TRANSCENDENCE AND TEXTUALITY

Deconstructing the authorship of the reader

 

    Paradoxically, the most resolute postmodernist assaults on the universality of reason have merely succeeded in underlining the intractability of immanence. That the transcendent reveals itself only in the immanent, that we can have no intimation of the noumenal world (`Alam al-Ghayb) except through an experience of the phenomenal world (`Alam al-Shahada), has been part of the age-old philosophical and theological insight. However, the breakdown of reason and the availability of a multiplicity of rival texts now forces us to concede that the phenomenal, perceived, world cannot be distinguished from a noumenal, constructed, text. Similarly, contemporary philosophy has come to the realization that we cannot conceive any here-and-now unless we invoke a beyond.

    For sense-perception and world-hypothesis form a single continuum and there is no world without a concomitant (prior?) text. Not mind but language, not the universal text of Reason but the linguistic text of a historical community, intervenes between the cogito and the cosmos. And, though we may discard the nous of the philosophers, we cannot dispense with the transcendence of the language. The world may not be a noumenal text of reason but as a linguistic construct it remains a transcendent text all the same. Without a transcendent referent, thus, there is neither reality nor symbol, neither time nor eternity, neither the world nor the self. Without a beyond, there is meaning neither to the immanence of being nor to the existence of man. Only the ineluctably transcendent signifiers of our humanity - self, language and community - can give the meaningless nothing of the cosmos a habitat and a form.

    Given the inability of Enlightenment reason to defend itself against the subversive thrusts of historicizing epistemologies, the most crucial problem facing contemporary thought is the nature of the humanistic ideal. Does this plurality of irreconcilable worlds and texts, subject to no epistemological arbitration from any higher moral authority, posit a corresponding plurality of humanitas? Is the putative unity of man merely an ideological smokescreen of a defunct age which sought nothing more edifying than the advancement of European arms? Or, does being human entail transcending the historical existence? Obviously, the acceptance of history as the sole determinant of human destiny and the postulation of immanence as the only matrix of reality threatens very core of humanism as a moral worldview.

    Pluralism is also the nightmare of religious conscience. For as moral relativism, it easily gravitates toward nihilism and undermines the whole rationale of monotheism as faith in the unity of God and that of Man. Hence, monotheistic traditions which are all founded on the experience of the numinous as the Ganz Andere (Wholly Other) affirm the Transcendent with uncompromising integrity. Within the monotheistic context, accordingly, the Transcendent that reveals itself to man, that mediates human experience and meaning, that confers revelation its name and its raison d'etre, has been construed as a sacred text. In fact, the monotheistic revelation is quite simply synonymous with scripture: a text that is historical on the one end but which is beyond history on the other; a text which is in human language and idiom but which human passions and contingencies cannot annul.

 

Work Discussed in this Essay:



WHAT IS SCRIPTURE? By Wilfred Cantwell Smith. London, SCM Press, 1993. Pp 381. £17.50. ISBN 0-334-02536-2.
 

     It is in fighting the two ghosts of our times, denial of transcendence and pluralism, and in untying the dialectical knot of revelation and history that W C Smith's impressive volume seems to have been written. Needless to say that it is a monumental work that surveys the historical vicissitudes of all the major scriptural traditions of mankind, i.e. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese and Western Classical etc, from an academic citadel and presents a generic theory of the phenomenon scripture. And it employs an intellectual vision that is, despite its relentless and generous supply of critical scientific rigour, forever in the service of irenical ecumenism. Judged merely on its scholarly merits, then, Smith's book represents a Herculean effort which seeks to join the insights of phenomenology to the empirical evidence of history. In terms of sheer erudition and comprehensiveness of the data covered, not to mention all the accompanying notes that cite innumeable works in a dozen languages, it truly daunts the normal reader.

