Daily Archives: April 16, 2006

The postmodern pursuit of the truth

It strikes me as curious when I hear the very same people who demand (as we all should) the strictest accounting of the truth in the Hello Garci wiretapping scandal or the May 2004 election fraud controversy require lesser standards when it comes to the truth of the so-called lost Gospel of Judas (or Dan Brown’s fiction-marketed-as-fact bestseller, The Da Vinci Code).

Shouldn’t we use the same standards in ascertaining the truth in these religious controversies? I’m afraid, though, that the very word "religious" is seen as license for muddling through. Either that, or our standards betray our priorities.

The notion the eminent Randy David entertains in his column today, that the Judas text makes Christianity more "interesting," seems to me to fall far short of truth’s highest standards.

Strictly from a sociological standpoint, I think the discovery of the Gospel of Judas makes Christianity a far more interesting religion than what centuries of metaphysical theology has made of it. It restores to it a powerful historicity. It makes it less dogmatic, and it creates room for more interpretative readings of the Scriptures.

I’m sure I am not alone in thinking that Christianity never lost its powerful, almost overwhelming sense of historicity; I think the prominent sociologist (and leading anti-Arroyo critic) misappreciates the "dogmatic" value of a third- or fourth-century Coptic copy of a second-century Greek original (compared with the first-century New Testament texts); I believe he waxes overly romantic about the possibilities of "more interpretative readings" of the Scriptures.

If we demand to know exactly what happened in the 2004 elections or how the Garci wiretaps came to be, we should also demand (or require) of our selves and the relevant institutions exactly how the Scriptures came to be. The rigor of knowledge is different from the cozy, please-feel-right-at-home expansiveness of "interpretation."

PS. Today’s Inquirer editorial reaches the conclusion that the gospel of Judas is not Scripture precisely because of what’s missing: the resurrection story.

In other words, if a gospel is correctly understood as a faith account, the Judas text accounts only for faith in Judas. The Jesus who appears in the gospel of Judas is a lesser figure — quick to laugh at his disciples’ ignorance, quicker to share supposed secrets with a favorite. (One of those secrets, not coincidentally, is that he is only an angel. No wonder the early Church fathers condemned the text.)

We are asked to believe in Judas, but at Jesus’ expense.

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A confession

By way of introducing the "Notebook" sideblog

I found myself upset by something innocuous said in a conversation with two good friends earlier this year. One of them, with his usual joshing good nature, greeted me with a compliment disguised as a mild taunt: "O, you haven’t been reading lately." I knew immediately he was talking about Reading Room, a sideblog feature where I write about books and authors who have influenced me. In particular, he meant I hadn’t updated the feature in a long time — and of course that he was reading me regularly enough to notice. (The last one was, and still is, about John Updike and his latest compendium, "More Matter.") I explained, with as much good cheer as I could muster, that Reading Room was designed to serve as a sort of bibliographical About link; it’s a small selection of books and authors that may say something about me. It was important, I thought then, when I started the blog, and I still think now, almost 10 months later, that readers can — and only if they wish to — take a relatively closer look at some of the blogger’s formative sources. Reading Room was not meant to be a record of my reading, or a snapshot of the books beside my bed. I thought I put on a pleasant face and kept a civil tone, during the explanation, but inside I was, what is the word, mortified.

Yes. I plead guilty to vanity. Pride goeth before a fall, and in my case that fall will be accompanied — no, helped — by a library of books crashing down on me like the proverbial ton of bricks.

The conversation helped me realize how vain I am about reading; it hurt me to the quick. I have always been a reader; reading is part of my earliest memories; there is a scar just above my right eye which I got when (I was perhaps four years old) I reached over for a Junior Collier’s Classic on the topmost shelf and fell (hitting the leg of a wrought-iron chair); I read the familiar back of the cereal box at breakfast when there is nothing else to read.

I did not fully realize, however, that vanity was part of the experience. (This is what good friend Fr. Vic Baltazar, SJ must have meant, when he chided me way back in college about the many books I bought but left unread; the drive to possess a book, its words, its ideas, often expressed itself in the lesser but equally powerful drive to own the book.)

I wanted to tell my friend, in that conversation: I can’t stop reading even if I wanted to. I read two or three books at the same time. When I was teaching some 20 years ago I decided to actually list down the books I was reading; I think I was inspired by Richard Wilbur’s words about the "cataloguing impulse." In 1987, I think it was, I read almost 50 books. (Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.) These days, with the press of work and writing, I am happy to finish two books a month. In fact, to create order out of this bibliographical chaos, that is what I aim for: Finish at least two books a month. I can, as I have all my life, start on as many books as I want; but now I must finish at least two of them.

Of course, I did not say any of that; I was not only horrified that someone, a very good friend at that, would think I was a slow reader, or only an occasional one. I was also deeply ashamed, about being so vain.

Well, fast-forward to today. There is no happy ending; no expiation after the sin. There is only … another instrument of vanity! I found out about the useful Sideblog from Bystander. When I saw it on his site, I thought, Hey, I want one of those. (It’s the proprietary instinct again.)

Thus: If you’re still around by this paragraph, you will notice the Notebook sideblog on the upper left. I will use it to write short notes about the books I’m reading; sometimes it will be a simple list, at other times maybe a short response to something I’ve read.

Pride, vanity, guilt: I know, I know. We are condemned by our individual patterns of sin.

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