Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Metaphor in Practice

"[The Israelites] waged war against a foreign nation. The text calls those combining against them Amalekites. For the first time the Israelites were drawn out fully armed in battle array... Moses, standing on a hilltop far away from the furor of battle, was looking up toward heaven with a friend stationed on either side of him.

"Then we hear from the history the following marvel. When Moses raised his hands to heaven, those under his command prevailed against their enemies, but when he let them down, the army began to give in to the foreigner's assault." St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses (HarperSanFransisco, 2006) 17.

"Moses's holding his hands aloft signifies the contemplation of the Law with lofty insights; his letting them hang to earth signifies the mean and lowly literal exposition and observance of the Law." Id, 75.

St. Gregory's bold assertion of the superiority of the non-literal exposition of the Law of the Old Testament over the "mean and lowly literal exposition and observance of the Law" doubtless runs contrary to the instincts of some of the hermeneutic traditions arising after the Protestant Reformation. The literal exposition tends to lead to a more univocal meaning, regulated by the text itself, giving epistemological certainty as opposed to a method that would lead to a multiplicity of meanings that must be judged on the basis of extra-biblical criteria. If the Bible serves as the epistemological foundation of all things Christian, then the Christian would be desirous of finding a method that grants definite certainty, that can be clear enough to delineate those beliefs and practices which may be permitted, and those that may not be. St. Gregory's hermeneutic undermines this certainty.

Another objection may be lodged: the metaphorical meaning of a text abstracts away from any practical value, perhaps for the purpose of freeing the reader from the text's demands, and allowing the text to be reshaped to fit the reader's own purposes, clearing a way for man to usurp God's own word; or, to put it more simply, the metaphorical meaning requires only that one understand, not that one's life be conformed.

Both objections recklessly presuppose the existence of a set meaning that can be elicited from Scripture -- or any other text -- in isolation from both the context in which the text came to be and the context in which the text gets read; epistemological certainty belonging more to the former, and the accusation of mutinous abstraction going more to the latter. That meaning can be constituted and grasped without taking into account the contexts of significance in which the work was produced and in which it is read surely ignores the traditions one necessarily must rely on in understanding the texts (i.e., extra-biblical hermeneutic devices such as: "interpret the unclear passages by the clear ones"), and the obvious fact that reading Scripture itself without the intent to utilize other forms of tradition produces far less epistemological certainty than those who intentionally make extensive use of tradition in Biblical exposition, judging by the continual fragmentation of those who believe in the strict form of "sola scriptura" (a version not really held by most of the original Reformers) and the relative unity of those who adhere to a more traditional exposition.

One can, however, hold that tradition has its place in interpreting Scripture, yet nevertheless privilege literal readings over metaphorical readings--Luther and Calvin would more in this camp than the one above. The reason for St. Gregory's privilege does not, however, arise from a tendency towards the abstract, but rather from quite the opposite. The metaphorical reading of both the Law and histories of the Old Testament has its high place precisely because of its superior practical value.

St. Gregory's intention in, for example, his exposition of Moses' life does not seek simply to find those principles by which Moses lived in his time and place and, by understanding these reflectively, to instruct his readers to live by those same principles in their own time; Gregory wishes to instruct us how we may be raised by the daughter of a Pharaoh, be faced with a burning bush, ascend a mountain to see God's back, or again what it would mean to kill an Egyptian and flee to the desert, to turn water into blood, and to part the Red Sea. In his analysis, then, the events recorded in the history should not be used as fact patterns from which we might derive rules for living (and here, any fact pattern might do as well as another), but rather the history ought to be lived out by imitation; Gregory does not limit the language of participation to the metaphysical conception of the soul's union of God alone, he extends it to those great men of God which we would be well served to emulate. In a way, we must not only live out Moses' principles, but live his life by means of analogy.

How Gregory works this out with regard to the specific events in the history of Moses must be understood as one reads his Life of Moses; for our purposes, we need only grasp the general intent behind his exposition. He reads the history non-literally in order to determine how we are to fight the Amelikites when they no longer exist, or scale Mount Sinai after leading a nation out of Egypt. Gregory's use of metaphor arises not out of any lack of confidence in the relevance of the lives of those who lived long ago, but precisely in order to understand the relevance in each detail of such a life.

Looked at this way, the process of extracting from the history a rule that Moses lived by, even something as simple as "trust in God", makes the history more distant to its practical application and involves a greater process of abstraction than does living the history by analogizing one's own life to that of Moses. A metaphorical reading is not, therefore, more empty and abstract than a literal reading, but eminently more practical, and neither is a metaphorical reading, properly performed, an imposition of one's own intentions on the text and a freeing oneself of the text's demands; rather, it necessarily involves subjecting oneself to Scripture's demands, reforming one's intentions, and actually living out the history by way of analogy.

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