Monday, January 10, 2005

Re-keying Locke

Stephen C. Carlson provides, via Seth Sanders, Larry Lessig, and David Dungan a very helpful look at how John Locke (yes, that John Locke) was a precursor to the modern practice of literalist Biblical exegesis.

Hypotyposeis: "Literalist" Exegesis

I thought a couple of further remarks might be made - the reader keeping in mind that I am entering this particular conversation midstream.

First, as the entry points out only in passing, literalism is the order of the day for modernity, not only fundamentalism. Modern historical critics are very much literalists in the sense that Locke specifies: "(The Bible must) be understood in the plain direct meaning of the words and phrases, such as they may be supposed to have had in the mouths of the speakers, who used them according to the language of that time and country wherein they lived..." The difference between fundamentalists and historical critics (I don't like this distinction, but it will do for now) is not that one is literalist and the other not - much less that one is "critical" and the other not - but the emphasis that they place on the criteria they use and the ways in which they then employ those criteria. In other words, this fundementalist-historical critical debate is one of modernity's in-house discussions.

Further, Carlson quotes Dungan, who says "In America, fundamentalists belong to private, voluntary, democratic associations having minimal hierarchy. In these groups, the aversion to all creeds, the aversion to lateral or hierarchical authority so that congregations are joined with other congregations only in the loosest of coalitions, the universal suspicion of educational standards for their clergy--all spring from one and the same core value: the need to remain politically and religiously equal." One might well read "all people" for "fundamentalists" in the first quoted sentence. With only the possible exception of suspicion of educational standards, this is broadly true of nearly all American Christians. As I have been aching to say for some time now, if you scratch an American, you will find a baptist underneath.

Third, the terms "literal" and "literalist" are not usually used as technically as they are in Locke and Dungan, or Carlson. Generally, they are used to mean an interpretation which is simplisitic, and more generally to speak of someone who is ignorant. In fact, these terms are usually used simply as a pejorative dismissal of someone who thinks differently than the speaker; it is a good way to avoid any engagement with someone else, and any searching self-examination of our own beliefs. It is very much of the moment in our society now. (For my money, I think they are such problematic terms I have banished them from my vocabulary for the time being. I would heartily encourage any readers consider taking the same measure.) But Carlson and those he quotes do not use the terms in these ways.

Fourth, one would do well to keep in mind that a literal reading of a text -- preserving the way the words run, with an eye towards what the author intended -- is not an innovation of the Enlightenment at all. Locke's contribution was not saying that the Bible ought to be understood this way (Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana says this, too). His contribution, and the Enlightenment's generally, was saying that this was the only way that it may be understood (or better: the only thing that counts for understanding). Locke stipulated: [the Bible must be understood]..."without such learned, artificial, and forced senses of them as are sought out and put upon them in most systems of divinity (theological systems)."

Finally, it strikes me that there might be an imprecision here. The literalist interpretation that Locke speaks about (interpretation 'according to the letter') is careful to take into account historical considerations, authorial intent, genres. Conservative Biblical interpreters are (as mentioned above) just as much literalists in this sense as liberal historical-critical interpreters, and are careful to attend to just these concerns. But I suspect that these conservative Biblical interpreters are better characterized as evangelicals than fundamentalists. Also, ironically enough, some (soi-disant) fundamentalists might not be sufficiently literalist in the sense that Locke (and Carlson) uses, if they ignore such considerations as history or genre. This sort of fundamentalist would use more of a divinitory (and pre-modern) technique than an evangelical, pulling meaning out of words without regard for authorial intent. (They are otherwise quite modern in that they are thoroughly voluntarist and individualist.)

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