Sunday, March 29, 2015

The ways of art, mind, and heart are wonderful indeed

Given my interests, I am a little surprised that I had not encountered the writings of Jack Miles, Professor of English and Religious Studies at UC-Irvine, until I stumbled across God: A Biography. That's my loss. The guy thinks fascinatingly about ultimate things and now I've got a whole new body of writings to explore. He has just come off the seven year project of editing, with six co-editors, The Norton Anthology of World Religions, all 4400 pages of it. It may be awhile before I get to that one.

In the 1996 volume discussed here (it won a Pulitzer Prize for biography), Miles explains his project like this:

I write here about the life of the Lord God as -- and only as -- the protagonist of a classic of world literature; namely the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. I do not write about (though I certainly do not write against) the Lord God as the object of religious belief. I do not attempt, as theology does, to make an original statement about God as an extra literary reality. I do not write as a historian and therefore do not focus, as historians do, on the successive Israelite and Jewish communities that believed in God. My interest goes not to those believing communities but ... to the God they believed in. ...

His text is the Tanakh, the Jewish ordering of the books that Christians call the Old Testament. The different orders of both these canons were set several centuries into the Common Era (C.E.) -- that's what we called A.D. until the Christian solipsism of that naming came to seem unsupportable. (Here's a pretty clear article on the two differing arrangements of the books; I don't know enough to say what axes may be being ground within it.)

Perhaps in part because I read this book by ear while running and walking, I got off to a bumpy start with God. This is not how we are accustomed to read the Bible, something I have considerable exposure to by way of the extensive lectionary of my church. It took awhile, listening to Miles' exposition, to hear into his description of God's developing character.

...a medieval mystic once wrote, "God cancels the successiveness of men," meaning that while human beings experience their lives one day at a time, God sees their lives' time as a portrait on a wall, every moment visible to him at once. But human beings have returned the favor with a vengeance, canceling the successiveness of the protagonist of the Bible by a tradition of Bible reading that regards the entirety of the text as simultaneous to itself, so that any verse may be read as the commentary on any other verse and any statement true of God at one point is taken to be true of God at all points. ...

.... True, the Lord God of Israel is the creator and ruler of time, and the Psalms delight in repeating that he lives forever. To that extent he is like Aristotle's unmoved mover. And yet, contradictory as this must seem, he also enters time and is changed by experience. Were it not so, he could not be surprised; and he is endlessly and often most unpleasantly surprised. God is constant; he is not immutable. ...

As the book wore on, I found myself able to listen into Miles' story of the deity. I won't say I came away sure I'd heard a "correct" interpretation; rather, I'd absorbed an epic poem about a multifaceted character. I could swim along in it and this was a delight.

... Knowledge of God as a literary character neither precludes nor requires belief in God, and it is this kind of knowledge that the book before you attempts to mediate.

...The Bible insists on nothing about God more than on his unity. God is the Rock of Ages, integrity in person. And yet this same being combines several personalities. Either mere unity (character alone) or mere multiplicity (personality alone) would have been so much easier. But he is both, and so the image of the human that derives from him requires both.

God is no saint, strange to say. There is much to object to in him, and many attempts have been made to improve him. Much that the Bible says about him is rarely preached from the pulpit because, examined too closely, it becomes a scandal. But if only some of the Bible is actively preached, none of the Bible is quite denied. On the improbably unexpurgated biblical page, God remains as he has been: the original who was the Faith of our Fathers and whose image is living still within us as a difficult but dynamic secular ideal.

In an interview about his more recent opus, Miles gave a clue about how we might approach this strange and wonderful volume:

[These texts] have, at least, a chance to work upon the mind and heart the way a work of art does.

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