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On Reading, Part II: the New Criticism

By Tim Butler | Posted at 22:02
Continuing from part I on Old Historicism.

After the Great War, people started to realize that meaning was not cut and dry, and history was not a perfect record. Disillusionment reigned king, especially in Europe, and this had a big impact on not only politics and social mores, but also literature, literary theory and religion. If history and news was written by the will of the victors and the powerful, and often misled people into ill advised pursuits such as the “glories” of going into war for the fatherland, clearly using history to interpret texts was merely grabbing at the wind.

The New Criticism (Formalism) arose in literature, but I would contend a very similar movement arose within the core Fundamentalist tradition that was galvanized in the modernist debate that appeared in places such as Princeton Seminary. As Fundamentalism emerged, it claimed not only the priority of Scripture, but also generally isolated Scripture in a way I would suggest is fundamentally different from the intentions of the Reformers to whom they claimed to be the defenders (and, indeed, in some areas were).

An inside joke among students of literature is the famous freshman English Comp paper expression when the said freshman is writing about a text; when it comes time to paraphrase, the student will say, “what the author is trying to say is [such and such].” Nonsense. That suggests two things that no one, much less someone early in literary training, should suggest: first, that a worthwhile author was so poorly equipped at writing that he or she needs the freshman to clarify what the work is saying and, second, that anyone, much less a person who likely has very little knowledge of the author, can actually know what the author intended based solely on the text that was a result. We are not the author, and so the author's intentions can never be truly fathomed.

That is the essential starting point of the New Criticism. New Criticism and Fundamentalism both believe that a text can be read in and of itself; indeed, that is the only way to truly read it, since we cannot know the author's intentions. I respect the New Critics, which include two of my poetic heros — T.S. Eliot and Archibald MacLeish — and it would be a mistake to see them as Fundamentalists. New Criticism is highly nuanced, and encourages a close reading of the text using solid insights into the objective nature of emotion in poetry (the objective correlative), the fundamental adherence to genre in writing (generic criticism) and a love of allusion. New Criticism places the text on a pedestal and says, we cannot understand the author's intent, and it really does not matter; what matters is the text, which we can read and we can know if we read it carefully and avoid eisegesis. Notice that I have switched referencing and am only talking about New Criticism; Fundamentalism, I would assert, wants to take the text as the text, but ignores such important parts of a close reading as generic criticism, and this can lead to errors such as Dispensationalism.

Nevertheless, despite my admiration for New Criticism (and, indeed, my habit of naming Formalism as one school in my eclectic style of criticism), both they and Fundamentalism have made a critical error insomuch as they reject the need to provide historical context to understand a work. “I am going to perform open heart surgery tomorrow” can only be understood to be a crime if you happen to know that I am not an MD. One important nuance among New Critics (but not Fundamentalism) was the emphasis on being over meaning. “A poem should not mean/But be.” This is a focus on the text. The New Critic does not see the text as a resource meant to be scavenged for specific nuggets of meaning, and so avoid part of this concern. When Archibald MacLeish wrote those words, he was putting to words the notion that our focus should be on the experience of reading the text and not on what we can extrapolate directly from it.

I would suggest the Fundamentalist reaction to Modernism parts company with New Criticism at this juncture and does generally see a text as only a means to propositional ends. Clearly, when it comes to theology, we do not want to say that Scripture is being and not meaning — unless we want to get all Tillichian! On the other hand, extracting meaning while loosing oneself from historical context is highly dangerous.

One cannot loose a text from context. If we ignore its original context, we merely allow ourselves to lazily place a text in the foreign context of our own socio-linguistic situation. Remember that language is merely a set of signs and symbols. When we fail to place those signs and symbols within their original interpretive context (or the nearest thing we can manage to posit), a problem arises. Instead of seeing the New Testament as primarily Hebraic writings with Hellenistic influence written to people who think in the way people would in first century Palestine and have a set of shared experiences, expressions and so on that we lack, we start to see Paul as writing to Americans and sharing our experiences and expressions. And while there is no doubt Scripture provides us with useful instruction today, that instruction is best derived by trying to find out Paul's real point (in context) is and then finding how that point can then be applied to our situation. It serves neither as a respectful attitude toward God's Word, nor our own purposes, to place Paul out of context in an ill advised attempt to find him directly speaking to specifically modern problems (this is what liberation theology, for example, seems to do).

To the point, Formalism is an important discipline, but it must be included in a larger, more eclectic system for it to work in a proper, honest fashion. Those who adopted some or all of its methods in the twentieth century were reminding us of important truths that we ought not ignore. However, what Formalists are not honest in — if they are pure formalists — is that language is always understood in a context, because language without a context is nothing but random gibberish.

