Day: June 27, 2009

on not (quite) getting it

Natalie’s already made this point in regard to cross-cultural connections, but I’m a slow learner: it’s more virtuous (honest, realistic, courageous) to assume that you haven’t understood everything about a person or encounter than to assume that you have.

This applies also to reading the Bible — something those of us trained to analyse a passage with confidence, reflexively looking to its immediate and wider salvation-historical contexts, would do well to own.

It’s especially true of Hebrew narrative, which as the literary critic Erich Auerbach observes is so sparse, leaves so much — unexplained — in the background. This is the key to its realism: the springs and causes of action are rendered opaque, the complexity and inaccessibility of human motives is underlined.
Soren Kierkegaard knew all about this (Fear and Trembling):

It is supposed to be difficult to understand Hegel, but to understand Abraham is a trifle. To go beyond Hegel is a miracle, but to get beyond Abraham is the easiest thing of all. I for my part have devoted a good deal of time to the understanding of the Hegelian philosophy, I believe also that I understand it tolerably well, but when in spite of the trouble I have taken there are certain passages I cannot understand, I am foolhardy enough to think that he himself has not been quite clear. All this I do easily and naturally, my head does not suffer from it. But on the other hand when I have to think of Abraham, I am as though annihilated. I catch sight every moment of that enormous paradox which is the substance of Abraham’s life, every moment I am repelled, and my thought in spite of all its passion cannot get a hairs-breadth further. I strain every muscle to get a view of it – that very instant I am paralysed.

His customary confidence falls away before one of the Bible’s briefest, most puzzling and overwhelmingly fraught episodes.