Dimanche 09 août 2020
Lundi 23 avril 2012

Critical Theolinguistics vs. the Literalist Paradigm

Critical Theolinguistics vs. the Literalist Paradigm Campaign creator Ariane Sherine, and Richard Dawkins |Source=[http://www.flickr.com/photos/57571261@N00/3173615995/ Atheist Bus Campaign Launch]

Even though “religion as the opiate of the people” is one of the oft-quoted (albeit occasionally misunderstood) tenets of Marxist criticism, nowhere in the 1,800 or so pages of Michael Toolan’s Critical Discourse Analysis (2002) can one find a study denouncing a use of religious discourse seeking “to shape people's perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept the existing order of things, [...] because they are made to value it as divinely ordained and beneficial.” (S. Lukes: Power: A Radical View, 1974). Theolinguistics is, then, called upon to fulfill a new critical mandate today, as the very status of religious language, i.e. the manner in which it is to be read, received, understood and believed has become an issue in a number of debates which have over the last few years captured much public attention and polarized opinion, opening a new battlefield in the culture war. Biblical, theological, literary and linguistic scholarship have offered insightful and well-informed answers to most problems of religious language; but even so, religious discourse (mainly, but not exclusively Christian) has remained a problematic and controversial topic. One reason for this seems to be that no theory of religious language, no matter how open-ended, can accommodate the full variety of religious temperaments.

Nor can it, a fortiori, cater for the “natural” but misguided human tendency to cast differences of opinion into binary judgments, especially when indiscriminate adherence to, and recycling for one’s own ends, of a truth-claim like John 14:6 (“I am the way, the truth, and the life”) allows Christians to pose as the exclusive owners of an ultimate, universal truth; but if the believers' claims to truth are authenticated only by the writings they themselves choose to regard as authoritative, they are bound to raise the suspicion of circularity. And there's the rub: in the discrepancy between approaches, not only between different religions, denominations, theologies, and priorities, but also between militants for a variety of issues, who dress up their moral arguments in a highly partial religious garb (“partial” in its two meanings: selective and biased) to give them a veneer of authority and credibility they would not enjoy otherwise.        

Pro-lifers and pro-choicers, pro-gay and contra-gay, pro-war and anti-war, pro-property and anti-property lobbies will each in their own domain offer scriptural underpinnings for the cause they advocate – both, presumably, with equal sincerity, though not always with the well-informed insight gained from a critical approach to the texts they keep lobbing at each other. Fundamentalists will cling to a univocal reading of what they regard as God's unmediated, unadulterated Word (often in one specific translation or edition).

More enlightened readers will approach the texts via the insights of historico-critical and literary scholarship and seek to understand the statements within the broader perspective of the history of texts and ideas. This reading must not, however, focus on the objective rationality of the scientific method to the point of ignoring the texts’ theological and religious dimension: one can read “with” as well as “against” a text; it has become a popular pastime nowadays to peruse scriptural texts in order to denounce their non-scientific status or their internal contradictions, but there subsists a way for believers to read the same texts “in good faith” for spiritual guidance. Faithfulness, however, does not mean that the propositions are to be taken at their face value.

The literalist reading of scripture is an unfortunate outgrowth of biblical scholarship, whose origins may be traced back to the Reformation’s radical advocacy of the Bible as the only theological foundation of Christian faith, to the subsequent development of philology and text studies, and above all to the invention of printing, which made scripture more accessible (inasmuch as people were able to read; hence the reformers’ insistence on literacy). The sola scriptura of Protestantism sought to relieve the scriptures from the burden of established tradition, to redeem them from the magisterial authority of the Roman Church, and to return to the original communicative intent. Too exclusive a focus on the divine authority of scripture (ignoring the roles of both the human author and the human reader) could and did, however, lead to a distortion where the Word of God would be assimilated to the printed text, which could now be read instead of heard, and where a Bible text plucked out of context could be proffered as a divinely inspired argument to legitimate positions in personal or social ethics.

Once printed and published, any text could now be looked up as in a reference book and lifted from the page to chime in with the user’s preferences and purposes, or be confronted to an opponent’s choice. The prevalence of this type of reading in certain U.S. protestant denominations may be explained through the fact that the settlers who fled religious intolerance in their home countries were naturally wary of Church dogmatism, and developed a Bible-based, moralizing Christianity, often at the hands of enthusiastic laymen unconversant with the interpretive scholarly efforts of European protestantism.

An opposite movement of distrust and disparagement of religious language developed by the middle of the 19th century. Heavily conditioned by the paradigm of the exact sciences, for which “true” must mean “empirically verifiable”, it came to suggest that if the scriptures read as univocal accounts were not historically and scientifically accurate, they could not be true at all, ignoring that a univocal reading does not do justice to the integrity of the text, i.e. that religion and science, mythos and logos play different language games, and need not, therefore, be viewed as competing, mutually contradictory accounts.

