07 January 2008

What CAN it mean?

I'm a day late here, but said in my last post that i would expand on the comment by Tanasije Gjorgoski that ‘the text is not just WHAT IT MEANS to me, but what it CAN mean to me.’ This i think puts very well the attitude of the ideal reader of scripture: that the real meaning of the text is something he comes forward to meet, not something that comes from within his prior understanding. Looking at this reading process from the outside, we could say that it is future-oriented: the meaning is the outcome of it, not the input. But from inside the process, the reader has to assume that the meaning is already embodied in the text. That way he can approach the text as a teacher from which he is willing to learn something new. It would be difficult for a reader to adopt this ideal attitude toward the text if he already believed that it was an altered version of an earlier sacred text.

Tanasije also commented on my most recent post:
‘Still, it seems to me that the issue of changes is important. Maybe they are good, in the way you described, but I think that they also can be bad, and that they can prevent the text doing what it was intended to do—make the access to the wisdom easier.
(BTW, I guess it is clear that I'm not saying that any of those scenarios are true in the case of scriptures. Just that they might be, at least as a logical possibility.)’

My follow-up question would be: How relevant is this possibility to the reading process? I think that depends on whether the possibility is a testable hypothesis. And from this i think it follows that the possibility of a text having been corrupted is irrelevant to the process of reading that text as scripture. At the beginning of the process, considering that possibility would only ‘block the way of inquiry’, as Peirce would put it. And later on in the process, it would be of no use because it's untestable.

The ideal reader must begin by approaching the text as he would a teacher from whom he expects to learn some deep truth that he doesn't already know. Once he's arrived at some understanding of the text, then critical thinking kicks in. Various readings and understandings need to be considered and evaluated. This may involve comparing this text with others, and/or assessing its value as a representation of the truth which it signifies. But it would short-circuit the reading process to prejudge the text as ‘pure’ or ‘corrupt’, or genuine or not, without first entering into dialogue with it.

Getting back to the (highly plausible) scenario where the sayings uttered by Jesus circulated orally for a generation or so before being written down: since the actual utterances of Jesus were not written down at the time, we have no way of comparing the texts we do have with a prior version. Therefore the possibility that Jesus had better access to wisdom than the authors of the existing gospels is not a testable hypothesis. Also, we have no way of deciding whether any specific version of a particular saying is a ‘corruption’ or an improvement on the original, if there is no original. So these possibilities are just as irrelevant to critical thinking as they are to the ideal reader's engagement with the text. All of this would apply to the reading of a mathematical proof just as well as the reading of a scripture. It's critical thinking, and not historical evidence, that decides whether a ‘proof’ really proves anything, just as it decides whether a text is a genuine scripture.

As we agreed earlier, we are assuming that the wisdom to which Jesus had access is independent of any formulation of it. So even if we could prove that some newly discovered text was written by Jesus himself, it would still be an open question whether some later writers might have expressed that wisdom better than Jesus did. (Doesn't any good teacher hope that the work of his students will surpass his own?)

We do have some historical evidence (though little consensus among the experts) that some gospels (such as Thomas) represent the sayings of Jesus with more historical truth than others. But history in itself affords us no reason for believing that Jesus said it better than the Christians who survived him. That's just a prejudice which faith brings to bear on history. If that kind of faith discourages a reader from engaging with the text, then it disqualifies him as an ideal reader of that text. On the other hand, if the reader is encouraged by faith to approach a specific text with reverence, that's a good start for an ideal reader—but the process could still come to a bad end if her faith discourages the critical thinking which must enter into the later stages of the process. Without critical thinking, the outcome of the process will be less than ideal, regardless of the quality or ‘purity’ of the text.

The outcome of any reading or semiotic process is what Peirce called the ‘interpretant’. My next post will say more about that, and about a few other concepts basic to the logic and semiotic of reading scripture.

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