18 May 2008

Hermeneutics, history and scripture

Chapter 6 of my work in progress delves into the process of reading scripture, with a special focus on one example, the Gospel of Thomas. For the purpose of outlining the historical context from which this Gospel emerged, my chapter draws upon April DeConick's book The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation (2007). However, my way of reading this (or any) scripture is quite different from DeConick's in some respects. The crucial difference is that my way of reading is dialogic: the role of the reader is to search for possible ways in which the text may express her own primary experience, which thus constitutes a common ground for author and reader.

DeConick's approach, by contrast, is quite strictly that of a historian: the ancient text is taken as evidence of what other people believed at some other time, and the possibility that it may connect with the reader's own primary experience is irrelevant. This way of reading is certainly useful as an aid to critical thinking, which is needed in order to avoid indulging in excessively subjective readings. However, it lends itself to indulging in the opposite tendency, which is to treat every ancient text as a museum piece. The historical specialist, relieved of any responsibility to relate the text to primary experience, tends to cut its meaning to fit some Procrustean framework, asking only how to label this particular exhibit. We study the text to learn about it, or to fill in some details in our picture of a fossilized past—never considering that we might learn something from a scripture that could affect our own path into the future. But according to the gnoxic way of reading, that very possibility defines scripture as such.

The purely historical approach is so anxious to avoid bending the text to the reader's beliefs that it sometimes uses extremely strained logic to rationalize a more conventional reading, one that bends the text to suit the historian's habitual category structures. One example is the reading of Saying 13 in Thomas, which is among those examined in my Chapter 6. Here is DeConick's own translation as given in her book on Thomas (p. 83):
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Speculate about me. Tell me, who am I like?’
Simon Peter said to him, ‘You are like a righteous angel.’
Matthew said to him, ‘You are like a sage, a temperate person.’
Thomas said to him, ‘Master, my mouth cannot attempt to say whom you are like.’
Jesus said, ‘I am not your master. After you drank, you became intoxicated from the bubbling fount which I had measured out.’
And he took him and retreated. He told him three words.
Then when Thomas returned to his friends, they asked him, ‘What did Jesus say to you?’
Thomas said to them, ‘If I tell you one of the words which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me. Then fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.’

DeConick guesses that the ‘words’ spoken privately to Thomas by Jesus include the ‘unpronouncable [sic] Name of God’; and, based on some rather oblique references in another text called the Acts of Thomas, she claims that this would by implication reveal his own ‘true Name’ as ‘Jesus the Messiah’ (p. 85). She continues as follows: ‘This Christology is quite cogent with that expressed in the Gospel of John, especially 10.30-39 …’

To me it seems quite odd to speak of ‘Christology’ in reference to the Gospel of Thomas, a book which never once uses the term ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’. My chapter also draws a conclusion opposed to DeConick's concerning the relationship between the Gospels of Thomas and John. As Elaine Pagels does in Beyond Belief (2003), i stress the contrast between the two—though she does not frame it in quite the same way i do, as the way of inquiry vs. the way of belief.

DeConick returns to the subject in her more recent book on the Gospel of Judas (The Thirteenth Apostle, 2007). Here again she is referring to Thomas 13:
Thomas' confession is quite remarkable in that it overrides two of the confessions of the other disciples (Peter and Matthew), who understand Jesus in terms of angels and sages. Since stoning is the punishment for blasphemy in early Judaism, it is quite certain that the secret words Jesus confided to Thomas included the pronunciation of the unutterable divine Name of God, Yahweh. So Thomas' confession places Jesus on the level of God, bearer of his great Name. This is quite consistent with the opinion of the author of the Gospel of John.
— DeConick (2007b, 97)

I think any reader who tries to follow this reasoning step by step will see how illogical it is. It seems to me a dubious rationalization of an eisegesis, or reading of DeConick's own (highly specialized) idea into the text—in this case an idea which is not explicitly expressed anywhere in the Gospel of Thomas. The way of inquiry, on the other hand, could hardly be more explicit in Thomas, as i try to show in my chapter.

I am arguing here that DeConick's historical approach to the reading of scripture does not necessarily produce a more reasonable understanding than other approaches. I am not saying that DeConick's approach is without value—on the contrary, i consider her work to be essential reading for anyone deeply interested in the Gospel of Thomas or other texts from that era. My point is that a sound reading of scripture must be grounded in both one's own primary experience and the historical facts about the culture which generated the text, as gleaned from the work of specialists such as DeConick (and Pagels and many others).

16 May 2008

Peirce: growth of reason as continuous creation

This week i've reorganized and expanded several pages on my website devoted to the work of C. S. Peirce. That work is so comprehensive that intensive study of it is highly rewarding, but for the same reason it's difficult to convey a sense of those rewards by taking quotes out of context. Nevertheless i keep trying to do that …

