Thursday, March 15, 2012

Critical, Ecclesiastical and Monastic Modes of Knowledge.

Our last post on Schmemann alluded to another mode of Scriptural understanding. Schmemann's criticism  was the divorce of the Word from the Eucharist as an experience of a spiritual reality. In so doing, Schmemann expressed a critique of Biblical criticism formulated in the document Interpretation of the Bible in the Church by the Pontifical Biblical commission. IBC maintained that Church itself was the appropriate forum and author of Biblical criticism. In so doing, the document points toward the Church as the arbitrator of Biblical knowledge and the entity which can rightfully determine the qualifications needed to engage in Biblical exposition. The criteria, on the face of it, would appear to be faith, however, ecclesiastical authority has rarely explicated how institutional such faith must be in order to fulfill said qualifications.

Monasticism has largely emphasized the experiential. Where one is along the journey of conquering vice and mastering one's will, determines one's access to God and thereby one's authority for interpreting the Bible. Both Cassian and Origen argued that Scripture was largely unintelligible to those who had little won the struggle over vice and achieved the conversion of one's will. Even after such an achievement, one's understanding of Scripture was contingent then upon one's progress in contemplation/spiritual reflection. Additionally, the process is not automatic. The process requires the direction of a superior or elder whose own experience provides reflection and guidance for one's own journey towards contemplative union with God.

The university has largely marginalized the Church's role in arbitrating Biblical knowledge and dismissed monasticism's value of experiential understanding. Possession of scientific criteria must be fulfilled, other wise one cannot enter the original world of the text and intention of the author.

Monasticism has had its trials and tribulations. When monastic others try to address a non-monastic audience, the results have often been theologically lite and doctrinal suspect. It was proposed to me by a colleague that, in large part, the reason for this problem has been the lack of systematics among monastic authors. Monasticism presumes systematics, however, it does not actively identify its systematics.

Academic theology, meanwhile, seldom actually does theology. Academia is a closed circle with occasional entry by a limited audience. Biblical scholars, for instance, often spend hours vexed over grammatical minutiae that have little to no impact on properly comprehending the text. In the university, the obsession with minutiae is rigorously defended among theology departments, indeed, minutiae is almost an addiction.

The Church authority now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to make absolute claims of interpretative knowledge, this often despite the degrees of separation between ecclesiastical officials and the ancient text. Thus, it is not uncommon for persons with a knowledge of Latin but scarce knowledge of Greek and none of Hebrew to make claims for authoritative Biblical interpretation.

All three modes have tendencies to gravitate towards extremes.  While as of late I've gravitated towards monasticism (in our current context, monasticism is a source of salus in the Church), my own training in Biblical criticism compels me to advocate for exploring the supernatural based off the intention of the Biblical authors themselves. Conversely, there are limits to any one individual comprehension of Scripture. The Church, whatever its problems at a given historical moment, forces an individual to measure himself or herself against a larger community and test the applicability of one's theories. The Church supplies a corporate and communicable belief. This being said, monasticism challenges definitive statements with regard to the nature of God and the spiritual life - eventually, monasticism forces us to confront something unnamed and possibly unnameable.