Monday, December 03, 2007

V Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

The eucharistic elements are themselves apophatic images: a white disc of bread on which light and dark play without image, and dark wine in a gold chalice, light playing off the surfaces of liquid and smooth metal. But the Eucharist is apophatic in another, more profound way, for the law of apophatic images is that they efface themselves, and at the Fraction in effective liturgies, the Host is held aloft and broken, the two halves being separated widely to reveal the emptiness that lies between, the ineffable from which fullness of life is returned. This gesture mirrors the dynamic by which humans pray, the self-forgetfulness by which they become transfigured, the relinquishing of thoughts and self-concern, self-consciousness, into silence, and the emergence of new life from that Silence.

While much modern biblical scholarship is very welcome, modern translations have fallen into many of the same traps as theology by ignoring the fundamental laws of language and apophasis. They have lost their evocative quality, and evocation through poesis is one way language moves the reader out of the linear to the threshold of the apophatic. They have lost their multidimensional poetics and become merely functional. Biblical scholars are guilty of the same linearity as theologians and for many of the same reasons.

Consider the word ‘behold’, for example. It doesn’t often appear in modern translations. These days Hebrew word for behold, ‘hin-nay’ (the Greek and Latin are less equivalent) is often translated ‘see’ or ‘listen’, but that is not what it signifies. Behold, as Julian of Norwich clearly understands, is a profoundly theological word. It is apophatic reciprocity, in which, through beholding, the person and creation are held in being by God, and God, who is beyond being, is held in being and time by the beholder. The text that follows on the occurrence of the word ‘behold’ is explanationfor those who do not behold, as in, 'Behold, the handmaid of the Lord.' The last five words are in fact redundant to 'behold', in which the notion of 'handmaid' is implicit.

It is in the beholding itself that Mary conceives. And it is a psychological commonplace that it is in self-forgetful beholding that the most profound healing and fulfilment occur in the human person. These annunciations, whatever their source, however they occur, are profoundly dislocating, for in their wake, life can never again be the same.

Yet Raymond Brown dismisses Mary’s troubled heart and the angel’s ‘do not be afraid,’ as ‘part of the banal and stereotyped language of angelic appearances [which have] no psychological import’ (Birth of the Messiah p. 322). In this I think he is profoundly wrong, and his comment evidences the divorce between modern scholarship and lived experience. It does not seem to occur that the narrative patterns which interest him might reflect consistent empirical patterns throughout human experience of the life of God available to and working within the ordinary epistemological process hardwired in every human person.

As Robert Withnow remarked, commenting on the small group phenomenon,

‘At one time theologians argued that the chief purpose of humankind was to glorify God. Now it would seem that the logic has been reversed: the chief purpose of God is to glorify humankind. Spirituality no longer is true or good because it meets absolute standards of truth or goodness, but because it helps me get along. I am the judge of its worth. If it helps me find a vacant parking space, I know my spirituality is on the right track. If it leads me into the wilderness, calling me to face dangers I would rather not deal with at all, then it is a form of spirituality I am unlikely to choose.’ (Christian Century, 8 Dec. 1993, pp. 1239-40.)

Of course God does glorify humankind, deify it, in fact, but this, too can take place only in the context of the self-outpouring attendant on self-forgetfulness, which is our mind's image and likeness of God. And we could add to Withnow’s comments on human attempts to domesticate God the scientific evidence that shows that domestication of animals is coterminous with regression to infantile behaviour; in the case of God, on the side of human beings only.


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