The Hazards Of Defending The Indefensible

Over the years of studying and dealing with both the practitioners and the practice of theodicy, I have developed a pretty accurate set of antennae for detecting when even people of undisputed integrity and good will have gone “a bridge too far” in their zeal to “justify the ways of God to man” by defending conduct that, in other contexts, would be assessed as unambiguously criminal. In  such cases, God is allowed to breeze by despite conduct that would earn a human a war-crimes trial at The Hague. No devout monotheist is exempt from this risk, not even the most temperate, rational, and tolerant. Fr. Ron Rolheiser is a quintessentially temperate, rational, and tolerant man par excellence, both professionally and personally, as I can attest from having met him, spoken with him one-to-one, and taken his class on Christian anthropology at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry back in “the day”. But even Fr. Rolheiser comes perilously close to the quicksand pit of fatal theodical consistency in his recent defense of certain “difficult passages” of the Bible, e.g., the genocide of the Amalekites.  There are two interrelated issues with Fr. Rolheiser’s interpretation of those texts.

Fr. Rolheiser wants to argue that these “terrible texts” are intended, not as a factual record of events – there Fr. Rolheiser and I agree – or even as allegories, but as archetypal parables of the kind of life we are called upon to live, i.e., a life where all death-dealing forms of behavior are to be extirpated root and branch.  So, e.g., when God commands the Israelites entering the Promised Land to kill all the indigenous inhabitants, that admonition was never intended as a categorical command to be literally obeyed, but as a thinly veiled moral injunction to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles [us]” (Heb. 12:1).  There are a couple of “sub-problems” with this understanding, as will be evident from a close reading of Fr. Rolheiser’s column I link to above.

Gideon's Victory Over the Midianites ... Nicholas Poussin
Joshua's Victory Over the Amalekites by Nicholas Poussin

o Fr. Rolheiser has a persistent tendency to allow his theology to more or less a priori determine his reading of the Bible.

I say a persistent tendency because he has dealt with “difficult texts” elsewhere, always deploying his “theology a priori” paradigm to interpret the text instead of vice versa. For example, in the “difficult texts” just referenced, he said in scripture as a whole, we see that God is non-negotiably all-loving, all-merciful, and all-good and that it is impossible to attribute bias, callousness, brutality, favoritism, and violence to God. Well, in world history "as a whole," we see that Germany "as a whole" is an enlightened, sophisticated, tolerant (at times, even iconoclastic), refined, cultured country. But that little phrase "as a whole" tends to elide, e.g., the Kulturkampf and the Shoah. And Martin Luther's book-burnings. Same here with Fr. Rolheiser's use of that same little phrase. The obvious response is to say that, yes, the God of the Bible is “all-loving, all-merciful, and all-good” … except when God isn’t. The “theology a priori” interpretive paradigm enables an interpreter to use the “difficult texts” as witnesses against themselves:  the very fact that God is depicted as violent, arbitrary, and vindictive then becomes prima facie evidence that God is not thus! Presuppose up front, as a "first principle," that God is “all-loving, all-merciful, and all-good”, and of course contrary texts must perforce be reinterpreted.

o There seems to be a double standard for when to interpret biblical texts literally and when to interpret them archetypally, and that distinction is “engineered” in such a way as to exonerate God.

For example, it is true that [w]e do not, for example, take literally Jesus’ command to “call no one on earth your father”, nor Paul’s command: “Slaves be subject to your masters.”  Agreed:  "we do not ... take literally, etc." ... The begged question, of course, is Why not? Certainly not because there is any “biblio-centric” rule against such an interpretation. (Even if the biblical text did contain a rule for interpretation, that rule, being but one more text, would itself be subject to interpretation! Besides, who is "we"? If we were to use the colloquial interpretation of biblical texts as our exegetical rule-of-thumb, i.e., what "we" take literally, we would still be reading the "curse of Ham" narratives in Genesis to justify slavery.) Nevertheless – this is the second component of this “sub-problem” – we do not, e.g.,  hesitate to take literally Jesus’ admonition to His disciples to allow little children to come to Him. There seems to be nothing symbolic or allegorical, least of all archetypal, about the latter. Instead, we accept Jesus’ affection for children as straightforwardly literal:  Jesus liked little kids, and little kids liked Jesus. Again Why? Why the double interpretive standard?

