Home

  News & Views

  Journal

  Seminars

  Publications

  I S C

  Research Project

  About Us

  Contacts

 

BACK

 

CAPAX IMPERII ? SCRIPTURE, TRADITION
AND 'EUROPEAN-STYLE' CRITICAL METHOD

Noel Q. King

In the last two hundred years critical method in Scripture and Tradition with its epicenter in northern Europe (including Britain) has amassed a formidable panoply of instrumenta studiorium. Secondary and tertiary centers have appeared in the United States and wherever the writ of European academic methodological orthodoxy runs. Indigenous and homegrown traditions of critical appreciation have all too often been ignored and the propagators of the- European-style appear to think their approach is of global and universal applicability. The experience and vicissitudes of other religions as each undergoes servicing by these methods is worthy of a quick survey, if only in the light of the Akan proverb: "Let those whose neighbors' thatch is on fire, keep water handy." Or to vary the metaphor, if we feel certain conditions coming upon us, let us prepare for surgery and exchange notes on surgeons and techniques.

Christianity has been in the eye of the storm and has herself generated a good part of the shakti. She has to live in a European situation in which thanks to her own inner nature as a prophetic religion and as dominant religion in Europe for a thousand years, as well as the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, the economic, social, political, literary, industrial, technological and scientific revolutions, she could no longer make herself understood. People could no longer understand her language, imagery, thought forms, they were no longer able to accept the Bible and religious tradition as the Church understood them. Christians had taken over the Jewish Bible as their Old Testament on their own terms. Semitic and Judaic scholarship as they revived questioned the Christian terms of the take-over and then the attributions of author ship and other presuppositions. Soon the five books of Moses were being divided up among authors, redactors, strata of tradition, amphictyonic sources. Myth, oral traditions, comparative exegesis of ritual were demanding a verdict. In addition there were among many other features totally new understandings of messianism and eschatology. The dialectic of the study of the economic and social forces of the old Middle East (West Asia) were transforming interpretation. The incredible finds of archaeology and of texts, parchments and scrolls, made critical Biblical study a matter for daily newspapers and best seller super-market books.

Much of all this applied in different ways to the New Testament. The traditional attributions of the Gospels met an early demise, source criticism was followed by redactor criticism. Text studies, after a bewildering middle period, issued in some broadly agreed principles. All these things were valuable towards helping us to know what the early community was like and the kind of discourse which lay behind the narrative. Critical method was still crude, yet as we look back we see that critics have seldom lacked optimism about what they can achieve and a certain dogmatism about the Success and value of their findings. The quest for the historical Jesus in some shape of form and its accompanying insistence that they can know not only what he said and did but also what he did not do and say, is still with us.

Each generation of scholars tried to improve on the last, more fine-tuned and sophisticated methods were brought forward under such banners as "Hermeneutics," "Form Criticism," and Auslegungsgeschichte (Critical History of the Exegesis). In the meantime, other disciplines had come of age and they too joined in. Archaeology, Linguistics and scientific etymology, Comparative Literature, Philosophy, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology and others were brought to bear. Methodologies from Marxism, the Natural Sciences as well as Social Sciences and New Feminist Studies have been effectively called in. Every day new developments appear and have to be tackled. The effect of newspaper and television publicity is worthy of study.

There have been lulls in the process. Sometimes it appeared that criticism was ebbing into silence or was at least less boisterous in exuberance. For example, before World War I at the end of his Quest of the Historical Jesus, (German original 1906), Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) could say that the critics had unchained Jesus from the rocks to which tradition had bound him and he had then passed through their midst, that is, escaped them. Repeatedly the warning is given that the critics look down the well of history and see not the Jesus of history but a reflection of themselves. Even so, Bultmann and the neo-Bultmannians were to rally and attempt new Quests for historical Jesuses right down to the 1970s.

