Credo: The Nicene Creed
6. Interlude on Truth
on the Nicene Creed has so far presented five articles on words or phrases in
the first article (paragraph) of the Creed. Now I am pausing between articles to
consider why anyone who is searching for the truth should bother with the
Creed—and why I haven’t addressed this matter earlier. This calls for an
exploration of the question “What is truth?” The answer I propose is like a
hypothesis and this essay is like an experiment, testing the hypothesis. The
Truth is something
that happens before it is a settled reality.
hypothesis is correct, then engaging the Creed, trying to interpret it, could
be one way of nurturing an event of truth. Christians claim to be
telling the truth when they meaningfully recite the Creed, but nothing is
meaningful without interpretation. Truth first arises in a history of
interpretations. Then it may settle into an establish form, but only
provisionally. New interpretations are always possible.
essay is not a demonstration of anything in the Creed but an attempt to show something essential to theology: that there is a
kind of meaning that is neither scientifically true nor scientifically false
and a quality of reality that science doesn't reveal. A different, but related,
kind of thinking can reveal it.The difference is important, or religion is a
waste of time. The relatedness is also important, or religion gives up any
claim to being true. I take a long road through theory and history, so first
here's a kind of roadmap:
1, "Proof versus experience," offers some thoughts about proving the existence of God:
A. The impossibility
and undesirability of proving that there is such a thing as a god. Any supposed proof
only gives you the wrong god, and not just a mistake but an idol at the service
of some dominant group.
B. Instead of proof,
experiences and interpretations. We live in the midst of a history of
interpreted experiences that we call tradition. Tradition includes all the ways
we respond to experience, including stories. Anyone, not just the rich
and powerful, can tell stories.
2 , "From the Middle Ages to Babb,Montana," tells a story about what
happened when part of the world tried to cut free from tradition
C. Ancient science: A
story world. Until the end of the Middle Ages science took ordinary
experience at face value. Science and religion had enough in common that they
could at least talk to each other.
D. The European
Enlightenment, its rationalistic optimism, and its tragic collapse. The
Enlightenment thinkers found in the new sciences that were developing a
reasoning power that they thought was common to all people. If people
could shed all their biases, they would see the truth clearly as if
through a window. Wars would cease
and humankind would progress both materially and spiritually. But
“reason” had its own prejudices. The
Enlightenment ended with the opposite of the reasonable, humane world
imperialism in the New World. One of the last
projects of Enlightenment thinking was the attempt to change the culture of
native peoples so they would “fit in” with the dominant white society. I
chronicle the effect of this experiment on the Indian community around Babb, Montana.
3, "Is There Such a Thing as Truth," starts with the pessimism
resulting from the failure of the Enlightment experiment and looks at a
new understanding of truth as something gradually revealed not through
a window but in developoing patterns of thought, especially in dialogue
F. Giving up on
truth. The saying, “You have your truth and I have mine,” has become
common. Some theorists claim that truth is a myth that masks the real motive
for our actions, which is to exert whatever power I have to get what I want and avoid what I don't want.
G. A look at a new
model of truth seen in the development of science through various paradigms, or
patterns of thought. These paradigms look like features of reality until they
are questioned as a new paradigm gradually or suddenly becomes active. Reality
itself is never grasped except through some pattern of thought. In that sense
completely objective truth is not available to us, but, in science at least,
there are obvious signs of progress as one paradigm replaces another. So we can
reasonably think of truth as a goal that we are approaching.
H. Truth as the goal
of dialogue with the other. Paradigms, or patterns of thought, operate in
every meaningful activity, not just science. They are what make it possible to
have meaning. But we are not just stuck in our paradigms. We do talk to each
other. Dialogue brings with it the possibility of changing or blending paradigms.
In this way progress is made not only in the natural sciences but also in the
search for goodness, beauty, and even God.
4, "Hermeneutics, or Interpretation Theory," examines experiences that challenge accepted ways of thinking.
I. Limit experiences. Limit
experiences challenge established patterns of thought, the habitual ways we
interpret experience, and call for expression in new ways. The expression might be a new
way of acting exemplified most strikingly by a hero, or it might be a classic
of literature or some other art form. When we meet the challenge of the classic
or the iconic individual, we see that we have always been interpreting; and
that raises the possibility of change.
J. The three “worlds”
of a classic. These three worlds are: (1) the world behind the
classic—its historical context what it meant in that historical context; (2)
the world of the classic—what the classic means as an
independent entity not limited to the ideas of the author and original hearers;
and (3) the world in front of the classic—the world that
emerges when a person, with his or her own world, gets involved with, dialogues
with, and interprets the classic. The truth of the classic arises with this
last world. There is no final interpretation because the world of the
interpreter never stops changing.
K. Faith and
suspicion. No more than science does a “limit,” or
out-of-the-ordinary, experience come with a guarantee. Interpretation includes
both faith and suspicion, with sometimes one and sometimes the other dominant.
5, "Two Classics and my Interpretations," provides, besides two
examples of the way interpretations can lead to broader ideas about
what is true, the
dubious privilege of listening to me recite a poem and sing a song.
L. “The Raven,” a poem by Edgar Allen
Poe and its interpretation.
M. “You’ve Heard My
Voice and You Know My Name,” a song and its interpretation.
A Conclusion gets at the
point of all this.
N. . A new metaphor, the game of dialogue, replaces the metaphor of looking at
reality through a window. The Creed and other classic Christian texts, symbols,
and practices may claim to be defining but never final and always needing
interpretation. They allow us to name ultimate reality, but only tentatively
and with great humility.
1: Proof Versus Experience
The impossibility and undesirability of proving that there is such a thing as
more people than Christians believe in one God who is father (or mother),
almighty, and creator, as described in the first paragraph of the Creed. Some
even claim to be able to prove it. If I were going to prove anything in the
Creed, it would surely have been something in that first paragraph; but I
haven’t done that.
seminary—ages ago—I was taught about “natural” theology. Supposedly you could
use human reason to prove the existence of God and some of God’s qualities.
Alongside that was revelation, the things God revealed that are beyond human
reasoning—things like God’s choice of the Hebrew people, sending his only Son
to save us, the Trinity, and the Church. That was standard Catholic teaching in
seminaries then, although questioned by leading Catholic theologians. Now,
however, starting out with a proof of God in general and then finding the right
story, the right revelation, the right religion, to put God into seems wrong to
are famous “proofs” for the existence of God, and I once thought I could make
at least one of them work. Some theologians still claim to be able to prove God
one way or another, but I think many more don’t. Some say the traditional
“proofs” help explain what we believe about God, but faith has to be there
first. That seems right to me, especially since, according to Christian belief,
our minds cannot form a clear idea of who or what God is. How can you prove
what you can’t even think clearly? And if you could think God
clearly, wouldn’t that be like putting yourself, or the categories with which
you think, above God? God would be just an instance of such and such an idea in
my mind, and that doesn’t sound to me much like something to worship.
it occurs to me that whenever you do imagine proving the existence of God, you
end up with the wrong god, an idol. It would be a God that exemplified all the
best things that we can think of, raised to an infinite degree. That would
include, infinite power, infinite knowledge, and infinite value. Sounds great
until you realize this God would feel just about right only for those of us who
are convinced about our own value, who think we know a lot, and, especially,
who have enough power to put that knowledge to our use. It feels good to have a
share in all those god-like things. But then we’re just imagining a god that
reinforces the place in the world we imagined is ours.
what about people who don’t have power, who don’t know what we know or who know
differently, the people whom the world (that is, we) doesn’t value for what
they are but thinks that they need to “develop”? Our god doesn’t do much for
these others at all but just reinforces the divisions we (who have the power to
do it) make between ourselves and others. If power and knowledge are the main
things we know of God, then we who have these attributes are more godly than
others, and therefore we belong where we are—and they don’t.
come around from trying to prove that God exists, to thinking that a god you
can prove is both the wrong god and an oppressive idol—an ideological support
for the systems of oppression that divide our world into haves and have-not's.
