Monday, April 27, 2015

Pedagogical Esotericism in the Bible

Over at thoughtful, thought-provoking atheist blogger Scott Alexander's semimonthly open thread, commenter Cauê asks for theist commenters' views of the Bible. This a lightly edited version of the second point I made in my reply:

Esotericism is a huge deal in understanding ancient writing. Not esotericism of the “spooky occult secrets” sort, but pedagogical and belle-lettristic esotericism. I’ve been asked in Scott's comments before why, if God inspired the Bible, He didn’t clearly lay out what His plan was, and prove it was Him by dropping some modern science in there or something. The answer to the latter part is that He was working through autonomous human authors who didn’t know any modern science. The answer to the former is that ancient people never would’ve preserved a book that clearly laid out anything, because they scorned such books. They liked their books like we like our online RPGs: full of hidden Easter eggs. (Indeed, finding allegorical “Easter” eggs in the Old Testament was kind of the main hobby for Christian exegetes for centuries.)

From P.E. Gobry’s recent “pedagogical esotericism”-stressing review of the recent Straussian work Philosophy Between the Lines by Arthur M. Melzer

Philosophers did not just practice esotericism as a way of sneaking subversive ideas past the censors, but also as a pedagogical device, much in the way of Socrates’ insistent questioning. For the Ancient philosophers, philosophy was not just, perhaps not even primarily, a body of doctrine, but an attitude of the mind towards contemplation and relentless questioning. The task of making philosophers, then, was not primarily about imparting ideas, but about leading people towards a certain state of mind. The philosopher wanted his pupils to discover his ideas on their own, by studying the text and working hard to get past the literal meaning, and thereby growing into a philosophic mind and posture.

In this regard, Melzer points out something else (in retrospect obvious, but which was quite an “Aha!” moment for me), which is the rarity of books in the era before the advent of the printing press, and the fact that the classical liberal arts curriculum included long study in “rhetoric” (i.e. the art of writing) which is something we have all-but forgotten. Everyone who was educated was trained in writing and reading between the lines. And because books were rare and expensive, owners of books, instead of the contemporary practice of reading a book once and then just moving on to the next, would typically reread the same book many times over their lifetime. Knowing this, authors would typically be alert to write in an esoteric style, concealing many layers of meaning into the text, so that the book would still be rewarding on the Nth reading. Just like, to the contrary, anyone writing a book today knows all-too-well that his book is competing with millions of other books, and so strives to make his argument as clear, literal and obvious as possible for fear that the reader just drop the book and move on to another.

If this is how everyone understood the art of writing and the art of reading until very recently, then, certainly, this should have an impact on how we read the Bible. In fact, Strauss was first alerted to the reality of esoteric writing by his reading of Maimonides and Rashi, the two greatest Medieval rabbis. (Maimonides (like Aquinas) read Aristotle esoterically, as did every single Ancient commentator (Aristotle is the single author with the biggest secondary literature in the Ancient world), even though today Aristotle is considered as perhaps the most literal Ancient philosopher.)

Even without referring to inspired spiritual senses, we should still realize that the Modern prejudice that the surface meaning of a text is almost always the most authentic is just that–a culturally-contingent prejudice. By contrast, educated readers and writers for the rest of history would have had precisely the opposite assumption: that it’s more likely that the surface meaning of the text is not the most authentic. And this is indeed how many rabbis and Church Fathers read the Bible.

Anyway, that’s a lot. But as a Catholic, if there was ONE concept I wish contemporary atheists had in their head about the Bible, it would be how the modern secular, post-Protestant prejudice that a high quality book is necessarily a highly perspicuous book is 180 degrees from the stylistic canons of the Bible’s own era. Once I discovered the perspective of pedagogical esotericism, studying the Bible went for me from frustration at its ambiguity to delight in its intricacy. And I suddenly understood why the Church Fathers and the medieval Scholastics enjoyed commentating it so much, and why moderns tend to dislike it so much.

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