Problem Bible Texts (Part 2: Krister Stendahl’s Theology)

Stendahl1980LARGEIt’s time to wrap up this series on Bible problem texts. I’ve conducted this series in dialog with Anthony Le Donne, and Anthony has posted his Final Thoughts on this question (and then added more thoughts). Up until now, I’ve danced around the question of how I read problem texts. It’s time to stop dancing.

It will take me more than one post to wrap up this series. In these final posts, I’ll try to explain the Biblical theology of a remarkable man name of Krister Stendahl, who among other things was Dean of the Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Stockholm (not at the same time). Stendahl was a leading voice in interfaith dialog – he was the second director of the Center for Religious Pluralism at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He was an arch feminist and defender of the rights of religious minorities. Most important for us, Stendahl’s theology is a useful guide to problem Bible texts.

Stendahl taught that we must combine two approaches to understand Bible texts: we must analyze what a text meant, and then determine what it means.[1] Sounds simple, right? You’ll sometimes see these approaches described as Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology, but “what it meant” and “what it means” will do just fine for our discussion.

(This would be a good time to mention that I’m not a theologian, and I’m not an historian of theology. Take everything I say here with a grain of salt. Anyone here who understands this stuff better than I do should so say, and help us to a better understanding.)

What did Stendahl mean by “what it meant”? Here, Stendahl is looking for the best possible understanding of what a Bible passage meant to its original author and original audience. Stendahl described this as a non-apologetic approach – in other words, “what it meant” is not a defense of any faith, nor need it be consistent with anyone’s faith tradition. “What it meant” could prove to be dated, problematic, irrelevant or (as Anthony and I have explored) horrifying to a modern audience. Anthony and I have expressed some of the problems we have with problem Bible texts, but Stendahl would say that a Biblical scholar pursuing what a text “meant” need not share our concerns. The question of “what it meant” can be determined dispassionately, objectively, descriptively, even (dare I say it?) scientifically. Once completed, a good analysis of “what it meant” should not be a faith statement – it should be accessible to all, Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus, even agnostics and atheists, so long as all concerned understand the limited nature of the question being addressed.

For Stendahl’s theology, “what it means” is different from “what it meant”. “What it means” is a “translation” of what a Bible text meant into terms that are meaningful to a contemporary audience. “What it means” focuses on what the modern church ought to believe, and on how the modern church ought to live. As an example, think about Anthony’s discussion of the problem text in Deuteronomy 21:10-14, which permits a male soldier to take a female captive and force her to be his wife. Imagine that you had to give a sermon at your church or synagogue about this passage. What would you say? You might notice that the text does restrict (kind of, sort of) what a soldier can do with a female captive, and that the passage (kind of, sort of) seeks freedom or marriage for the captive. So you might preach that the Bible (or God) demands that we wage war in a humane way, and that soldiers are required to maintain and uphold the humanity of the people they conquer. Never mind that what the text meant was that female captives could be captured and married against their will; what the text means is that war must be conducted within rules that protect the human rights of non-combatants.

Or maybe the text means something else to you. Stendahl would say that “what it means” is answered in the plural, that Bible texts have “meanings”, and not a single “meaning”. Stendahl would also say that there’s never going to be a methodology we can follow to get to “what it means”. “What it means” requires a creative and imaginative kind of thinking, as opposed to the sober and scholarly analysis required to get at “what it meant”.

Let’s look at another example of “what it meant” and “what it means”, this one taken from Stendahl’s own life. When Stendahl was a student in Sweden in 1951, he was asked by higher ups to sign a statement that the ordination of women is incompatible with the New Testament. Stendahl refused. When confronted with texts like 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent”) and 1 Corinthians 14:34 (“women should be silent in the churches”), Stendahl freely acknowledged that these texts “meant” that women could not serve as church officials. But Stendahl argued that circa 1951, the Bible has come to “mean” something different. Stendahl argued that in his present day, what the Bible “means” is found in “breakthrough” texts like Galatians 3:28 (“there is no longer male and female”) that set a trajectory for the church to follow through time. This “trajectory” argument, which is today more closely associated with people like R. T. France, imagines that certain key Biblical concepts could not be fully realized in Jesus’ day (or in Paul’s day), given the social and cultural constraints that prevailed in the first century, but that the church was charged with bringing these ideas to fruition at a later point, once these old constraints had been relaxed.

