Tuesday 12 May 2009

Kevin J. Vanhoozer on ‘Aesthetic’ Theology

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘A Lamp in the Labyrinth: The Hermeneutics of “Aesthetic” Theology’, Trinity Journal 8 (1987), 25-56.

[Another early essay from Vanhoozer, showing many of the seeds that would bear fruit in his later work. Some lengthy summary notes follow...]


‘What I am calling “aesthetic theology” may be roughly defined as that theology which focuses on the Bible’s literary form or shape to the exclusion of the author and historical context’ (25).

Imagination, metaphor, and art have been increasingly prominent in titles of books on theology. The tide has been turning from historical criticism to literary criticism, and the turn to the aesthetic has been joined by a turn to language, such that language itself has become an ‘object of contemplation’ (25).

‘Rather than a lamp which makes one’s way in the world easier, language is viewed by many today as a labyrinth in which one loses one’s way, or worse yet, leads to nowhere’ (26).

The aesthetic object is ‘judged by virtue of its beauty, form, or shape’, and ‘is to be contemplated in its organic wholeness, cut off from questions about its original situation and the circumstances of its production’ (26). This means that ‘the text is cut off from its author, and from its author’s “author-ity”’ (27).

Moreover, ‘whole theologies are viewed as self-contained works of art, each displaying its own order and demanding to be evaluated on its own merits’ (27). And there are few criteria for judging such ‘works of art’.

‘My plan… is straightforward. In the first section I consider the fate of the author in contemporary hermeneutics… I survey in subsequent sections the aesthetic turn as it has affected philosophy, history, literary criticism, and finally, theology… I then consider a Christian view of language and literature under the heading aesthetics or ethics, and offer a theory of language and literature that preserves the strengths of aesthetic hermeneutics while restoring the author to his rightful place’ (27).

1. Reformation hermeneutics and the fate of the author
Vanhoozer discusses Hirsch’s view on authorial intention and some of his critics (Lentricchia, Palmer, Eagleton).

2. The aesthetic turn in philosophy: from Kant to Derrida
Why has the author fallen on hard times?

• The Kantian heritage – the aesthetic turn can be located in Kant’s copernican revolution which claimed that ‘knowledge does not conform to objects but objects conform to our knowledge’ (31, n. 26). His Critique of Pure Reason limits our ability to know the world as it is in itself; the mind is programmed to see in a certain way. This means that ‘language can no longer be regarded as a window to the world, a lamp which lights up the real’. ‘The mind, and language, do not mirror the world, but partly construct it’ (32). In his Critique of Judgment, Kant ‘paves the way for a distinction between descriptive and poetic language’ (32). In his third Critique, Kant sets aesthetics ‘in an autonomous realm of its own’, establishing ‘an autonomous aesthetic realm in order to distinguish aesthetic judgments from other types of judgments, and in order to have a means to speak about that which is beyond knowledge and experience’ (32).

• German idealism and romanticism – for Schiller, humans are unique because only they can experience beauty (34). Aesthetic attitudes lead to freedom and play. In England, Coleridge took up Kant’s ideas on the imagination. ‘Characteristic of Romantic thought is a dualism between poetic and ordinary or scientific language’ (33, n. 33).

• Nietzsche – ‘Given the absence of God, it is up to man to give form to the world – to “aestheticize” it’ (34).

• Heidegger – ‘In his later work, Heidegger explored the ways in which poetry “shows” what cannot be conveyed by propositions. With Neitzsche, Heidegger criticizes the attempt to “objectivize” Being by capturing it in propositional language and manipulating it with conceptual categories. Form must not be imposed upon Being; rather, Being must disclose itself. And it is in Art, particularly poetry, that Heidegger believes Being comes to light’ (36).

• Derrida – with Derrida comes ‘the end of Western metaphysics’, and ‘a sustained attack on the author-ity of the author’ (37). Language refers only to itself; there is no fixed point. ‘The death of the author liberates human creativity… makes the creature the Creator’, and ‘we are free to interpret texts and the world playfully’ (39). There are no facts, only interpretations.

3. The aesthetic turn in history: from Nietzsche to Hayden White
The rhetorical nature of historiography is being noticed.

• Nietzsche on the use and abuse of history – historiography is an expression of the will to power. We should cast off the shackles of the past.

• Roland Barthes: the ‘discourse’ of history – histories are forms of literature, a discourse, with a rhetorical character.

• Hayden White: the ‘poetics’ of history – ‘White’s working hypothesis is that historical narratives are verbal fictions which make sense of experience in the same way as do novels and other fictional works’ (41-42).

‘In choosing to tell a history in one way rather than another, the historian performs an essentially “poetic” act. White makes an important distinction between the events of the story, the story itself, and the plot. The same event – say, the death of a king – may be a beginning, a middle, or an end in three different stories. But White makes the further distinction and says that the same story may have different plots. By “plot” White means the kind of story the historian tells… White borrows the kinds of stories the historian can tell, significantly enough, from the field of literary criticism. A story may be made into four different types of plot: Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire. The death of a king, for example, may be a Tragedy or a great Romance – it all depends on the meaning the historians sees in the story’ (42).

The historian thus chooses how to ‘emplot’ his story: ‘Providing the “meaning” of a story by identifying the kind of story that has been told is called explanation by emplotment.’ [Hayden White, Metahistory: Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 7.]