The Immovable Rock and Silent Tree

By Tim Butler | Posted at 0:40

Jennifer mentioned the ever present discussion of whether God can create a rock that He cannot move and the (even more pressing) question of whether a tree falling with no one to hear it would make a sound. That gave me an idea, what if Aquinas had answered that first question and Anselm, the second? I think it'd sound like the following.

Of course, Thomas — being the Angelic Doctor — already actually deals with the issue in Summa Theologica 1.9.1 under the first article of the question concerning immutability. But, I decided it would be more amusing to have Aquinas deal with the issue directly, so hear is how I expect it would have gone:

We thus proceed to the first article.

Article 1. Whether God can create an object too large for him to move?

Objection 1. It seems that God can create an object too large for him to move. For as the Philosopher says (Metaphysics ii) “matter is in everything which is moved.” However, as was already admitted in an earlier objection (ST 1.9.1), there exists things that are not made of matter. Therefore it seems God could create an immovable, immaterial rock.

Objection 2. Further, it seems that movement belongs to only things that are not already perfected, but it cannot be said that nothing God creates is already perfect. Therefore it seems that God can create an immovable rock.

Objection 3. It is clear from the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterium of the Church that God is perfect and all powerful, for as the Evangelist reports, the angel said to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Therefore it seems that God can create an immovable rock.

On the contrary, Augustine says (De Nat. Boni. i), “God alone is immutable; and whatever things He has made, being from nothing, are mutable.” Therefore no creation of God can be immutable.

I answer that, although God is all powerful, He is also simple (ST 1.3), therefore all of God's essence and existence are one. If God's essence and existence are one, He cannot do anything in His will that would cause His essence to be in conflict with His existential actions. The resultant action of discord from God creating something that He Himself could not move would bring his existence into conflict with His essence, but a thing cannot be and not be in the same substance.

Moreover, a thing that is in conflict with itself is not as perfect as a thing that is not in conflict with itself, but we know that God is perfect, for as the First Principle, He is pure act and pure act is most perfect. If He were not pure act, He would not be the First Principle, but rather a Second or Third Principle, as is clear from the Philosopher. But, it is written “Be you perfect as also your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Therefore God is perfect and, as pure act, can move anything that is not pure act, which is everything other than Himself.

Reply to Objection 1. As I have related before, the immutability of something depends not only on the physical movement of matter, but also the ability of the object to be made more or less act. Everything that is not the First Principle does not have necessary existence, therefore, there is some time that the rock did not, or will not, exist. Therefore, because philosophers treat conversion from potency to act as movement, the immovable rock is only immovable so long as God grants it act, which he may cease to grant it at any time.

Reply to Objection 2. Although something may achieve its ends, and therefore cease movement, it only achieves it thusly as God has intended it. Nevertheless, anything that can possibly not be, will not be at some point, whether prior or future, and therefore the rock is not immovable regardless of whether it ceases movement at the achievement of its end.

Reply to Objection 3. Nothing is impossible with God, but the impossible cannot be because it is nothing. For something that conflicts with its own nature cannot actually exist, and therefore does not actually exist, nor can the idea of its existence even be pondered. Anything that has existence neither in potency or actuality can be said to truly be “nothing” and therefore, is not something that is impossible with God.


Anselm's Lost Appendix in Fides Quaerens Intellectum Dealing with Falling Trees

“The fool says in his heart, 'if no one is around to hear a tree fall, it does not make a sound.'”

O most perfect newly fallen tree, how marvellous it is that you should fall with clarity and make it so that even a fool can see his folly in this statement! For it is clear that you could not have fallen without making a sound. For you are the most perfect fallen tree that can be imagined. However, the most perfect fallen tree that can be imagined is a fallen tree that has made a sound as it fell. For if the most perfect fallen tree fell but did not make a sound, then a more perfect fallen tree, which did make a sound, could be imagined, and you would not be the most perfect fallen tree.

But you are the most perfect fallen tree, not because someone happened to be around to hear you fall, but rather because your status as the most perfect fallen tree made it necessary that you should make a sound as you fell. The fool denies the obvious when he makes the claim, for to say that the most perfect tree could fall and not make a sound, because he was not there is foolishness! To suggest that the most prefect fallen tree is only most perfect because of something outside of its perfect falleness is contradictory to the idea of the most perfect fallen tree, for if the most prefect fallen tree were only perfect because someone was there to hear it, I can easily imagine an even more prefect fallen tree that was perfect without need for someone to hear it.

