Sola Fide!, or Thou must Decide

Lately, in the classroom, I've been dealing with a bunch of stuff that really fascinates me. Here's an effort to summarize the central question: what is the source of authority in voices or texts that we consider to be authoritative? Now, notice: this is not the question of what do we consider to be authoritative--but where we tell ourselves that authority comes from.

Because see, the reality is, very few individuals are willing to say something like this: I believe in the teachings of Jesus (or of John Maynard Keynes, for that matter) because I am an authoritative judge of teachings. Instead, in defending those things we think of as authoritative, we appeal to external evidence. We try to make Jesus or Keynes the authority, we try to move ourselves out of the way.

I'm mired in early American literature, so the question is most pronounced with regard to the teachings of Jesus. The question is, why is the sermon on the mount authoritative? And keep in mind, you're being stupid if you just shrug right now and say, "Well I don't think Jesus' teachings are authoritative," because that's not what I'm asking.

So here are some various thoughts I've culled together out of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries:

According to Philip Gura's really good recent book, American Transcendentalism, around 1836, a guy named Theodore Parker (a unitarian minister/scholar) "sought to answer this question: 'Do men believe in Christianity SOLELY on the ground of miracles?" Parker, not incidentally, believed that men should not believe by reason of the miracles: "I need no miracle to convince me that the sun shines... nor of the divinity of Jesus and his doctrines" (qtd. in Gura).

Jonathan Edwards (of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" fame) framed the question differently, but again in terms of Jesus' authority. In an awesome sermon/essay called "A Divine and Supernatural Light," Edwards begins with a text from Matthew 16:17: "And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven." Edwards riffs on this theme to argue, anticipating Parker, that the teachings of Jesus are intrinsically authoritative. That is, we must recognize them immediately, and without reference to history, as "divine."

To bring this question to life for my students, I often ask, "What would happen if all we had was a transcript of what Jesus said at the sermon on the mount?" Almost universally, the conclude that his teachings would be far less authoritative if they were not accompanied by his life-narrative, including his miracles. To make sure they understand what they are saying, I show them two statements, the first from Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, the second from Whitman's "Song of Myself":
1. I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there.

2. I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
Here the students become firmly committed to the view that the narrative is necessary. They say, "Without his miracles and his resurrection, Jesus would just be another wise teacher" (my emphasis).

But later in the essay, Edwards makes a s-weeeet move that I think seriously unsettles any of my students who are still paying attention here. He says, summarizing Luke 12:56-57, "Christ condemns the Jews, that they did not know that He was the Messiah, and that His doctrine was true, from an inward distinguishing taste and relish of what was divine." Then further on, paraphrasing Jesus' reproach of the Jews, Edwards continues, "Why have ye not that savor of the things of God, by which you may see the distinguishing glory, and evident divinity of me and my doctrine?"

In that part of the story, Jesus hasn't yet died and been resurrected -- so if knowing by a person's narrative, by "extrinsic signs," is a good way to recognize authoritative speech, Jesus shouldn't have blamed the Jews for not recognizing him.

So now the question looks like this: How would you recognize the divinity of Jesus? And the answer my students give (by his miracles) is essentially ineffective--is not an option. He will not glide in wearing a glowing white robe, 9 feet tall, and calling you "my child." He may not even have long hair, I tell them... or a beard... or a penis. I usually phrase that last part carefully, but I think I'm doing a fair interpretation of Edwards' and Parker's views. And of course, Emerson would say the same. I conclude by reading them Jesus own words:
"Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment." (John 7:24)
But for some reason, despite clear and convincing arguments about this, my students cannot cease to see the Bible itself as authoritative. Or the miracles. Or their church, or their ministers, or their parents. But in my view, these are the "false idols" warned against from the beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Even the Word is not the highest authority, because there is never a situation where someone is not reading the Word. There is always an interpreter. To defer to a minister or scholar is to give-over to an obvious extrinsic evidence, is to put your faith in the minister and not in G-d. But even in reading the Bible, or our favorite book of French criticism, or our favorite political tract, if we forget that it is we who have favorites, who have preferences--if we forget that we are in the judges seat, then, according to Jesus, Jonathan Edwards, Theodore Parker, and R.W. Emerson--then, we are lost. The movement that continues into the contemporary era, popular among Evangelical and Reform Protestants, Sola Scriptura, explicitly opposes this view. The Sola Scriptura crowd places ultimate authority in the Bible, in its words. And I think it is only in understanding clearly and intensely just how wrong the Sola Scriptura crowd is that a person may begin to see the glory in its opposition: the Sola Fide approach.

Can I get a quick linguistic analysis of the word "antinomian," maybe? I suspect that this word, which Wikipedia translates "lawlessness," or "against the law," may also denote or connote something like "against the name," or even "against the doctrine." And the problem here is that most of us think that this means only "the law," as in jaywalking and smoking in restaurants and murder laws. But I think it also means propositional ethical teachings, even if they are not backed by the state. If someone brings ten commandments down from a mountaintop carved in stone, the carvings are not automatically authoritative, and nothing except each witnessing self can make them so. Moses can say "God told me thou shalt not," but thou must decide whether Moses and his teachings are insane, misguided, or authoritative.