The two World Wars and the collapse of European political dominance did something to teach the European spirit that it could not expect to conquer and subdue everything indefinitely. In Natural Science there have been a series of reminders of the limitation of our human intellectual capacity to comprehend and apprehend everything here and now, our desire to lay down not only what can be but what cannot be. There have been warnings of how groups of humans who began as innovators tend to gang up together and impose dogma and defend their own out-worn orthodoxies and sacerdotal privileges. Thus the upshot of reading Einstein (1879-1955) is to realise how slowly scientific groups were to readjust to Einstein's thought. Kuhn showed us how methodological shibboleths become paradigms which assist in obscuring the truth. Feyerabend poured scorn on the methods of study which were supposed to ensure on-going critical advance. Kline has indicated a collapse in the self-confidence of Mathematics while Capra has filled many young scientists with despair as to the rightness of their ideas about humankind's march through science to perfection.

Already in the mid-1960s there were warnings that if students of Scripture and tradition thought they had survived the effects of demythologisation, form-criticism and all the other criticisms of those days, there were yet greater new things for them to experience. Natural science, the social sciences as well as critical studies in languages, linguistics, semiotics, literature, Philosophy, cybernetics, almost every discipline and method known to human kind has something to teach us. Let two almost random examples concerned with the New Testament suffice.

Raymond F. CoIlins' Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1983) is by an American Roman Catholic priest who teaches at the Louvanium in Belgium. The book has an Imprimatur by a high official. That is, it is considered safe by the hierarchy. After chapters on the formation and canon, carefully stating "heretical" views as weIl, the book goes on to historical critical methodology, text, form, source and redaction criticisms. The chapter on Structural Analysis deals with the work of Greimas, Levi-Strauss, and Propp and such themes as syntagmatic, paradigmatic and semantic analysis as well as 'semiotics and narratology. The next chapters deal with the history and methods of exegesis, the authority of the magisterium and the "Modernist" crisis where the Vatican tried to muzzle critics. There is a section entitled "The conflict resolved." The book ends with list upon annotated list of instruments of study, critical texts, concordances and lexica, as well as a guide with bibliography to understanding relevant Marxist disciplines connected with ideology and methods derived from dialectical materialism, social and economic studies.

It is of course regrettable that there is nothing on critical theories derived from Psychology and Women's Studies but probably they each deserve a volume of their own. Similarly, justice is hardly done to computers. Scholars of Bible and tradition both Jewish and Christian are devoted to these machines. They can change their word-processor founts to exotic scripts, they can recall obscure information, the inmost secrets of word use, meaning and nuance are not hid from their screens. They can interface with the most detailed bibliographical retrieval systems in the world. For days on end their conversation is only of this.

As my other example, let me just mention at random some of the topics of the fasciculi for the years 1986 to 1988 of Semeia, an experimental journal of biblical criticism, which goes to members of the very large Society of Biblical Literature and to hundreds of Seminary and University Libraries. The subjects dealt with include social scientific criticism of the Hebrew Bible; apocryphal Acts of the Apostles; orality, aurality and Biblical narrative; text and textuality; speech act theory and biblical criticism; female wit in a world of male power-most of the material treated in each is Biblical.