This is a god for people who don’t want saving, who are saved already according
to their own standards (which they impute to their god). It’s the only kind of
god, it seems to me, that you would ever prove. Of course, that god doesn’t
exist; or, if it does, you'd have to take sides against it. I don’t know
how you would prove a
different kind of god. Proving itself is an exercise of a kind of power.
Instead of proof, experiences and interpretations.
you started with a story—such as ones from the religious traditions I’m
familiar with—of a god whose heart was moved by the plight of some slaves in
Egypt or a god who took up existence on this earth as a helpless baby in a poor
family among an oppressed people, you might find that the very idea of power
gets transformed by the story. You’d have a god for people who know they need
saving, a god who just might mix things up in this world and be OK with
somebody else mixing things up. You wouldn’t be able to say, “Of course, this
god exists”; but this god would never cease being an important question. Good
stories are always questions.
stories are questions, or quests, that arise from experience, and anyone, not
just the rich and powerful, can tell a story. Experience (not proof) and how
that experience is interpreted through many means, including stories, is the
starting point for much modern theology. I think just about anyone’s faith in
God starts with experience and stories rather than proofs. We are historical
beings in community, and our history, especially the history of our community’s
interpretations of experience, which we call tradition, is the start—not
necessarily the end—of each person’s individual story.
2: From the Middle Ages to Babb, Montana
Ancient science: a story world
time when I was hiking a mountain trail in Montana's Glacier National Park I got to a point on a
pass where a breathtaking view of a valley opened out before me. It felt like
the setting for a story, and with just a few more steps I’d be in the story.
(My experience may have been shaped by having read recently "The Ethics of
Elfland" by G. K. Chesterton, who was finding in the fairy tales that he
grew up with a reason for eventually turning to belief in God.) As I
hesitated, the feeling passed into memory, and the story never materialized, or
I missed it if it did.
world ready for a story is exactly the way pre-modern science—I'm thinking of ancient
Greek philosophy but it's more universal than that—interpreted people’s experience. Actually, it’s the world that
anyone’s experience, even today, seems to give, but in ancient Greece it was validated
by the era’s most sophisticated scientific thinking. Today’s science doesn’t do
as pre-modern science saw it is a world of shapes, colors, sounds, smells,
tastes, feelings, even values. You had a place in that world with a real up,
down, and sideways. It wasn’t just a point on an arbitrarily arranged
three-dimensional grid. You could move or stop, and there was a real difference
between the two; motion wasn’t all relative. Anything that moved had a goal—to
come to rest in the place where it belonged.
made sense in that world, and there were many different kinds of stories. Some
had many gods actively involved (like the ancient myths). Some had one divine
being in a state of perfect rest and unconcern (like Aristotle’s Mind thinking
only itself). The Christian story wasn’t a perfect fit for any of these
stories, but then, if it had been, what would have been Christianity's point?
end of the Middle Ages all the things that make for a good story began to
disappear from the scientific worldview until, in today’s scientific view, all
these story elements are lost:
There is no up, down, and sideways apart from one’s point of view.
Motion is all relative, and there is no purpose, no place where things
Nothing is as it appears to be and we’re all made out of the same basic
stuff—atoms and, below that, leptons, bosons, and quarks and such. Even
these things don’t really have qualities; they just follow laws described
by mathematics, which deals only with quantities.
Christianity could interact with a story like
Plato’s or Aristotle’s and did quite respectably up through the Middle Ages.
But there’s not much in the new scientific picture for the Christian story
either to agree or to argue with. There’s not much story there. That moment
when I was on the mountain and could almost feel a presence or an anticipation
of a climax or major turning point in a story passed, and the real world that
re-imposed itself seemed duller. In the Middle Ages and before, reality was not dull.
The European Enlightenment, its rationalistic optimism, and its tragic collapse
Medieval reality may have been too exciting for the Enlightenment thinkers who
followed. It was a product of experience, and everybody’s experience is
different from everybody else’s. In particular, the common experience of one
group, which leads to its particular culture and religion, is different from
that of another group. History shows that cultural and religious wars resulted.
The Enlightenment aimed at a more reasonable reality.
as pictured by today’s science seems impressive, intricate, huge (whether more
so than in some ancient visions is not at all certain). It’s also exciting, but
in a different way from formerly. Science is an adventure of discovery.
Technology is the adventure of conquering, being conquered by, or, hopefully,
learning to live with beings and forces around us. I felt the excitement of
this adventure as a child reading the quarterly supplements to our family
encyclopedia. There was always something new going on in science. This new
world started around the 17th century in Europe,
an exciting age of rationalistic optimism spurred by the successes of the
scientific enterprise and world conquest.
the new-found ability to describe reality mathematically that gave science its
power. Of course a lot of what we normally take as real cannot be described
mathematically, including our experiences of color, sound, taste, smell, and
touch. (There are mathematical ways of describing what appears to us as color,
sound, etc., but not our experience of these things. We don’t experience light
or sound as waves that we can count and measure, for example.) Experience isn’t
describable mathematically and so is considered subjective and possibly not
even real. The objective, real parts of things are their spatial
dimensions, their mass, their movements, and the forces by which they interact
with other things.
new scientific reasoning was enthroned during the Enlightenment. It promised an
unbiased view of reality, as if through a clear window—a popular metaphor up to
today. In summer of 2012 after the long-awaited discovery of the sub-atomic
particle the Higgs boson, a scientist commented, “Mathematics really does
provide a window on reality.”
also promised in those early days to be a friendlier ruler than anything tradition
had to offer, including—especially—religion. Europe had
been exhausted by a series of religious wars. Religion had led to these
conflicts, Enlightenment thinkers reasoned, because religious movements were
bound to the particular times, places, and cultural thought patterns of their
founders. Different cultural origins inevitably pitted one religion or sect
against another. But human reason, it was believed, was universal, the same for
everybody. Reliance on reason would break down the barriers that religion had
sustained between people. Reason seemed to hold the promise not only of
technical, material advancement but also of harmony and spiritual progress.
Progress was the theme of a new, very different kind of story.
