Thursday, August 13, 2009

Maximal Synthetic and Synchronic Exegesis

Hello, y'all readers of Sacred Page!

I'm saying "y'all" because I've just spent a weekend in New Orleans and feel partially Cajunified already. "Y'all" is actually an extremely useful word, because it supplies modern English with a second-person plural pronoun that has been absent for quite some time. Seventeenth-century English, memorialized in the King James Bible, could make a distinction between second-person singular (thee, thou) and second-person plural (ye, you)--a distinction we cannot make in Standard English today without awkward circumlocutions. Therefore, regional dialects supply one: the South generally uses "y'all"; southwestern Pennsylvania uses "yinz" (a contraction of "you ones"). But I digress.

Trying to be a full time professor, husband, father of seven, a faithful Catholic, and actually get any scholarship done is a tall order for me, as it is for my colleagues on this blog (mutatis mutandis--Brant and Michael don't have seven kids [yet]). One of the things you learn to do is to try to squeeze all the time you can out of the day by "multi-tasking." Today I had to drive my youngest son to the Cleveland Clinic--a six-hour round trip from humble Steubenville. Not wanting to lose all the time, I brought along my second son to read to me out of a book I'm working on, Jean Corbon's The Wellspring of Worship (Ignatius Press).

Corbon, like a good modern Frenchman, doesn't actually argue for a position or tell you what he's doing--he just begins describing his vision in beautiful semi-poetic language, and any argument behind his thought--if there is one--is either aesthetic ("it's so beautiful it compels me!") or implicit. It made me wonder if the last Frenchman to write with logical clarity was Thomas Aquinas (if teaching in Paris makes you French), but not being familiar enough with French culture, I decided I wasn't in a position to affirm that definitively. My apologies to the French if my impression of their literary style is inaccurate.

In any event, Corbon writes beautifully. The book is about liturgy, and the early chapters are about the divine economy or salvation history, which Corbon views as the true object of the celebration of the sacred liturgy. What fascinated me at times was the maximalism of Corbon's interpretation as he re-told the biblical story line. His basic perspective is that the water motif--a common one throughout Scripture, from the river of Eden in Gen 2 to the river from the New Jerusalem in the final chapters of Revelation--really points to a metaphysical reality: the continually self-outpouring of the persons of the Trinity, one to another, and the self-gift of the Godhead to humanity by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Corbon's perspective leads him to make some striking statements. For example, he will affirm that the outpoured Holy Spirit is essentially what the patriarchs were digging for when they sunk wells during their sojourn in Canaan. Striking thought, no? It's the kind of thought one would expect from the Church Fathers but not from a twentieth-century theologian. So what do "y'all" think? It what sense can a Christian affirm that the patriarchs were really searching for the Holy Spirit as they dug wells in Canaan? What metaphysical presuppositions does such reflection on Scripture require? Or is this too "maximalist" for contemporary Christians to affirm? I may wade in with some more thoughts in a future post.


Sister Mary Agnes said...

Welcome to the blog! I think that since the Patriarchs didn't know the Holy Spirit existed, they could not have consciously been searching for Him when they dug wells. However, since we all have an innate longing for God perhaps the water from the wells symbolized God to them. They were in the desert and thirsty and needed water. Perhaps they reflected and made the connection that they needed God even more than they needed water.

phatcatholic said...

Dr. Bergsma!! I was very pleased to see that you will be contributing your thoughts to this blog.

If I may offer my humble response to the questions you posed, I think there is a sense in which it may be affirmed that the patriarchs were searching for the Holy Spirit. After all, it could be said that every human endeavor, every act of striving, yearning, working, longing, building, creating, struggling, etc is really just an outward expression of the inner longing that we have for God. He has placed a desire for Him on the hearts of all men, and it seems that anything man puts considerable effort towards is a working out of that longing. You commit yourself to writing a book or doing research because you desire truth. Architects painstakingly design buildings because they want it to be "good" and "beautiful." And of course, that is where God is found, in the truth, the goodness, the beauty.

Similarly, the immediate thoughts of the patriarchs may have been on having water to drink, but that was also a working out of a deeper longing for the wellspring that only the Holy Spirit can provide.

Those are my initial thoughts. Let me know what you think.

Pax Christi,
Nicholas Hardesty, aka "phatcatholic"

T said...

Thanks for the Conference. We certainly enjoyed having y'all over here. ^^

Paul-Joseph said...

Dr. Bergsma,
I certainly enjoyed your presentations at the Word of God Conference and would love to continue our discussion on the Book of Enoch.

Rodrigo said...


Welcome to the blog - and great first post. I would agree with what others have said. I would probably be uncomfortable suggesting that the patriarchs intentionally were searching for the Holy Spirit by digging for wells. Still, I would be equally uncomfortable denying that that was an innate desire that they most likely were not aware of, but found expression in their search for water - especially if one reads the texts in light of Jesus' discourse on water at the well in John 4. I'm happy with maximalist readings of the OT, provided they are framed in a reasonable and responsible way. Hope you're well!

Anonymous said...

I appreciated the "wade" pun at the end.

Anonymous said...

As long as one invokes the four senses of the sensus plenior, and as long as one respects their differences, then one can indeed legitimately engage in exegesis of this sort, even if it is merely preached from the pulpit to the faitthful, rather than thesisised to the geneeral public via the article and the PhD.

phatcatholic said...

Haha, did you just say "thesisised"? Nice word :D

John Bergsma said...

I agree with many of you who posted above. I think if you clarify that you are performing a canonical exegesis, you can advance the kind of interpretation that Corbon is doing. With respect to the patriarchs and their wells, what interests me is that the final and climactic promise to Abraham in Gen 12:3 is "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (following the versions, reading the Hebrew form as passive rather than reflexive.) Paul in Gal 3:14 glosses the "blessing of Abraham" as the "promise of the Spirit"--in other words, he identifies the content of the Abrahamic blessing as essentially the outpouring of the Spirit. It is the outpoured Spirit through Abraham's "seed" Jesus (cf. Gen 22:18, Matt 1:1) that fulfills the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed in him.

When the patriarchs wander through Canaan, which they do not yet possess, they are really demonstrating faith in God's promises to give them land and descendants, yes, but ultimately to bless all nations. The digging of the well is an act of faith and hope that God will be faithful, both immediately (by granting water) and ultimately (by granting the spirit). John 4, of course, as mentioned above, makes the connection, and Corbon is probably reflecting on John 4.

Paul Cat said...

Wellspring of Worship is a beautiful book. If you like reading liturgical theology you might also enjoy Alexander Schmemann (spelling might be wrong) and Adain Kavanaugh.

I especially like Kavanaugh's reminder that the lady in the front pew at daily mass is equally as important theologian, if not more important, than the secondary theologians who study after the fact in the Universities.