Response to “Thinking of/With Scripture” by Alon Goshen-Gottstein, “On the ‘Path of Love’ Toward the Divine” by Omid Safi, and “Reading the Song Iconographically” by Ellen Davis

Barry Harvey,
Baylor University

With his description of the dialectical tension between the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Goshen-Gottstein provides us with an eloquent trope for our deliberations about scriptural reasoning. Scripture is the Tree of Life in this trope, with both the history of interpretation within the two communities that include the Song of Songs within their respective canons, and the history of modern biblical scholarship comprising the tree of knowledge. What this latter tree produces, says Goshen-Gottstein, both enhances and complicates our access to the spiritual core of Scripture. Instead of depicting these discourses as baggage we bring to Scripture, however, why not continue with the trajectory of his figural reading, and recognize both interpretive strands as ambiguous yet irreducible features of scriptural reasoning. As the human being was told that “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plants of the field,” so too do we struggle with the biblical text, nourished by the fruit and contending with the thorns and thistles yielded by our interpretive traditions, knowing in the end that we must finally hand ourselves over to the dust of the ground in which the Tree of Life is rooted.

For her part, Davis begins her paper firmly at the tree of knowledge, with the form critical approach of Hermann Gunkel. And yet this point of departure is not absolute, but is conditioned by her understanding of the wider witness of Scripture and the Christian tradition. In her iconographic reading of the Song of Songs she offers us a different take on the role that tradition (including that part of tradition that is the canonization of Scripture) plays in determining the meaning of a biblical text. The meaning of the Song, according to Davis , is in its interaction with the other texts of Scripture, as these are read within an ongoing tradition. Scriptural reasoning is not only thinking of Scripture and with Scripture, but also thinking with friends and fellow travelers about what we read in Scripture. And if I have read him correctly, this process of “thinking with others about Scripture” is what Safi has in mind when he states that he wants to avoid a “protestant reading of the Qur’an” and focus instead on “the interaction of particular interpretive communities with the Sacred text throughout history.”

Davis and Goshen-Gottstein remind us, each in their own way, that when reading the Song of Songs as Scripture some sort of hermeneutical surmise about its literal meaning is required at the outset. By “literal” I do not mean its putative “historical” sense as determined by some critical reconstruction (e.g., Gottwald’s sociological reconstruction of Israel’s origins), but the sense of the letter, of what is written. For Davis the literal sense of the Song is figural, proffered in the form of a mystical writing. Goshen-Gottstein, by contrast, follows most modern scholars who insist that we must start with “just what it is,” a straightforward celebration of human love. If one begins with Davis’s interpretive standpoint, the question of whether “just what [the Song] is” is as straightforward as conventional modern scholarship takes it to be moves to the top of the agenda.

With respect to Safi’s paper, I was intrigued in his discussion of the “Path of Love” with parallels between these Muslim mystics and certain strands in the Christian tradition. His contention, for example, that for those who follow the madhhab-i ‘ishq , the ‘ishq or love for God would enfold the whole of creation resonates clearly with the Augustinian position that we rightly love our fellow creatures in the love of God. So too the description of beauty in particular humans as manifestations ( tajalli ) of the Divine converges at many points with Augustine’s discussion of signs and the role they play in all interpretation. Finally, all three papers put to us the question of whether human love and desire is best understood in light of longing for the divine, or love of the divine in the context of human love conceived apart from any and all theological descriptions.

Permit me to conclude by making what some may regard as a problematic claim, though others might see it as self-evident. In the end, one’s mode of reading Scripture is finally constituted not by a theory of some sort (though theories are both presupposed and produced along the way, particularly when there are academics involved), nor is it keyed to some sort of universal human experience (here I do wonder about Safi’s invocation of “spiritual experience” as an interpretive category). Instead it is one’s membership and apprenticeship in a community or communities of life and language that establishes for any given interpreter her or his hermeneutical framework for reading both text and world. The practices of these communities define a shared (in intention if not in agreement) interpretation of human life. For the three traditions represented here, this interpretation is as this life is lived before God, from a desire for God that is denoted in human terms.

This does not mean that our understanding of texts and of the world and our place in both cannot change, for that would be patently false. Each of us, however, was initiated into a particular imaginative grasp on these matters by virtue of the time and place of our birth, and we spend the rest of our lives refining and modifying that grasp through our engagements with others and with the material world that we all share. Nor does it mean that human communities and their convictions are so constituted that convictional differences among diverse groups of human beings go “all the way down,” so to speak, such that they are both inevitable and ineradicable. The process of adjudicating convictional disagreements is never carried out in a vacuum, but is always situated within an institutional setting that is itself aligned with some set of convictions, which in turn is orchestrated by an imaginative construal of how human beings are related to the world they inhabit. We are therefore not in a position to say that convictional disagreements are ever absolute or ineradicable. They are instead “expected, but not inevitable, fundamental, but not ultimate, enduring but not inherently ineradicable” (James McClendon).

© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning