“The poem itself shows what [the poet] is trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem—for evidence of intention that did not become effective in the poem.” (Wimsatt & Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy”)
“It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else.” (Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation”)
This is part 3 of a group of posts I’m writing in response to a discussion thread on Leila Miller’s Little Catholic Bubble. Read parts 1 & 2 here and here.
Today I want to address a couple of questions Leila asked me late in that exchange. She asked:
“What do you think the Church wrote the Creeds for? For what purpose and under what circumstances?”
“I gave you evidence that your church is fine with subjective interpretations of the Creeds. This is the opposite of what the writers intended. Why not answer?”
“The Creeds were written to put down heresy. To say that (for one example) it’s okay to think of Jesus’ resurrection as metaphorical is a heresy. Again, the very purpose of the Creeds was/is to be precise and objective.”
I answered Leila’s questions about why the Episcopal Church doesn’t enforce a single reading of the Creeds, and how the church teaches the truth of the Creeds, in part 2. But there are big problems with Leila’s questions themselves, with the assumptions behind them. One is what we call in literary studies the “intentional fallacy”—that is, the assumption that if we know what the authors of a text intended, we know the correct interpretation of that work.
We can’t fully know an author’s intention, first of all—the authors themselves might not even fully know their own intentions. And that has to go double for a text that we believe to have been divinely inspired. Even worse: by falling into the intentional fallacy we denigrate the text. We say that the piece of writing—in this case the Creeds—is insufficient, and that its real meaning has to be found outside of the text, in history books or archives. In other words, we say that the writers of the text—again, in this case, the Creeds—didn’t say what they meant. Or that they failed in saying what they meant.
But okay. Let’s put that aside.
Let’s say Leila is absolutely right and that’s all there is to it: the Creed-writers intended to put down heresy. Well, let’s look at the text. How did they do that? Did they, as Leila suggests, turn to precision and objectivity? Did they elaborate on the logic of their position?
In fact, the specific heresy that spurred the writing of the Nicene Creed was Arianism, which itself springs from logic and literalism. Arius took the perfectly reasonable position that, if God is the Father and Jesus is the Son, then God must have come first, and therefore Jesus is subordinate to God the Father. That’s what “father” and “son” mean, right?
But this relies on a too-literal understanding of the notion that God is a father. It puts too much faith in the ability of our language to capture the reality of God.
So how did the Creed-writers address it? By diving into metaphor. By using words to point to something beyond words. Which means, yes, beyond logic.
I mean, I’m thirty-four years old and I’ve been saying the Nicene Creed my whole life. I still have no idea how to make sense of the idea that Jesus is both the Son of God and eternally co-existent with the Father. I don’t get how Jesus can be fully man and fully divine. Those things do not make sense. They do not. No amount of explanation can make them make sense.
The only answer I have is “because He’s God,” which, while correct, is not a logical answer. (It’s not illogical, either. It’s beyond logic.) The whole Creed is like that: it even starts by saying that God is one—then it proceeds to explain that God is three.
Actually, explain is the wrong word. It says. Because the Nicene Creed doesn’t explain anything. It sets down what can’t be explained—at least not without diminishing it
Which is not to say that we’re not sometimes justified in diminishing it, in breaking it down. The metaphor of the father, for example, is useful for me because when I think of my own father I can easily understand God’s grace. But that’s just one aspect of God, and if I start to think that because I understand a father’s love I must therefore understand God, well, then I’ve messed up.
The point isn’t that interpretation doesn’t matter—the point is that interpretation is, by definition, partial (and, therefore, partially wrong), and therefore it has to rank below the larger, deeper meaning of the words themselves.
Nor is that to say we can’t know the truth of the Creeds. But we know them with the knowledge of faith, which is something different than the knowledge we get from logical proofs.
Here’s another way of thinking about it:
The Creeds don’t “answer” the questions of faith the way a mathematics teacher demonstrates arithmetic. They “answer” them the way the return to the tonic in a blues progression answers the tensions raised by the sub-dominant and the dominant chords.
And we don’t assent to them the way we assent to our mathematics teacher after she shows us how to count on our fingers. We assent to them the way our heads start nodding to a blues song. When you say “Amen,” it is, or should be, the way you answer Freddie King when he says, “Let me hear you say yeah.”
It’s not 1 + 1 = 2. It’s I-IV-V-I.
When I write that, I know that it instantly makes sense to some readers. I also know that it’s deeply unsatisfying to others.
I know that some people want the kind of certainty that you’re not supposed to find in matters of faith, and so, like Leila, they start arguing that their faith is objective. Not just the object of their faith, mind you, but their way of knowing that object. They start trying to find logical proofs for their beliefs. Like Sontag says about art, this is an attempt to tame the object of our faith, to make it manageable, conformable.
But I’m with Pope Francis, who recognizes that this impulse leads to bad things. It leads a person to dismiss any evidence that challenges his or her preconceived worldview—even though those challenges might expand that worldview. It leads a person to say that he or she “thinks with the mind of the Church,” even though I doubt even Pope Francis would make that claim. It leads people to spread nasty falsehoods about groups of people like, for example, that half of gay marriages are non-monogamous, or that the lifespan of gay people is twenty years shorter than that of straight people, or that homosexuality is caused by bad or abusive parenting.
It leads to bad things because it is a bad thing: it’s an attempt to sidestep the fundamental uncertainty of the human condition, a refusal to face the truth of what it means to be a person.
And when you can’t face the truth, you don’t tell the truth.
I sympathize, though. I really do. One of my questioners on Leila’s site asked me “Where’s the peace in that?” Where’s the peace in uncertainty?
This is how the Episcopal service ends: “The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: And the Blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen.”
The Peace of God is supposed to be outside of our understanding—it passeth all understanding. That’s faith.