Enlightenment was an age of material and spiritual as well as rational
optimism. Different thinkers held opposing views about God and reality. Various
thinkers thought that by reason they could prove or disprove the existence of
God; but, with or without God, they thought they could identify by reason alone
just what makes for a good human life.
were religious conservatives, especially in the Catholic Church but also in
some Protestant groups, holding on to old orthodoxies. But a liberal Protestant
movement advanced in a new direction. Older orthodoxy, sometimes called
fundamentalism, still hangs on, but many of today’s most respected theologians,
my favorites, are heirs to the new movement that began in the Enlightenment.
liberal Protestant theologians. A couple centuries back, some theologians
recognized that Christianity’s old scientific partner in dialogue had
disappeared. So they embraced the new rationalism and applied it to the study
of the Bible. This was the beginning of the age of “quests for the historical
Jesus.” Close analysis of Biblical texts showed a process of composition that
was at least as much human as divine. The dependence of one text on another
could be detected as well as the way one biblical author would alter an earlier
text to speak to a different situation or from different point of view. The
Jesus-questers believed they could dig through layers in a text to find the
earliest written and even oral sources for information about Jesus. From this
they constructed new biographies of Jesus.
with its rational methods—but not the original biographies—has remained an
important part of modern theology. For the early practitioners Jesus turned out
to be a figure very much in line with their own worldview—a teacher of modern
(i.e. 18th and 19thcentury) moral ideals including
freedom, equality, and the “family of man” (echoes of the French Revolution’s
“libertÚ, ÚgalitÚ, fraternitÚ”). Jesus was not a wonder worker. The miracles
stories that abound in the New Testament were all made out (incorrectly, we now
know) to be late additions. Neither was Jesus a prophet of a new world, a Kingdom of God, to come about by a sudden divine
intervention. Rather, Jesus looked forward to a steady, progressive realization
of the human potential for good. Jesus was an early proponent of the philosophy
of material and spiritual progress not by divine power but by a historically
inevitable process in which people gradually learned to follow the way of
reason and overcome traditional biases. Such a modern mindset existing in the
first century, I think, would have been a greater miracle than anything Jesus
is reported to have done.
tyrannies of the French Revolution in the name of those reasonable ideals of
“liberty, equality, fraternity” had to be ignored for this story of moral
progress to be believable. But maybe those were just an aberration in the march
of history. (Across the Atlantic American patriots had already done
things better, at least from some perspectives.) Ignored also, for a while, were
the liberal Bible scholars’ own biases with which they interpreted the life of
Schweitzer dealt a blow to the latter ignorance. In a 1906 book The Quest of the Historical
Jesus. Using liberalism’s own techniques, he showed how un-modern,
but rather first-century Jewish, Jesus really was. The history of the 20th century
destroyed the former ignorance. Already with the First World War and definitely
by the end of the Second, na´ve optimism about moral progress was no longer
possible. In the 20th century the optimistic Age of the
Enlightenment came crashing down in a series of “if only’s”:
only it hadn’t been “enlightened” Germany initiating two world
wars and undertaking the cleansing of the human race with the holocaust;
only it hadn’t been civilized United States using nuclear weapons against
civilian populations for the first two, and only two, times in history;
only it hadn’t been the entire technologically, intellectually and supposedly
spiritually advanced Western world bringing the world one ecological crisis
only these travesties (and more) could have been blamed on some benighted
corner of the Southern or Eastern world…
only all of these things, then, perhaps, we might believe whoever today is
still saying, “Just give reason a chance to make a better world.” In the 20th century,
while science was making its greatest conquests ever, confidence in reason’s
ability to solve problems outside of the sphere of science fell. On the European
continent Existentialism replaced rationalism in philosophy. Neo-orthodoxy
replaced liberalism in religion. In Britain and America philosophy
largely confined itself to analyzing language. All three of these were
formidable intellectual endeavors. Still secular skepticism or religious
fideism presided over an increasingly pessimistic intellectual scene. At least
in some parts of the world, the Enlightenment story was over.
some parts, but not all. So we bring the story around to Babb,Montana.
White cultural imperialism in the New World.
In North America’s dominant group, people of European
descent, rationalistic optimism held on. The story of limitless, inevitable
progress was still being told. The United States is the only
country in the world whose life coincides with the Enlightenment faith in
progress, so I imagine it was harder for us to give that up.
question was what to do about the indigenous peoples of “our” (speaking here
from a white point of view) land. These people told different stories that had
nothing to do with progress. Confident that our story was right, we embarked on
another of the horrors of the 20th century. We began an
experiment at “improving” those native cultures, replacing the various stories
in which they found meaning with the American, or Enlightenment, story. I see
the continuing consequences of this experiment in Babb, Montana,
and surrounding area, where I live in the summer; but, of course, it was the
same all over, and not just in the U.S. but notably in Canada and Australia as well. The United
States government decided to
“Americanize” the Indian people by taking children away from their families,
out of their culture, and raising them to be “Americans” in white-run boarding
assumption was that culture is something that you can take off and
replace easily. In that same way the previous Enlightenment thinkers believed
tradition could be replaced by reason. Another assumption: Anyone, by reason’s
light, could see how superior the white culture was.
this experiment left was:
- parents, who knew how to raise children, but without any children
to raise. Taken away from them was what almost anyone considers the
primary purpose of life;
- children without parents and therefore without the knowledge and
traditions needed to raise their own children;
- problems of alcohol, drug, and sexual abuse magnified beyond what
other communities experience by the lack of coping mechanisms that
culture, tradition, and intact families could have provided. (From stories
that Indian women of Babb tell and from observing the sexual abuse that
has occurred in the setting of an ordinary parish, I have to believe that
sexual abuse was prevalent in those boarding schools, many of which were
operated by religious institutions.)
have since seen the error of our ways. From overconfidence in the power of
reason, many went to the opposite extreme.
3. Is there such a thing as Truth?
Giving up on truth
the few times I attempted to use my degree in philosophy in a classroom—in
fact, the only class called Philosophy that I ever taught—was with a group of
social workers in Great Falls, Montana. They needed continuing education
credits and didn’t care much where they got them. All were middle aged women,
older than I. None of them would you imagine as part of the avant guarde of
could not convince these women that there was such a thing as objective truth.
“What’s true for me might not be true for you and vice versa,” they would say.
They had somehow absorbed the lesson of the Enlightenment’s overreaching on
behalf of reason and the awful things that have been done in the name of
truth—to say nothing of religion. I could not convince them that they had
was in the late 1970’s. A few years later I was in Minnesota
taking a class for my elementary education degree in the Human Relations
Department at St. Cloud State University.
Here I was with folks who actually were, or thought they were, in that avant guarde of
radical thought. One professor told his students that we must put power in
place of the “fiction” of objective truth. Instead of right and wrong, there is
only what I want and what I don’t want.
tried to make “good Americans” out of the native peoples of this land.
Consciously or unconsciously, we “wanted” to turn them into good consumers like
us. Maybe it wasn’t quite that cynical. Maybe we felt we needed (a euphemism
for “wanted”) to carry what used to be called the “white man’s burden.” We felt
obliged to assist less developed cultures progress to our advanced level. Less
cynicism there was in that, perhaps, but certainly just as much pride, a whole
lot of self-satisfaction, and just enough self-delusion. The things we want
don’t necessarily have to be very practical. My St. Cloud State professor
would have said the ideas of right, or better, or true, when it comes to these
ways, these values, are only tools we use in the power games we play. He might
have added that they work best when we ourselves don’t know that’s the game we’re
can guess I disagree with these pessimists. I call them pessimists because I
can’t think of worse situation than for everyone to accept the idea that
power is the only factor in relations among people. What hope would there be
for those without power then? But there’s a kernel of truth and a moral
intensity in this rejection of truth. The fact is that the idea of an objective
truth or an objective standard has often been used, just as my professor said,
as a tool to justify those who are in a position to say, “We have it; we know
what’s right and wrong, and we’ll hand it on to you, by force if necessary.”
