on Ratzinger and reading

Another thing I’m not is a theologian. Nonetheless, here’s something I wrote a few years ago on Benedict’s exegesis (his interpretation of the Bible) and hermeneutics (his theory of interpretation generally). Warning: very long and dense.


Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, shortly after becoming Pope Benedict XVI, published a book entitled Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. Unsurprisingly, for a pontiff who served as doctrinal enforcer for his very conservative predecessor (John Paul II), Benedict seeks in this work to refute liberal theologians, whom he constructs as exegetic sceptics and moral relativists. Against these, Benedict presents his own work as an exegetic objectivism, founded in the stable and self-identical meanings spoken by Christ.

To be sure, Benedict recognizes that interpretative relativism presents a genuine danger for any reader of the New Testament. This is because of the extraordinary readings of the Old Testament offered by the biblical Christ (plus Peter and Paul). The annihilation of the innumerable Jewish laws in the single Christian law of love – coupled with the insistence to be fulfilling Torah complexity thereby, without abrogating “one jot or tittle” – places the Gospel on a paradoxical, even an antinomian, footing.  Mustn’t the law of love have the power to annihilate any and all scriptural injunctions, replacing them with “humanistic” interpretations, as long as the latter appear consistent with the law of love? Doesn’t Christ himself give license for this sort of thing?

Benedict answers very clearly, and very firmly, in the negative. Christ could radically reinterpret scripture, the pontiff writes, solely and precisely because He was the Christ: the Word of God, the incarnation of the Holy Spirit; the scriptural author, in effect, made flesh. Having determined, authorially, the meaning of Torah in the first place, Christ is uniquely and exclusively, empowered to revise its meaning. Thus in examining the relationship between the Mosaic law and Christ’s revisionist treatment of it, we are not exposing ourselves to “the personal opinion of one teacher,” a mere “liberal reform rabbi.” As a matter of fact, Benedict writes,

“Jesus’s teaching is not the product of human learning, of whatever kind. It originates from immediate contact with the Father, from “face-to-face” dialogue – from the vision of the one who rests close to the Father’s heart. It is the Son’s word. Without this inner grounding, his teaching would be pure presumption. That is just what the learned men of Jesus’ time judged it to be, and they did so precisely because they could not accept its inner grounding: seeing and knowing face-to-face.” (Jesus of Nazareth, 7)

The interpretative diktat of the divine author, emanating from a dialogue that is before all dialogue, is the only standard that the Pharisees could have accepted for Jesus’s inversions of Torah. But unbeknownst to them, this is exactly the standard that he (on Benedict’s reading) brought. It is precisely “adherence to Jesus himself, to his Torah” that hermeneutically validates the Gospel: for

“if Jesus is God, then he is entitled and able to handle the Torah as he does. On that condition alone does he have the right to interpret the Mosaic order of divine commands in such a radically new way as only the Law-giver – God himself – can claim to do.” (Jesus of Nazareth, 115 [my emphasis])

It follows that Christ gives Christians (according to Benedict’s argument) no hermeneutic licence at all. He sanctions no new ways of making sense out of scripture. Rather, Christ sanctions new senses of scripture – which he, out of an “original understanding” unique to himself, makes.

To be sure, Christians are called upon to believe that the resulting interpretations of Jewish law are, without any doubt or question, valid (even for Jews). This validity, however, rests only and terminally on its posited origin in Christ. Gospel hermeneutics, for Benedict, devolves on the mystery of the Incarnation. Therefore, for anybody to read the Bible as Christ reads Torah would be blasphemy, not exegesis. It would be tantamount to claiming Christ’s hermeneutic position. Even the Church, despite its traditional claim to be filled by the Holy Spirit, shrinks (in Benedict’s construction) from such an usurpation. In this way, Benedict purchases doctrinal security from exegetic scepticism and moral relativism. The intensionality of Christ, placed before and beyond scripture, controls and determines its meaning absolutely and finally.

But at a very high price. Benedict’s objectivism depends on a posit of incomprehensible validation. Christ’s interpretations, Benedict tells us, are a priori valid; but only Christ can understand that a priori validity. All anybody else can understand, or needs to understand, is that Christ, and Christ alone, understands it. Therefore (1) nobody else should claim or expect to follow, in the last analysis, the hermeneutic logic of Christ’s insights into Torah; and (2) Christ’s power of incomprehensible validation (incomprehensible, that is, to anybody who is not Christ) is his unique and effective exegetic privilege. We must be prepared to accept, precisely without understanding, the posited validity of Christ’s interpretations. Acceptance, for us, must be our exegetic validation; and such validation, by definition, must be incomprehensible.

