February 5, 2008
A Nose for Theological Interpretation?
Several times a week I run the trail up to Poo Poo Point on nearby Tiger Mountain. (To clear the air, the Point’s name alludes to the steam whistle that used to sound from there in the days when it was the scene of a thriving logging operation.) Our dog Remo (I did not name him!) always accompanies me. He has run this trail with me hundreds of times, and he has closely examined and marked every rock, root, fern and tree as his own. The entire run he is thoroughly engaged, and I can only imagine the sensory feast he enjoys with his sharply tuned nose and ears. The trail is his text, and he is a close exegete of its signs, grammar and textures. And then there is wildlife to flush out and chase, from squirrels to black bear (who gladly turned the game about). He is a master of his world, and he revels in it.
But there is one thing I’m convinced Remo does not see, or at least he does not see it truly.
And yet, on a clear day, virtually every human I’ve observed at the top does see it. They stop and look. They sit on the grassy knoll and face it. Even if they are just passing through, they steal glances in its direction. It is stunning and often radiant in its beauty. It inspires comment and exclamation, or just silent wonder. For many people, it’s what makes the climb to the Point worthwhile. It is Mt. Rainier—over 14,400 feet of rock, snow and ice dominating the southern horizon. The undisputed icon of western Washington State, it is the centerpiece of our topography, our cosmic mountain, our omphalos terrae, the Zion of our sacred space, the image on our standard-issue license plates.
For Remo and his kin, Mt. Rainier must appear as a nondescript blob in the distance, no more interesting than a cloud. I have never seen him stop and fix his gaze on it (though I’ve seen him steal a sandwich from an inattentive human who did). I have never heard him yelp in delight over its splendor. Lacking smell or sound or movement, Rainier might as well not exist.
Here is a hermeneutical parable. Remo is a supremely gifted exegete of his text, which is the trail and its immediate environs. I cannot approach his close analysis of its signs, layers and textures. Oh for a few hours with his senses! But he lacks one thing (at least!), and that is a transcendent point of reference. He misses what it is all about at a higher, or deeper, level. As an exegete he is immersed in his text to be sure, but he cannot stand back from it and see it in its broadest contours or truly penetrate its ontological depths. He is blind to that which irradiates the whole. Lacking a Rainier hermeneutic, which is at bottom a theological hermeneutic, he can’t see what it’s really all about. He is all philology, syntax and discourse analysis—impressive to be sure, and with its contribution to make. But he is all Kittel and no Barth.
Now I don’t want to disparage the perspective Remo brings, since his sensitively tuned nose and ear for critical textual and historical work is something I admire and value. On the biblical studies plane, I find it engrossing and extremely valuable. And when it goes unappreciated by those who wax long about theological exegesis, it’s disconcerting.
If I can now disentangle myself from Remo and the trail, I want to do my part in calling for the cultivation of both close exegesis and theological interpretation in one human frame. It seems to be rarely found, but it’s not an impossible goal.
Just as I was wondering how to wrap up this blog, I found this comment in Walter Brueggemann’s (a worthy model himself!) appreciative review of Patrick Miller’s book of essays, The Way of the Lord:
The requirement of good Old Testament scholarship is to move between the hard demand of critical work in history, archaeology, and linguistics and the imaginative, hermeneutical work of theological interpretation. Most scholars, by training and by inclination, fall out in one or another of these two directions. More than any other Old Testament scholar whom I can identify, Patrick Miller manages to negotiate the spectrum of critical and interpretive work with finesse and grace-filled persuasiveness. The outcome of his work is thoroughly grounded critical study, but criticism that is constantly and increasingly in the service of the church as he acts out his vocation as a theologian of the church. It may be the outcome of the maturing (aging?) process that Miller’s more recent work has become intensely theological, but without ever leaving behind historical-critical grounding.
May more scholars of the church earn that sort of encomium when their work has reached its full bloom!