Reading, Meaning and the New Testament

By Tim Butler | Posted at 22:05

Reading through my first Greek in Exegesis assignments was not an exercise that was all fun, but parts of it were an absolute delight, because they touched on one of my favorite subjects: literary criticism. So, I thought I would mull over some of the ideas in the book and essays as a way of walking through the major schools and, ultimately, showing why I've ended up in the critical school I am in. This may prove further to Brad that I am sick. :)

What got me started on this was that Wallace remarked in his text that language is cryptic and symbolic, which is something dangerous to say around a person who is recovering from a severe case of deconstructionism (that's me). Admitting language is cryptic and symbolic draws us into the territory of Deconstructionism. The essays rounded things out and helped soothe my other critical interests, incidentally, but I had to slow myself down lest my inner Deconstructionist get too excited.

The Deconstructionist, as well as the New Historicist, rejects the absolute of meaning because we observe that the meaning is lost “in the slippage of the signified from the signifier.” This is essentially a fancy way of saying that given any word (a symbol) it inevitably will shift from the intended meaning of the author. We can observe this quickly in two ways with respect to the Bible: first, well known verses have become so well known as to have obtained proverbial status, hence granting to them an independent status that does not exist in their original state (whether translated or not). Second, the statements have been pulled out of the context of first century Palestine, as such regardless of how much we try, we cannot reconstruct the mindset of the audience.

Ok, so language is cryptic, why does all this nonsense about author-text-reader really help at all? Well, I am glad you asked. Basically, as one of the authors said — I think it was Joel Green — Biblical interpretation (and, I would add, literary criticism in general) has gone through some marked phases in the modern and post-modern periods.

Let's journey down one path tonight, and we can pursue the others soon. The realm of interpretation actually has more than three sides, it actually has five: author, text/co-text, reader, intertext and reality. Understanding these explicitly, rather than taking them for granted, is extremely helpful, I believe.

The Enlightenment Project's sense that everything could be understood brought in Old Historicism, which in the context of the Bible, led to attempts to determine the original authors, their motives and their accuracy. It is also related to the Quest for the Historical Jesus. This is the school of both the Academic Study of Religion and classical liberal theology. It seeks, for example, to determine how Mark, the Q text and other sources were used by Matthew and Luke. This is, clearly, a focus on the author.

What is good about this school is that it forces us to consider the intent of the authors. God chose human authors; He did not need to do that. So why did He do that? Presumably, He did so because He could use their unique personality traits to cover important angles. Mark is short and apocalyptic. Luke is the detail oriented, literary guy. Matthew is interested in Jesus's relation to Judaism. John (or, more properly, perhaps, the Johannian community) is in the Kingdom of Heaven already, at least in spirit. Each has his own purpose and style.

Even controversial theories, such as the isolation of Q (which is abbreviated from Quelle or source) from shared passages in Matthew and Luke is fruitful. The basic premise is that we can find identical or highly similar passages between the two Gospels, pull them out of the existing Gospels, and get some idea of what the earlier source both writers used looked like. It does not seem far-fetched to believe that there was an earlier source upon which the two Evangelists drew. But, should we reject that, it still causes us to question why God led the two Evangelists to frequently word-for-word copy each other, while also frequently not doing so. Perhaps it is for emphasis on important topics, if so, all the better that we pay attention, isolate these passages and try to exegete them.

I reject this school tenderly, as it was the first critical school I applied intentionally as part of my time as a Religion major. I later used it — or tried to, anyway — in my interpretation of literature too. I battled long and hard to maintain my Old Historicist sensibilities, but ultimately I believe it is chasing after the wind. Nevertheless, its attention to the details of ever important cultural context are not to be forgotten. They will return when we reach a different school, later on.

A Deconstructionist Epistomology of Religion

By Tim Butler | Posted at 22:18

Ok, so how's that for a fancy schmancy title? I need to develop my ideas a little more (and see what's actually going on with this concept already), but I think it is high time to explore a deconstructionist philosophy within Christianity, and I'm not seeing it happening anywhere I normally look. Now, I'm sure if you know Deconstructionism, you are probably thinking I am crazy, so hold on just a moment.

I find reading Jacque Derrida painful, to say the least, but I find deconstructionism extremely interesting once I pull the concept out of Derrida's text (which is truly deconstructed). The basic premise is simple enough: “meaning is endlessly deferred.” Whenever we seek meaning about something, which is called “the center,” we move away from the center, placing the focus on the means of understanding. It is essentially impossible to zero in on the thing itself, according to deconstructionism.

