Thursday, August 07, 2003

An Unusual Approach to the Bible

Edward Rothstein has recently reviewed Leon Kass's book on Genesis, The Beginning of Wisdom, favorably in the NYTimes. Rothstein notes that Kass's treatment of the text is certainly more welcome than Bill Moyers' recent discussions making the Bible seem like a "postmodernist novel, meaning just about anything."

Kass's respect for the text and his insights are indeed admirable. However, his "anthropological" approach (as he himself admits) is a bit strange. Kass prefers that public teachers of the Bible be biblical scholars and/or religiously observant keepers of the tradition of which he is neither. Nevertheless, he is urged on by the fact that most biblical scholars do not read the text in a wisdom-seeking spirit and most traditional readers of the text often read it too narrowly, resolving textual difficulties in the most pious direction.

Disclaimer: I have not read Kass's book entirely, but I have read some of the articles previously that comprise the book. The articles struck me as insightful (and in some cases even very beautiful) when I read them, so I imagine that the book is similar.

Still, it is strange that Kass approaches a book that basically warns against philosophy philosophically. At least in the articles I read (one having to do with Babel), Kass is extremely sensitive to the Bible's warnings regarding the prideful, self-reliant quest for wisdom; he never shies away from emphasizing this point. But his procedure seems to contradict it a bit.

Given this strange situation, I wonder whether Kass's approach undermines the teaching of the text. Kass makes learning or seeking wisdom enjoyable and exhilarating, despite his elucidation of a text that warns against this self-reliant enterprise that treats the Bible, at least initially, as any other book. One is left more with an attraction to the philosophic or wisdom-seeking enterprise than to the book that warns against it or that seems to warn against seeking wisdom outside of its pages.

The upshot is not quite that one finds oneself complaining that Kass isn't pious enough to approach the Bible, but that he forgets the tension between reason and revelation or assumes that they are more compatible than they really are. Ultimately, Kass may smooth over too much regarding the tension between reason and revelation. And this smoothing over denies philosophy its uniqueness, its competitive claim to be the best way of life, as much as it denies the Bible its claim to reveal the truth and the pious life's claim as the best. Kass wants philosophy to yield morality, perhaps compromising both in the process.

I am providing a somewhat heavy-handed characterization of the Bible which, although suspicious of philosophy and friendship, depicts the friendship between Jonathan and David. It is also worth remembering that it is sometimes the case that people who have had serious religious upbringings gravitate toward philosophy later on (in college or grad school) if the circumstances are right. So religion or serious instruction in the Bible does not preclude philosophy ultimately and may lend itself toward philosohpy for the seriousness and the concern with virtue it tends to impart on people.

Nevertheless, an excellent counterpoise to Kass is the very book we discuss below. Allan Bloom never lets us forget the tension between reason and revelation; his writings are suffused with this conflict. They are tough and even jarring; they are often as far from sentimental as anything can be. But they are even more exhilarating in their tension than Kass's (and, therefore, just as beautiful in a certain way); they paint a more vivid picture of the philosophic enterprise and show how radical it is. Nothing is sugar-coated in Allan Bloom, and this gives his writings a refreshing, bracing quality.

Kass's book undoubtedly deserves to be read, and he is smart enough to understand the awkwardness or strangeness of his approach. But he may ultimately be simultaneously too philosophic (in his approach) and not philosophic enough (in his conclusions). Therefore, he should be supplemented by something that reminds us of the tension between reason and revelation.


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