Friday, 26 September 2014

Shoring Fragments, Offshore

First, the present. My final year at seminary has started off quietly. Our community has been reduced to a fifth of its former size: most of the people are continuing their studies at the new seminary in Utrecht, a few others have completed their studies, and then there are the stragglers who have gone abroad, one on a long detour to Rome, the other to England to embark on a new path of life as a Jesuit.

The three of us who remain are currently enjoying a leisurely sort of life, with long afternoons and (so far) a rather irregular class schedule. I have gratefully seized the opportunity to work on my thesis about Isaiah 7.

Yes, the thesis. I knew it would require some brain-stretching, and so far I have not been disappointed. Modern exegesis is very different from traditional; the wide christological vistas, ingenious historical harmonizations and safeguardings of the moral purity of the Biblical heroes have succumbed to the spirit of T.S. Eliot’s wasteland: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’

Did you know there’s a wasteland in Isaiah 7? Yeah, I didn’t. It’s there, a few verses after the Emmanuel prophecy (the what?). Sweeney says the wasteland came in with the first major redaction under King Josiah – M.A. Sweeney, a master of the schools, not Eliot’s Sweeney who ‘shifts from ham to ham / Stirring the water in his bath.’

It’s a dangerous business, approaching Scripture with wedges for the cracks and pincers for the protrusions. But it’s been done for centuries now; our exegetical libraries are stuffed with lots of tiny bits of Bible, meticulously designated by mathematical codes (Isa 7:1 = 2 Kgs 16:5). And the new criticism does identify heaps and heaps of minor oddities that don’t quite square with the older view of Scripture as written by a rather selective selection of individuals united by the messianic faith of Abraham (the what?), and containing accurate predictions of things to come (including the names of monarchs who will not appear on the world stage for some 150 years: cf. Isaiah 45:1).

Of course the older view has its defenders, and its arguments too. The same applies to the evolution controversy: just yesterday I received an invitation from a new traditional Catholic movement in the Netherlands to a conference where knowledgeable speakers will take turns not only to poke holes in the evolution theory, but also to explain why it is important for Catholics to do so. Apparently there is enough material (though not very recent, I’d guess) from the Magisterium to mount a case against evolutionism from religious authority as well as scientific findings. The same would apply to Biblical criticism, which has been severely limited by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the first half of the 20th century.

The attraction of being on the conservative side is that you can claim to fight for the integrity of the faith; you defend bastions of thought at key strategic locations in the battle for souls. (It might seem a rearguard action to most people, but a few decades ago defending the Creed seemed like a rearguard action.) Whereas you could not explain at a birthday party why you would spend time finding out if the first part of Isaiah ends after chapter 39 or 33.

Existential thesis crisis? No, not really. I merely find that I am not at home in bastions, and am content to be an agnostic about many things, though not about all. I want to weigh thoughts, conscious of their multitude and the smallness of my scales, as well as my inability to oversee the entire ecology of ideas. But even small-scaled creatures can thrive in beautiful environments, such as the sea, or the zodiac.

Yours sincerely,
Turgonian, Tracker of Ithilien

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