Achtung: incomprehensible validation, on Benedict’s view, is supposed to be a unique privilege of Christ. Yet in trying not to touch that privilege, we find ourselves taking it up. We find ourselves defining Christ’s hermeneutics by an idea of ours: namely, the idea of a limit to our understanding. We propose that we understand that Christ’s validation is something that we can’t understand. But how can we possibly understand that?

Meanwhile: if we are unable to understand what makes Christ’s interpretations valid, that amounts to saying that we cannot, finally, understand them to be valid. (We can only accept them to be valid; which, etc.) Now, understanding an interpretation means understanding it to be valid or invalid. Understanding an interpretation to be valid is entailed in understanding that valid interpretation. Presumably, Christ gives only valid interpretations (this would appear to be a theological necessity). Therefore, if we cannot understand Christ’s interpretations to be valid, it follows that we simply cannot understand Christ’s interpretations.

But if we cannot understand Christ’s interpretations, we cannot specify what they say or don’t say. For being able to specify that would be understanding them; which, apparently, we cannot do. Now, if we cannot specify what Christ’s interpretations say or don’t say, we surely can claim no grounds for validating or invalidating anybody else’s account of what they say or don’t say. For our account of what the interpretations say or don’t say can make no claim of correctness. All accounts of Christ’s interpretations, therefore – all readings of the Gospel – must be accounted equally valid, and/or invalid. But that amounts to the view that we don’t even know what the Gospel says. This is a position of absolute, even incoherent, exegetic scepticism. But this is what follows from Benedict’s attempt to establish exegetic objectivism.

Finally: Benedict is saying that Christ’s interpretations of Torah are a priori valid. An interpretation of Torah is sound and correct (mutatis mutandis) simply on the basis that Christ gave it.

Now, Christ can, presumably, experience no restriction on his interpretative choices. This would be inconsistent with divine freedom, as well as with the very idea of an interpretation – a selection of textual meanings, out of the range of all possible meanings. Therefore, Christ could have given any number of different interpretations (of a given Torah precept) from the one that he actually gave.

Moreover, the interpretation Christ actually gave is no more intrinsically valid, in and of itself, than any of the other possible interpretations he could have given. The Gospel, in short, could have been different (even though it is not).

Christ could, in principle, enthusiastically have joined in stoning the adultress.

He could have excommunicated himself for healing on the Sabbath.

He could have insisted that his Gentile followers undergo circumcision.

Such possibilities, however, make the Gospel that is – as opposed to the Gosepls that might have been – a mere entry in an illimitable, and effectively random, catalog of potentially-valid religions. But this, again, is exactly the sort of view against which Benedict conceives himself to be polemicizing.

Willy-nilly, Benedict has repeated the error of Plato’s Euthyphro – who thinks that piety is just what is God-beloved, rather than thinking that the gods love what is pious. Such voluntarism evacuates, rather than safeguarding, the ethical content of pious phenomena. They become arbitrary, conventional, from the divine point of view. And the divine point of view is exactly the one that matters.

The way to save exegesis from scepticism, in fact, is not to propose (with the pontiff) that Christ’s interpretations are a priori valid. It is to propose, rather, that Christ gives a priori valid interpretations – but precisely as valid, rather than as arbitrary re-determinations of what counts as valid. They are a challenge for human interpreters, the recipients of the divine to teaching, to understand, with the tools and abilities given to them for that purpose.

Similarly, the way to save the Gospel from relativism is not to point out (with Benedict) that God, freely, has given it. It is to point out, rather, that God has freely given the Gospel – and nothing other than the Gospel —  the truth as the truth, not as one of any number of ways “the truth” could have been. The Gospel, in this manner, is opened up as something that the individual Christian can, and must, try to understand, precisely in the very nature of its challenging validity. And that means, finally, that the hermeneutic keys to the Kingdom cannot be left, pace Benedict, in its ruler’s keep.

Benedict’s exegesis is authoritarian; his hermeneutics, empty. His is a theory of reading as not reading at all. There’s a long tradition, going back at least to Augustine, behind this kind of view. More’s the pity.