It’s even more powerful if we can say it and sincerely believe it—which is
exactly what success inclines us to do. Of all the world’s people, the rich and
powerful have the greatest interest in deceiving themselves about right and
have my truth and you have yours” is a response to this misuse of the concept
of truth. It recognizes—correctly—that there is no truth, idea, fact, or belief
that is not part of a system or pattern of thought; that these patterns are not
the same for everybody; that we have our various perspectives on reality in
part defined by our different patterns of thought. What is missing in this
response is the fact that we do talk to each other and the sense that it is
possible, even obligatory, to take the perspective of another, as best we can.
is actually happening in much theology today: feminist theology for the
perspective of women; black and Native American theology for their different
perspectives; and the whole movement toward dialogue among various Christian
denominations and between Christians and other major faiths such as Islam and
Buddhism. “Liberation” theology, one of the earliest and most influential of
these movements, took the perspective of—and tried to learn from—the poor, the
powerless, and the oppressed. It began in Latin
America and spread to the rest of the world. It is now a
powerful influence not only in other poor regions but also in the major
theology centers in Europe and North America.
Slowly we are discovering the lives, the struggles, the hopes, and the sense of
integrity—in short, the stories—of the poor and are finding there important
keys to understanding ourselves, our world, and God.
just changing perspectives or are we also getting closer to the truth about
ourselves and how we relate to the world and God (if God exists)? Is there
perhaps no such thing as truth? Or is truth something other than what we
naively imagine? I propose to answer this last question “Yes. Truth is very
different from a fact that is out there to be seen as if through a window.”
That, I believe, makes it possible to give, at least sometimes, an affirmative
and non-oppressive answer to the first question: Are we getting closer to the
first look at truth operating in the natural sciences. We might think it’s the
business of science to look very intensely at the world around us and, if we
manage to get an optimum view, a clear enough window, then we have the truth.
It’s not as simple as that. What we find when we look at how science actually
operates will turn out to be applicable, with some modifications, to any way of
dealing meaningfully with the world, ourselves, each other, and God.
G. The story of
the development of science through various paradigms, or patterns of thought.
idea that truth (or any belief) involves some perspective or other seems odd if
applied to modern science, a discipline that tries very hard to be free of any
particular person’s perspective. Science, with its scientific method, is a
European, first-world invention that has spread to the rest of the world much
more effectively than liberation theology has been able to move in the other
direction. But how objective is science’s “truth”?
have thought this to be an odd question if I had heard it when I was devouring
books on science as a youngster. Surely the science I was reading told me the
way reality is. I was what is called a na´ve realist. I imagined that between
an idea and its counterpart in the world there’s a pretty straightforward
relation, like a sign or an arrow pointing from one to the other, like looking
at the world through a window. But a look at science’s own story gives a
Thomas Kuhn, a
philosopher of science, has shown that science proceeds in two different ways.
There is normal development and there are more fundamental changes that he
calls revolutions. People have argued about how revolutionary these latter
changes are, but there’s no doubt that some of the changes that science has
undergone amount to fundamental revisions in the sorts of things we take for
granted about our world. These revisions are sometimes called “paradigm
changes.” A paradigm is a pattern of thinking that seems so obvious that we
don’t realize it’s a way of thinking at all but merely assume that that’s the
way the world is. Here are a few such paradigms and key proponents of each:
- Aristotle—The world is a hierarchy. Lower, less
perfect parts here on earth seek to imitate the greater perfection of the
higher parts in the heavens by their cyclic movements, the "circle of life.". Stars and planets move in perfect circles
through the sky, imitating the even greater perfection of the unmoving
God. Aristotle’s image for reality is the organism functioning
- Newton—The world is a system governed
by laws that operate the same way everywhere. There is no hierarchy, no up
or down. Space is a three-dimensional grid that can be oriented any way we
choose. Space is a featureless container for Earth, other planets, and
stars, all of which are made of the same kinds of stuff. Newton’s image for
reality is the machine functioning unconsciously.
- The Theory of Relativity (Einstein)—Space and
time, which Newton and all previous thinkers
thought of as absolute and independent, interact with the things that move
in space and time. Space can be squeezed and stretched. Time flows at
different rates for different observers. The speed of light is the only
absolute. Einstein’s image of reality is a flexible four-dimensional
- Quantum Mechanics (Max Planck and others)—There
is a fundamental uncertainty in reality and not just in our knowledge. For
example, there is a 50% chance that a uranium atom will decay into
something else in 4 billion years. These uncertainties average out into
near certainties in the world that we can see so that, to use the same
example, beyond any reasonable doubt, if you have a gram of uranium today,
you'll have one-half gram left in 4 billion years (if you can keep it that
long!). The image of reality is a field of probabilities.
to speculate about what a “truth” in one of these systems would mean it you
transposed it to an earlier one. Let’s see . . . .
- Galileo says the earth moves. In Aristotle’s
perspective this would have meant the end of the world or at least a very
- Einstein says moving objects get shorter in the
direction of their motion as they approach the speed of light. When I did
a report on Einstein for a high school physics class, I looked up relativity
in the public library in Kaukauna (my Wisconsin home town) and found a
book that tried to put this phenomenon into the older non-relativistic
framework. The author proposed that space is a kind of material medium
that squeezes objects when they start moving really fast.
- Quantum Mechanics’ probability fields looked to
Einstein—as he famously said before he came around to the idea—like God
playing dice with the universe.
In every case there’s an
element of “your truth” not fitting with “my truth” so I have to reject it or
change it. But science moves on. When it’s impossible or unreasonable to
fit new observations into old systems, the paradigms change. What didn’t even
make sense before seems normal now. This “seeming normal,” though, is really
the way we have of forgetting that a paradigm is a pattern of thought. We
assume it’s a pattern of reality.
What this little history
shows is that knowing the world is not much like looking out a window to see
what’s there. We are active partners in the scientific results that we and the
world bring about. The questions we ask and the procedures with which we
investigate affect the answers we get. Even with the methods that modern
science has given us, methods designed to eliminate as much as possible the
subjective element in our investigations, we are still investing the world with
our patterns of thought; and those patterns have not shown any sign that they
will ever stop changing.
That these patterns are
changing for the better seems obvious. Newer theories cover more observations
than older ones, and they definitely give us more power. Now we can imagine a
new concept of truth—truth as a goal that may never be reached; but we can tell
when we’re getting closer.
H. Truth as the goal of
dialogue with the other.
When we try to
understand ourselves, our relationships with others, the world, and God, we are
also dealing with patterns of thought, with paradigms. The things we believe
make sense because and only because they fit into certain thought patterns.
Thought patterns are not the same for everybody everywhere. A particular belief
either gets misinterpreted or makes no sense at all in a different thought
pattern. Transmigration of souls (Hindu and other cultures), dream time
(Australian Aborigine), third eye (Hopi)—all of these, I think, are simply
wrong as typically understood when New-Age popularizers take them over into our
modern American or Western culture. I hesitate to accuse a Hindu, an
Aborigine, or a Hopi of being wrong, though. I would have to do some serious
paradigm work first.