Personally, I am not an enthusiastic proponent of “trajectory theology”. I cite this theology because it’s the kind of creative, imaginative work that is required under Stendahl’s Biblical program in order to answer the question “what it means”.

Let’s take a step back. I don’t think there’s anything radical in Stendahl’s description of “what it meant” and “what it means”. Before Stendahl, people understood Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology to be two different things. What made Stendahl radical was the way he proposed to separate these two disciplines. Stendahl argued for a strict divide between the task of determining “what it meant” and the task of figuring out “what it means”. In Stendahl’s words, these two questions need to be “kept apart long enough for the descriptive task [what it meant] to be considered in its own right.” I think this separation can be phrased more simply: what it meant is not what it means.

This idea is so important to me – what it meant is not what it means – that I’m going to devote my next blog post here to more fully explain the idea. But I’ll conclude here with something Anthony said, that “we ought to be honest about the repugnance of such passages” as Deuteronomy 21:10-14.  I think we achieve this honesty by keeping “what it meant” separate from “what it means”, not permanently of course, but for long enough that the meaning of “what it meant” has time to sink in and have its effect. So when I first read a Bible passage, particularly a problem Bible passage, initially I try to resist all of those prettifying “what it means” questions, like “what does this text say to us today” and “how does this text strengthen my faith”. Initially, I just try to “get” what the text is saying. In Jewish exegesis, this “plain meaning” is called the p’shat. Naturally, we all want to do the fancier readings, and get beyond the p’shat. But “what it meant” is, I think, the right place to start.

Let’s end with the “what it meant” for Deuteronomy 21:10-14: the text gave soldiers permission under certain circumstances to invade enemy territory and carry off women they desired sexually. Let the “what it meant” of this text bounce around in your brain a bit, before softening the text with apologetics, canons within canons and other “what it means” techniques.  Here, Stendahl points the way to the “honesty” that Anthony and I call for in reading problem Bible texts.


[1] For this article, I’m relying heavily on Stendahl’s essay “Biblical Theology: A Program”, which appears in Meanings, a collection of some of Stendahl’s work. This essay is based on Stendahl’s entry “Biblical Theology, Contemporary” that appeared in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible in 1962.

  • blsDisqus

    The thing is: I came away with an entirely different reading of the Deuteronomy passage.

    Here it is: It’s wartime; the army has “gone out to war” with another country, and has won that war. Some of the enemy population has been taken captive (i.e., under the control of the occupying army) – and a soldier sees a beautiful woman among them, falls in love with her, and decides he wants to marry her. That, to me, is a “plain sense” reading of what’s there.

    I think I can safely say that this scenario has occurred countless times throughout history, and continues to occur even today. Numerous American GIs, for instance, married Japanese women they’d met during the occupation (i.e., who were “captives”). This site ( http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/war-brides/) says that “Military estimates indicate that 50,000 to 100,000 servicemen wed women from countries of the Far East, including Japan, and immigration records show that by 1950, 14,175 German brides of American servicemen had entered the United States.” (This is not even to mention that “100,000 war brides were British, 150,000 to 200,000 hailed from continental Europe, and another 16,000 came from Australia and New Zealand,” as the article also notes.)

    That not at all the same thing as “giving soldiers permission under certain circumstances to invade enemy territory and carry off women they desired sexually.”

    I don’t think we can say, then, given that we have two entirely different readings of this passage, exactly “what it meant” – do you? I’m assuming that there isn’t actually any force involved (except the force used during the war, now past). I just don’t see any language that indicates that. I suppose you could fault the nation itself for going to war – perhaps, although there’s no real indication as to what kind of war it was (perhaps left ambiguous purposely?) – but the soldier himself can’t be faulted for that…..

