Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Song of Songs and the Pre-Critical Understanding of Faith.

It had been said some centuries ago, by Jerome no less, that with his commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen, then thought the master of Biblical exegesis, had surpassed his own powers of Biblical interpretation.The complexity surrounding the issue of what type of love is the subject of the Song of Songs leads Origen to conclude that Scripture is not necessarily an open book one can readily understand. The Song of Songs aptly demonstrates that persons of spiritual immaturity will be prone to understanding the subject of the Song of Songs in a “profane” sense.[1] In particular, there is a distinct risk of interpreting the book as exalting lust and as such Origen holds the book should be reserved for those persons who have overcome the vexations of flesh and blood.[2] Notably, Origen references Jewish traditions which forbid open access to certain passages of Scripture as justification for his contention that, in at least this one instance, Scripture cannot be readily understood without purification from vice. Origen refernces three forms of philosophical knowledge, ethics, physics and enoptics which Origen argues correspond to moral, natural and inspective knowledge.[3] Origen, reflecting the influence of philosophy on his thought, argues that Solomon had discovered these forms of knowledge and wrote three books corresponding to each: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs.[4] Of the three books, the Song of Songs holds pride of place as the book of inspective knowledge, revealing divine things to the soul.[5] However, the knowledge of divine things cannot be acquired by simply reading the Song of Songs. Origen lays out an ascetic progression for the acquisition of divine knowledge. Origen argues this is not a notion of his own invention, but indeed the doctrine of Solomon himself. Proverbs supplies the reader with instruction in moral knowledge the goal being to facilitate the reader in his discernment and action and creates a change in the nature of his or her knowledge.[6] The change in the nature of an individual’s knowledge leads to an understanding of the true nature of the physical world and the necessity to forsake the vanity of the visible for the eternal truth of the invisible world.[7] This stage corresponds to the book of Ecclesiasties. When the individual has fully realized the nature of the visible, he or she should then desire renunciation of visible goods as fleeting and seek the eternal.[8] The person aspiring to divine knowledge, or knowledge of the invisible, has completed the process of moral learning and material detachment, he or she is then ready to read the Song of Songs and progress into knowledge,

            “If, then, a man has completed his course in the first subject, as taught in Proverbs, by amending his behaviour and keeping the commandments, and therafter, having seen how empty is the world and realized the bittleness of transitory things, has come to renounce the world and all that is therein, he will follow on from that point to contemplate and to desire the things that are not seen and that are eternal.”[9]

John Cassian, an author to whom we have previously alluded to in prior posts, and Origen converge upon a point of agreement, one which Origen had set down upon parchment in its skeletal form: Scripture is not an open book. One cannot simply pick up the book and readily comprehend its contents. Origen looks towards the books of Solomon as evidence for this perspective. Our comprehension of Scripture and, in Origen's eyes, our access to Scripture, is dependent upon a full moral transformation in our lives, one which leads to a complete change in the praxis of our lives. Claims to spiritual insight or theological comprehension ought to be measured to one's praxis of life, this is the measure by which one can determine the veracity of an individual's claims. It is only with the reformation of one's morality that one can access the deepest secrets of the divine, all of which are, in one way or another, carried in the pages of Scripture.
             All of the above features in Origen's treatment of the Song of Songs. His interpretation rests upon the notion that a literal interpretation of the book's eroticism betrays immaturity and ill-preparedness to read the pages of Solomon's sublime song. Only one who has mastered the moral life, acquired insight into the true nature of our physical world, and abandoned attachment to the material in favor of contemplation of the spiritual may properly read and interpret the Song of Songs and, more broadly speaking, Scripture as a whole.
            In the wake left by historical criticism, we are prone to take Origen's interpretation of Song of Song's as a song of the soul's union with God or the Church's union with Christ as edifying for one's spirituality, though not necessarily true. Historical criticism has, perhaps irrevocably, redefined the landscape of Biblical interpretation as well as the qualifications one must possess in order to be a tested and credible Biblical exegete. This change, indeed, is not necessarily to our disadvantage. One must have a working knowledge of the ancient languages as well as be conversant in the textual traditions. One must strive to identify the author's intention as well as be aware of the cultural parallels that may have influenced the composition of the sacred text. Indeed, there are many advantages to this approach. I, for one, find the Song of Song's celebration of human love and sexuality as deep a mystery as the annals of allegorical interpretation complied in the history of Christian exegesis. Yet, one cannot help but question whether or not the absolutism claimed for historical criticism is entirely warranted. The historical critical method has established a seemingly imperishable paradigm for "proper" Biblical understanding. The personal integrity, moral rectitude or contemplative life of the exegete is irrelevant in comparison to mastery of the supposed scientific criteria for criticism. Additionally, by marginalizing interpretations like Origen's, the new paradigm has effectively negated any study into the spirit or conception of the human being as being composed of parts both temporal and a-temporal. The Song of Songs raises a question that the Church, and I am as guilty of this as anyone, has yet to express any desire to answer: is there any place for Scriptural interpretation that concerns the phenomenon of the human person's spirit, that seeks, after tabulating the historical and textual data, endeavors to utilize the sacred page in the hope of discovering something of the supernatural or the eternal? Is there room in credible Scripture scholarship for work that attempts to be a map of the soul? Was Origen's work on the Song of Songs little more than the product of a bygone era that could not help but fail to see things objectively or is it still possible to speak of the spiritual and speak with credibility? At times, the only solution seems to be trying to find the spiritual perspectives of the ancient authors themselves. Perhaps that is the appropriate inquiry and the only acceptable way to reintroduce the language of the soul into credible discourse on Scripture.

[1] Origen. Commentary on the Song of Songs. Prologue. I.
[2] Origen. Commentary on the Song of Songs. Prologue. I.
[3] Origen. Commentary on the Song of Songs. Prologue. III
[4] Origen. Commentary on the Song of Songs. Prologue. III
[5] Origen. Commentary on the Song of Songs. Prologue. III
[6] Origen. Commentary on the Song of Songs. Prologue.
[7] Origen. Commentary on the Song of Songs. Prologue
[8] Origen. Commentary on the Song of Songs. Prologue
[9] Origen. Commentary on the Song of Songs. Prologue