Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Taking up the Pen

It is among the most salutary uses of history to expose those faults and inclinations in ourselves to which we would otherwise be blind. Just as it is only in a mirror that we may look upon our own faces, so without the aid of past voices we will never hear our own. Although she claims to be ruled by documents of antiquity, the church of our day would do well to learn that there is real use in a sympathetic engagement with the past. When the United Methodist Council of Bishops last year published a pastoral letter on the state of world affairs, they expressed thusly their reasons for writing:

"We, the Bishops of the United Methodist Church, cannot remain silent while God's people and God's planet suffer."

A statement which appears doctrinally innocuous, even if the limp triteness of "cannot remain silent" is offensive to taste, but compare it with the reasons Thomas Cranmer gives in the introduction to his A Defense of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Savior Christ (via Jim West):

"I, not knowing otherwise how to excuse myself at the last day..."

And later on,

"Moved by the duty, office, and place whereunto it hath pleased God to call me..."

If we wished to be charitable, we might say that our bishops could have given Cranmer's second reason, had they possessed the English language in its first youthful vigor and not the aching limp of its declining middle age, for the sentiment is very close. The bishops say they cannot remain silent, we may infer, because of their shepherdly duty; Cranmer says the same. The difference in phrasing, however, is not merely a difference in eloquence, although it is also that (and where is this thing mere eloquence?); the different phrasings betray different pictures of the episcopal vocation.

The bishops today conceive of themselves as apart from the arena of God's activity: they can either speak or remain silent while they view the suffering of God's creation. They themselves are affected only by the inner movements of compassion, or, more precisely, remorse. Their stance, put another way, is of precisely the same sort as God's in the time of Noah: they are sorry to have made the universe a certain way. They are themselves unaffected by the calamity they witness, but, because they consider themselves the authors of it, they feel responsible to set it right. God has apparently had no hand in the administration of his created world; it seems to be God's in the same way property may belong to someone who never sees it and lives thousands of miles away. Although we must bear in mind that this metaphor can be defended by scripture (Mark 12:1-12), we should also ask ourselves who these "Bishops of the United Methodist Church" are in relation to this God who possesses a people and a planet. They do not themselves appear to be God's property in the same way, as the grammar and tone of the sentence alike make clear. Perhaps they are hired overseers, and it is in their contract to take action in a situation such as this; perhaps their retirement benefits are at stake if they don't shape up. But if they are hired administrators, and not themselves part of God's property, what prevents them from being, as the parable says, "hirelings, that care not for the sheep?" (John 10:1-18).

Cranmer is clear that he writes as a servant under God's power. He does not invoke the name 'bishop,' but says only that he is compelled to live in accordance with the calling which God has placed upon his life. It is not as a hired hand, as a free laborer, that Cranmer is compelled to pluck up by the roots the doctrinal weeds in his Lord's garden, but as a serf whose life is tied inextricably to that garden, who is indeed a part of his master's garden. And as a serf, he of course has no rights before his Lord, and so writes "not knowing otherwise how to excuse himself at the last day." Cranmer writes in full humility, and in the firm knowledge that he is God's just as surely as the church and world he has been appointed especially to serve.

One could protest that of course the bishops intend themselves to be included among God's people, but I am not interested in how they would reinterpret their document to meet these objections. What concerns me is the lazy choice of words which not only allows but fosters a decidedly unchristian rhetoric of detached compassion, remorse, and problem-solving, when what is needed are the somber tones of humility. Cranmer knows that his office as bishop is something to which God has elevated him by gracious favor, not hired him for on account of merit. He knows this all the more easily because the immediate and worldly cause of his ordination was the command of a king and not the votes of a Jurisdictional Conference. Most of all, he acts not out of some high-minded compassion, but out of a fervent and pious desire to work out the salvation of his own soul--Wesley would be proud. For Cranmer knows that his "duty, office, and place" carry with them a profound responsibility, a terrifying responsibility, were God not his comfort. "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters," writes James (3:1), "for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." Every Christian in authority should know well also the words of Ezekiel: "As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them." (Ezekiel 34:8-10). The bishop, like any other Christian, who does not weigh his actions with an eye to the last judgment has neither read his Bible with the proper seriousness, nor wholly comprehended the weight of his office.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Beatus Vir?