    • lbehrendt

      bls, the difference between the GI marriages you describe and my reading of Deuteronomy 21:10-14 is that with the latter, we’re talking about a forced marriage. The captive has no say in whether she’s carried off, she has no control over whether her captor decides to marry her, and she cannot refuse the marriage if offered. True enough, women did not always formally consent to their marriages in antiquity, but there was someone (such as the woman’s father, or brother) who consented on her behalf. We can imagine that in most of these cases, a woman had at least some informal say about who she would marry, and that the decision to marry was made for her by people who had (or were supposed to have) her best interests at heart. True enough, a female war captive probably had no family that survived the war; she was a widow or an orphan, maybe both. But it’s my understanding that an Israelite orphan would at least have a guardian who’d have to consent to the orphan’s marriage.

      There are interpretations of Deuteronomy 21:10-14 out there that are more grim than the one I’ve given here.

      • blsDisqus

        You may be entirely right about those things (although the text itself gives no indication of them) – but then, you may not be. My point above was to demonstrate that these kinds of marriages do
        happen by consent.

        And to me, it seems significant that this passage is focused on marriage; as far as I can tell the passage is trying to deal with things that sometimes happen in time of war and in other lands. And, perhaps, to discuss the issue of marriage to “the enemy” in a time when that was a more problematic issue than it might be today?

        But, given what I’ve read at those links, obviously we’re not first two people to disagree on what this text is about….!

        • lbehrendt

          Nor are we the first two to discuss what this text meant. This site lives for discussion.

      • Hanan

        The issue does not seem to be the sex, it is the forced marriage. In order for the soldiers “appetite” to be quenched, he must marry the woman. He can’t just take her and have his way with her. She has to be a wife to him along with whatever rights that entails. That is how I read it. Now, the interesting part of this all is how this whole passage ends. It tells the soldier that if he does not want her, he has to release her and not sell her. She is free because “he has humbled her.” I think humbled is a poor translation but that is what I often find. In hebrew it is “Anitah.” This is always a negative thing in the text and it does not always refer to sex. When Hagar flees Sarah, it uses the same word. Meaning, she mistreated her. So it seems, the text is actually putting a moral judgement against the soldier for this entire ordeal he has put her through.

        • lbehrendt

          Hanan, great comment! Yes, you’ve hit on a key question, the meaning of “he has humbled her”. You’re quite right that the Hebrew word in question comes up in negative contexts and that it doesn’t necessarily refer to sex, though it might. In the context of a man capturing a female prisoner he finds attractive, the word might arguably refer to sex, and at minimum I think it refers to a sexually charged situation.

          I note that the NIV translates the Hebrew word in question as “dishonored”. I think that’s a great translation, as it reflects a diminution in the woman’s social status and prospects. Artscroll goes with “afflicted”.The “God’s Word Translation” (whatever that is!) reads the passage to say that he’s already had sex with her. But you’re right, the vast majority of the translations I’ve consulted go with “humbled” or “humiliated”.

          My Catholic Study Bible gives a very different translation! It reads 21:14 as being applicable only if the man and woman had married as described in 21:13, and he later lost his “liking” for her. In such a case, the injunction in 21:14 is translated “since she was married to you under compulsion.”

          It is an interesting question, whether 21:10-14 should be read as disapproving of the forced marriage of female captives. For certain, this is the traditional Jewish reading. But it’s hard to get around the fact that the text sanctions the practice, even as it restricts the practice and shows some (tiny) amount of consideration for the captive.

          Good to hear from you.

          • Hanan

            Yes it is hard, but also, it puts a direct halt on ANY sex during time of war. Think of the things going on now in Syria, where women are being raped right and left and end up pregnant. This stops that immediately. There is no sex when you find a woman you want. There has to be thirty days before you are allowed to take her as a wife and have sex with her. Yes, it’s isn’t 21st century way of treating a woman, but I think it was definitely something quite useful in a societies that are in constant war with each other.

            It’s good to hear from me too 🙂

          • David

            > it reflects a diminution in the woman’s social status and prospects

            Actually, “diminution” is a really good translation. Let me explain.

