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Understanding the Hebrew Bible with the Help of Harold Bloom and Walter Ong

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) October 3, 2011: Unlike Harold Bloom, I did not grow up as a Jew. I grew up as a Roman Catholic. As a result, I did not received the Jewish instruction to place my trust in the covenant. Nevertheless, I have come to the conclusion that the covenant is one of the greatest ideas in the Western tradition of thought.

Despite the supercessionism of orthodox Christianity (i.e., the New Testament supercedes the Old Testament), self-described Christians are Jews spiritually. Tragically, early polemics between the yeasty followers of Jesus and their unpersuaded fellow Jews produced striking invectives against their unpersuaded fellow Jews, the consequences of which have reverberated tragically down the centuries. As a result of Christian persecution of Jews over the centuries down to and including the Holocaust, we should conclude that those Christian persecutors of Jews demonstrated by their persecution of Jews that they were not part of the covenant (i.e., not part of God's people), but were acting contrary to the inner meaning of the covenant which calls for God's people to recognize their mutual responsibilities toward other people. In other words, Christians are Jews spiritually. Self-described Christians want to claim that they are among God's people. But God's people are part of the covenant, so let self-described Christians show that they understand the inner meaning of the covenant through the ways in which they act.

In addition to drawing on comments made by Harold Bloom regarding the Hebrew Bible,

I plan to draw of the thought of the cultural historian and cultural theorist Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003). Before his destiny as a cultural historian and theorist had emerged in mature form, he had published two articles in 1946 and 1954 in Theological Studies. However, after Ong's destiny as a cultural historian and theorist emerged in mature form, he did not undertake to write any further articles for Theological Studies or for any other journal devoted to discussing Catholic theology. Ong's 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale's Divinity School were published in expanded form as The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (1967). In the book Ong does indeed thematize and discuss religious history, but in somewhat general terms. In subsequent books and essays, he concentrates his efforts far more on cultural history than on religious history. Of course one could discuss religious history without discussing theology. Christian theology can be located and contextualized in the context of Ong's account of Western cultural history. However, in the present essay, I plan to focus on understanding biblical theology in the Hebrew Bible in the context of Ong's work.

            Bloom is a cultural Jew, but he no longer puts his trust in the monotheistic deity of the Hebrew Bible or in the covenant. Nevertheless, he keeps writing fascinating reflections on the Hebrew Bible. Like Ong, Bloom tends to see the big picture of Western culture. But some of his big-picture views of Western culture cry out for comparison with Ong's big-picture views. By bringing Ong's big-picture views of Western cultural history into comparison with Bloom's, I hope to set the stage for deepening our understanding of the Hebrew Bible.

            In the present essay I will also work with Bernard Lonergan's account of the four levels of consciousness in Insight: A Study of Human Understanding: (1) empirical consciousness (sensory data and imagination); (2) intelligent consciousness (construction of conceptual constructs); (3) rational consciousness (evaluation of the adequacy of conceptual construction and of predications of conceptual constructs); and (4) responsible consciousness (decision making about how to act in a given situation). Frederick E. Crowe has drawn on Lonergan's thought to suggest that there is one human nature and set of operations in all human beings in all human history. For this reason, we can use Lonergan's account of intelligent consciousness and the constructing of conceptual constructs to account for the various conceptual constructs in the Hebrew Bible. Next, we can use Lonergan's account of intelligent consciousness to account for the more abstract conceptual constructs that emerged in ancient Greek philosophy. Next, we need to explain how and why those more abstract conceptual constructs emerged in ancient Greek philosophy. Drawing on the work of the French philosopher Louis Lavelle regarding the aural-visual contrast, Ong attributes the more abstract conceptual concepts that emerged in ancient Greek philosophy to the strong influence of visual cognitive processing. Ong develops this line of thought most notably in Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (1958). According to Ong, the printing press developed by Gutenberg in the 1450s helped heighten visualist cognitive process in Western culture. Independently of Lavelle, Lonergan also detected the strong visual tendency in Western philosophy. For Ong, Western philosophy from at least the time of Plato and Aristotle onward is characterized by visualist thought and visualist tendencies. By contrast, for Ong, the Hebrew Bible is a collection of different forms of oral thought and expression that were transcribed in writing. As a result, biblical thought and expression are decidedly different from Greek philosophic thought as exemplified in Plato and Aristotle. For this reason, biblical theology in the Hebrew Bible is decidedly different from later Christian forms of theology based on Greek philosophic thought as exemplified by Plato and Aristotle.

            Later on, Ong came to write about two broad cultural conditioning patterns that he characterized as the world-as-event sense of life and the world-as-view sense of life. In addition, he allowed that a new sense of life might be emerging today, but he did not try to name of describe it. But Lonergan has named historical-mindedness as the emerging alternative to a classicist world-view. I would suggest that what Lonergan terms a classicist world-view is an example of what Ong describes as the world-as-view sense of life. However, Lonergan in the one famous essay that I am discussing does not happen to advert explicitly to anything comparable to what Ong refers to as the world-as-event sense of life. However, the Hebrew Bible emerged historically is a culture still characterized by the world-as-event sense of life, not from a culture characterized by the world-as-view sense of life. But ancient Greek philosophic thought as exemplified in Plato and Aristotle emerged historically as the result of the world-as-view sense of life, and the entire Western philosophic tradition of thought from Plato and Aristotle onward has been characterized by the world-as-event sense of life down to Lonergan's Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. In addition, according to Ong, the Gutenberg printing press helped spread the world-as-view sense of life beyond Western philosophic thought and Christian theology based on Western philosophy. So two things emerge here. On the one hand, Ong's description of the world-as-event sense of life will be instrumental for understanding biblical theology in the Hebrew Bible as anatomized by Brueggemann. David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World is an excellent example of an attempt to describe the world-as-event sense of life. On the other hand, Brueggemann's very effort to understand the biblical theology of the Hebrew Bible, and the effort advanced in the present essay, can be understood to be examples of what Lonergan refers to as historical-mindedness, which is one way of naming an alternative to the world-as-view sense of life. Historical-mindedness characterizes Ong's work in cultural history and cultural theory. Ong's historical-mindedness can enable us to understand better not only the world-as-view sense of life but also the world-as-event sense of life. Nevertheless, historical-mindedness as exemplified in Ong's work is still just emerging as a serious alternative to the world-as-view sense of life.

In Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Ong has defined and explained nine characteristics of orally based thought and expression, which are manifestations of the world-as-event sense of life:

(1) orally based thought and expression is additive rather than subordinative (37-38);

(2) orally based thought and expression is aggregative rather than analytic (38-39);

(3) orally based thought and expression is redundant or "copious" (39-41);

(4) orally based thought and expression is conservative or traditionalist (41-42);

(5) orally based thought and expression is close to the human lifeworld (42-43);

(6) orally based thought and expression is agonistically toned (43-45);

(7) orally based thought and expression is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced (45-46);

(8) orally based thought and expression is homeostatic (46-49);

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 
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