And thus the debate rages on, notably in the opposition between creationists and evolutionists, epitomized in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2007). Dawkins addresses a scope much wider than the question of creation vs. evolution: he also inveighs, and rightly so, against the use of religion as an instrument of misguided political correctness or as an excuse for the indoctrination of children; but his main argument focuses on two points: a) there is no acceptable evidence for the existence of God, and b) evolution offers a more scientific and plausible account of evolution than that provided by the biblical creation narratives.

In developing these arguments, he surprisingly shares with the fundamentalists the belief that scripture is to be subjected to scrutiny as if it were a factual report; and thus comes to the rather obvious conclusion that the biblical terms do not tally with scientific observation: indeed, the pre-scientific God of the Gaps has died the death of a thousand qualifications, and eventually become too limited to be credible. It is surprising that a brilliant scientist like Dawkins should feel the need to invoke the absence of physical evidence to reject a metaphysical representation. The strength of his argument is, however, that much of the “evidence” previously offered by the theologians for the existence of God is logically questionable. But even so, the attitude which would seek to jettison all scriptural discourse as “mere myth” reflects little insight into the operation of human language, considering the variety of speech acts that the Bible engages in.

One of the new roles of critical theolinguistics, then, is to chart the difference between, and the credibility of, various possible readings. Reduction of the difference between science and religion to a binary contrast between “how” and “why” the universe came into being, for example, is a gross oversimplification; it is not sure that the Bible can give a satisfactory answer to the question “why the universe exists” or that it alone determines “how to live a good life”; but it does highlight the fact that the language of scripture, and religious discourse in its wake, is not exclusively “representative” in the meaning that linguists give to that word, i.e. that it reports or describes things in constative terms.       

Of course that can be said about many forms of human linguistic usage: not only about metaphysics and poetry, but also, say, about the requests, directives, commissives, expressives and performatives that make up much (actually most) of our everyday human interaction. Yet it is the language of religion that not infrequently finds itself in the dock to be indicted with the charge of non-sense. The Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation (1975) notes a pervasive conviction that “religious statements are totally independent of reasonable discourse”. For the sincere believer who feels caught between the rock and the hard place, i.e. between the fundamentalists who claim that their reading yields the full plain truth and the modernists who dismiss it as mere myth (by which they mean falsehood), the way out of the conundrum is to learn how to relate to the sacred stories.

It has by now become a widely accepted conviction that in the descriptive, “theographic” phase, but also in much ascriptive liturgical language, metaphor logic concords remarkably well with the conditions for meaningful, valid, and understandable religious expression. Whereas it is clear, as an inherent corollary of the very notion of metaphor, that the truth of metaphorical utterances is not to be sought in their literal extension, their validity cannot be denied without further ado: they are recognized to say something, however tentatively or obliquely, about the nature of what is.

Precious insight may here be gained from a parallel drawn between the use of models in the exact sciences and the function of metaphors in theography, although it must be pointed out that until recently, philosophers have tended to be rather optimistic in their assessment of the former, and pessimistic in their appraisal of the latter area of discourse. Explaining religious propositions in terms of metaphor logic delivers religious usage from the debilitating accusation by outsiders that they are an elaborate, false and misleading way of saying what could have been expressed more efficiently and economically in straightforward terms.

Considering the importance attached to biblical narratives like the creation story in the controversy between scientists and creationists, and Dawkins’ tendency to stereotype all biblical narratives as nonsense, the relevance of metaphor logic to larger units must be hinted at here.

Like metaphors, biblical narratives are not to be understood as literal, constative, verifiable reports (the story of Adam and Eve); like some metaphors, they may be “twice- true”, but the univocal reading does not exhaust their meaning (Jacob’s Well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman is the place where they met, but also stands for the water of Jewish ritual, to be supplanted by Jesus’ living water); like metaphors they may orient perception of and insight into existence (“God created Man” read as “Life is precious”) and may guide thought and action (the parable of the Good Samaritan as an image of boundary- crossing charity).

Of course not all narratives are to be indiscriminately tossed into the same bag: parables are clearly didactic devices, and only some of them are point-for-point allegories (the Sower in Matthew 13:18-22); some stories (creation, the fall, the flood) are mythological representations also found in other religions and civilizations, which reflect deep-seated human hopes and fears; others again (Jesus’ birth, words, trial, crucifixion) may have an anchorage in the historical world, but have been edited to fit in with each evangelist’s theology and the culture and expectations of their audiences. But just as secular narratives give children guidance and help them deal with inner turmoil and anxiety, the sacred narratives, far from being nonsense, may be viewed as Stories We Live By. Like the great myths of humanity, they are reflections of existential questions, helping homines religiosi to explore and explain who they are and how to relate to the world they live in. In answering these questions, the stories that people tell and are told can bring happiness or misery to millions.

This impels the critical theolinguist to ask the fundamental question of the use to which biblical stories and narratives are to be put. Human language has a potential for cooperation as well as for conflict, and the choice between the two is a moral one: we cannot choose not to choose.

Jean-Pierre van Noppen (ULB).

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