            The verb “ana” carries a range of meanings: to impoverish (“ani” means a poor person), to humble (“anava” is humility), as well as to afflict (as in the Hagar case Hanan mentioned above, or as in fasting on Yom Kippur). And it IS used in other verses to refer to sex – either rape (e.g. Gen. 34:2, Deut. 22:29) or consensual but illicit sex (e.g. Deut. 22:24) or sex in a situation where the man is in a position of power (e.g. Ju. 19:24 + the case in question) – as opposed to sexuality in the typical wife-husband domain, where the assumption is greater gender parity and the word “ana” isn’t used.

            All these uses of “ana” imply diminution – physical or social, forced or self-imposed (as in Yom
            Kippur), negative or positive (as in the trait of humility). It is becoming smaller, lesser, more meek, more submissive.

            In the case of Deut. 21:14, it could easily imply his having sex with her. The term “uve’alta”
            (previous verse) means “become husband to her” in the sense of “lord over her” or “own her” (from the word “ba’al”), and to do so via the act of sex. Thus we get the word “inita”, which implies her having been diminished by him – lorded over, owned, dominated, forced to submit
            sexually (albeit a different connotation Biblically than rape).

            Needless to say the whole paradigm of sexuality assumed here is very highly male-dominant in a way that most of us (I hope) can’t even begin to relate to. But aside from the sexual connotation of Deut. 21:14, it certainly could also imply her having been “diminished” in general from the whole ordeal – being captured, shaved, mourning for 30 days, forced to marry her captor, etc.

            Traditional Jewish commentaries are generally adamant that these laws are there only as a “backup” to sublimate the more base drives in men who would take a woman captive, but that the ideal is that they should never do so at all. Personally, I think it’s a somewhat “generous” interpretation which owes to a more modern ethical sensibility. My sense is that the Biblical verses, even with the use of the word “inita”, aren’t condemning such a man. To me it seems very matter-of-fact: If you want to take a woman, here’s how you need to do it… (That’s what I think “it meant” at any rate.)

  • blsDisqus

    BTW, speaking of “what it means” and “what it meant”: you might be interested to know that, according to James Alison ( http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng15.html ), “Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid certain sorts of what the authorities call “actualization” of the texts, by which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities. I will read you what they say, and please remember that this is rather more than an opinion. This is the official teaching of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, at the very least an authorized Catholic source of guidance for how to read the Scriptures, in their 1993 Document ‘The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church’:

    Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary… to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavourable attitudes to the Jewish people”. (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV.3)

    • lbehrendt

      bls, thanks for pointing out the Alison piece and the position of the Catholic Church set forth in “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”. This latter document can be read here.

      It would take me some time (time that I think would be well spent!) to unpack the position set forth here by the Catholic Church. To be certain, the document you mentioned has good things to say about the historical-critical method of reading the Bible. The document also speaks positively about “actualization”, which I understand to be a process roughly comparable to Stendahl’s effort to determine “what it means”. You’re quite right that there are certain forms of actualization that are firmly rejected by this document. The text specifically condemns readings of the Bible that are racist, sexist or anti-Semitic. This is a good start! Alison would extend this condemnation to Bible readings that are anti-gay, and I firmly agree. I think we should be working towards an ethos where “what it means” should not be something that could injure another. This may not be possible in all cases, but I think this is a worthy goal.

      Thanks for pointing this out to me. Very, very interesting stuff. Also FWIW, I LOVE the way the Catholic Church writes documents like this one. They can be quite gorgeous in their breadth and evident care.

  • Anthony Le Donne

    Larry, I’ve been waiting for you to cue Stendahl. You had dropped a couple hints and I guessed that this is why you lead with the Eph 5 text. Also, it helped that you told me explicitly that you were going to use Stendahl.

    I really like the notion that we ruminate on the “what it meant” inquiries. Moving too quickly to the what it means (while this can seem less painful) does very little to promote meaningful dialogue. Moreover, as a historical critic, I like that your approach creates space for me and the questions that drive me. In general, we Christians want to skip ahead to the bottom line wherein the Bible tells us how we ought to be in the world.

