Wednesday, May 19, 2010

ECM, Day 7: Biblical Interpretation and Origen's thoughts on Song of Songs

'Biblical Interpretation' has to do with finding the hidden truths the mystical religious believe are in the Bible. McGinn stresses in his preamble to this section that "interpretation was not arbitrary, but was governed by" two criteria:
  1. "the usefulness of the reading for encouraging deeper contact with God"
  2. "the reading's coherence with the faith of the community" (4)
Of the six pieces McGinn selected for this section, three are about the deliciously mystical Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon), one is about Moses's Exodus, one is on the Psalms, and one, by Eckhart, is an exposition on a single sentence from Luke's Gospel.

We'll start with Origen's 'Commentary on the Song of Songs.' Origen (180-254 AD/CE) was one of the first mystics. He's certainly not one of my favorites, but it's important to look at his work and see how it affected both mystical Christianity and mainstream Christianity.

To Origen, the Song was not just about
groom :: bride ::: Christ :: the Church but also
Christ :: each loving soul

In other words, he took the ideas that eventually became one of the major analogies for the Catholic Church and pushed it a step further. According to McGinn, the selection he picked from Origen did four things (through its four parts):
  1. it characterized the Song as a "dramatic account of the process of salvation" (7)
  2. it showed how Origen's dual understanding of human nature (inner verses outer person) allowed him to translate the sensual language of the Song into a message about the spiritual senses: "the powers of inner perception lost in sin but gradually restored to the soul through the action of grace"
  3. there is no difference between eros and agape (at least insofar as the language of the Song goes... I personally have some issue with this)
  4. the three books of Solomon (who was a sort of prototype for Christ) form the basis for a biblical paideia, or 'total education,' by which we are brought back to God
My thoughts on the matter follow:
  1. I can see how the passage from Origen says that you have to be of the right mindset to absorb something 'properly.' I'm personally conflicted by the idea of people trying to achieve 'arcane' hidden knowledge. I do believe that one has to be open in a certain way to receive such revelation, but I don't necessarily believe that this is something humans can always work toward. There are certain behaviors and paths which are virtuous, but there's a certain measure of grace involved as well.
  2. Here I expound on Origen's message that there are two men in each of us. The book of Genesis offers two stories of man's creation. In the first, humanity was created in the image and likeness of God.  This would be our inner, holy self. The second creation story talks about us being created from slime or dust - very earthly things. I don't know about the connotation of slime, but I can see where somebody might wonder the hidden meaning in Torah behind two separate creation stories. I struggle again with the dual nature Origen suggests here. I don't, for example, believe that the body is 'evil.' Instead, it is a beautiful tool, something we should respect and delight in (without worshiping it). 
  3. Eros is passionate love and Agape is a more detached, universal love. Within myself I am wrestling with the different kinds of love that exist. I want to love everybody, and part of me really dislikes the passion, either in friendship or romantic love, that sets my love for individuals apart from my love for humanity. Does that make sense? What are your thoughts on that?
  4. The three books of Solomon Origen talks about are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song. He sees these as books on moral precepts, the natural law, and a more inspective or philosophical way of thinking. I simplified these to mean dogma, science, and philosophy. I *think* Origen implies that these books are put in the proper order. You have to behave properly before you understand why. For example, we teach children how to act before we expect them to understand cause and effect. Then we move on to a more scientific understanding of the way the world works. We learn more about cause and effect, the laws of physics and the other -ologies. Then and only then, if we follow the logic of this implication, can we begin to think about the meaning behind it all and the purpose for our moral behaviors.
This last part reminds me a little bit of a conversation I had with my boss a couple of days ago. He was talking about the way that managers relate with different levels of people. Visually, he showed me this hierarchy:

/l\ delegate
 l  collaborate
 l  selling
 l  telling

At the bottom, you have to tell people what to do procedurally. You train new workers on what tasks they should perform (as you tell children what's appropriate and what's not). In the next phase of development, you try to sell your workers on why they're doing what they're doing it, explaining your reasoning and appealing to higher order thinking to make them understand the process. Once they understand that better, you can collaborate with them. (This breaks down a little bit in the teenage years of development as adolescents think they know it all and want to change the rules too fast.) Employees start challenging the status quo, asking good questions, and sometimes they're right. Finally, there's delegating. My boss and I didn't discuss exactly what this means, but I interpret it to mean that at this point in development, your workers are ready to teach other people. It's sort of pyramid scheme-ish, but it's the way any teacher-student relationship works. In the realm of education, one of the best ways to assess that a student has learned something is to see if they can teach it to somebody else. On a personal note, I have been talking with a friend of mine lately about sustainability (and it's starting to seep into my blog posts). At first he confronts people with facts. Then he shows them why they should care about those facts. Eventually he seeks feedback (or his friends start to offer it on their own, which is delightful). Finally, he encourages people to start their own conversations, to spread the word. It really is an interesting way to look at the process.

I am thankful for the synchronicity of seeing this lesson in Origen, whom I thought I didn't like much, in the teachings of my very philosophical (and obviously MBA-trained) boss, and in productive conversations with good friends.

Tomorrow (or next time) I have a lot to share concerning Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote very interestingly about Moses's experiences with God and how they can be read on multiple levels for greater personal insight.

Many thanks to you if you're still reading :-)

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