    In terms of theory, however, it is a different matter. For, such is the monumental nature of Smith's task, and the enormity of the historical data at his disposal, that despite all the resources of religious intellect and conscience, not to mention the prodigious wealth of scholarship, no semblance of a synthesis is perceptible. The theoretical edifice Smith constructs in order to house the sacred writings of humanity turns out to be no more than a museum of historical documents and other curiosa; it is neither a sanctuary for the devotee, nor a temple for the contemplator. Not surprisingly, therefore, the concluding chapter does not redeem the promise of enlightening us about the 'nature' of scripture. The question mark in the title remains a question mark and Smith has to confess dejectedly: 'Probably no one on earth today quite knows what scripture "is", or why.'!

    The rationale and motivation for Smith's historical inquiry and the consequent generic theory of 'scripture' is the general shift of its meaning in the Western world from the transcendental to the positivist. Earlier, Smith recalls, '"Scripture" used to signify the Bible, understood as The Word of God. To use the term was to characterize a particular book as given by God to humankind. "Revealed by Him" was the regular concept.' This usage, he realizes, alluded to a transcendent dimension and explicitly denoted a work of Divine provenance. Today, he further notes with despair, the word is applied to all kind of texts, texts which other communities' regard as sacred but 'which most Westerners never held to be of divine origin.' The striking difference between the two - specific and generic - usages is, of course, that the former is a 'metaphysical' judgement, the later a 'sociological' one. Moreover, there is a direct link between the emergence of the plural form ("scriptures" rather than "Scripture") and the detranscendalization of its meaning. Like 'culture', 'civilization' and 'religion', the term 'scripture' conveys little, if any, sense of value-judgement today.

    Parallel, then, to this loss of Western certainty about the divine nature of 'its', i.e. Judaeo-Christian, bible is the awareness of the complexity and diversity of the human scriptural tradition. The evidence of history is, as usual, a staggering blow and a challenge to the religious intellect. For academics may abandon the concept scripture altogether and replace it with that of a historical text, they may even in this 'post-scriptural' age subject it to structuralist and literary analysis rather than the historical-critical, but how may Christian consciousness and Western identity deal with this variety and pluralism? Smith certainly cannot be indicted for lacking in ambition when he spells out what is required of his project: 'Requisite, indeed, is a new conception not only of scripture, but of the human.'! Further, no theory of scripture and no meaning assigned to the term, he asserts, will do if that does not do justice to the sheer richness and depth of the human experience, if it does not take into account the stupendous variety of scriptural modes and meanings discovered by modern scholarship. Some task!

    For all his censure of de-transcendentalizing positivity, Smith neither disowns the Western secular-humanistic tradition, nor deems 'historicist consciousness' problematic from the revelational point of view. Indeed, he is proud to proclaim that his present study, 'like all modern inquiry', takes its place within the secular-humanist tradition. As a Christian incarnationist and Westerner, one suspects, he can make his pact with historicism and theism both. There is no sense of conflict here. No his motivations for this theory-building enterprise are totally different. We get a clue, however, when we hear him argue that: 'One must at least toy with the possibility that, for instance, the Jews' theories of their (sic!) Torah, Muslims of their (sic!) Qur'an, others of their diverse scriptures, may have arisen, and have been sustained from one century to the next, and been held with both delight and conviction, because these theories made sense for them of what they knew to be happening - and knew to be precious - in their society and in their lives. Those of us who do not accept their theories are challenged to come up with a better explanation of these everyday facts: a more persuasive interpretation.' (italics added.)

    Given the nature of this 'challenge' and the authenticity of this 'calling', it is hardly surprising that Smith's own, 'more comparative and universalisable', theory 'overcomes' the problem of textual transcendence by abolishing it altogher. He simply imputes all sacred texts to 'a human propensity to scriptualize.'! Thus: 'Scripture is not a quality inherent in a given text, so much as an interactive relation between that text and a community of persons'. For 'no text is a scripture in itself and as such. People - a given community - make a text into scripture, or keep it scripture: by treating it in a certain way.' Or, even more explicitly: 'scripture is a human activity'. Of course, for Muslims (and Jews) who are adamant in keeping the divine authorship of the revelation separate from its human readership, such a facile rehash of the extreme postmodernist position that 'the reader is the real author of a text' carries little weight. It makes sense only within the context of an incarnationalist-immanentist (hululi) metaphysics -  something that Muslims and Jews have long since discarded as shirk.

