Monday, March 22, 2010

Jesus in the Balance: Interpretation in the Twenty-First Century III

Luther's crisis is provoked in part by the mental feedback loops that take over when the language of faith no longer refers to the silence from which it arises and to which it returns. His realization that "the righteousness of God was not 'active'—that by which God condemns—but 'passive'—that by which he finds us acceptable by making us righteous" points toward the silence tradition, as Rowan Williams suggests. [7]

But he is perhaps too damaged by what he suffered early on, too hemmed about by institutional concerns, and too badly in need of a means of discernment to be able to break away from the language wars and a need for a confession of faith. The word "faith" is key to his theology, but it in the end it seems to require framework, sympathetic to, but falling short of the open-ended intransitive verb of the Gospel of John. [8]

Although, in the West, the silence tradition vanishes from mainline institutional practice and interpretation in most denominations, it is kept a live by a dwindling number of advocates: dissidents (e.g., Quakers, Shakers), humanists, metaphysical poets, and, in the twentieth century, by figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil. Weil seems particularly difficult for modern scholars to appreciate, unfamiliar as they are with the silence tradition, kenotic theology and the exaggerated metaphor often used to express them. In fact, lacking the most basic knowledge of these traditions, modern interpretations of ancient and medieval writings, of scripture, liturgy and doctrine are often fatally short-circuited.

The disappearance of the word "behold" from modern bible translations is symptomatic. The word is beautifully amplified by Julian of Norwich. [9] Behold is a theological word signifying more than union, an exchange of being between God and the human person. "Behold, a virgin shall conceive." It is in the beholding that Mary conceives; the rest of the sentence is for those who do not behold. [10]

[7] Williams, 147ff.
[8] This insight derived from a lecture by Judith Lieu given in the Oxford University Classics department in the autumn of 2006.
[9] This text cannot be translated. The best version is edited by Marion Glasscoe, Julian of Norwich: A Revelation of Love (Exeter: University of Exeter, 1993). To read this text is no more difficult—and uses the same skills—as reading cell phone text messages.
[10] Vincent Gillespie and Maggie Ross, "The Apophatic Image: The Poetics of Effacement in Julian of Norwich" in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England V, ed. Marion Glasscoe (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1992) 53-77.


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