    Ironically, our preoccupation with “tell me what I should do” promotes a kind of religious legalism in us that we have accused Jews of for so very long. On the contrary, as I have learned more about the Bible studying side by side with Jewish scholars (dead and alive), I’ve come to appreciated the posture that resists bottom lines.

    • lbehrendt

      Anthony, I led with Ephesians 5:22-24 because this text was central to a talk I heard A.-J. Levine give in July. If I really wanted to set things up for Stendahl, I probably would have selected a text from Romans, like the “Coals of Fire” text from 12:19-21 that Stendahl wrote an essay about. But, sure, I had Stendahl in mind from the outset, and your ruminations on Deuteronomy proved to be an even better lead-in for Stendahl than Ephesians.

      I’ve noticed what you say about Christians “skipping ahead”, though Jews do this too. It can be very hard to get Jews to focus for more than a moment on the p’shat. We may resist bottom lines, but that doesn’t mean we easily embrace “what it meant”. It’s noteworthy that my handling of problem texts relies so heavily on the work of a Christian theologian.

      Thanks for the implicit vote of confidence here. I write about theological matters with great reluctance and a sense of dread. It’s not exactly my field of expertise.

  • Bob MacDonald

    Thanks for this simple clarification. You say that the Biblical text gives rise to multiple meanings for the present. Did it also give rise to multiple meanings for the past? I.e. was post-modernism’s pluralism evident to the ancients?

    • lbehrendt

      Good question! If we’re considering Stendahl’s “what it meant”, I think that the question of multiple meanings depends on the text. If we’re dealing with a Biblical law code, I assume that a single meaning was intended (though as a lawyer I know that stuff I wrote intending a single meaning was not always received that way!). But if we’re dealing with Biblical poetry, then I assume that the author intended to provoke something other than a single uniform response.

      But if I read your question correctly, it goes not to Stendahl’s “what it meant”, but instead to Stendahl’s “what it means” as seen by readers of the Bible throughout history. I plan to discuss this in upcoming posts, but when we’re dealing with the Bible, we’re not just dealing with what the author “meant” and what we think it “means” today. We also have the legacy of prior generations reading the text and determining in their own time “what it means” (pardon the unavoidable confusion in my use of the past and present tenses). For example, when we look at Paul’s letter to the Romans, we have not only what Paul “meant”, but also what Augustine thought Romans “means”, and what Luther thought Romans “means”, and Karl Barth, and Rudolf Bultmann, and so on. We read texts with a legacy of historic layers of “what it means”.

      I still haven’t reached your question!

      In the Bible, we have two creation stories (1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25). We have the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Deuteronomist, and the Priestly source. Later, we had Hillel and Shammai, Pharisees and Saducees, and the idea that “these and these are the words of the living God”. The Talmud was compiled to carefully record multiple points of view. Crossing over to Christianity, we have four Gospels, and letters from both Paul and James. Of course, we also have efforts to harmonize opposing points of view and declare divergent views as heretical. The picture is far from clear, and I certainly would not read any kind of postmodern “relativism” back into antiquity. In fact, I think that understanding how or why the ancients valued the diversity evident in our texts is one of the most difficult questions there is. But the diversity is there. So when you ask, did the Bible give rise to multiple meanings in antiquity, I answer “yes”. IMHO.

      • Bob MacDonald

        Thanks – it is a good answer. In my reading, I am always suspicious of explanation and of meaning. There is an impact of the text on me certainly but the ‘meaning’ of the whole ancient testimony is a surprise not a rule that one can keep at arms length. The multiple voices that you note are vital information. ‘Life and spirit’ as the saying goes. Such things cannot be boxed in.

      • Bob MacDonald

        Another quick reply – re reception history, Sue Gillingham’s The Psalms through the Centuries is a very good read and shows a movement away from polemics and in recent years toward cooperation with the differing strands of meaning. I think we must beware of imposing our meanings onto the text. I find myself wanting to carry the NP on Paul further than it has been carried to date – but I am not a scholar – just one who lives in this difficult yet extraordinary world.