What has been the reaction to all this? Everyone has heard of the Fundamentalists and Televangelists, many of whom will have no form of criticism and insist on trying to understand ancient documents and traditions literally, or as they understand literally. Then there is the Church of Rome which tries to regulate and to sift the good from the bad. The Church of England allows the debate to go on unchecked: there are influential groups supporting both sides as well as the middle. Up to the times of their sad and lamented deaths I was in touch with Bishop J.A.T. Robinson whose Honest to God (London, 1963), thanks to unsought newspaper publicity, became a best seller, and with Professor Geoffrey Lampe who one Easter morning before millions of BBC viewers said the empty tomb was a late accretion to the resurrection narratives. His last book God (IS Spirit (London, 1977) seems to call in question the foundations of the fundamental Christian dogmas. Lampe was physically and spiritually' a giant: generous and devoted, valiant, he had won the Military Cross for bravery on the Normandy Beaches. There can be no possibility except that he meant by critical method to unlock the original springs of Christianity to enable her to serve the modern (European) world. Both men remained to the end practicing and faithful officials of their Church, men of deep mystical saintliness and love for everything that has breath. Both insisted that criticism did not empty the Churches but that it helped many to retain their faith, for it swept aside much unnecessary luggage from the past. Similarly they felt remarks about criticism weakening the old religious ethical control on scientists and big business and failing to produce a working public ethic, were not reasonably laid at criticism's door. Lampe felt that attacking the critics was like ,Shakespeare's Cleopatra having the messenger (bringing bad news) beaten up. I feel sure both would have welcomed the film of "The Last Temptation of Christ" despite its foolishness for its stimulating people to think over what a real incarnation may involve.

I have reason to believe that many of the German critics who hold Chairs ultimately. connected with cuius regia eius religio Lutheran areas in Germany are of similar types. The situation in the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand is somewhat different. In those countries many of the scholars who work on religious material are in "secular" Universities and a good number of them have become post-Jewish or post-Christian or have not practised any religion. For them Scriptures and Traditions are specimens. In their own estimation they approach them with impartial objectivity, they are not concerned with what effect their work has on public ethics or on religious bodies, no more than scientists hold themselves responsible for military or commercial use of their research. It is truth as they see it, for truth's sake, the uncovering of knowledge for its own sake, which may incidentally lead to the uncovering, as they see it, of other people's unknowingness, blindness, ignorance or chicanery. The ethical conundrum is not theirs alone, it belongs to all humanity and sound answers will have to be found.

Because she has generated more critical study and development of method than any other, because more advanced methodological technology has been used upon her, Christianity has constituted our main case study. Each one of the other world religions has much to teach us in this regard. Time only remains for me to glance cursorily and haphazardly at some aspects of the matter. Judaism, while we know it came from Asia and till 1948 had roots and shoots in many other parts of the world, became an essential part of European life and culture. Jews were to be found in every country of Europe before or not long after "the mainstream" arrived. They contributed for centuries to every facet of European life. In fact before the 1940s, it is impossible to imagine Europeaness without including Jewishness. Yet the Europeans in every land made them feel like aliens and sojourners. It is no wonder they gave the lead in critical study of their own religion and in ways both oblique and direct of the "major" religion, Judaism's daughter, Christianity. In their case critical method of the type we are discussing may be traced from before Spinoza (1632-1677) onwards in every generation. But here I just want to mention two Jewish people whose thinking has decisively influenced critical thinking in every walk of life, not least religion. Marx (1818-1883) born into an intensely Jewish environment was baptised in the Lutheran Church as part of the attempt of German Jews to leave the ghetto and join German life. With his Jewish honesty and clear-sighted sense of justice he saw bow religion was used. No wonder he called it opium. Yet Marxist categories of method and thought, together with the deep care for underprivileged and oppressed can help to lead on to remarkable religious developments like Liberation Theology.

Freud (1856-1939) as a Jew in late 19th and early 20th century Vienna could with his fondest dreams hope religion was an illusion which would fade away with so much of the superstition and savagery of man's primaeval youth. Sad to say some of its pernicious perversions did not fade fast enough to save him from exile and millions of his fellows from a worse fate. The Freudian tendency not to recognize a place and future, for good or ill, of religion has remained to render the work of many a critic one sided and less true to human experience as it has been envisaged by most people in history and by many today.