Deconstructionism differs from the atheistic, twentieth century existentialism in that it does not argue that meaning is arbitrary or non-existent, but rather that it is impossible to get to. I think this is actually a more faithful outgrowth from Kierkegaard's original flavor of existentialism, and it also fits in neatly with my interest in redeveloping a Barthian neo-orthodox theology. Essentially, deconstructionism undermines any system of rational thought, admitting that none of them can get to meaning. This, of course, would include natural theology, to which we must follow Karl Barth in saying, “Nein!”

But, this does not lead to despair when applied within Reformed theology, because our knowledge comes not from our own reason but God's. To me, it seems that what seems true coming out of deconstructionism is essentially an observation about the fall: a fallen creation cannot rationally or otherwise actualize meaning. The meaning is clearly there, but that meaning can only be drawn close to, not found. We can accept a Thomistic framework of natural theology, but we must accept that the center will be missed and must be interpolated via revelation. This is an important point, because it does not rule out reason, but rather puts reason within the bounds of revelation, our only hope of actually escaping a never ending series of collapsing systems.

I think this is not only interesting, but it also serves as an excellent response to modernist over-rationalism. From experience we can say that modernism does not work, precisely because everyone must accept a crisis point of faith and make a leap of faith to enter whichever scheme of knowing they feel is most proper. Deconstructionism does not say anything new, yet it gives its message so boldly and directly, I think it does bring significant value to the table.

The God Delusion

By Tim Butler | Posted at 22:05

No less than three people tied to my alma mater, Lindenwood, took the time to invite me to a two part Coffee Conversation there. The last one was last spring when I presented a talk on religious pluralism, so it has been a little while since I have had the pleasure to sit in on such an event. The first part was today and covered the first of two videos produced by that epitome of reasonable dialogue on the issue of religion, Richard Dawkins. It was interesting. Dawkins was, well, Dawkinsish, and he was properly and robustly rebutted by the panel of faculty that presented arguments after the 48 minute film.

The conversation after the panel was good as well. I am not quite sure why anyone would take Dawkins's arguments seriously, but they did serve to get a good conversation stated on the general corruption of human nature. A tulip could have almost sprang out of that!

Harvard's Curriculum and the Study of Religion

By Tim Butler | Posted at 19:40

An interesting piece from Newsweek.

Enough people agreed with him. In December the task force withdrew its “Reason & Faith” recommendation, substituting instead a category called “What It Means to Be a Human Being.” On the phone, Louis Menand, the English professor who cochaired the task force, sounds exhausted. “It's noncontroversial that there is this thing called religion out there and that it has an enormous impact on the world we live in. Scholars should be able to study and teach it without getting cooties”—a term of art, not science.

It's rather interesting — and disturbing — that scientists have become so anti-religious that they do not understand the academic reasonability of studying religion. Studying religion does not mean forced conversion of students. What are they scared of? Maybe they are afraid that the truth will set students free.

The problem with studying religion, if one is anti-religious, is that it shows that faith is not set against reason. It may be beyond reason (the crisis point of faith), but the system ultimately is reasonable. If students see that theology is “faith seeking understanding” (Fides Quaerens Intellectum), as Anselm so appropriately put it, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps students would — gasp! — decide that a thinking person could believe in God!

(Found via Dr. Sean Michael Lucas's blog; I have not yet met Dr. Lucas but will be taking a course from him this semester.)

Thus Spake the Philosopher

By Tim Butler | Posted at 0:16

Here's something rather pithy I found in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

It is to be noted that nothing that is past is an object of choice, e.g. no one chooses to have sacked Troy; for no one deliberates about the past, but about what is future and capable of being otherwise, while what is past is not capable of not having taken place; hence Agathon is right in saying
For this alone is lacking even to God,
To make undone things thathave once been done.

I think Aristotle makes an incorrect claim about God here, in as much as I will affirm the traditional Christian notion that God is the creator of, and hence above, time. In that context, it is really irrelevant to speak in terms of what has already occurred when referring to God. Thoughts?

Possible Worlds and God

By Tim Butler | Posted at 0:43

OK, so it is beyond the level of logic I know how to work with, but supposedly Alvin Plantinga has a reworking of the ontological argument for the existence of God that uses what is known as “S5” modal logic. While I don't know how to do S5, I think I understand the basic principle, which is that given an infinite number of possible worlds with all possible combinations of states existing, God must be necessary in at least one of them. And if a necessary being exists in one world, He must exist in all worlds.

The interesting thing that strikes me (though I don't know if it would work) is that it seems like the opposite must also be true: there must be at least one possible world where God does not exist (according to Plantinga's initial premise). Thus, we would end up with one possible world in which God must necessarily exist and not exist simultaneously.