The basic technique for
that paradigm work is dialogue. In dialogue, with a person or a book,
perspectives can change. I have in mind some examples that show what paradigm
changes might look like:
1. Ecology. People of good will necessarily see that we should take
care of the natural environment, but there is a paradigm shift going on
concerning the reason why. The old paradigm is represented in our society
abundantly and well, even from a personage as high as our previous pope with
his “green” reputation. Benedict XVI wrote much about care for creation “from
within an older anthropocentric paradigm; the ecological issues are treated
almost entirely in terms of present-day human concerns.” So says Fr. Donal Dorr
in a largely favorable review of the pope’s thinking. He continues:
What is needed today, however, is a kind of
Copernican revolution leading to a major paradigm shift. We need to locate all
our human concerns—and especially our approach to economics—within the far
wider context of an ecological and cosmic vision. (quoted by Sean McDonagh in
“Church’s Teaching on Ecology Still Light Green,” National Catholic Reporter,
March 12, 2031.http://ncronline.org/blogs/eco-catholic/churchs-teaching-ecology-still-light-green)
My impression of the new Pope Francis, who
mentioned care for creation four times in one sermon, is that he may have
turned to this new paradigm.
2. Charity and justice. This example shows how my thinking about
an important issue changed. I was helped by the American Catholic Bishops and
their pastoral letter “…And Justice for All,” marking
the U.S.bicentennial. I’ll describe someone else's more recent experience
of the same change. An interreligious dialogue between Christians and Buddhists
ended with each participant telling what new thought or way of thinking he or
she gained from the encounter with another perspective. Here is the
contribution of Abe Maseo, a Japanese Buddhist, as David Tracy, my favorite
it (edited by me; his sentences were even longer!):
As a Buddhist living in Japan, a very
homogeneous society, which on the whole does not accept even pre-Japanese
indigenous people, the Ainu, and does not accept particularly well the Korean
people, who have lived there for even three and four generations, I always
tried to have compassion for any Ainu person I met, or any Korean, and tried to
help them. What Christians have taught me is that maybe the Buddhist virtue of
compassion isn’t enough on its own; maybe, like Christian liberation
theologians worrying about how love works through justice, as a Japanese, I
also have to work to change the unjust structures of Japanese culture that
cause this suffering. (Speech by David Tracy at Sacred
Fairfield, Connecticut, March 24, 2010, on YouTube
I operate with Buddhist compassion or Christian charity, I can easily be acting
like a superior toward an inferior. I happen to have more, and I choose to be
generous to someone who happens to have less. I can feel good about performing
a meritorious work beyond what moral rules require. Justice, on the other hand,
in the newer paradigm, sees that I am part of a system of past and present
oppression, causing and intensifying the inequalities between people. These
don’t just happen (and they aren’t the fault of the oppressed). I am morally
bound to take sides with the other. It's not an option for the
3. History, past and dead or alive in the present. This final example
of a paradigm change is from my own experience. It was my high school
freshman year, and the spring musical extravaganza was a blackface minstrel
show. Every year there was a spring musical, and every few years the musical
was blackface. The choir was made up to be “Negroes.” There were three main
characters—Amos, Andy, and Mr. Interlocutor. Mr. Interlocutor was the only
white character. Not long after this performance, school leaders told us there
would be no more blackface shows. The growing civil rights movement was raising
consciousnesses in the country. It was 1961.
was disappointed. I could not see any disrespect toward black people in the
show. After all, two of the three main characters were black, and they were the
most likable. With their foolish antics they continually perplexed Mr.
Interlocutor. I don’t think anyone in the show or the audience thought it was
anything but fun.
I did come to see whites in blackface as offensive. It was a paradigm shift.
What was right or at least OK in one way of thinking was wrong in another. The
difference between the two paradigms isn’t just the sensitivity or lack of it
toward the stereotyping of the Black characters. You can still see on the
internet people complaining: If it’s OK to stereotype whites, why is it
politically incorrect to do the same to blacks. It misses the most important
point—the role that historical and current discrimination plays in the
appreciation of what we call entertainment. One paradigm says that a show just
is what it is; forget everything else. The other paradigm says we take our
current situation and our history with us into the auditorium. One says each
day is a new beginning; the sins of the past are past. The other says we carry
our past into our future. The past of the black people in this country includes
the blackface minstrel as part of the oppression they experienced. No such past
exists for whites.
that audience and cast together there were no blacks. Probably most of the
whites there would have disapproved of racial discrimination. Yet we were all
engaged in a kind of entertainment that no blacks could have enjoyed. It would
have said to them wordlessly but as effectively as a sign in bold letters:
that’s looking at it from a black person’s point of view. We didn’t know we
were shouting "Keep out!" because, to the extent that we had gotten
beyond conscious prejudice, skin color did not take a meaningful place in our
perceived reality. We couldn’t grasp the thought that a different color would
have a different perspective. When it did dawn on us—whether in confrontation
with the Black Power movement or reading Black Like Me or in
some other encounter—that’s when paradigms changed.
I would say that’s when
my world was enriched. In all three of these examples I see progress toward
what I would call truth. It’s not as clear as in science (and even in science
it’s not perfectly clear). There’s always disagreement. Some Internet bloggers
still say there’s nothing wrong with blackface. Some can’t or won’t see current
social and economic systems as unjust and oppressive. Some ridicule
environmentalist “tree huggers.” In our lazy moments or just to end an
argument, we might say, “You have your truth and I have mine”; but the
discussion never really does end. In our better moments we recognize the other
as other and give him or her a respectful distance, but in our best moments we
don’t leave it at that. We engage the other. We put ourselves at risk. We want
to know, even though it means we might have to change our minds on a particular
topic or even change our whole way of looking at the world, of perceiving
goodness and beauty, of thinking about God.
PART 4. Hermeneutics, or Interpretation Theory
I. Limit experiences
Back in 1974 I titled my
philosophy dissertation “The Critique of the Given.” That may be the only
valuable phrase in all of its hundreds of pages. It means there is no firm
foundation for the edifice of knowledge that we have built up. We don’t
experience a "given" first and then interpret it. We’re interpreting
all the while. Nothing is simply given without our doing something. Experience
is always interpreted experience.
For the most part we
cruise along on automatic pilot, experiencing our world along the lines of
well-established categories, patterns of thinking—paradigms—like the scientist
doing normal science. We have names for some of the major concepts of our
paradigm, names like freedom, justice, individual, progress, rights, duties,
and many others, some of which we seldom or never think of. All of these have
their standard interpretations, which, since we’re on automatic pilot and not
running into any obstacles, we take not as patterns of thought but as patterns
But some experiences
jolt us out of automatic pilot. These are limit experiences, so-called because
they force us to recognize as possible things we would have thought impossible
before; attitudes, ways of being in the world, that would have been unthinkable
or ridiculous before now make sense and maybe are even commanded. The memory of a figure
hanging on a cross makes sense of another memory of what he once said: “Love
your enemy.” An encounter with Native American culture reveals a world of
harmony rather than competition; and a life in, not above, nature becomes a
possibility. A tragedy is endured or barely avoided, and a rich person
discovers that the beauty that one has without cost means more than possessions
Probably the most common
response to such limit experiences is to change one’s way of living, but the
response may also come in symbolic form, images, metaphors, poems, stories,
myths. Just as one can’t change one’s life without being noticed, so these
symbols beg to be shared publicly, whether with a small or a large public—maybe
only a story around a campfire or maybe a scroll or a book that endures for
ages. Whoever that public is then shares in the experience—shares in by
interpreting, of course.