I have gone into some detail dealing with this question elsewhere. Without reinventing the wheel, suffice to say that Fr. Rolheiser does not take sufficient note of the cultural determinants of biblical interpretation.  We Westerners, even conservatives, though they would be loath to own up to it, but especially progressives, self-consciously or not, interpret the Bible through glasses indelibly colored by Enlightenment-centric biases. We detest slavery. We are knee-jerkingly suspicious of authority, especially patriarchal authority, i.e., the authority of males in general and of fathers in particular. Jesus’ listeners, and the early readers of the Gospels, “suffered” from neither of these “limitations”. (Incidentally, it is difficult to argue that the New Testament did not accept slavery, given that St. Paul counseled Onesimus to return to his [Onesimus’] master.) On the other hand, the Enlightenment ethos, especially Romanticism, had this (‘ way excessive, in my view) rapturous and idealistic view of children. We read these Enlightenment / Romantic biases into the text:  slavery and patriarchy, real bad; kids, real good. The result is a God Who wants to free the slaves, liberate women from male oppression, and Who nevertheless really likes kids … a kind of celestial Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Then we turn around and assert that these 18th-century Enlightenment-European biases are actually there, archetypally, in the text (except for the goodness of kids, which we take literally), and not just in our minds.

Now we come to the real problem:  once you, as reader, divest yourself of those enculturated, in fact, most usually unconscious,  Enlightenment / Romantic biases about, e.g., the evils of slavery and, e.g., the goodness of children, then for the sake of intellectual integrity, you have to seriously consider the possibility that, at the time those texts were written, and at the time their listeners heard or read them , to those people of that era, maybe there was no critical interpretive distinction between "literal" and "archetypal". To put the issue another way, we have to at least consider the possibility that Fr. Rolheiser is advocating for an interpretation of the biblical text that, for indelibly historical reasons, was simply not available to the people of the historical epoch in which those texts were written and read. In other words, we have to take into account, not only the intent of the author, but what the intent of the author could have been. Yes, this means asking if the author(s) of, e.g., the Amalekite-genocide narrative wrote the text with the intent of its being an archetype. But much more than that, could the author(s) have written the text with that intent? Were they, in their day, capable of forming such a purpose? And, correspondingly, were the readers capable of forming the corresponding intent in and by the act of reading?

Jephthah's Daughter ... Debat Ponsan

My answer to all the foregoing "coulds" and "capables":  I seriously, gravely, thoroughly doubt it. In fact, to say that any biblical author could have written any text in either Testament with "archetypal" intent is like saying that Newton could have written his theory of universal gravitation so as to accommodate supersymmetry:  in both cases, the requisite conceptual "machinery" simply did not exist. Of course, this leaves open the issue of what God's actual nature and personality are. What Fr. Rolheiser is, as a matter of fact, defending is not the Bible qua Bible, but our "Enlightenment-centric" understanding of, and presuppositions concerning, the Bible. Which leaves the following questions unresolved. Is God really vindictive? Is God really violent? Does God really play favorites? My answer:  we cannot know. As with Kant, the Ding an sich -- the noumenal "thing-in-itself" that lies behind phenomenal perceptions / interpretations -- is inaccessible. At most, and taking the biblical texts at face value, the most we can say is that the biblical authors wrote their theological parables in such a way as to reflect their and their cultures' perception that, yes, God is / is capable of all those things. And if we try to get past the biblical authors' subjectivity, we only encounter our own.

So to borrow from the old Scholastics, Omnia exeunt in mysterium.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Joshua's Victory Over the Amalekites ... Nicholas Poussin ... Public domain
Gideon's Victory Over the Midianites ... Nicholas Poussin ... Public domain
Jesus and the Little Children ... Vogel von Vogelstein ... Public domain
Sacrifice of Jephthah's Daughter ... Debat-Ponsan ... Public domain

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