I am generally more opposed to gender-neutral language as a philologist and a partisan for words than I am as a theologian; in matters of biblical translation, I am even more firmly of this opinion. The NRSV, although very responsible, I find, in the Old Testament, is often a little too enthusiastic with its removal of gender in the New. Whenever these arguments arise, there are generally two philological points that are made in favor of use gender-neutral terms where older translations had generally used "brothers/brethren" or the generic "man." The first is that, in Greek, a plural which designates a mixed group will always be masculine (there are historical-linguistic as well as social reasons for this; historically speaking, the feminine gender is a later development of the masculine); the second centers on the Greek word ἄνθρωπος, which can denote a person of either gender. Both arguments to me seem to drag Greek into an English problem (something to be expected in translation), which is the shift the word "man" has undergone in its meaning, and the political interests which have attached themselves to the shift.

My main aim here, however, is merely to note one of the many cases of over-enthusiasm on the part of the NRSV translators: James 1:12. In the Greek, the first part of this verse reads

Μακάριος ἀνὴρ ὅς ὑπομένει πειρασμὸν

which might be very literally translated:

"Blessed man, who endures temptation."

The NRSV, however, translates

"Blessed is anyone who endures temptation."

To someone with a smattering of Greek who reads that translation, knowing that the translators of the NRSV pay careful heed to render terms which in the Greek are neutral as to gender with correspondingly neutral terms in English, would probably assume that the Greek here underlying "anyone" is ἄνθρωπος, not ἀνήρ. It is possible that in this case the translation committee chose to follow one of the minority readings: two codices, one of them from the fifth century, do have ἄνθρωπος instead of ἀνήρ. It seems more likely, however, that they felt the translation "blessed the man" would be read so as to imply to a modern reader than only men are blessed in enduring temptation, and it is here that we run into dangerous territory. I shall try to be brief.

Such interpretation misunderstands the way language operates in male-dominated societies, assuming that a word, like ἀνήρ or the Latin vir, which denominates a masculine human being, cannot stand for humanity in general, or that a supposedly neutral term, such as ἄνθρωπος or the Latin homo, really imagines humanity as equally as we today would like. Any man writing in the ancient world would not think twice of the idea that the male stands for humanity as a whole; we may now be hesitant about submitting to the subtle ramifications of such an assumption, but they would not have questioned it. When James uses ἀνήρ, he no more means to exclude from blessing those women who endure temptation than the author of the first psalm, rendered in the Septuagint Μακάριος ἀνήρ, meant to exclude from blessing those women who "walk not in the counsel of the ungodly." In the minds of these authors the priority of the male does not annihilate all human kinship between the sexes.

An excellent example of this inclusive but not equalizing use of the masculine may be found in the second chorus of Sophocles' Antigone. The chorus begins

πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.

Many are the things wondrous and fearful, none more than ἀνθρώπος.

A world in which the word ἀνθρώπος denominates the human being without any sense of gender would not allow him to continue in the next strophe, as he goes on the describe humanity's conquest of nature, and call this οὕ ούδεν δεινότερον, this thing than which nothing is more fearful, περιφραδὴς ἀνήρ, "man most cunning." It is clear in this passage that, for Sophocles, although he was certainly aware of their different resonances, being as he was poet of the first rank, both ἀνθρώπος and ἀνήρ may stand for all of humanity.

Although we may be uneasy at the implicit hierarchy in this view of things, we should also be conscious that our zealous division of the sexes, while we undertake it in the name (so sacred to our ears!) of equality, is only a different way of skewing our perceptions. I do not know to whom it would not be readily apparent that the instances of this 'inclusive masculine' which I have cited apply to all human beings. Indeed, a language that cannot perceive that the first Psalm, "Blessed is the man," does not exclude the greater half of the human race, or that the praises of Proverbs 31 ("She considereth a field and buyeth it...She openeth her mouth with wisdom: and in her tongue is the law of kindness") are not applicable to women alone, is a language as incapable of figurative speech as it is of profound reflection. Perhaps there is a problem with the historical relation between the sexes, but it will not be solved by pretending than neither one is completely human.