Can we interpret all the
way back to the originating experience expressed in that moving scroll or book
or way of acting. To answer that question the science of interpretation, named
“hermeneutics” after the Greek messenger god Hermes, was born.
There are two answers to
the question. The first answer is: “No. There is no way to recover precisely
someone else’s experience.” The quest for the historical Jesus was one of the
first projects of this science of interpretation. In its original form it
failed miserably because of the biases of the early Enlightenment scholars. The
20th century saw greater success in understanding Jesus in his
own first-century, Mediterranean, Jewish
context. But questions about how Jesus actually understood himself and his
mission remain and will always remain. We will never completely understand
another person’s psyche, especially not one who lived 2000 years ago.
The second answer is:
“There are two other things that we can do that are more important than a mere
repetition of another’s experience or insight.” First, we can separate the communication
from the communicator. Here the insight is that the things we say by words or
actions often mean more than we ourselves know. Second, we can bring ourselves,
our experience, and our insights to the encounter—now turned into a
dialogue—and risk the creation of something really new.
J. The three worlds of a
The word “classic"
is much abused lately. It’s liable to be used to label just about anything from
Coke-a-Cola to early rock music. I think of a real classic as anything that I can
respond to appropriately only with some kind of change—in attitude, behavior,
or way of seeing myself and the world. It doesn’t have to be recognized by the
rest of the world, though that kind of recognition, especially if it’s lasting,
is a good clue.
When you interpret, or
dialogue with, a text—so say the experts on hermeneutics—there are three
“worlds” to consider: the world behind the text, the
world of the text, and the world in front of the
The world behind a
text is the world of the author. To understand this world we have to set aside
our biases and look as objectively as we can at a world that may be very
different from ours, especially if it’s an ancient text. For a few centuries
now Bible scholars have worked hard at this task. Though it can’t be done
perfectly, scholars, especially in the later 20th century and on, have
in fact made a lot of progress at getting rid of misinterpretations. The goal
is to discover what the text probably meant for the author of the text and its
original hearers and readers. We can’t discern this world perfectly, but what
we can find out serves as a useful control over the guesses we make concerning
the next two worlds.
The world of a
text is simply the story it tells. Paul Ricoeur, a leading theorist in
hermeneutics, says the act of expressing something puts a distance between an
author and the thing expressed, sets it free on a career of its own. A text is independent
from its historical conditions and even from the author’s own ideas about it.
It has a meaning that can be reconstructed and appreciated in any age. To
understand this world we have to know the meanings of words and phrases as used
by the author and the literary forms and genres that the author uses.
Historical background can be helpful. For example, Jesus says, “No one who has
been drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” (Luke
5:39) It helps to know that in Jesus’ day no one would ever say old wine is
good because old wine usually soured. Jesus must have been speaking ironically
(a very ancient literary form). Probably he was criticizing those who were so
used to their old ways that they could not accept the new way that Jesus in
Luke’s gospel presents. This is what Luke
wrote; it's part of the world of the text. Why he
wrote it may be an interesting historical investigation. Did Luke’s readers
also have a problem accepting Jesus’ new way? But for the world of the
text, we don’t need to know that. As we read, we imagine an author without
knowing these historical details; and we imagine hearers of the story. These
are called “implied author” and “implied hearer.” These, but not the real
historical figures, are an important part of our understanding of the
world of the text.
The world in
front of the text is not just “our” world, the world as the modern
reader sees it. The whole point of a classic is that it is able to change our
perception of the world. The world in front of the text is the world as shaped
by the encounter of the text with its modern interpreter. It’s a mutual give
and take between text and interpreter, where each contributes to a new whole.
It is this world, a formerly impossible but now possible way of being for the
world and the self, that is the primary referent of a classic. This is what a
classic is about. There are huge implications for the interpretation of classic
religious texts like the Bible and the Creed. Because history never stops, the
meaning of a classic text, one that is able to speak to many worlds, is
inexhaustible and to some extent fluid. You never get to the end of
interpreting a classic.
K. Faith and suspicion
A scientific theory does
not come with a guarantee; neither does an experience, not even a limit
experience, and neither does any interpretation. In both science and
experience-with-interpretation there can be progress toward truth, but such
progress is not guaranteed. Science can come closer to a guarantee because a
scientist can see more phenomena being explained and measurably more power made
available. Even so, scientific progress is not completely objective.
Non-objective considerations, like aesthetics, come into play: Theories have an
abstract kind of beauty (to a scientist, anyway), and scientists tend toward
theories that seem to them more beautiful.
In the interpretation of
a literary classic, a work of art, or a person’s way of acting, there are
criteria, but they lean much more toward the non-objective side. Here are some
examples of reasoning in the values area:
doesn’t really care about the environment; she just wants to make a name
Civil War wasn’t fought over the issue of slavery; it was all economics.
isn’t literature; it’s propaganda.
These three are examples
of hermeneutics of suspicion. Sometimes hermeneutics of suspicion is exactly
right. It’s a valid tool even when interpreting religion. There are sections of
the Bible that one needs to suspect if one wants to stay decently human. For
example, there are stories of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, where the
author claims that at the command of God whole cities were slain. On the other
hand, some sections are more acceptable to contemporary attitudes than they
sound. Paul, expecting an imminent end of the world, told slaves not to try to
change their state. Before criticizing Paul for this, try this hermeneutic of
suspicion on what the text seems to mean to us: It wasn’t because Paul approved
of slavery but because he thought Jesus would return soon and inaugurate God’s
reign, so slavery wouldn’t last very long anyway.
suspicion digs into the world of the author, the world behind the text, to see
why the author wrote in such a way. There can always be disagreement. Some
people love Ayn Rand’s Foundation Trilogy. I would apply hermeneutics of
suspicion and call it pure right-wing propaganda.
includes faith and suspicion with sometimes one and sometimes the other
predominant. Hermeneutics of faith might go like this:
in my experience resonates with what I see, hear, or read here.
- I can’t judge a person’s motives
for writing this, painting that, or acting in such and such a way. I just
know I have to wrestle with what I find here.
PART 5. Two classics and
The texts that I want to
interpret now are not religious classics. My purposes are broader than religion—to
illustrate the idea that truth is not an object of seeing but a goal approached
in the encounter of different perspectives; to show that this kind of search is
carried on in other areas of life besides science; and to affirm again that
here too there is progress. I chose texts about which I can feel I’m
contributing something original. That would be much harder for me if I chose a
selection from the Bible. Of that I’ve read perhaps too much of others’
interpretations. But if it's possible to approach the truth by interpreting
texts like these two, then the same is possible with the Bible, the Christian
Creed, or any classic religious text.
L. “The Raven” by
Edgar Allen Poe and its interpretation
My first text is “The
Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe. A high school classmate recited this poem in
class, and it has been a favorite of mine ever since. I heard a professional
recording of “The Raven” at some time or other. Later when I came to write a
book on oral reading (Read the Way You Talk: A Guide for Lectors), the
memory of that reading (actually the first 2 lines are all I remembered then)
convinced me that even poetry ought to be read “like talk.”