If the trumpet give an uncertain sound

I thought it was striking that the President quoted Scripture at the memorial for the Newtown victims on Monday. Traditional Democrat tendencies (at least in recent decades) might have been to shy away from such Christian rhetoric — especially given the “inter-faith” nature of the event. But Obama, by his own account a practicing Christian, spoke from a position of that faith. In my view, this was entirely appropriate. Inter-faith dialogue does not mean that faiths are checked at the door, but rather — exactly to the contrary — that they are welcome to come in as they are. Moreover, if respecting others’ faiths means anything, it means expecting that one’s own faith (or lack thereof) will be respected in the same way. For the whole idea is that each individual’s speaking-position is something she or he can’t just lay aside. Thus Obama, as a Christian, showed maximum respect and humility for the dialogue by speaking Christianly. He would have been condescending and inauthentic — he would have been speaking in bad faith — if he had offered only the usual post-modern and non-sectarian homilies. You know the sort of thing: let’s all come together, rise above our troubles, seek the light, etc.

And yet: I thought the President’s choice of scripture was pretty striking, too. He quoted 2nd Corinthians 4.16-18, in the New International Version (NIV). I did NOT know that just from reading his address; I had to Google the quote, just like everybody else. As a matter of fact, I was initially unsure, despite his “Scripture tells us,” that Obama was quoting the Bible at all. The second letter to the Corinthians is pretty obscure, I think (Biblical scholars are welcome to correct me), lying as it does in the massive rhetorical shadow of First Corinthians (with its through a glass darkly, faith hope charity, etc.). 2.Cor.4.16-18, specifically, is one of the relatively few passages in any of Paul’s Epistles that make no mention of Jesus, or the Church. It is one of the very few in Paul that sound rather like a non-sectarian post-modern homily — a lot of generic stuff about not losing heart, seeking inward renewal, looking to eternity, etc. The incredibly bland prose of the NIV, which would not be out of place in a self-help book, doesn’t help. (Obviously, I’m a King James man myself). Add it all up and you have the President quoting Scripture at the Newtown memorial, but in such a way that he was almost not quoting Scripture. It was as if he was trying to sneak the Bible in; to screen it, rather than to show it.

I think that’s unfortunate. For two reasons. First: the careful choice of such an unscripturey scripture does tend to weaken, along the lines I’ve already indicated, the authenticity and sincerity of Obama’s speech. And second: The President was speaking at the advent of a domestic political crisis that contains within itself the potential for a tremendous social renewal. Across the media and political landscapes of the United States, people who have previously hidden their support for gun control, or have actively campaigned against it, are suddenly and as if through an awakening standing up and saying that the wind has changed. If the President is to lead  on this issue, if he is to seize and augment the progressive momentum that has been unleashed since the Newtown shootings, he will need to be, not just a manager, or a figurehead, or a decision-maker — but a teacher, a father, a preacher. In the idiom of St. Paul, Obama will need to prophesy. And this not in any generic mode, but in a manifestly Christian one.

After all, the gun-madness of contemporary US political culture (like the reactionary-right-wing-madness of which it is a subset), is not a Jewish or a Muslim or an interfaith problem. It is a Christian problem. The politics of firearms extremism in the US is intimately intertwined with the politics of evangelical Christianity, in all its dogmatic self-caricature. The way to cut this knot is not to concede Christianity to ignorant reactionaries, but to reclaim it from them. And although I am not myself a practicing Christian (or anything else), I know enough of the Bible and of Christian tradition to believe quite passionately that such a reclamation is entirely possible. I have always thought it one of the long-term disasters of modern American politics that progressive leaders have abandoned Christianity, which is so deeply-rooted in so many areas of American society, to the reductive right-wing. Less than fifty years ago, it was not so: the civil-rights struggle would never have succeeded without the churches, and the transformative work of Martin Luther King was saturated with the Bible through and through. Obama, perhaps more than any Democrat since King, may have the capacity to re-articulate for Americans the meaning of the Christian testament. And if he doesn’t, I do not believe that he will be able to achieve very much on gun control.

So I hope that Obama will speak to this issue, precisely as a Christian, sincerely, fully, and openly. I hope he comes out swinging, with Jesus and Paul and John. I’m afraid, though, that prophet is a role he does not quite want; that passion threatens his coolness. I’m afraid he will flinch, as he did at Newtown, when asked to speak from his faith.

And then who shall prepare for the battle? (1 Cor. 14.8)