The Wisdom of Love for God’s Sake: Interpreting the Papers, and Our Scriptures, Together

David F. Ford,
University of Cambridge

‘The value of eros so transparent in the Song of Songs does not seem well contained within the proposed wisdom context.’ ( Gottstein )
‘The particular mix of celibate interpreters applying erotic language to an incarnate God is enormously potent, yet totally irrelevant for me as a Jewish reader.’ ( Gottstein )

‘Eden was the place where God was most intimate with humanity…There is good reason to imagine that God intended to impart wisdom to humanity on those walks, by the drip method.’ ( Davis )
‘The Song goes far beyond all previous texts in evoking the ecstasy of desire fulfilled, of intimacy realized in every aspect of human relationship.’ ( Davis )

We have two papers on the Song and one on the Muslim mystical ‘Path of Love’. I will discuss the two on the Song first and then draw in the third paper.

1. Eros and Agape

The massive difference between Gottstein and Davis in their construal of the Song is the most obvious point of discussion. I will be fascinated to hear what they have to say to each other. I want to explore their difference somewhat obliquely, beginning with the term ‘eros’. One of the early discoveries I made about the Septuagint (one that led into many more, and to seeing how vital the LXX is to understanding Hellenistic Judaism, the New Testament, and the formative Greek writings of the early centuries of Christianity) was that its word for love was not (as I had vaguely expected) ‘ eros ‘, but ‘ agape ‘ — the same word as is used for love of God and neighbour in the rest of the LXX and in the New Testament. This helped me to understand better the way the Song had been interpreted by both Jews and Christians in relation to God. (There is a lot of difference between ‘ agape is strong as death’ and ‘ eros is strong as death’.) Of course this translation from the Hebrew might be seen as just one more example of what Gottstein calls the ‘baggage’ of the history of interpretation, the LXX translators being among the most influential of all interpreters of the Hebrew scriptures. But that this is a possible way to translate it says more, I suspect, than that it is ‘secondary’ or ‘baggage’. (An interesting piece of research would be to find out how much of the intertextuality found by Davis and others in the Hebrew is also to be found in the Greek.)

2. A Wisdom of Love: Intimacy, Simultaneity and the Subjunctive

It also may be one pointer towards the appropriateness of the wisdom context. Why not a wisdom of love? Davis’s most exciting idea for me was her theology of intimacy (which might be taken as one aspect of a wisdom of love). And her most interesting comment on other commentators was that their characteristic weakness is ‘the commitment to confine its meaning within a single sphere of relationship, be it divine-human (the allegorical tradition) or male-female (most modern interpreters)’. I wonder what Gottstein makes of her understanding of intimacy? And is he open to the simultaneity of dimensions of meaning? One of the recurring marks of scriptural reasoning in my experience is this simultaneity, complexifying Gottstein’s appeal to ‘the text itself’. ( Safi’s paper also has a strong emphasis on simultaneity in various forms, most obviously in noting how ‘the non-gender basis of these Persianate languages … allows for deliberately delicious ambiguities where a love poem can be taken as referring to a poet’s spouse, spiritual teacher, Prophet Muhammad, or God — and often times simultaneously to all of them!’)

In this regard, a comparison of the endings of the two papers is suggestive. Davis says:

Hebrew scripture likens us more memorably to a lover, faithless or not, in our relationship with God; and the Song reminds us that at the limit of experience, lovers fall silent, or babble more or less incoherently. The Song, then, draws a ‘margin of silence’ around the Scriptures as a whole; it creates a space where we who read and dare to interpret them do not have to know just what to say.

I read Gottstein’s paper as a remarkably honest exemplification of Davis’ last sentence. It is largely saying that he does not know just what to say, and its puzzlement is a good foil for Davis — who is far more definite. It is together that they are an example of scriptural reasoning. Or rather, perhaps – prior to group discussion – together they are the material for scriptural reasoning.

Gottstein’s ending is radically subjunctive:

Perhaps… Perhaps… Maybe the Song of Songs is where I must accept a wider meaning of what Scripture is, expanding its meaning to include the fullest history of interpretation. Maybe, then, the Song of Songs is where I must learn how to read Scripture as a Jew? Maybe.

Subjunctive interpretation of scripture, exploring its ‘mays’, ‘mights’ and ‘what ifs’ (one thinks of Kierkegaard on the binding of Isaac) is one of the least discussed and practised approaches, at least among academics. Gottstein is not really concerned with that in his ending, though in the paper he practises something like it in his exploration of several approaches and his inability to acquiesce in any of them. But what is he about here? My worry is that he may be posing a false dilemma for himself, a choice between, on the one hand, all those ‘maybes’, and, on the other hand, his commitment to ‘the text itself’. My hope is that he glimpses some sort of ‘both — and’, a simultaneity that allows him to practise more than he will methodologically allow himself to acquiesce in.