Late in 1903, Peirce gave a series of lectures on logic at the Lowell Institute in Boston. The first was entitled ‘What Makes a Reasoning Sound?’ The bottom line according to one school of thought is that ‘If it feels sound, it must be sound’—or in terms of conduct, ‘If it feels right, do it.’ Peirce shows this to be a fallacy, and then gives his own answer: sound reasoning bears its fruit in future conduct which, upon later reflection, we judge to approach an implicit or explicit ideal—which itself is constantly evolving and never ‘fully manifested’, but none the less real for all that. (Thinking is itself one kind of ‘conduct’.) Here are two excerpts from near the end of this lecture.
The very being of the General, of Reason, consists in its governing individual events. So, then, the essence of Reason is such that its being never can have been completely perfected. It always must be in a state of incipiency, of growth. It is like the character of a man which consists in the ideas that he will conceive and in the efforts that he will make, and which only develops as the occasions actually arise. Yet in all his life long no son of Adam has ever fully manifested what there was in him. So, then, the development of Reason requires as a part of it the occurrence of more individual events than ever can occur. It requires, too, all the coloring of all qualities of feeling, including pleasure in its proper place among the rest. This development of Reason consists, you will observe, in embodiment, that is, in manifestation. The creation of the universe, which did not take place during a certain busy week, in the year 4004 B.C., but is going on today and never will be done, is this very development of Reason. I do not see how one can have a more satisfying ideal of the admirable than the development of Reason so understood. The one thing whose admirableness is not due to an ulterior reason is Reason itself comprehended in all its fullness, so far as we can comprehend it. Under this conception, the ideal of conduct will be to execute our little function in the operation of the creation by giving a hand toward rendering the world more reasonable whenever, as the slang is, it is ‘up to us’ to do so.
— Peirce, first Lowell Lecture, 1903 (EP2, 255; CP 4.615)

The other excerpt here refers to the work of Victoria Welby; an earlier post of mine dealt with their relationship.
A little book by Lady Victoria Welby has lately appeared, entitled What is Meaning?. The book has sundry merits, among them that of showing that there are three modes of meaning. But the best feature of it is that it presses home the question ‘What is meaning?’ A word has meaning for us in so far as we are able to make use of it in communicating our knowledge to others and in getting at the knowledge that these others seek to communicate to us. That is the lowest grade of meaning. The meaning of a word is more fully the sum total of all the conditional predictions which the person who uses it intends to make himself responsible for or intends to deny. That conscious or quasi-conscious intention in using the word is the second grade of meaning. But besides the consequences to which the person who accepts a word knowingly commits himself to, there is a vast ocean of unforeseen consequences which the acceptance of the word is destined to bring about, not merely consequences of knowing but perhaps revolutions of society. One cannot tell what power there may be in a word or a phrase to change the face of the world; and the sum of these consequences makes up the third grade of meaning.
(EP2, 255-6; CP 8.176)

09 May 2008


The process of revising the first draft of my book Turning Words has been surprising in many ways. I now have six chapters online from each ‘side’ of the book; the sixth, uploaded this week, had to be almost totally rewritten, which took over two months. It's about ‘revelation’, with special reference to the Gospel of Thomas, and my take on both has been developing and deepening over the 5 years or so since the first draft was completed.

All this effort on the book would make no sense if i didn't believe the outcome to be as true, clear and concise as i can make it. In these days of information overload, adding another 300 pages or so to the millions spewed forth every day is not something i take lightly. However, as you know if you've ever tried it, intense concentration on a text tends to make its rough spots invisible to the writer. That's why i'm placing the chapters online as i finish each one in this round of revision—hoping that a reader or two can respond to it, and thus give me a few clues that might help to carry the process further. It does make some demands on the reader's attention. That's intentional—i think it's important to push the envelope of language a little—but how can you tell in advance whether it will be worth the effort? You can't be sure, but you should be able to guess well enough by the end of Chapter 1, if you follow it closely enough to catch the clues. Anyway, if i didn't think it was already worth a reader's while, i wouldn't be doing any of this. In fact, i'm pretty sure that the current draft of this book has been more carefully thought and written out than many published books. I suppose that makes me a ‘perfectionist’ … Well, nobody's perfect!

A few prospective readers have told me that they need a printed text, since it's too much of a strain to read from a screen. If so, you should be able to print it with your browser, but you may need to make some adjustments before printing in order to reduce the amount of paper you use. (No chapter in this book should take more than 20 pages to print—or 10 if you print on both sides.) First, you can reduce the text size with your browser settings (since i have deliberately refrained from specifying the text size in my HTML coding). Second, you should probably set the side margins at zero in your print settings, because this text has margins ‘built in’ (to make it more presentable on the screen). If you still have trouble printing a chapter, you can always e-mail me for help: gnox -at- xplornet (dot) com. By the way, i still haven't decided whether conventional printing is the way this book should be published after it's finished—which may take a couple more years …

Meanwhile, most of what i need to say these days seems to need the context of the book in order to make adequate sense; so this blog's been pretty quiet. But perhaps this too will change, now that i'm liberated from Chapter 6! We shall see.

04 May 2008


We live in a world which is an impressive and irresistible mixture of sufficiencies, tight completenesses, order, recurrences which make possible prediction and control, and singularities, ambiguities, uncertain possibilities, processes going on to consequences as yet indeterminate. They are mixed not mechanically but vitally like the wheat and tares of the parable. We may recognize them separately but we cannot divide them, for unlike wheat and tares they grow from the same root. Qualities have defects as necessary conditions of their excellencies; the instrumentalities of truth are the causes of error; change gives meaning to permanence and recurrence makes novelty possible. A world that was wholly risky would be a world in which adventure is impossible, and only a living world can include death.
— John Dewey, Experience and Nature (1929, 43)