Friday, January 14, 2011

The Atheist Synthesis Of Bible And Theology - Boer On Bloch II

I would much rather that Bloch had allowed his politicised biblical criticism loose on theology. I think of the discernment of myths along class lines, between those that encourage sevility and those that enable human beings to stand up to the power that oppress. Is not this kind of discernment necessary in his readings of theology? These debates might continue, but, in the end, Bloch drops his ideological guard too often, especially in regard to theology and it is precisely here that is is needed. Roland Boer, Criticism of Heaven, p.56
One of the first books I read as a seminarian is Phyllis Bird's The Bible as the Church's Book, a succinct discussion of the history of the formation of the canon. It is indispensable to any understanding of the Bible, to any approach to this much-contested text, to grasp that, in its final form, we have a Bible at all because the Church as a whole, early in its life, determined certain texts to be central to our communal understanding, while others were not.

This does not mean the canon is "closed". On the contrary, one of the most important insights of Hans Frei's monograph on biblical hermeneutics, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, is that interpretation itself keeps the canon open.

All the same, a basic historic fact is the Bible, for all that it presents many faces to many readers, and offers so much to readers less interested in religion and theology, nevertheless is the book of the Church.

Ernst Bloch recognizes this reality, calling the Bible Christianity's "uneasy conscience". A fair description, to say the least; it is in the words of the texts that so many in Christian history have found the resources to protest all sorts of abuses of power and authority. This historical reality, one Bloch notes runs from the Albigensians (one could add the Cathars and Waldensians as well) through the Hussites in Bohemia through Joachim of Fiore and Thomas Munzer and the Peasant Revolt during the early days of the Reformation. Rather than denounce the Bible as nothing but a work designed by those in power to maintain their power, Bloch wants to know how it is possible this collection of writings has offered and continues to offer so many readers resources, strength for the journey from nobody to fully human.

Bloch finds it, as he writes in Atheism in Christianity, within the contested texts of the Bible itself. Using the best available biblical scholarship at the time - in particular that known as "redaction criticism", a fancy name for how the various writings are edited - Bloch espies in the texts abundant evidence not only of stories from above, but of protests from below, stories that tell not only of a people's protest against various authorities here on earth, but also the imposition of a God who supports and even defines and legitimizes that imposition. In other words, within the Bible itself (much as each historical age, according to Marx, contains within itself its own contradiction that will, over time, lead to its destruction and the creation of a higher stage through synthesis) there lies a protest against God, the core of an atheism that elevates trammeled humanity to stand as fully human.

While applauding, in general terms, this hermeneutics of class, Boer wishes, as the quote above indicates, that Bloch had moved from the Scriptures to theology. The Bible has, indeed served as a check on all sorts of theological excesses. Taking the next, somewhat logical, step, and insisting that the Church's adoption of the Bible includes the incomplete revision of a whole series of texts, rooted in an oral tradition "from below", that undermine the very idea of God, falls short for Boer.

I don't think that Boer gives Bloch due credit. While I agree his interpretations of specific texts - for example the Cain/Abel/God story in Genesis 4 - include an attention to editorial detail that demonstrate clearly enough the heavy hand of a redactor somewhere, I believe that Bloch's insistence that this undercurrent of protest a-theology is "hidden" is belied precisely by the history to which Bloch himself appeals. Were it as hidden as he insists, it would not have served as a source for various social and political protests movements in the history of European Christendom, awaiting academic historical criticism to unearth. That this fundamental contradiction within the text of the books themselves exists is obvious enough to a careful reader. That Bloch uses it to construct a vision of Christian thought as anthropocentric, atheistic, synthetic of the questions raised throughout the text as the stories from below and above clash without any clear resolution is a testimony to his respect for both the Bible and Christian theology.

Boer's basic criticism, that the success of Bloch's hermeneutic and use of various historical-critical methods is belied by his theologizing misses, I think, a crucial issue. Bloch's project in Atheism in Christianity is precisely to construct a Biblically-based a-theology, an understanding of human community rooted in the Scriptural narrative that sees no need for hypostasizing "God" in order to make of creation something more. The protest stories, the hermeneutic of suspicion within the Bible to its various triumphalisms, reveal that, at heart, the higher synthesis, without any need for "God", is at the heart of the Biblical testimony itself.

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