Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Fun with Bible, part I

... and all I got was this lousy degree. Because I forgot last week: Congratulations JTS grads of 2007! Good luck with your incredibly useful degrees!


Because I am super-duper lame, I've decided that I will subject you all to my thoughts on Bible and philosophy. Mwah ha ha ha. But, seriously. In honor of Shavuot, here follow my thoughts on Wisdom Literature and Greek Philosophy:


The premise of the biblical wisdom tradition is that the universe is created and, as such, the ordering principles that God used to create the universe can be discerned; wisdom is a transcendental universal. The implication of a created universe, presupposing a just God, places an obligation on humanity to manifest God’s order in human life. These ordering principles, codified in Israelite tradition in Torah (ref: Psalm 19), comprise moral imperatives as well as national law. According to prophetic theodicy, everything in the universe is interconnected (ref: Amos 1 and Proverbs 31:21-23). The natural order shudders when humanity misbehaves, when chaos seeps in through the cracks of human interaction. Therefore, wisdom literature places the burden on sapient humanity to ensure that order is enshrined in society through wisdom. To subvert this order is to undermine not only social and national stability, but to fundamentally shake the ramparts of the universe.


The biblical wisdom tradition reveals an inherent tension between anthropocentric (man’s pragmatic relation to wisdom, the ways in which wisdom profits man as a means) and theocentric (the human task is to discover God’s wisdom as an end) purposes. (cf. Psalm 1 and Psalm 149). Proverbs 1-9, for example, demonstrates experiential wisdom as a faculty of mankind. In this context, wisdom can be discerned through reason, autonomously and rationally; potent without theology. After this preamble, however, the Book of Proverbs takes a decidedly theological turn. Ultimately, the instruction of the wise collapses to reveal that fear of God, not rational deduction, generates all wisdom. Comparing Proverb 13:14 with 14:27, תורת חכם (roughly, Wisdom of the Torah) is used interchangeably with (Fear of God) יראת ה', both are called (the source of Life) מקור חיים. Why fear of God? The illusion that everyday observations reflect reality under-girds the systematic belief in the cosmic order of reality. Proverb 31:30, summarizing the teachings of wisdom literature, provides that fear of God is the antidote to the illusions of human reason. Wisdom literature codifies ordering principles deduced by man; ultimately fallible and imperfect because it is a human creation. At its base, all of wisdom is יראת ה' (also the conclusion of Qohelet). This book comprises the theologization of secular wisdom.


As with Wisdom Literature’s ordering principles, Plato argues ‘forms’ as a template for creation. The overarching purpose of his philosophy is to uncover these forms, to perceive a pattern from the conglomeration of facts, and, as with Israelite wisdom literature, to use this knowledge to more perfectly order society. Just as the wisdom tradition cautions against slavish devotion to the illusion of one’s eyes, Plato suggests a dichotomy between that which always is and that which is always becoming. Using the wisdom tradition framework, הבל היפי, (Proverbs 31:30, cf. Qohelet 1:2-8) opinion and sensation are illusory and momentary; therefore, they are always in the process of “becoming.” Whereas wisdom literature locates the counterpart to all that is הבל... תחת השמים in יראת ה', Plato perceives truth as apprehended by reason to be the true constant, that which always is.

The structure of Platonic philosophy is markedly different from biblical wisdom literature. In both Proverbs and Psalms, wisdom is encoded in biblical poetry. Job, who is chronologically closest to Plato (most scholars date Job to the late 5th Century, approximately concurrent with Plato), does use the form of a dialogue in the form of poetic discourse, with the exception of the prose frame tale. Alternatively, Plato’s discourses systematically approach the problem at hand. The purpose of Plato’s work is philosophy: the methodical and logical uncovering of knowledge as an end in and of itself. The greatest difference between Plato and biblical wisdom literature is that the former suggests an alternative to the existing social, cultural, and political tradition; the latter enshrines it, providing a raison d'être for Israelite social, religious, and legal law code.

The central concern of wisdom literature, particularly Job, is the issue of theodicy. The wisdom tradition postulates a righteous/wicked heuristic for reward and punishment. This organization serves to reinforce the message of the literature, itself. If a person is righteous, i.e. lives life according to Torah/Israelite religion, then that person will be rewarded. Conversely, the wicked will be punished. Existential reality contradicts this heuristic, providing ample evidence that the righteous suffer and the wicked are rewarded. An entire ANE genre of literature is focused on the “righteous sufferer,” and the problem of perceived injustice in God’s universe. The Bible asserts that God controls the order of ethics, the world testifies to God’s justice (Job 5:8); however, in Job, God testifies from the whirlwind that the world is not rationally, that is uncanny (Job 38). God does not argue that God is good. (Kaufman, p. 241) The Joban poet suggests that God’s power is separate from God’s justice: God’s actions are in no way constrained by God’s justice. To assume that God acts within the confines of justice is to place a limit on the power of God. Either God is constrained by justice or God’s justice is a matter of self-limitation, a testament to God’s restraint. (cf. Tzevat, p. 16) If God created wisdom and continues to have control over nature and ethics, then justice is as God determines it to be. Therefore, when justice contradicts our experiential wisdom or dissonates with our conception of fairness, the cause is not that God is unjust, but that humanity can never fully apprehend God’s justice (i.e., God’s order).

The Bible emphasizes both God and humanity’s role in determining good; if good has a rational basis, then human perception of and God’s enforcement of good should be co-equal. The dissonance revealed by works such as Job should not exist. The problem with this formulation is that it attempts to view justice as separate from God in a theocentric worldview. In general, the Bible depicts justice as a realm of God, but never as an objective entity. If God defines justice, then how can justice be considered separate from God? Even in the moments in which prophets stand in the breach on behalf of justice and argue with God (the best example of which is Abraham speaking on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah), they use God’s language of justice and righteousness. What makes a man righteous and a society just? The principles espoused in God’s Torah.

Plato argues that justice is an objective form, separate from divine origin or control. His central question is whether the gods determine that which is good or are the gods bound by that which is essentially, universally, eternally good. In Euthyphro, he argues that good is itself is an independent essence from that which the gods value as good. This idea of good is the last thing to be seen in the realm of light outside the cave, man’s highest goal is to understand the essence of good (from Plato’s parable of the cave). As the Bible uses wisdom literature to validate its own modes, Plato’s framework in The Republic reinforces the Socratic polemic for philosopher kings. He argues that rational discovery of universals, including justice, presumably conducted by philosophers who are trained in the art of uncovering knowledge, should provide the basis for a just society. Moreover, the men who thus reveal and understand these universals will be best suited to governing the Republic. In Timaeus, Plato gives lip service to a creator; but his true gods are the philosophers, who, through their ability to unravel and reveal the patterns of the universe, create an ideal world, manifesting the principles of creation on earth.

In placing Plato in the realm of Ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, the two forms act to elucidate one-another. For example, wisdom literature’s ordering principles are co-equal with Platonic forms. From the vantage point of Plato, where universals precede everything, the question of God’s constrains and limitations in power and expression are an extension of its objective existence outside of God. Alternatively, if God contains and controls all universals, all ordering principles, all wisdom, then the act of creation is not God acting within constrains, but God choosing to constrain Gods self. The world is therefore imbued with rational patterns built into its fabric. The basis of both wisdom literature and Platonic discourse is that human beings can discover and know these rational patterns.

The dude on the left is Plato.

1 comment:

Zie said...

harley-- you are the form of harley.. except you exist within time and space.. ummm.. you are both harley and the form! oh you know what i mean, you are just as nerdy as i am. (its ok.. nerdy is in)