You can listen to my
recitation of “The Raven” HERE.
You might think that
the best way to uncover the meaning of a poem like “The Raven” is to
investigate what it meant for the author. So you would delve into Poe’s private
life and his circumstances, his broader world and how he must have felt about
all these things. According to the theory of interpretation outlined above,
that would be an interesting historical investigation, but it would not give us
the meaning of the poem. It would be the “world behind the text.” The poem
also has its own world, the story that it tells. But the truth of the poem is
found in the “world in front of the text,” the meanings and possibilities that
it opens up for the reader or hearer. A person's response is most
The world of the text. As I approach
“The Raven” I do imagine an author—the “implied author.” The implied author of
“The Raven” is a person who has experienced the loss of a loved one and tries
to cope by busying himself with other things, with “many a quaint and curious
volume of forgotten lore.” (It doesn’t matter if the real Poe actually went
through this experience or not.)
We can dig deeper into
the world of the text. Think about how often names and naming come up in the
poem. “Poe” (I’ll put the name in quotation marks when I mean the implied
author) calls his love Lenore, but that‘s the name angels have given her, not
the name he knew her by. He has no name of his own for her. She’s “nameless
here [on earth] forever more.” Near the end of the poem, as “Poe” gets more and
more desperate, he repeats twice this strange fact about the name—“whom the
angels name Lenore.”
The first thing “Poe”
demands of the raven in the poem is to know its name, and the bird responds,
“Nevermore.”. Here there’s a strange ambiguity. It’s not clear whether the bird
is revealing the name “Nevermore” or saying, “I will never give you my name.”
That same ambiguity recurs every time “Poe” asks the raven a question—which is
never phrased exactly as a question but always as a command or a plea:
“Tell me what thy lordly name is.
“Is there balm in Gilead [i.e. this life]?—Tell me, tell me, I
“Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aiden [the next life],
it shall clasp a sainted maiden….
Every time the raven
says, “Nevermore.” Is it answering or refusing to answer?
Now it’s useful to
know some literary history about naming. Moses in the Bible asked for God’s
name and got a mysterious response, in one translation: “I am that I am” or, as
I understand it: “Don’t ask such an impertinent question.” In the ancient world
knowing a name meant having control over the thing or person. Jews were
forbidden to say the proper name of God except once a year when that year's
high priest whispered it alone in the solitude of the Holy of Holies. (Well,
that’s the tradition. It’s a mystery to me how the priest knew the
pronunciation of God’s name when nobody was allowed to tell it to him and when,
out of reverence, the whole name was never even set down in writing—only the
consonants, not the vowels.) Some cultures give their children more than one
name, including a private name and one for public consumption. There’s
something holy about someone’s name; you ought to keep your distance, not try
to grasp it.
Clearly the “Poe” of
the poem is tormenting himself as the poem goes on. He has stopped ignoring his
grief. He tries to deny it, imagining that “within the distant Aiden” he will
have his love again. But he knows he won’t; that is, he knows what the raven
will say. “Nevermore” is “his only stock and store.” Ignoring the ambiguity of
this “Nevermore, “Poe” takes it as an answer; and that answer is one he
compulsively seeks and cannot tolerate.
“Poe” had assumed he
had his loved one within his grasp; he thought he knew her name. He finds that
he did not, and he seems to hear that he never will. He cannot get a grip on
his grief either (by naming the raven) to force it “back into the tempest and
the night’s plutonian shore." The raven hasn’t really given him its name. He is
stuck with his grief: “And my soul from out that shadow shall be lifted …
Here’s another poem by
Poe that expresses more clearly a world like that above:
A Dream Within a Dream
stand amid the roar
a surf-tormented shore,
I hold within my hand
of the golden sand—
few! Yet how they creep
my fingers to the deep,
I weep—while I weep!
God! Can I not grasp
with a tighter clasp?
God! Can I not save
from the pitiless wave?
all that we see or seem
a dream within a dream?
The world in front of
This long analysis of the world of “The Raven” has for its
main purpose to throw light on the world in front of the
text,” the reader’s (my) response and my possibilities for being-in-the-world.
What world, what possibilities are opened up by my encounter with this poem?
The first thing to
note is the genre: poetry. Part of the meaning of the poem is the beauty with
which it captivates the reader and listener. There’s the complicated rhyme
scheme with repetitions both within and between lines and the dark recurrence
of “nevermore” and its rhyming partners. There’s also the strong rhythm, part
of the beauty of a good poem that doesn't have to bore the listener or obscure
So the poem with its
dark subject matter and matching dark beauty gives much pleasure, and that
pleasure emphasizes the distance of the reader from the despair of the implied
author. My response is not “That’s the way I must feel,” though I recognize
that as a possibility and maybe even one that has been tempting at times. The
response is, rather:
“Poe’s” obsession with grasping his loved one
through knowing her name is his sin. It’s also the reason for his despair. But
there are healthier ways to view the world and one’s place in it. It’s possible
to be devastated by the loss of a loved one and still not despair. I don’t have
to either ignore or wrestle with my grief. I can give up the control of my
world that I sometimes think I need. It’s OK if I don’t even know my own name.
There’s a place in the
Bible, which I can’t find right now, that talks about a stone on which will be
written a person’s new name. Here’s a request that I hope is remembered when
the time comes: When I die, I would like to be buried with a smooth white
stone. I don’t care if I’m a corpse or a pot of ashes. I would like to have
this stone with my remains. I like to imagine that God will write on it my true
name, the one that God knows and grasps me by.
M. “You’ve Heard My
Voice and You Know My Name,” a song and its interpretation
My second text is a
song that has a curious history with me. It goes back to college days when I
came across a book of songs sung by Harry Belafonte. As soon as I started sight
reading, it seemed to me that I had heard this song before, but I had no idea
when. Its haunting melody and lyrics have stayed with me ever since, though I
couldn’t remember its exact title. Lately I googled and found out that it’s
called “You’ve Heard my Voice and You Know my Name.” It was composed by W.
Shorr and A. Podell and popularized by Glenn Yarbrough. It has also been sung
as part of a concert on world music by
the St. Olaf College choirs, so somebody besides me thinks
that it’s a classic.
You can listen to me
singing it HERE
This song has a
completely different feel from the poem “The Raven.” We are constantly affirmed
and reassured in this song. But the song accomplishes that without giving any
solid information. We’re never told what the name is. We don’t even know whose
name it is. We can’t imagine the composer of the song saying such grandiose
things about himself or herself. The implied author of the poem is, rather,
someone just like ourselves; and we’re also the implied hearers, people who
have heard the voice and know the name—this voice that doesn’t have to be
identified; this name that probably can’t be spoken. We might guess it’s God’s
name, if we believed in God, or “Nature” if we believed in some kind of spirit
in the natural world; but that’s wandering from the actual text. It illustrates
one of the dangers present whenever we respond to a text. What should be a
dialogue with a text turns into a monologue featuring only thoughts we’ve
To justify telling us
that we’ve heard the voice and know the name, the song gives us several
snapshots of ordinary things, some of them very pleasant, some sad, but most of
them ambiguous, combinations of pleasant and unpleasant things or things that
could go either way. This is the way the song places the burden of
interpretation on the listener. But the song also gives a lot of help. It’s a
song, after all, a thing of some beauty.
