The Arrow of Allegory: final causes and deflationary readings

Certain teachers and homilists consistently rub me the wrong way, reading Biblical texts in ways that seem to mean less after their explications than before.

Maybe you know the kind I mean. They teach about the Resurrection, and they do so with utter conviction that Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead. But somehow it all turns out to “really be about” how believing in the Resurrection helps us to help each other and be open to new ideas.

the Gnostic Ogdoad, a manifestation of dualism--the only way from God to humans is through concepts untainted by material embodiment

the Gnostic Ogdoad, a manifestation of dualism–the only way from God to humans is through concepts untainted by material embodiment

And, if you’re listening often enough, you notice that the same conclusion follows from every passage. Sometimes it corrects a misapprehension: the account of the rich man and Lazarus really should be read more emphatically in terms of the identity of the rich man’s failure of charity (in ignoring Lazarus) with his failure of faith (along with his unbelieving brothers) and his lack of well-founded hope (“in hell he lifted up his eyes”). The tendency I grew up with, of looking at this account primarily as an exposition of the nature of Hell, was arguably less helpful.

Nonetheless, the parable of the Pearl of Great Price should surely not be read so that our joy in finding the Gospel is merely or most emphatically an example of our joy in finding any of the gifts God gives us, though certainly every gift of Creation is finds its ultimate goodness united to the Gospel purpose of the Creator who calls us together in one Body with His Son.

And the parable of the Lost Sheep should not be read merely as an exaltation of whatever is marginal, though it does at least speak to the way that Christ’s love exceeds pragmatic boundaries.

Now, at moments it is tempting to blame this on Bultmann, or just lash out at “liberalism.” And sometimes that odor of sloppy existentialism or decrepit Idealism is powerful in such talks. But I do not think it is fair to throw these labels about indiscriminately at everyone who engages in deflationary reading of Scripture, for two reasons. First, I have heard plenty of deflationary readings in the hands of those who are quite committed to traditional understandings of Christian faith; indeed, when asked, sometimes they show considerable enthusiasm for fuller expressions of Christian teaching. Second, I can safely say that more than a few readings of Scripture that would be classed as “conservative” in their theology by many American readers are similarly deflationary; this includes even readings that would not be considered “wooden literalism.”

I have often heard this matter discussed in terms of immanence versus transcendence, and it is true that all of us, however orthodox, have at different moments stronger senses of the economic or the gratuitous significance of the events and teachings by which God has revealed Himself. I think there’s something else going on here, though, something related to the problem of the immanent and the transcendent, but not exactly the same.

I believe this is a problem of defective allegorism, specifically of allegorism rendered defective by an underlying dualism. (We can find the evidence of underlying dualism precisely in that both existentialism and Idealism yield the same result, that both liberalism and fundamentalism collapse into mere moralism, whether of aspirational or realistic kinds.)

What is essential to allegorism is the idea that for all human thought and language the most fundamental difference, and therefore the most fundamental possibility for communion, is the Creator/creature difference.  This difference itself has foundations in the Trinitarian communion of God, but we reach this only by analogy; and the analogy is true only because the potential for Creator/creature communion is essential to our being as creatures, and the potential for that communion to be a voluntary friendship (in the deep sense of friendship) is essential to our being created in imago dei.

Difference, it must be remembered, is not opposition in the sense of conflict, though it may well be opposition in the sense of appearing face-to-face rather than in indistinguishable identity.  And it is not mutual exclusivity, as though in all cases Creator/creature must be utterly alien, utterly “other” in the sense that precludes any sharing of qualities, any meaningful likeness.  Difference does, however, imply that no sharing of qualities will ever make it true that God’s behaving in a certain way is “just like” a human’s behaving in a certain way; the complete integration of God’s deliberations and actions across all time, space, conditions, and contingencies ensure that God’s always-already actual nature and acts will always mean much more than any analogous human quality or act (or formulation).  Any statement concerning God is so fraught with implications, reaching to every single other posssible statement about God, that we must always admit that what we have not considered or weighed, what we must almost certainly misconceive about God’s intentions and actions, profoundly outweighs whatever we have already received from Him.  It is in this sense that “difference” founds our discourse about God, other people, and all other things.

the Last Judgment, on the other hand, is not dualistic; it asserts the final superiority of exactly one order, the Creator's, over all lesser and more contingent orders

the Last Judgment, on the other hand, is not dualistic; it asserts the final superiority of exactly one order, the Creator’s, over all lesser and more contingent orders

