Thursday, October 12, 2006

Hagiographical Hermeneutics

With a post title like that I need to be decked, but I hope you'll see it fits - "hagiography" being the lives of the Saints, and "hermeneutics" being how to interpret them.

In 1907, after using his keen historical mind to decimate the historicity of many a medieval Saints' Life, the famous Bollandist Hippolyte Deleheye pulled a last minute recovery job:
"Medieval legend as a whole (not each legend in particular) has something of that mysterious and sublime poetry which pervades our old cathedral buildings, it expresses the Christian feelings for an ideal of holiness with unexampled force... the bearing of their characters are stiff and stilted, the situations unbelievable. But the governing thought is lofty and fine: these writers keep their eyes fixed on that exalted beauty of which pagan antiquity knew nothing, the beauty of a soul decked in God's grace... " (e-text).
There being so much chaff in medieval vitae to be discarded, Deleheye's gesture to preserve some wheat is certainly appreciated.

But on the other hand, consider the preface to Theodoret's Life of Symeon Stylites, which although written in the 5th century both anticipates such modern historiography and challenges it:
"I am afraid that the narrative may seem to posterity to be a myth totally devoid of truth. For the facts surpass human nature, and men are wont to use nature to measure what is said; if anything is said that lies beyond the limits of nature, the account is judged to be false by those uninitiated into divine things. But since earth and sea are full of pious souls educated in divine things and instructed in the grace of the all-holy Spirit, who will not disbelieve what is said but have complete faith in it, I shall make my narration with eagerness and confidence (160).
So which is it? Give up hope for historical accuracy and settle for the abiding lesson with Deleheye, or stubbornly insist that the abiding lesson be anchored (and hence amplified) by historical truth? The postmodern temptation to surrender truth to meaning may seem transgressive, but in fact proves the tired point that postmodernity is hyper-modernity - leaving the materialist, historicist mindset essentially unprovoked. Much more exciting is, with Theodoret, to challenge the natural limits of history, and while wary of raw credulity, to nevertheless insist that historical possibility is a far from settled affair.

The catch is that the latter move only works for a selected audience, those "educated in divine things," i.e. the church. But if faith involves an epistemological expansion (as it most certainly does), how could things be otherwise?

Of course the ante is upped on all this when it comes to the interpretation of Scripture - where the options laid out here are very much the same - but that's another post.