So when we think of
(perhaps remember?) a kiss in the rain, it’s all about the kiss. The rain,
which otherwise might be a problem, just adds to the sweetness.
What about sleeping
where wind and snows have lain? Is that because we’re homeless and have nowhere
else to sleep or is it a free choice? Do I hear the voice and know the
name either way? As one who enjoys camping, I think it's a free choice;
but I can see the ambiguity increasing. It's the ambiguity of the camper, who
lives temporarily shorn of all but a few possessions--and enjoys it.
Then there’s the
lonely train heard in the distance. Here the ambiguity leans more toward the
darker, sadder side. I hear echoes of the loneliness inside me. I have to
search awhile to find the positive; but it’s there. I feel like I want to be on
this train, to embrace my loneliness. There’s a purpose to it. The train is
When the train gets
somewhere, when I achieve some small part of my purpose in life, what emotions
follow? Pride, of course. But that’s ambiguous, and dangerous. I have to “bow
my head when I’m filled with pride” in order to hear the voice. It’s not about
me and there are so many things going on that aren’t about me—birds dying,
children crying. And I’m tasting tears.
Then the song rises to
a climax: The winds of spring, roses clinging, the warm rains and the driving
rains, summer here and gone, day ending in night. The little ambiguity that is
here is swallowed up in the restful images of petals falling and night birds
It seems a long way
from Poe in “The Raven.” But think: I can say the names of all of these lovely,
perplexing things; but these are only their public names, names that leave me
with ambiguity and uncertainty. I can’t say their real names even though I
somehow know them. The things themselves are beyond my grasp, beyond my
control. By releasing them to be neither more nor less than they are, I can
hear the voice and know implicitly the name behind them all.
Having also heard and
dialogued with “The Raven,” I see a possibility of trying to hold on to the
beautiful, pleasing things of the world by their public names, to use them,
keep them, and perhaps abuse them. Then I will never hear—or having heard, will
forget—the voice and the real name. The world offers the possibility of having
nothing at all worth having in my grasp and only grasping for more.
So I end up in the
same place as Poe in “The Raven,” but with this difference: There the despair
was expressed and the hope implied; I have to search for the hope that lies in
relaxing at least a little my grip on what isn’t really mine. Here the hope is
expressed and the despair implied; there’s always the chance that I will lose
the reality that possesses me by trying to possess it.
I chose to interpret
these two “classics” because both have been with me for a long time. I wrote
these interpretations almost at the beginning of my work on this essay, when I
had only a vague clue how it would go. They still seem appropriate as the work
draws to a close. I see in them, among other things, a commentary on human
reason and its sometimes exaggerated role. Here is a quote from a German
theologian I read recently:
In several European languages, understanding a
thing means ‘grasping’ it. [I hear the idea of capture in our English
word concept, knowing the Latin root for both: captus,
taken.] We grasp a thing when ‘we’ve got it.’ If we have grasped something, we
take it into our possession. If we possess something we can do with it what we
want. The motive that impels modern reason to know must be
described as the desire to conquer and to dominate. (Jűrgen Moltmann, The
Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 9)
is a kind of
knowing that is not dominating, that must necessarily oppose the urge
dominate. Something like it happens in science when paradigms change.
But it happens also when a limit experience—of another person, an event
classic such as a poem or song—opens one up to change. My
interpretation of these two classics (and your struggling with my
interpretation) may or may not have been an instance of this kind of
up. It's enough if I have shown what such a knowing might look like.
N. Conclusion. The
point of all this
It may seem like a
huge distraction from anything in the Creed to be analyzing songs and poems
that aren’t about God. What I hope I’ve done is demonstrate a kind of thinking
similarities to the thinking that is done sometimes in science, too—when
is different enough to be a complement, not saying the same thing in a
like science can result in progress toward truth.
is a thinking that directs us to what we can know without being able to grasp.
It’s a thinking that takes us out of our grasping, controlling selves. The
truth of the mythical concept of the muses is seen here. Neither the producer
nor the consumer of a classic is in control of the experience. The experience
is ecstatic; you are outside of yourself, that self that you seem to know when
you only think about yourself.
Philosophers have suggested
some metaphors for this experience to replace the na´ve realist’s metaphor of
looking through a window. The one that appeals most to me was introduced by
Hans Georg Gadamer, a German philosopher, theologian, tennis player, and lover
of puns. When he came to Catholic University as a visiting
professor and revealed some of his likable traits to us students, he was quite
old. He walked then with a limp but was as agile of mind as a tennis player on
the court. His metaphor, adopted by Tracy among others, is "playing a
I remember games, or
rather fleeting moments in a game, when I was completely lost in the task at
hand. In this state, sometimes called being “in the zone,” the moves just
happen, and they work in surprising ways. To an outside observer you seem to be
in complete control, but the inner experience is one of being carried along.
Gadamer says it’s not you playing the game but the game playing you. Similarly,
in an honest, open-minded dialogue with another person or text, you don't
control the moves. The conversation takes its own path.
In that kind of
thinking truth is revealed in the possibility of something new. You could also
say truth arises in the game of dialogue, the game that plays
you or else you're not really playing but just scoring points. Truth is nurtured
into being along with a new possible way of being in the world. This
possibility is not something that was always there and we just now learned how
to do it. (Hooray for us!) Remember it's the game playing us. It’s a
possibility that the world offers now that it didn’t before. It’s a way the
world is that it wasn’t before. This truth is an event before it is a thing
that we hold in our minds.
To play the game of
dialogue well doesn’t require abandoning traditional orthodoxies. In fact,
better knowledge of one’s own heritage makes for more useful engagement with
another tradition. Likewise, the more in tune one is with modern experience,
including the sciences and the experience of other cultures, the better one is
positioned to dialogue with one’s own tradition’s time-honored expressions.
When it comes to the Christian Creed or the Bible or any other parts of the
Christian heritage, a better understanding of modernity—and we are all
moderns—makes it all the more likely that dialogue with that heritage will
bring forth what Christians call revelation.
To speak in Christian
theological terms, revelation is inspired by the Spirit. Revelation is not
ideas caught in ancient words or symbols but is their reception in faith and
suspicion guided by the Spirit within the individual and the community.
Possibly the reception of the Creed’s first paragraph in one or more of the
five essays that preceded this one helped foster something like revelation.
Creed, to which I will turn again in the next essays, claims to be a defining,
but not ultimate, word. It’s one of the many classics of Christianity, which
one encounters and needs to interpret. Perhaps a world arises in that encounter
of two worlds, a world in front of both oneself and the text, a world that one
can name, but only hesitantly, humbly, and inconclusively, with a public name
that reveals something, but only imperfectly, concealing as much as it reveals,
about ultimate reality. Out of a list of such imperfect names from my own and
other stories -- names like “Great Spirit,” “The Void,” “The One,” “Being,”
“The No-thing,” “The Ground,” -- I would choose the name “God” or even “God of
my fathers and mothers.” That's the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and
Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Ruth and Boaz, and Jesus, and ... Rose Mary and
Dave, who handed on the story to me. It doesn’t mean necessarily rejecting
other names, but it does put me within a particular story, wherein faith as a
relationship of trust, faithfulness, and a new vision of reality makes sense
and worship is possible.
On to Stories of Jesus and the Characteer of God