    The author of this incanationalist treatise, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, it is worth recalling, has had excessive contacts with Muslims. He not only has taught at the 'missionary' Forman Christian College, Lahore but has also authored a number of highly incisive, albeit unduly critical, studies of contemporary Islam. (Cf: Modern Islam in India, Lahore, 1943 and its better-known sequel, Islam in Modern History, Princeton, 1957). As a theologian looking at the problem of religious pluralism though the prism of a highly symbolized and ahistoric Christianity, however, Smith's foremost concern has been with 'world-theology' (Cf: The Meaning and End of Religion. New York, 1962; Towards a World Theology: faith and the comparative history of religion. London, 1981; Faith and Belief. New York, 1979 ; even: On Understanding Islam. The Hague, 1981). Needless to say that W C Smith is a courteous and non-polemical writer who has interacted both critically and creatively with the Islamic tradition and even acquired some of his seminal insights (the main thesis of Faith and Belief, for instance) through this contact.

    Smith is also acutely aware of the vindictive, vandalizing, nature of the Western scholarship of Islam. Nor is he averse to  acknowledging this fact unabashedly: 'Beyond this (Western) general righteousness, in the special case of Islam the West inherited from a thousand years earlier an antagonism of which few recognize the persistence (until today) or depth. Of India and China the West became aware only after it was no longer afraid of anybody; by the Islamic world - with which it alone shared a common frontier - it had at times been cowed, and over several centuries remained threatened...... Recent Western fear and bitterness expressed in anti-Communism were relatively mild, and strikingly short-lived, in comparison with centuries of medieval anti-Islamic perceptions and emotions.' It would be naive, and disingenuous, to reduce the West's pathological, and perhaps unredeemable, Islamophobia to purely political factors. Religious motives have been (still are) paramount in this regard. Indeed, no reading of Smith's book can be cogent unless it is fully alert to its author's religious convictions and relates them to his, albeit latent and unconscious, Islamophobia.

    Let's start with W C Smith, the phenomenologist of religion(s). Along with others, he had once suggested that the notion of a parallel between the Qur'an and the Bible, as two representatives of the genus scripture, is misleading. The real analogy is between the Qur'an and Christ: both are not only central to the religious life and thought of the Muslim and Christian communities but both 'embody' God's revelation to man. The Bible as a record of the earthly life and deeds of the Redeemer, according to this reasoning, corresponds with the Muslim hadith which records the biography and teachings of the Prophet. (Obviously, the analogy is a truism and a half-truth which obscures rather than illuminates the unique phenomenology of revelation in Islam. The other comparative scheme between Prophet/Qur'an and Mary/Jesus is obviously quite absurd.) Needless to say that in his theory of scripture Smith does not make use of the insights of his own phenomenology, for that would mean making an - unfair - correspondence between the hadith and the Bible:

Clearly, such reasoning discloses that Smith's theory of scripture, the categorical assertion that scripture is a human activity, is fundamentally a part of his personal religious quest to come to terms with scriptural pluralism from a Christian theological perspective according to which the person of Christ and the not scripture of Bible is paramount. Smith merely turns to the evidence of history and makes use of the concepts and tools of phenomenology of religions in order to establish the Christian claim about the supremacy of the human person over a sacred text, the superiority of 'living spirit' over 'dead letter. It is hard not to view this theory as a reissue of the pristine Christian polemics against the 'literalist' Pharisees, even if it is now being proffered as a fresh insight of the academic discipline of the 'history and phenomenology of religions'. Nor is it a whit awkward that W C Smith should be acclaimed as one of the foremost exponents of this discipline. The only odd note in this academic pageant is the squeamish outcry of the Muslim critic! Besides its Christian vantage-point, there is such a profusion of 'we Westerners' in the diction that those who, either by force of circumstances or by choice, cannot participate in the cultural and civilization identity of the West, are excluded from joining Smith's 'world-theological' discourse. His is a Western project through and through.