With regard to Islam, I have collaborated with a traditional Bihari Shia Ithna 'ashari Maulana and with a Swahili Mwalimu for over twenty five years and found no lack of critical method and acumen. I have heard admiration of the trouble Europeans have taken to study Islam as well as amazement at the puerility and offensiveness of some of their study. The "Orientalism" debate has in the last ten years erupted in western books and journals but is far older in Muslim thought. Basically it is the conviction that much of 'European' study is the academic aspect of Imperialism and has underlying it the old racist ideologies. Among other things these include "the them and us" attitude, with "us" as the most highly evolved and advanced. It includes the idea that you can study a religion as a set of economic, social and psychological factors which make the believer into a fool, a charlatan, a fanatic or someone out to gain a material advantage. It includes the idea that you can isolate and atomize religion into a number of problems, which you can define and analyze, layout in front of you as you would dissect a frog (first kill your frog) or the leg of a cadaver. Or it can be inspected as you look at an artifact in a museum, out of its context, in a light and setting you have chosen, to be studied in terms you lay down, in answer to questions you have formulated, in the face of "problems" you have thought up. Wonderful results have been achieved, but new more organic and natural methods are now urgently called for and those within the household have the initiative, not the uninvited guest. In surveying Islam at the present time Muslim scholars point out that Fundamentalists and Puritans have for centuries been an accepted part of their scene and that the divorces between. religion and philosophy, religion and science, common sense and scripture, are not among their problems in the same way as these matters have afflicted Christian History in the last centuries.

I have learned much by studying the effects of modern critical western scholarship on Hinduism, Buddhism and the classical Chinese ideologies, but I do not have time at this point to give even a summary. However, because it is a factor often forgotten in scholarly circles let me say a little about Mrican Traditional Religion (with the traditional religions of the Black Australians, of the peoples of Papua/New Guinea, of the Native Americans, in the background). Unlikely as it appears at first sight, European type critical scholarship has done some of its most valuable work here and in some ways the study of these religions has much to tell Europe by way of healing. Some of the greatest scholars came under unlikely auspices-Call away, Roscoe and Junod were missionaries, Rattray and Evans-Pritchard were government anthropologists. Anyhow, a bright constellation of interpreters of African religion arose including before long Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Marcel Griaule and others. In time scholars of African religion as such, Parrinder, Idowu, Awolalu, Mbiti arose. The earlier volumes of the UNESCO History of Africa tell us of an Africa which is one, and includes Egypt, which goes back to human beginnings, which preserves and tells forth the best primal principles of humanity. Something of the nature of the oral, which is not the non-written or the pre-literate but a living enduring form of its own, independent of machinery, the printing press, the word processor, the air waves and electronic screen. It is part of the living rhythm, music, color and movement of the wholeness of communal life not a dead museum piece, but something with a context, a roundness and an ecology. This is a study which cannot be done sitting in Munich, London and Harvard but a triumph of Der praxis der Feldforchungsarbeit, the praxis of field-study, experiential learning. The scholar has to enter into it fully, a total immersion. Truly those great scholars we mentioned were converted to African religion and the rest of their lives outside Africa was to them an exile in profane lands. In the meantime Levi-Stauss was doing his work on Amazonian myth and new ways of studying ritual and symbolism were being produred. It looked as if critical study had at last begun to crack its European mould and to tell us something common to primordial humanity, to the very shape of the human mind. Africa has done much for the world beside provide the labor force which did so much to open up the Americas and the natural riches to keep the global economy moving.