  • Chris Eyre

    It seems I was trying to sell you a form of trajectory theory earlier, without having come across the term. I still think it has merit!

    I completely agree that working out what a passage meant to the writer and his audience should be the first step, and should avoid retrojecting any later ideas (insofar as that is possible). Avoiding that can be extremely difficult, however; it is very difficult to “unknow” something.

    You may be going there in the future, but there’s another step between “what it meant to the author/audience” and “what it means now”, and that is “what it meant during succeeding generations of interpreters”, a history of thought restricted to that passage, if you like. Often, that is crucial to “what it means now” in any event, and I’d argue that that is particularly clear in Judaism in the Mishna-Tosefta-Talmud ways of presenting “what it means now”, granted you now need to add a large volume of Talmud commentary as well, which isn’t always so clearly differentiated.

    Christianity is sometimes inclined (at least at the more popular level) to fail to “show the working” (as you might say to a maths student) and to present current interpretation as if there hadn’t been many generations of scholars tweaking an interpretation between the passage and now.

    Harking back to my earlier comments, though, do you not think it valuable to consider behind what the writer was able to express, to what he was, perhaps, being impelled to express, but could not?

    • lbehrendt

      Chris, I’m swimming against the tide this week, what with the High Holy Days, and the return of my clients from their summer vacations.

      I’ll have to devote a post sometime to explaining why I’m not crazy for trajectory theologies. But you’re certainly right, one problem with Stendahl’s approach is that it assumes an original meaning tied to the prevailing cultural and historical situation when a text was created. This may work well for the epistles of Paul, but it’s going to falter when we deal with a text like Deuteronomy that may have been “created” over a period of hundreds of years.

      I’m not sure what you mean by what a writer was “impelled to express, but could not”. Are you thinking that a text may embody a writer’s unconscious thoughts, or that the text may effectively express thoughts that the writer did not think she was writing? I think that just about every text worth its salt works like that. The writers I know speak of a point in the creative process where the writing or the story takes on a life of its own, with its own logic and impetus. Most of the writers I know, if asked what their texts mean, will respond “what do you think it means?”, not to be cute, but because the meaning of a text emerges not in its writing but in its reading.

      Or are you saying that writers encode messages in their texts, knowing that readers contemporary with the author will not understand the messages, and intending (or hoping) that the meaning will be appreciated at a later date? So that “what it meant” does not first emerge until many years have passed after the text is created? We certainly know of works that are not fully appreciated in their own time — I’m thinking of the art of Van Gogh, or a book like “Confederacy of Dunces”. But I’d still insist that any work belongs to its period of creation, and that no text is intended primarily as a time capsule. I might be proven wrong about this …

      • Chris Eyre

        Larry, my sympathy. I’m happily free of having legal clients these days, but there’s some research (in a totally different field) which is demanding a lot of my time, Church is ramping up for a big Alpha course at the moment and then there’s just life…

        I need to tell a story to illustrate where I was actually coming from, but your response raises a few more issues (it is SO valuable discussing things!).

        So, yes, I expect to see meaning in a text which the writer didn’t know he was writing, probably because some unconscious thinking has become exposed (much as your reply did with mine). My experience is that this becomes more pronounced as writing becomes more figurative and poetic. It’s certainly happened to me (though you won’t find me writing much that’s poetic these days!), and it goes beyond consciously inserting additional layers of meaning, which I occasionally do as well. Written word is definitely an interaction with the reader, and the meaning becomes a cooperative venture – more so, I think, than spoken word, where there are many other clues to the meaning intended, such as intonation, cadence, and if you can see the speaker, facial expression and body language.