    No doubt, the Muslim may also read Smith's work 'irenically' and construe his 'theory of scripture', a human endeavor at meaning,  as an 'explanation' not of the 'authorship' but of the 'readership' of sacred texts. If so, it may be compared to the classical Sunni theory of Ijma` or its Shi`i counterpart. (We may recall that one of the most significant controversies within the early civilization of Islam concerned the issue of exegetical 'inerracy'. In a debate about readership, Shi'ism claimed that the Sacred Text yields its secrets to the infallible imam who alone is Sahib al-Kitab, while Sunnism contended that the guarantor of the true meaning of the Text is the infallible consensus of the learned of the Community.) Even so, one wonders whether statements like the following can be subsumed by any Muslim theory of Ijma`: Cf: 'The real meaning of the Qur'an is not any one meaning but is a dynamic process of meanings, in variegated and unending flow. The true meaning of scripture is solid historical reality of the continuum of actual meanings over the centuries to actual people.' (my italics); or: 'The meaning of the Qur'an as scripture lies not in the text, but in the minds and hearts of Muslims.'! (emphasis mine)

    The real problem with Smith's theory is that by claiming that 'the meaning of the Qur'an is the history of its meaning', he abolishes the question of truth altogether. Scripture as (divine) text becomes superfluous, scripture as (human) meaning assumes preeminence. Any religious community may regard any text as sacred and revealed, it may read it in any way that it wants, it may change the meaning as often as it wills, and still Smith's 'theory' is not affected a whit! Needless to say that such a gratuitous sanctification of the post-modernist claim about the 'death of the author' not only renders the modernist's quest for 'historical meaning' as largely inconsequential, it also debunks the religious quest for true meaning, the meaning which relates the reader to the Transcendent. Far from being a triumph of the religious intellect, then, Smith's theory testifies to its total collapse. His religious consciousness surrenders utterly before the false-gods of immanentism and historicism. Only a heart filled with Nietzschean nihilism, only a soul convinced of 'the Death of God', could have contrived such a theory.

    Transcendent monotheism and historicism are two modes of thought and being that are diametrically opposed to each other. As a Christian incarnationist, Smith is perhaps not expected to be sufficiently alert to the problem of their ultimate incompatibility. But the Muslim has no excuse. For, as expressed by an unusually perceptive non-Islamist of the West: 'The Qur'an breaks decisively with that alliance between the Prophetic tradition and materialistic historicism - "what actually happened" - which set in with the materialistically historical triumph of Christianity.' (Norman O. Browne: "The Apocalypse of Islam", in Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis. Berkeley, 1991. P 87). Little wonder that Muslims have never confounded the meaning of the Qur'an with 'the history of its meaning'. For them, the true meaning of the Qur'an has always been the meaning intended by God, the meaning in the 'mind' of God. All human and historical meanings are, hence, mere approximations. For all his historical and theological insights, Smith provides no reason for a Muslim to abandon this traditional stance. In the Muslim's quest to appropriate the true meaning of the Qur'an, to come as close to God's own meaning as humanly possible, neither Smith's theory of scripture, nor the Christian's incarnationist metaphysics, nor even the secularist's historical materialism is of any help. Perhaps, it would have been more fruitful for W C Smith to have produced a theory of incarnation, 'a human propensity to divinize', and documented the historical process of avatarism which was firmly reprimanded by the Qur'an.
 

Stockholm                                                                                          S Parvez Manzoor