Allegorism, then, is understanding that when God chooses to reveal Himself in terms of our discourse, in terms of our analogies of Him, He does so *having already done so* through His creation of the intelligible cosmos and his reasonable creatures.  We are able to draw the conclusion from the world, whether we do so or don’t; and yet we require divine faith to extend our analogy far enough to begin to grasp the Trinitarian communion, to begin to understand how that makes Christ the unique Saviour, or to understand the means by which our lives are incorporated into that union, and at that not alone or in some merely spiritual way, but in a way that understands, accepts, and enlarges the central meeting of the physical, personal, social and spiritual in our lives.  If we are to correctly understand what it means to become “partakers of the divine nature,” we will need a form of reasoning that does not merely divide the world into a layer-cake, that does not act as though the Creator had an agenda utterly unrelated to the things He created, or even as though creating was a merely instrumental behavior on His part.  Such reductions fall short of revelation.

We also require divine faith to develop our analogy correctly, because our speculative reason is not immune to the effects of the Fall, and is also capable of making mistakes.  We do not know what we do not know, and often our rush to closure makes us susceptible of overconfident interpretation.  A classic example of faulty reasoning in this line would be the conclusion that whatever we feel is “love” automatically earns divine approval, because “God is love.”  In order to avoid treating this statement as asserting an identity between “whatever is called God” and “whatever is called love,” we must already be accustomed to reasoning from some understanding of “Who God Is” and “What God’s Love Is Like” to the analogous human way of being a creature in imago dei and entering into friendship with God and other people on terms imitative of divine love.

And it is when we enter into those relationships, when we begin to realize that developing the analogy between our loves and God’s loves means both extending farther than we would naturally do and conforming to an understanding fuller than our own, that we begin to discover the importance of allegory.  For divine truth is not only, or even principally, communicated through propositional reduction, but through a constantly conjoined manifestation and predication concerning God’s being with us.

God manifests Himself in history as Creator, but also as the God who intervenes, who engages, who appears to prophets and children and apostles and barren women and virgins; who answers prayer in ways as yet unheard-of.  And God predicates concerning Himself in history as the One Whom the prophets and apostles spoke of, to whom they bore witness, to whom we all bear witness.  And the manifestation and the predication are united most wholly, of course, in this one Logos, the Christ, who is God and who teaches with the inappellable authority of God Himself about God, yet who does so utterly without separation from the witness of the Father across the gap of transcendence or the witness of the Spirit across the gap into immanence.

It is the job of theological discourse, then, and especially of teaching from the Scriptures, to develop a mode of speaking which reflects this constant twofold nature of teaching.  And the most careful and concrete practitioners of predicate logic are the most sure that it is necessary to read and teach divine revelation in a manner more complete than (though not falling short of) propositional discourse.

But it is just here that much allegorism falls short.  Because many of us are passively convinced by a culture of “separation of church and state” that, in fact, these two things have to do with two wholly different orders, or even that one expresses only notional realities while the other deals with all concrete realities, we cannot properly read as creatures.  We tend, instead, to begin with all of our reasonings about concrete realities, then turn to our reasonings about certain notional constructions of narrative and miracle and theological interpretation, and to return to concrete reasoning only with propositions derived from these spiritual speculations.  Such propositions, however, are susceptible of such various interpretation that we dare not insist on any one interpretation of these excessively generalized and often unreliably abstracted reasonings.  We are therefore led to reason about spiritual things only in generalities, and tempted to teach only such parts of those generalities as are already the consensus in our concrete interpretive community.

Robust allegorism operates differently than this.  It does not “spiritualize” in the sense of forming abstract principles in preference to concrete or “literal” understandings.  Robust allegorism understands that we read history as creatures, and that divine revelation–the faith we have received–is always already expressed in that history.  Without the key of faith, we will read history wrong; without the always-already of the Creator’s role in history, we will misconstrue faith into a set of references, or a set of metaphors, whose objective correlative can never be manifested short of the Apocalypse itself.

So when we affirm the Resurrection, let us certainly affirm also that in the ongoing life of the Church, and the daily waking of every believer, we see the Resurrection taking place in our history; but let us also affirm that we understand the ongoing life of the Church, and the daily waking of every believer, only when we understand the fact and promise of the Resurrection in the light of the Incarnation, of Atonement, and of the promise of Christ to make all of His saints “partakers of the divine life” now and forever.

And then our teaching will make sense(s).