right way of understanding the Bible. And they understand the Bible through this interpretation, or else. But the interpretation is really one of the obstacles a society puts in to deflect us from the reality of what it is. It's as though you had a kernel of a nut and then went around looking for a shell to put it in, which is an extremely perverse approach to nuts. But that's what happens when you have an artifact like the Bible and then look for an interpretation to put around it as a means of imposing uniformity and authority on the society.
The Bible occupies socially and culturally a privileged position among other books, but the principles don't work when you put the Bible into a non-privileged position. They won't work when you put it into a privileged position either, unless the same essential principles work for any work which is an artifact. The language of the Bible is fundamentally what the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann calls kerygma, which is a Greek word meaning 'proclamation'. That is, the language of the Bible is rhetorical language, and rhetoric always uses the figures of speech that you find in poetic language. But it's rhetoric of a very particular and unique kind. It's not the orator's rhetoric which is designed to persuade you of something. The word 'proclamation' suggests that within this typical structure there is something which is not yourself, that you have to fight with the way Jacob fought with the angel.
Now the language in which this proclamation is contained is the language of myth, and by myth, as we saw, we meant the self-contained narrative unit, the story, rather than the narrative unit related to something else or the history. Bultmann decided to talk about demythologizing the Bible, which is like removing the skin and bones from the body. I don't understand the twentieth century attraction for these antiseptic sounding words beginning with 'de'. I don't know why Bultmann speaks of demythologizing the Bible when he means remythologizing it. And I don't understand in literary criticism why Derrida speaks of deconstruction when what he means is reconstruction. But that's just original sin.
The kerygma or proclamation of the Bible is not the same thing as a literary story in the way that Homer is a literary story, but it is conveyed in that language. It is impossible to demythologize the Gospels because every syllable of the Gospels was written in myth.
It's notable that in the later parts of the New Testament like the Pastoral Epistles, which are made out of Pauline materials after Paul's death, the Bible is getting sufficiently self-conscious to talk about itself; and in the New Testament the Word of God is spoken of as though it were a dialectic. That is, Jesus said he came not to bring peace but a sword, and similarly the Word of God is spoken of as a two-edged sword, and as dividing the word of truth. But that kind of dialectic seems to be very different in its application from the usual aggressive or thesis dialectic, the argument dialectic which you have in so many philosophers, and there are no true rational arguments in the Bible. There are passages in the Epistle to the Hebrews that look like them, but they all turn out to be various disguises for proclamation. The Bible is not interested in arguing, because if you state a thesis of belief you have already stated its opposite; if you say, 'I believe in God', you have already suggested the possibility of not believing in him. In that kind of dialectic, every statement is really a half statement which needs its opposite to complete itself. And so that's not what is meant, I don't see how it can be what is meant, by saying that the Word of God is a dividing thing.
What I think it divides are the two elements of reality as they are exhibited in the New Testament, the elements that we call heaven and hell, the kingdom of life, the kingdom of death. It is that which is divided, and divided by an eternal separation. That means that the language of the Bible has to be a language which somehow bypasses argument and refutation. And again, it is very like the language of poetry, because, as Yeats says, you can refute Hegel but not the Song of Sixpence. You can't argue the poetic statement because it is not a particular statement. It is not subject to verification. So that is why, I think, the Bible presents what it has to say within a narrative and within a body of concrete images which present a world for you to grasp, visualize and understand. The end that it leads you to is in seeing what it means rather than in accepting or rejecting it, because by accepting it you have already defined the possibility of rejecting it.
So the Bible uses the language of symbolism and imagery because the language of symbolism and imagery, which bypasses argument and aggressiveness and at the same time clearly defines the difference between life and death, between freedom and slavery, between happiness and misery, is in short the language of love, and according to St. Paul, that is likely to last longer than most other forms of human communication.
That's it. Thank you for your attention.