¿Qué significa ser “crítico” cuando se lee la Biblia?

the eclipse of biblical narrative

Amigos, tarde como de costumbre, retomo un proyecto que anuncié hace semanas: una serie de posts que escribí cuando participé del Brauer Seminar en la Universidad de Chicago. Los textos estarán en inglés y probablemente partidos en al menos un par de posts las más de las veces. Para dar más contexto, indicaré siempre al inicio las lecturas que realicé para escribirlos, de modo que ustedes puedan acceder a ellas si así lo desean, aunque creo que los argumentos se entienden por sí mismos.

Lecturas: Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative; Van Harvey, The Historian and the Believer; Michael Foucault, “What is a Critque?”, in The Politics of Truth.


How can we put these three texts in conversation in a way that, far from reproducing their ideas, provides a rationale to reflect about the problems they pose?  Let me attempt an experimental, very exploratory answer. In my view, this answer is somehow suggested by Harvey by the end of the first chapter of The Historian and the Believer. What we are facing while reading these texts is a set of crucial philosophical problems, but with huge theological implications. These problems, which Harvey associates to the nature of historical explanation and understanding, the relationship of results to presuppositions, the distinction between fact and interpretation, the problem of objectivity, etc. (The Historian and the Believer, 33), I would like to articulate using the category of secularization. In this sense, then, I claim that the best way to understand Frei’s, Foucault’s and Harvey’s quite different texts is by paying attention to the philosophical and cultural phenomenon that is usually called secularization, which operates as a threat running through their entire argumentation. For the purposes of this brief prompt, let me define secularization as follows: “the philosophical-cultural shift from a world in which the religious or the sacred hypothesis played a crucial role in almost every attempt to provide an explanation of the many dimensions of reality to one in which that kind of explanation became either secondary or insufficient or, simply, unnecessary”. These three adjectives, I believe, are not irrelevant. It became secondary because other forms of explanation became primary. The explanations which proposed an objective, data-based assessment of the world became progressively primary. Far from the “primitive” and “mythological” mentality which allowed the flourishment of the religious hypothesis, they supposedly offered an objective method of explanation and understanding of reality. Foucault would refer to this using the general category of “positivism” (What is a Critique?, 50ff). Accordingly, those accounts based on beliefs that cannot pass the test of scientific objectivity where considered, at least, secondary explanatory forms. But this connects with the issue of insufficiency. Even if there is some truth in the sacred or religious understanding of reality, the emergence of what Foucault calls the critical attitude, considers that such understanding does not account for all the relevant elements of reality. Moreover, the critical attitude –very much reinforced by the data-based or scientific rationality— started to suggest that maybe there are severe contradictions between the religious and the secular-scientific perspectives of the world. From this to declare the religious hypothesis unnecessary, there is just one step. Perhaps there is no reason to consider religion as valid explanation of the world anymore. That is what many of the scholars examined by Frei and Harvey certainly believed.

Let us assume that this brief sketch makes sense. What then? I suggest moving from the philosophical-cultural phenomenon to its specific role in the context of biblical interpretation. In my view, it is precisely this transition that I have called secularization what explains very well what we see, especially, in Frei’s and Harvey’s texts. The multiple possibilities which they examine just show the multiplicity of options running in between the three adjectives I just used to describe the religious hypothesis. We cannot lose track of a very important issue here. Even though I have referred to a religious or sacred understanding of the world, the truth is that when we examine the issue from a more concrete, historical perspective, “religious or sacred” is more appropriately, at least in the West, “Christian”. Therefore, given Christianity’s acceptance of scriptural revelation, what I initially addressed as a philosophical-cultural phenomenon, ends up being a matter of biblical interpretation.

We should not lose perspective, though. Let me be clear: Yes, this is an issue of biblical hermeneutics, but it is so because the Bible, insofar as the locus of God’s self-revelation, shaped the Western imagination in a way that has no comparable precedents or consequents. Therefore, it would be a great mistake to believe that what is at stake is just a matter of methods of interpretation of Scripture.  From a Christian perspective, what is at stake is our understanding of reality, our relationship with the world. One may say something even stronger or daring: what is at stake is the problem of salvation. Depending on how we interpret the Bible –if we decide to accept that such a text represents God’s self-revelation, and of course we do not have to— we may or may not be facing, in some way, the problem of our salvation or damnation. I know that I am overemphasizing the point, but I do not think that the issue of salvation should be overlooked here. Moreover, the problem of salvation, examined from this perspective, becomes also one of power relations, as Foucault may say. While dealing with Scripture, especially in the moment of the emergence of the critical turn, what was at play was the possibility to govern ourselves, to decide how to read the text in order to gain or not power to rule our own lives. This can happen in many different ways. Some allow negotiation with the text; others, its rejection as a revelatory source.

This actually allows me to introduce some final remarks. Think about Frei’s book. What is the main argument? Well, I think that is not so easy to determine. Yet, I guess that we can safely say the following: “that during the 18th and 19th centuries biblical interpretation experienced a major transition which either eclipsed, if not almost eliminated, a narrative understanding of Scripture, and replaced it by a historical-critical one”. To say this, however, is excessively aseptic. Actually, in some regard, that is one of the problems of The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, I will contend: the desire of providing a study without making explicit the agenda behind it. But I do believe that there is an agenda even though it is not explicitly stated. It seems to me that Frei is advocating for a relativization of the historical-critical method in order to advance a narrative-based hermeneutic of the Bible where it is understood as a truly revelatory text. But, how is one supposed to do so? How can we go back to a revelatory interpretation of the Bible after the critical turn described by Foucault and historically exemplified by Frei and Harvey?

Harvey, again, provides an interesting hint to follow, namely, the issue of “the historian’s morality of knowledge or ethics of assent” (The Historian and the Believer, 33). What we need to ask, then, is if the religious hypothesis is or is not secondary, insufficient, or unnecessary. What needs to be re-assessed is the philosophical, cultural, and theological status of what I have described as secularization. What if there is a way to reconcile the challenges coming from the critical turn of the historian with the commitments coming from the faith of the believer?  What are the steps for such reconciliation? I do not attempt to provide an in-depth answer to the problem, but let me sketch a couple of suggestions. First, we would need to examine the very idea of revelation. Is that possible? What kind of rational standards post-critical turn can we use in order to validate such a possibility? Second, if revelation is accepted as a possibility, can we accept that it may happen through the mediation of a text? Finally, assuming these two hypotheses, can we accept that the historical-critical method (at least in its most narrow versions), and not the religious hypothesis, is the insufficient one? Is there a way to develop a more holistic method of interpretation that satisfies the demands of both the historian and the believer in our secular age? I guess this is the path that we will explore during the following weeks.

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