Darn You, Theophrastus Aristotle

A friend and blogger—or, to be more specific, a blogger I admire who has become an online friend—has challenged me to participate in a meme called “Books that influenced my reading of the Bible.” As he writes in his post on the subject,

There is one of those memes going around in which people volunteer a list of books that influenced their readings of the Bible. The rules say that works are not limited to Biblical studies literature, but can include religious works or works of literature. The list is nominally set at 5 books, but that is obviously an arbitrary number, and I have more than 5 books to list here.

And then he tagged me. You heard me right: he tagged me. I am, of course, utterly powerless to refuse.

But I can at least refashion to rules to my own advantage. I’m going to broaden the category very slightly. Instead of books that influenced my reading of the Bible, I’m going to recast it as books that influenced my religious worldview and moved me away from seeing scripture as verbum Dei and more as a collection of documents that recorded groups’ and individuals’ encounters with the Great Mystery and their attempts to understand and interpret that interaction. (Boy, that was a long sentence!)

The first book on the list—or the first three books, depending on how you look at it—is Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology. It’s mostly available in three separate volumes, but my version was a heavy one-volume affair. My copy is chockablock with my notes, written in an uncustomarily small hand. They crowd the margins, they encroach on (and sometimes write over) the text, they underline, they point, they shout, and most importantly, they argue. No other book have I found so infuriating, enlightening, brilliant, important, and occasionally, downright wrong.

Tillich took me from an comfortable literalism to finding a home in the larger questions. He taught me that the gray areas are where I want to live. I liked the way Tillich struggled with the relationship of reason to revelation, and with the definition of who or what God is. For Tillich, God does not exist, which is not to say that there is no God: “existence,” for Tillich, means “that which is created,” and as God is not a created being, God cannot exist. Rather, God is something greater, something deeper: the “ground of being.”

Richard Eliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? is essentially an exploration of the Documentary Hypothesis, which says that what we now know as the Torah was originally four or five different independent narratives woven together at a later date by a redactor. There are a lot of works on the subject, but what made Friedman’s book so seminal for me is that he treats the Bible as if its pages contain a juicy mystery, a fascinating puzzle that even casual readers can discern and unravel. He invites us to look at the loose threads in the text, and pull and tug at them until we discover where each strand leads. It made the whole area of textual criticism not something academic and remote, not a hypothesis that is overlaid onto the text, but something alive, something the biblical text itself invites us to see.

The next one is also more Bible-specific. Morton Smith’s The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark hit me like a brick between the eyes. In 1958, Smith (a professor of ancient history at Columbia) visited a Greek Orthodox monastery and discovered a fragment of a letter attributed to second-century theologian Clement of Alexandria. The letter discussed a supposedly expurgated passage from Mark’s gospel that revealed an inner circle among Jesus’ disciples.

Remember the mysterious passage in Mark where Jesus is being arrested in Gethsemane and there’s this young man in a linen cloak hanging around, and when the centurions grab for him, they’re left with only the cloak as they watch him run away naked? It was always such an odd little scene. Who was this fellow? Why was he there? Why was he pretty much naked? This “missing” passage answers that: new disciples were baptized in the nude, and some baptisms were undertaken at night, in secret. In the letter, Clement (if he was indeed the letter’s author) was mainly trying to squelch heresies that were arising, including some homoerotic scenarios that people familiar with the secret passage were imagining, but he quoted the entire passage and said where in Mark’s gospel it was originally located. And yes, it fits.

Smith’s discovery was of course tremendously controversial. Allegations that the document was an ancient or medieval forgery, or even that Smith himself was the forger, persisted until Smith’s death, and since then the debates have gotten even more vicious. The case is far from settled. Both sides present arguments that, to my mind, have some validity. But The Secret Gospel‘s impact on me was profound because it showed how human the development of the Bible documents were, full of wrangling and politics and venality as well as beauty and meaning.

There are lots of others: Martin Buber’s I And Thou. Søren Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death. Henri Bergson. Karl Barth. Karl Rahner. Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. John of the Cross. Leo Tolstoy. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Abraham Joshua Heschel. Henri Nouwen. All terribly important in my theological and spiritual development. But one other book needs special mention, even in this overlong and surely stupefyingly boring post.

Rudoph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, published first in 1917 as The Holy—On the Irrational in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, is one of the most successful German theological books of the 20th century, has never gone out of print, and is now available in about twenty languages. The book defines the concept of the Holy as “that which is numinous.” Otto explained the numinous as a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” He called the Holy “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”: the mystery that is both terrifying and fascinating.

Otto left a broad influence on theology and philosophy of religion in the first half of the 20th century. The aforementioned Paul Tillich acknowledged Otto’s influence on him, as did Romanian-American philosopher Mircea Eliade. In fact, Eliade used the concepts from The Idea of the Holy as the starting point for his own 1957 book The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. And of course Eliade is best known for his seminal work Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, the first cross-cultural examination of shamanism ever published; it was he who so aptly called shamans “technicians of the sacred.”

For me, the idea of the Holy is the direct experience of God, regardless of the terminology you’d like to use for Him or It. Whether you feel it in the vastness of nature, the intimacy of human relationships, the power of religious ritual, or the simplicity and longing of hope, that experience is what my whole life has been about. Can something be non-sensate and yet palpable?

In the end, it’s not that Otto told me something I didn’t know; he just found words, good and satisfying words, for something I had always thought was purely ineffable. And for that I am grateful.

Categories: Christianity, Judaism | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Darn You, Theophrastus Aristotle

  1. indigobunting

    I don’t believe I have the IQ to even attempt a comment.


  2. I am familiar with some of these, but not so much with others. Tillich, of course, and Buber.

    I see the conspicuous absence of The Deathbird by Harlan Ellison. Surely it is an oversight.

    I would also direct you on to Watts’ The Book.

    And a short essay by Douglas Adams’ speech at Digital Biota 2, 1998: “Is There an Artificial God?” http://www.biota.org/people/douglasadams/

  3. I’m familiar with Watts. Haven’t read The Book yet, but it’s on my list.

    And I’ve never read The Deathbird. Or heard of it, even. I shall have to rectify that.

  4. Craig, you put me to shame with your thoughtful list. Thank you for this.

  5. Pingback: So Many Books, So Little Time « C. Orthodoxy

  6. Great list! I especially like what you said about text-criticism (or redaction criticism):

    “He invites us to look at the loose threads in the text, and pull and tug at them until we discover where each strand leads. It made the whole area of textual criticism not something academic and remote, not a hypothesis that is overlaid onto the text, but something alive, something the biblical text itself invites us to see.”

    I completely agree. Sometimes I even wonder if biblical redaction was itself an art (though a messy one!).


  7. You almost make me wish there was something ineffable. Almost.

  8. Deloney

    betty is so effable. 😉

    I hated and still hate “The Book” by Watts. Everything human is left out: ordinary human experience and sentiment, the sensual world of nature, … I like much better his book about Taoism called “The Watercourse Way” …there’s a gentleness about it that appeals to me.

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