‘How a given historical situation is to be configured depends on the historian’s subtlety in matching up a specific plot-structure with the set of historical events that he wishes to endow with a meaning of a particular kind. This is essentially a literary, that is to say, fiction-making, operation.’ [Hayden White, ‘The Historical Text as Literary Artifact’ in Robert H. Canary and Henry Kozicki (eds.), The Writing of History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding (University of Wisconsin 1978), 48.]

A chronicle is a series of events but when it is made into a story with a plot, historiography comes under the domain of poiesis, and can be seen as an allegory. ‘The meaning of a set of events bestowed by the plot could never be produced by a literal representation of these events. Historical narrative is the projection onto the facts of the plot-structure of a literary form’ (42).

4. The aesthetic turn in literary criticism

• New criticism – the poem is a ‘verbal icon’. The unity of literature is emphasised.

• Structuralist criticism – like New Criticism, focuses on the text as it stands rather than the author’s intention or the historical context. The goal is to make explicit the underlying ‘grammar’ of literature. The author is overshadowed by the literary codes which are ‘the real determiners of meaning’ (44).

• Post-structuralism – a response (a group of responses) to structuralism, ‘structuralism without an ordering center’ (45). For Iser, readers fill the gaps of indeterminacy in their own way. Jauss rejects the idea of a text having a single objective meaning, even though the text contains objective features. Literary history is a history of the reactions of readers to texts. The response of the reader is a fusion of the reader’s horizons and the objective features of the text. For Fish, the reader is a member of an interpretive community which shapes what and how he or she reads. In some cases, interpretations are constructed only to be knocked down again. ‘The text is an aesthetic playground only when no author is there to superintend the play. For man to play, for man to realize his creative freedom, the Author must die’ (47).

5. Aesthetic theology: the Bible as ‘text’
The Bible is being used as an ‘aesthetic object, cut off from its original situation and from the authority of its author’ (47). We should applaud the emphasis on the unity of the text, the structures and patterns of a work. We should also acknowledge that our interpretations are provisional; we are finite and limited.

• Parables and metaphors – parables can be seen as aesthetic objects, and have been treated as such in scholarship, but the trouble comes ‘when the parables are taken to be paradigmatic for all biblical literature’ (48-49). Ricoeur possibly falls into this trap in his treatment of biblical hermeneutics, when he ‘extends the metaphorical nature of the parables to all religious language’ (49).

• The hermeneutics of ‘aesthetic’ theology: the religious ‘classic’ – David Tracy is an exemplar of aesthetic theology. Taking account of the pluralistic context in which he does theology, he sees Christianity as a particular expression of a universal truth. ‘Tracy’s book has for its thesis that all “classics,” both religious and secular, reveal truth in an analogous way. “Classics” are works that “so disclose a compelling truth about our lives that we cannot deny them some kind of normative status”’ (50). The Bible is the ‘classic’ of Christianity, and the stories and symbols in the Bible more adequately express ‘Christian fact’ than do doctrines. The power of the gospels (for instance) does not depend on events actually happening, but on the power of great art, or a great story. ‘The story of Jesus has the power to disclose truth and transform lives, regardless of whether or not it happened. For what is important is the meaning of the story. In Tracy’s pluralist context, the meaning of the Christian classic is the same as that of all the other classics: life is trustworthy’ (50). But the problem for aesthetic theology ‘is to account for the indispensability of the historical Jesus’ (51-52).

6. Toward a theology of language and literature: aesthetics or ethics?
The death of the author permits us to consider the text as an autonomous object onto which we may project our own interpretations. The death of the author is also related to the death of the Author (52).

‘The Christian theologian must affirm that an interpretation of the world which wilfully ignores the Creator is a hermeneutics of rebellion… I would like to suggest that we view language not as the creation of human beings, but rather as the gift of God. Our language is not our own, not something merely to be played with. Rather, language is a privilege and responsibility… As privilege and responsibility, the major category for language and literature should not be aesthetics but ethics’ (53).

Wilful misunderstanding of a text ‘is somehow guilty of doing violence to the author’. ‘Purpose to misinterpret an author seems akin to disrespect, a kind of semantic rape’ (53).

7. The return of the author: speech acts
Speech act theory is ‘admirably suited to meet our call for an ethics of language and literature’ (54). Searle treats language as a kind of action, which brings it under the domain of ethics; he also demolishes the barrier between ‘ordinary’ and ‘poetic’ language, and offers a revised notion of intentionality which escapes the criticisms levelled against Hirsch.

Searle distinguishes three components of a speech act: ‘the locution is the actual utterance; the “illocution” is what one does in saying something; the perlocution is the effect the saying has on one’s hearers’ (54). Searle proposes ‘that the speaker or author enacts his intention by invoking a convention that signals his intent’ (54). We signal our intention of thanking someone by saying ‘thank you’. We may need to know the context to understand the act; if I shout ‘fire’, it helps to know whether I’m defending a castle or warning an audience to flee the cinema (cf. 54-55).

‘If a text is a speech act, it seems as far-fetched to separate an author from his language and literature as it does an agent from his action. The author “belongs” to his text. He is responsible for his illocutionary acts. Author-ity designates the right – indeed, the obligation – of the author to be held responsible for his speech act. And if the author is accountable for this speech act, surely the reader is responsible for treating the author in a way that he deserves. Wilfully to misinterpret a text is akin to attributing an action to the author that he did not commit’ (55).

8. Conclusion
‘The moral of this study is that theologians should participate in the interdisciplinary discussions concerning textual meaning and truth’ (55).

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