by matthew j. ramage
cua, 312 pages, $39.95
Benedict XVI’s letter Verbum Domini refers to “dark passages” of the Old Testament that contradict the ethical teachings, monotheistic claims, or assertions about the afterlife presented in the Gospels. In his new book Dark Passages of the Bible, Matthew J. Ramage, assistant professor of theology and biblical studies at Benedictine College, shows how these passages can be illumined by historical-critical exegesis and the light cast by the revelation of Christ.
In keeping with the subtitle, Ramage divides most prior thought on this question into two groups, which Benedict XVI calls “Method A” (patristic and medieval exegesis) and “Method B” (historical-critical exegesis). Many Christian readers of the Old Testament today slip into a Method A hermeneutic without knowing it. For example, rather than allowing for the polytheism apparent in early Jewish writings, they impose fully developed Christian readings onto the mentions of other gods.
Ramage argues, by contrast, that God started the Israelites at a slow pace, gradually constructing a divine pedagogy that would inch them closer and closer to monotheism by the time of Christ. And it was effective, because they alone ended up with monotheistic beliefs among the pagan faiths with which they were in contact. When we just stick to Method A exegesis, we often forget the amazing fact that Israel was able to study their often ambiguous Scriptures over the course of four thousand years and arrive at the conclusion that “There is no God but Yahweh.”
This is where the historical-critical Method B exegesis has been valuable: It has led us to a deeper and more profound understanding of Scripture in the form of what Benedict calls “Method C” exegesis, which syncretizes the theological parts of Method A and the scientific parts of Method B into one comprehensive model. After all, anybody can invent a spiritual, Method A interpretation of a text, but Benedict and Ramage agree with Thomas Aquinas that the best spiritual interpretations are those which first fully consider the literal sense.
Ramage helpfully addresses the questions this synthesis naturally raises. If a sacred text can be literally incorrect about topics on which it claims to speak authoritatively, how can its words be trustworthy? Dark Passages sets out to raise the reader’s awareness of how to use the Bible in ways that are not so cut and dried. The Method C reader appreciates myth or authorial overreach where they exist, and always reads the biblical word theologically, as an encounter with the divine Word. Method C goes beyond a simple, formulaic answer to problematic Bible passages, as does Ramage’s book.
Andrew Jacob Cuff is a Ph.D. student in Church history at the Catholic University of America.
by peter sloterdijk
translated by thomas dunlap
columbia, 136 pages, $19.95
Name names!” This demand is not the prerogative solely of paranoid regimes. Naming is an essential means of understanding. The author of Genesis knew this: Adam’s naming of the animals in the Garden was the act of dominion and mastery afforded to him by the Lord. Aristotle knew this: Logical works are a lesson in knowing reality correctly through definitions. And Hegel admonished modern philosophy to relearn this when in his Phenomenology he identified Geist with language.
Peter Sloterdijk practices naming to supreme effect in his newest work, Philosophical Temperaments. Sloterdijk, familiar to Germans but new to Anglophone readers, is best known for his masterwork, Critique of Cynical Reason, where he offers an alternative return to Enlightenment rationality sans the naive progressivism so soundly defeated by the twentieth century. One responds to the Enlightenment’s rationalistic failures not with postmodern cynicism and despair but with a healthy, comical, “kynical” materialism: Truth was in the body all along! To use Sloterdijk’s example, when Plato talks of ethereal ideas, the philosopher Diogenes picks his nose.
Each chapter in Philosophical Temperaments offers an introduction to some seminal thinker in Western philosophy and centers it around a new name for him. Plato is known as the philosophorum pater, the founder of that “pious rationalism” that is Western metaphysics. Aristotle is the original “athlete of conceptual categories,” pioneering and completing the discipline of logic that cuts reality appropriately for knowledge. As “God’s prosecutor,” Augustine launches an “antinarcissistic inquisition” deconstructing human self-protections against the grace of God. Pascal, the “melancholy Christian mathematician,” is balanced out by Leibniz, the “Sun King of thought.” Hegel, the “thinker of maturity,” boldly delineates the “finite pillars of the infinite,” as Wittgenstein, the “magical hermit,” writes single sentences in social seclusion that conjure up the meaning of the world.
One need not endorse Sloterdijk’s project, or accept this book’s “alternative history of philosophy,” to profit from these reflections. His renaming is by no means a final incantation but rather another way to unlock the doors of philosophy, which for him “must present itself, first as a way of thinking, and then as a way of life.”
Bonaventure Chapman, O.P., is studying for the priesthood with the Dominican friars of the Province of St. Joseph.