There's a mind boggling thought. I tend to think using possible worlds to theorize is only questionable useful, but it is interesting.

Aquinas and the Simplicity of God

By Tim Butler | Posted at 19:37

Mark asks,

With respect, and if I have the right guy, that should be Saint Thomas Aquinas. And what do you mean by God’s simplicity? From an engineering perspective, God is as complicated as it gets. Heck he created everything we hear, see and feel and it all works perfectly. There is nothing simple about that.

Note: I'm going to give the long answer first. If that bogs anyone down, you'll find my own, simpler two cents, probably much more Barthian than the top part, below.

To the first point, yes, that would be one and the same. Being a Protestant, I often favor dropping the “saint” designation, although I will use it at times (I don't reject the bestowing of sainthood on Aquinas or others so much as support the sense that all believers are saints). For some reason I find it more natural to refer to Augustine as “St. Augustine” than I do Thomas Aquinas as “St. Thomas Aquinas.” I'm not sure why, I guess because he can't just be referred to as “St. Thomas.” “St. Augustine Hippo” wouldn't be much better, so Augustine is lucky that he had a more unique name. Really, though, I think part of it is that one can have a general theological discussion without any presumptions when talking about “Thomas Aquinas,” but not even the name will be agreeable to all if you use “St. Thomas Aquinas.” Interestingly, Aquinas is often referred to as just “Thomas” in the field of theology, maybe because one comes to feel as if he is an old friend over time.

At any rate, Thomas — there I go using that reference to him — makes it his first key point in Summa Theologica about the nature of God, other than that God can be demonstrated to exist, that God is simple. This follows on St. Augustine and St. Anselm, and agrees with Angelic Doctor's friend, St. Bonaventure, although more exactly, it seems to be a doctrine whose influence stretches back to Plato. Aquinas uses this doctrine to define first and foremost what God is not (complex) and thus set the stage for the rest of his discussion on God (Aquinas is nothing of not methodical and perfectly rational — hence my quibble with Francis Shaeffer a few weeks ago).

What simple means here is that an object has no smaller parts. For instance, I am made up of many physical parts and metaphysical parts that aren't essential to humanness, they are “accidents” (unnecessary). Anything that makes me me is not necessary for me being a human, only for making me Tim Butler. Moreover, even essential parts of my humanness come merely from my “participation” in humanness and not my being “human,” full stop, for you are a human too. God, on the other hand, is necessarily as He is (unchanging and perfect) and does not participate in things such as goodness, love, mercy, etc., but rather is those things. As the Bible says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Following the Thomistic-Aristotelean viewpoint, when I say John is good, but Susan is better and Mark is best, I am defining the characteristic of goodness based on the “benchmark” of goodness, that is, God. The emphasis here is that when I say that John is good, that means part of his nature is goodness, but when I say God is good, I mean really that God is God (or, as Barth would say, “God is freely being Himself”) — His entire nature simply is Him. God can't be less than any of those things, because when we isolate the “attributes” of God, we are really just speaking in terms humans can understand by analogy, in reality, God's attributes are all merely one divine nature.

Does that help? I can try to explain more — I'm not really doing Aquinas much justice. For anyone interested, the appropriate part of the Summa is 1.3

My Simple Two Cents: God is freely Himself so we can merely say God is God. However, when I talk about anything else in the world, I essentially spend my time defining what that thing is not. I am using a keyboard, which means I am not using a toaster. Moreover, as everything in this world is corrupt and unable to follow its own nature, we often talk in terms of what a thing is suppose to be and what it actually is. I need to be talked about in attributes, because I do not live up to the ideal of perfect humanness because of my fallen nature (so we talk in terms of defining which parts of God's nature I am suppose to be like but am not). Moreover, even if I did live up to God's plan for a human, I'd still not encompass all good things, so I'd still need to be attributed as being “human” (which really is a limiter saying which parts of God's nature I am not even suppose to be).

I think that's a fair explanation of the gist of the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS). I'll probably post the paper I am writing on the subject, perhaps broken into smaller bits within the not too distant future.

Hmm, Am I Allowed to Do This?

By Tim Butler | Posted at 0:25

Usually, if I plan to critique a major authority, I try to do so using other major authorities. Yet, in my ongoing project concerning God's simplicity, I found I fired at several of Alvin Plantinga's (only the greatest living Reformed philosopher) objections to the doctrine using just my own reason. I wonder if I really should dare to challenge Plantinga so directly? My object initially was certainly anything but clashing with Plantinga.

Of course, I do use the reasoning of Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth and C. S. Lewis in doing so — at least indirectly — so maybe I'm OK.

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