Sikhism is a world religion: not only has it followers in the Punjab, all over India, in the United Kingdom, United States, East Africa and Oceania, and elsewhere, it spans the great divide between the so-called western religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and the eastern (Hinduism and Buddhism) and Chinese classical ideologies (Confucianism, and Taoism). It also has many features which go back to the primordial pre-Aryan religion of India. It has all these things, a personal God of love who is One and active in the cosmos, the idea of 'karma', of moksha, it teaches an idea of balance and of reciprocal wholeness not unlike but not totally like yin-yang, yet in every case it presents these ideas on its own' terms, in a way which makes it different from other religions. Again it has a Book, but Sikhs are not just a people of a book, nor is the Book just an in libration of the divine word: the Guruship is invested in the word enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib and in the Khalsa past, present and future. This means that if properly understood and fairly presented In context and in full, Sikh Scripture and Tradition has nothing to fear from any true criticism properly used. It has never lacked critical acumen of its own. In fact we can say the first Guru was also the first relentless Sikh critic of all empty word-forms, of all religiosity, empty worship and blind acceptance of tradition. It has a living, native born and organic tradition of criticism. A number of the Sikh scholars at this Conference are notable exponents of it as well as of western method. As for the newer types of criticism I mentioned above, a decade ago I found Sikh scholars at Chandigarh, Amritsar and Patiala deeply conversant with the latest in structuralism, semiotics, narratology and the newest literary criticism. Sikhism has nothing to fear, she has always welcomed scholars from wherever they come, but obviously this does not mean she should sit around and be overtaken by the outside world and by misunderstanding. She has to make sure the truth is established and be prepared to argue it out. She has to have everyone of her own people and well-wishers well informed. The ignorant are not enemies, but Sikhs must not miss a single chance to tell others the truth about their religion. (We are meeting in Los Angeles: just a few years ago at the time of the hostage crisis in Iran, a Sikh was stoned in Los Angeles because his turban and beard reminded people of the Ayatollah Khomeini).

To achieve this purpose of thorough self-education, may I mention some items which people here in the west need badly in English with key words and phrases of course in Gurmukhi (For give me if they exist and I am oblivious of their existence). It is the basis of all sound Scripture study that we should understand the text by the text, therefore if we are to be well prepared to discuss the Sikh faith we need concordances like the two volume Patiala Sabadanukramanika but with the various sentences and lines containing the words, combined with idea and theme concordances like the Patiala Vicar Kos, adapted to be used in English. We need a dictionary like the Amritsar Sri Guru Granth Kos combined in a user-friendly way with something like Shackle's Glossary. Above all we need some commentaries we can trust, a compendium made from works like the Amritsar Sabadarath, the Jullundur Darapan and the Patiala Bani Prakas. Of course Professor Harbans Singh's Sikh Encyclopedia will do a great deal for us, perhaps then we will not need Kahn Singb Nabha's work so much after the Encyclopedia appears. I ought to mention how useful "Loeb" edition, that is. original with interleaved translation, can be. Harbans Singh Doabia's and the Singapore Holy Nit Nem are an untold delight to anyone who loves prayer. As for translation of the Granth Sahib, neither Gopal Singh nor Manmohan Singh equal for beauty of English the UNESCO Selections. It is to be hoped that mother-tongue English users who are bilingual in Punjabi and brought up with the Sikh Scriptures in the original, will produce a handy one volume briefly annotated translation. I am sure some of our Sikh brothers or sisters here present would be able to tell far better than I the vistas that are opened up by audio-visual cassette. But the printed instrumenta studiorium I have mentioned are the nuts and bolts, the main beams and planks, the woof and warp of this study. Even in the original, outside the Punjab they are not often available for use, I doubt that the state-wide University of California bibliographical retrieval system, one of the greatest and best in the western world, could assemble these simple and basic tools of reference for you in the original languages. Even if assembled, how many people would be able to use them? How many can be used by an average well-educated western Sikh? Is it admirable to equip ourselves with "hi-tech" when our rank and file do not have basic equipment?

To conclude, Tacitus says of the Emperor Galba that by the consensus of all he had the capacity to rule as long as he was not Emperor (capax imperii nisi imperasset). So it is with critical method, it has a wonderful ability to get to be in charge of everything but although it seems in every way so capable, it must be prevented from absolute and sole rule. In its proper place it can be a wonderful goad and paidogogus (slave-tutor) to arouse us and push us on to greater effort. May the one true Guru use whatever is of Sewa in this offering, may he burn away in critical fire whatever is gross or dross.

 

 

back to home


ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2009, All rights reserved.