So anyway, isn't that rich territory? Give it all up! All of it. Even Jesus, Edwards, Parker, and Emerson--and me, and this persuasive post. Because those are deeply external sources. But when you discover this minority (almost secret) view in yourself, don't be surprised if you are not the first to have tread that ground.


Jon Sealy said...

Casey, I just now discovered your "new" blog. I think I've had q-majin bookmarked all this time. Lord.

Casey said...

Oh, jeez, Jon. This'll be like hitting a treadmill set at 8.0. I recently did my ten-best hits, which includes seven from this blog--that should be enough to get you caught up:


Kevin said...

Casey, sometimes I read your posts and say 'Yep. He's a literature guy.' I read others, though, and think you are a frustrated philosopher--and this is one of those times. This is all I work on right now--so if you're interested in the philosophy lit on this, holler, I'll send links/suggestions.

SO much in this post worthy of comment, but time is short...

Your central insight seems to be this: that the 'authority' of the text/voice is always hostage to an interposing authority--the authority of the interpreter who, before determining WHICH texts/voices are authoritative, remains the master-determiner of what they will COUNT as an authority. Yet, as you observe, we are reluctant to acknowledge this sort of auto-nomy--reluctant to grant that our power to 'crown' the authority we honor--to be the de facto normative king-makers-- which calls into question what the source of that authority we honor really is; perhaps, you suggest, the source is ourselves, despite ourselves. It is as if we could not determine what things had, in Edward's beautiful phrase, 'the savor of the things of God' without appealing to an ever-prior appeal to our own taste and judgment. And this plight of being stuck with/as our own ultimate authority is such that, however much we wish to externalize the source of authority to which we 'really' ought to genuflect, we are faced with an original charter, 'thou must decide', which implies we are somehow fated to end up genuflecting only to that to which we choose to genuflect--and so are fated to genuflect to ourselves by proxy.

This is a problem for anyone concerned with genuinely authoritative 'oughts'.
But here--in this moment of deciding you speak of-- is where authority enters that is always already in place in ORDER for you to decide/deliberate ABOUT authorites. For by 'decide' you mean to ask yourself 'what SHOULD I do/believe?' So either the deliberative questions are nonsense, OR we see from this tell-tale 'SHOULD' that we always already presuppose our duty to do things for reasons that we must find, not fabricate. We presuppose that, whatever we do or choose, whatever authority we deliberatively decide to obey, we must give a coherent account of that decision; but give it to Whom/whom? Find the answer to THIS question and here is your aboriginal Authority, in place prior even to deliberations about our choices about what authority to obey.

My point (and Levinas') is that your very notions of choice and interpretation already presuppose an authoritative relation, which is the normative condition for deliberating. So your dilemma about authority can only get started by presupposing this default duty to justify ourselves before others--or perhaps, an Other, to whom all must justify themselves. And so the thing to do is look after this authority to which every reasoner/deliberator/chooser OF authorities has ALWAYS ALREADY bent the knee.

An authority in place before interpretation...an Authority which is recognized as the condition of deliberation and interpretation...that is the sort of thing that defeats your important and well-described dilemma by striking deeper than, and being the condition for, the very problem you pose.

Kevin said...

Ok--have spoken to authority and philosophy, now I'll speak religiously...

As to miracles and resurrection--you already know my thoughts on that subject. But I suspect your students are right if they include as miracles MORAL miracles...

A 'moral miracle'...meaning what?

Kierkegaard writes of that great scene during the Trial--a bare moment after Peter's third denial. The cock crows, and the text says, simply, affectingly, 'And the Lord looked at Peter...'. (as if the text says to us 'And you know Him well enough by now--we need not describe to you His look.) So what, by all evidence, was in that look--the earnest openness, warmth... a winsome welcome given through blood and bruises--a Welcome unflinching, unselfconscious, unphased... a look in which Love is caught completely forgetting to 'take into account a wrong suffered...'...to see such a look from such a Man at such a time, given to his most intimate betrayer... if that doesn't move one towards Him--to honor and identify with the Authority of this Love-- then there is nothing more to be said. Miracles--as in manipulations of matter-- needed to affirm the authority of THIS? Please. How could they boost Love's Authority? What, with respect to the sort of significance that matters (moral), could water, wine, and even physical resurrection add to this Look and its strange claim upon us? Every other sort of miracle--every non-moral miracle-- does not have the STANDING to strengthen Love's testimony.

Love either calls us or it doesn't. We either hear the Call and are drawn to respond with the 'Here am I!' or we are not...we stay safely within the borders of ourselves, our propositional rules, and our domestic judgments. (Here is the sense of 'external' most relevant to authority, perhaps. Love does not merely call us, but calls us OUT)

So... miracles in the traditional sense? Again--you see love and recognize it (as one recognizes an authority) or you don't. It speaks for Itself. All other 'attesting' events, however extraordinary, strike me as little more than parlor tricks by comparison...

Casey said...

Kevin--amen! And thanks for the high praise of reading me as a literature-person, and then as a frustrated-philosopher. It's both, of course: I feel that I was driven (or at least, the authors I study were) to literature out of a frustration with philosophy. I speak in parables because...

My short response to what you wrote first is: nobody has understood my quandry with quite as much clarity as you seem to, and I appreciate that. I'll think carefully about your comments.

Your second comment--I agree. "Miracles" aren't very interesting to me, but the miracle (saying "yes") obviously is.