3. A Theological Account of Scriptural Reasoning

But I suspect that the truth of the simultaneity needs to be expressed theologically as well as methodologically. Crudely put, this might mean complementing his methodological account of scriptural reasoning: ‘that process by which we think of and with scripture’, with a theological account: ‘ that social as well as intellectual process by which Jews, Christians and Muslims think together of and with God as they think of and with scripture ‘.

4. A Sufi Wisdom of Love:

(i) With Heart and Mind

Turning to Safi’s paper, it is striking how many resonances there are with what has been said so far. He evokes a long, rich tradition of the wisdom of love.

Love is nothing,
save felicity and grace.
Love is nothing
save opening the heart
and guidance.

There are love’s free gratuitousness, joy, orientation to the other in the depths of the self, and wisdom of direction. Those who wrote such passionate love poetry ‘were already masters of the normative religious sciences (law, theology, etc.)’ What happens in this love is a further stretching of the capacities of the mind in line with the passionate commitment to God’s wisdom as well as to God’s love.

(ii) The Spirit of Focusing on the Ultimate

Further: ‘The aim of those on the ‘Path of Love’ was to invest their religious tradition with a spirit of focusing on the Ultimate, and not the means towards the Ultimate.’ (9) That ‘spirit of focusing on the Ultimate’ is the theological dynamic that is required if means or methods are to be appropriately penultimate.

(iii) Intimacy and Reciprocity with God

But it is not just ‘focussing on the Ultimate’. It is intimacy with God who is the ‘ Only You ‘, with whom there is ‘a highly nuanced dance of reciprocity ‘ and who says, in the hadith communicated to Muhammad:

I was a Hidden Treasure,
and loved to be known intimately,
so I created the Heavens and the Earth,
so that they may come to intimately know me.

(iv) A Love Enfolding All Creation

Further still, this intimacy with God is a love ‘which would enfold the whole of creation’:

Whoever loves God
should love His messenger, Muhammad,
his own spiritual teacher
and his own life…
food and drink…
silver and gold…
Heaven and Earth…
A lover loves the handwriting
and every action of the Beloved.
All the creatures are His handicraft and action.
Loving them for the sake of following His love
is no polytheism.

(v) Seeking God for God’s Sake

The secret of that ‘for the sake of’ leads to the ultimate destination, the ‘Paradise beyond Paradise’: ‘seeking God for His own sake’. Safi takes this as the springboard for speaking about different faiths in relation to the ‘Truth ( haqq ) that must be identified with God’s own Being, and not with any intellectual conception of God or path leading to God.’ This poses the most radical challenge to any interfaith practice among those who worship the one Creator and seek truth together: to seek God for God’s own sake . One question arising from the Sufi conception in our situation might be: can we develop ways of doing this seeking together? Scriptural reasoning is one among many possible ways of doing so, and it needs to consider the implications of seeking God for God’s sake.

5. A Hermeneutics of Our Scriptures as Love-letters

Safi’s ending is at least as suggestive as those of the other papers:

Ultimately, this is perhaps the greatest legacy of the mystics of the ‘path of love’: a hermeneutics not just of the sacred text, but of the sacred heart of humanity — one that through the ‘glance of love’ reveals the Divine in power and intimacy, linking together the human and the Divine from pre-eternity ( azal ) to post-eternity ( abad ). Somewhere in the stretch of infinities we stand in this present moment ( waqt ), bewildered by the effusion of Divine Love that makes breath possible, intellect a tool, Scripture a Love-letter, and love the greatest of God’s mysteries. (28-9)

Perhaps a ‘hermeneutics of the sacred heart of humanity’, if it were to do justice to the particularities that make up humanity, including the particularities of each religious tradition, could be seen as necessitating many hermeneutics of many sacred (and other) texts. Is there any shorter route than one that travels through the texts and their traditions of interpretation, performing their interpretation continually afresh in new settings and times, and learning from old and new fellow students both within and beyond our own traditions? That might be seen as a path of love and wisdom that it is especially important for the Abrahamic faiths to attempt to follow together today. Might, somehow, our own scriptures be love-letters to others as well as to ourselves? Might there be a special path opening for those who are willing to study these dearest of all texts together?

Those ‘bewildered by the effusion of the Divine love’ might resonate both with Davis’ lovers of God who ‘fall silent, or babble more or less incoherently’ and also with Gottstein himself ‘on the brink of assenting to a given interpretation of the Song’ while ‘hopelessly struggling to locate a core of meaning with which I could resonate religiously.’ We may be able, through an Abrahamic collegiality whose heart and hope is friendship, to unite love and wisdom in ways that help to serve the healing and flourishing of ourselves, our religious communities, our societies — and even our academic disciplines and institutions. Maybe.

© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning