In the last review, I ended with a cliffhanger, and I have no doubt that all of my two or so readers have been holding their breath to hear Giussani’s answer to the question of how Christ – whose historical life proposes to be a riddling answer to the religious sense – might be mediated to us in the present. If the first thing that comes before everything else is experience, as Giussani claims, what can it mean to encounter Christ today via experience? Giussani, of course, is not the first to have asked this question, and so, like any good scholar, he begins by sketching three basic approaches that he sees characterizing contemporary approaches to this question: the Protestant way, the historicist way, and the Catholic/Orthodox way.
Giussani’s assessment of the historicist way and what he calls the Protestant way are, in my experience, right on target. To clarify the term, what Giussani calls “the Protestant way” might be better termed Charismatic or Evangelical, since it doesn’t quite deal with the nuances of things like confessional Lutherans and Anglican ambiguities. Basically, the Protestant way consists in trusting that the holy spirit will bring one intuitively to a right understanding of the Bible when one reads it on one’s own. The problem (and I can here speak directly out of experience) is that this relies on subjectivity just to the degree that a church’s understanding of God and the Spirit is detached from the broader historical conversations of the Christian Church about these Persons. The Christian God is a God who very firmly reveals himself in and through history, and the more emphasis a church places on individual interpretation apart from this history (or the more it does nothing to correct it), the more prone is Biblical interpretation to all kinds of subjectivities. While I have no doubt that God can speak to people in this immediate spiritual way, I do not think it is his usual way. His usual way is through a history, and through a people in that history – in the case of the Old Testament, Israel, and, in the case of the New Testament, the Church.
My own firsthand experience confirms the problems of this Protestant way. When one suffers from mental illness, it becomes eminently difficult to distinguish between the urgings of God and the voices in one’s head. On top of this, as an English scholar, I quickly became aware of how many cultural cross pressures come into play when we purport to interpret texts on our own. What we would call the “plain” or “literal” interpretation is in fact something that has been hundreds of years in the making, something detached and exaggerated from the more natural allegorical inclinations of readers (yes, this is a provocative statement; but readers were allegorizing well before the advent of Christianity e. g, philosophers trying to deal with the great Greco-Roman epics). We are culturally trained in certain ways to read in certain ways, and the more one becomes aware of this – and potential alternatives – the harder it is to adjudicate amongst them.
And this is precisely where the historicists step in and seek to make Biblical interpretation an objective science. People may have all sorts of ideas about Biblical interpretation, but what we really need is the “original” meaning. And we get this (allegedly) using modern historical methods developed in the nineteenth century. In the sea of subjectivity, the historical facts anchor us or not, as the case may be. One problem Giussani notes regarding this is the detached attitude it produces toward the Christian story. Rather than something we taste and touch, it is something we have come to study with the cool detachment of an academic. For Giussani, such does not in fact constitute an experience with Christ – perhaps only a historical measurement of the girth of the tomb where (we think) He lay.
What Giussani identifies here has also been part of my experience, and is I think very important for both Christians and detractors to consider: it is that the modern “quest for the historical Jesus” has become something of a red herring with regard to the claims of Christ. Seeking a way around the kind of subjectivity outlined above, some Christians exaggerate the importance of the wrong kind of historicity in their faith. Christianity cannot of course help being a historical religion, and it certainly hangs or falls on the historical person of Christ. However, many Christians have failed to make the distinction between this basic historicity and certain very narrow definitions of historical demonstrability. What we do believe is that Christ came to earth, in the world, in history, in time, as recorded in the gospels. What we do not believe as a tenet of faith is that this must necessarily be demonstrable via a particular means of interpreting history, in this case a hermeneutic with roots in the historical-critical method.
This is not to say that Christian claims should be entirely detached from our means of measuring history (as if they were mythical), but both Christians and antagonists have followed the red herring of historical demonstrability (by modern standards) as though it were the heart of Christianity. So we have books like Lee Strobel’s, The Case for Christ (as though using contemporary historical standards to measure the Bible somehow translates into a proof of the truth of Christianity); then we have all kinds of liberal books claiming to have discovered the “real” historical Jesus behind the Church’s façade; and then again, we have skeptics who imagine that poking holes in the contemporary historical methods/conclusions used by Christians (such as Lee Strobel) is tantamount to poking holes in Christianity (which it is not). It is quite the spectacle – watching Christians going to such great lengths to protect a straw man from skeptics equally deluded in their sense that burning this straw man will destroy Christianity; but it does get tiring, and one can only hope for one’s own sake that both such Christians and their detractors learn to become more interesting.
This has been something of a meta-discussion of historicism, but to return to the original issue of the mediation between Christ and our experience, the problems the individual faces in turning to “history” (as though it were singular) are comparable. First, it is worth noting that if we actually stuck to a rigorous definition of history – concrete verifiable facts without interpretation of any kind – we would not even have a history to speak of; what we would have is a collection of inexplicable artifacts. And scholars will spin different narratives from these artifacts, and there will be disagreements. And personal biases will come into play, and those who are being most honest will realize that multiple narratives are possible. And for the person seeking a certain kind of “objectivity” in these things, it will be hard to judge the opinions of the scholars unless one is an expert – if this is the mediating device, it would therefore mean one can be a Christian just to the degree that he or she can be a historian. This subjectivity should not, I think, keep us from being historians; it is natural and right that we should be curious about our pasts. But it should make us wonder about the degree to which historical contextualization can give us the right interpretation of the Bible when the very means we are using as a measuring rod are in flux.
Second, even where historical contextualization is possible and appropriate, it is by no means self-evident in what way we are to take these historically contextualized passages. The fact that certain passages may respond to certain problems in certain cultural contexts hardly tells what we should make of them. They are perhaps interesting as facts about something that happened long ago, but there are no clues in the text itself about what we should do with them. Are we to emulate them? Argue with them? Translate them into a moral code? Or what? Put another way, even if we believe that the Biblical text is inspired, there is the question of what exactly it means for something to be inspired; is the Bible a rule book, a narrative with exempla, or (as many seem to interpret the Song of Solomon) a sex manual? Or something else?
These problems I have noted – elaborations on the notes of Giussani – are not mere inventions; I can testify to them from my own experience. I know what it is to be burnt by the extremes of certain subjective “spiritual” experiences expected in more Evangelical circles as the medium by which one experiences Christ. And I know what it is to withdraw one’s hand from the fire in fear and retreat to an arm’s length rationalism, that will have many clever speculations about the meaning of the text, but that will fear to commit to any of them as revelation. Of course, eventually one becomes experienced in both these things, and one bounces like a helpless pinball between uncertainty and uncertainty, “blown and tossed by the wind,” if I may borrow a Biblical phrase. One comes to hunger for a medium that is something that can be tasted, touched, and handled – something that is not the vague abstraction of the Protestant “spiritual experience,” and that is also not the alienating detachment of a narrowly defined historicist method. This thing – this medium that one comes to hunger and long for in one’s encounter with Christ – is what Giussani discovers in the Church, to be dealt with further in the next post.