        I should mention as well that being able (on a good day) to function reasonably fluently in two languages has revealed to me that the language you think in governs to some extent what you can think; I think and write significantly differently in French from the way I think and write in English, and sometimes there’s a concept which is “right” in one of the languages but which I can’t translate adequately into the other. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this – otherwise English would not be decorated with such phrases as “laissez faire” or “sitz im leben”. There therefore has to be a limitation on the power to think and definitely the power to express thoughts based on the language you work in, and I always have in mind that English has a vastly greater vocabulary than, say, Biblical Hebrew or Koine Greek.

        Similarly, philosophy offers many more opportunities for expression of thought now than it did in Biblical times (and a significant part of the Jewish-Hellenistic tension probably comes from the fact that Greek philosophy offered a whole new set of ways of thinking, though I’ll grant that it will certainly have closed some off as well).

        What I had in mind, however, stems from my own history.

        45 years ago I had, out of the blue, a “peak spiritual experience” which, as it came to someone who was at the time an evangelical atheist, was a shock to the system. It was, I eventually determined, a panentheist mystical experience, though I didn’t have those terms to describe it at the time.

        It came with what seemed to me at the time a massive amount of information, an overwhelming amount, and I didn’t have words to express the bulk of that either. Any attempts I made to express what this was were just so inadequate as to be worse than staying silent, they gave such a wrong impression.

        It was also a very good experience indeed, so much so that having determined that I probably wasn’t suffering from some neurological or psychological illness, I set about trying to find out how to repeat it. One spur for that was that without a framework of interpretation (language and concepts) on which to hang it, I couldn’t recall it very well. Happily, this lead fairly quickly to me discovering mysticism and panentheism and at least having labels and some writings of other people who had similar experience (and they wrote about it better than I could).

        There have been repetitions of at least something like the same force since, though the goal of finding some formula which will guarantee that someone else can follow instructions and have a similar experience has so far eluded me; these have been useful to me, as the memory of the initial experience seems to me to have faded faster than might have been the case for a similarly powerful one of a different nature, I suspect because of the lack of a linguistic and conceptual framework into which to fit it in memory and thoughts. Repetition has strengthened the memory, particularly as I’ve had more and more language and concepts on which to hang it.

        Another thing I discovered is that this class of experiences can’t be analysed while they’re going on; any attempt to analyse stops the experience in its tracks. What can be analysed is the memory, after the experience has ended (with the proviso that emotional recall can get in the way of that).

        I’m now 45 years into the quest to understand what happened in the space of a couple of hours when I was 15, starting a sometimes sporadic, sometimes obsessive, but never completely absent fascination with finding new ways in which to talk about God and criticising those which exist, hoping that maybe, sometime, I won’t have the feeling that what I’m saying is missing SO MUCH of what the mystical experience of God conveys.

        What I’m really saying, therefore, is that if I assume that many of these early writers had something like a similar revelatory experience, the words and concepts to express those fully were not in the languages they had and not yet in existence (quite apart from arguments I’ve made earlier that if someone in those times said something too advanced for the time, it would be rejected and probably not even recorded).

        How much it is possible to “look through” the wordings used and find something larger, I don’t know – but I think it’s a task worth pursuing.

        • lbehrendt

          Chris, I too have had some “spiritual experiences” that came as shocks to my system. But I don’t see those experiences as something indescribable without terms I acquired later. Instead, I think I see those experiences in the terms I had available at the time, though my memory of those experiences has been affected by what I’ve learned since. I hesitate to say that this is the way it has to be, but that’s pretty much how I see it. I think there’s something like a hermeneutic of experience that is much like what Anthony Le Donne describes when he talks about memory formation and transmission. We interpret and categorize our experiences in terms of pre-existing thought categories, while our experiences shape and transform those categories. The meaning of what we experience, like the meaning of a text, lies in our encounter with that experience, and is a product of both the content of the experience and the content we bring to the experience.

          What you describe about a second language is apt. A second language provides not only different (and sometimes additional) avenues for expression, but also an alternative context for experiencing the things we want to express.

          I also agree that the Bible is a record of many spiritual experiences, or more specifically, encounters with the divine. But I’m not inclined to agree that our present-day language and analytical skills are superior to what existed in Bible times. Quite the contrary. One thing I’ve asked myself is how it could possibly be, that those who lived in Bible times seemed to encounter God so often, so directly and so explicitly. The essence of God and God’s relationship to people should not change so radically over time. There are many possible answers to this question, and I’ll give you two. The first is that people in Bible times simply merited closer contact with God. The second is that the language and social/cultural context of the time was more open to seeing these kinds of spiritual experiences AS spiritual experiences, and to understanding them in spiritual language.

          • Chris Eyre

            I broadly agree with you. I am, however, clear that in respect particularly of my original peak experience, it took some years before I had learned enough to make any sense of quite a bit of it; how I stored the recollection of it is not clear to me, given that I lacked much of the language and concepts at the time. It was some years before I managed to get even a shadow of a repetition, which of course is the “conventional” way of improving an existing memory. It wasn’t even something I could readily “rehearse” by going over the memory – except that I could recall immense emotional impact rather well.

            I wasn’t remotely suggesting that analytical skills have improved over the years – I really doubt there’s been much change, despite the steady year-on-year upward drift of average IQ! Nor was I suggesting that languages or philosophies these days are “better” than languages of 2000 years ago. However, the languages are provided with much more vocabulary (particularly English, which has by far the largest vocabulary of any human language past or present, partly due to its habit of stealing other languages’ words if it can’t provide something nuanced enough), and there are philosophical concepts which didn’t exist 2000 years ago. The base abilities may not have changed all that much, therefore, but there’s a much bigger toolkit to work with.

            I agree, there is a major difference between then and now in terms of “God-encounters”. I don’t much like the “the magic goes away” explanations, including the idea of God withdrawing. It’s a big topic, though, and probably not one which can be done justice to in a side-conversation!

            • lbehrendt

              If I were a better student of Hebrew, I think I could defend it as the superior language for “God-talk”. It is an evocative language, full of words that derive from and suggest other words that are useful for exegesis. Regardless, it remains remarkably difficult to talk about God, in any language.

              Is it really true that English has the largest vocabulary? Like so many things, this seems to depend on how you look at it. For example, see this article. Of the many things I’m not, I’m not a linguist — so maybe you know more about this than I could find out in five minutes of internet browsing! But I can share this experience with Hebrew, that it’s difficult to use a dictionary to decipher Hebrew Bible text, because most words are formed with prefixes and suffixes that you have to learn to recognize and strip away to find a root that may appear in the dictionary.

              Of course, none of this is really on the point you’re making, which is (I think) that our spiritual experience is difficult to describe or explain without using “progress” language. We got gradually to where we are, and unless we’re unhappy with the destination, the journey is going to feel like a journey forward. I think that’s appropriate. At the same time, the journey you describe is one (at least in terms of time) away from the primary God-encounter you describe. At least in Judaism, there’s a sense of loss in our increased distance in time from Sinai, a sense that for all of our extensive commentary, we can never understand Torah as well as the ancients did who were proximate to its reception. There’s a reason why the orchestra seats cost more than the ones in the balcony.

              The question of “progress” is problematic in Jewish-Christian relations, because Christianity sees itself as “progress” over against Judaism. This is only natural, assuming (as most do) that Judaism came first — if Christianity is not “progress”, then why be Christian and not Jewish? But from the Jewish side of things, it doesn’t feel good to be thought of as a “precursor”, or as an earlier stage in salvation history (particularly in the terms used by someone like N.T. Wright, who writes as if Judaism failed in its mission to bring God’s word to the nations). So, doubtless, there’s a Jewish part of me that resists this “trajectory theology” stuff, and prefers the idea of Judaism being essentially timeless. Yes, the entire thrust of my discussion of Stendahl is against timelessness. So as I cannot rely too much on essential timelessness, I next resort to defending the value of each changing moment in time.

              • Chris Eyre

                Well found for the article!

                I’ve always been inclined to go with Mr. Fry’s analysis, based on my admittedly rather small sample (between myself and my father) of four European, one Indian, two “dead” European and one Eastern language known at least pretty well (incidentally, my total is MUCH less impressive than my father’s). From these, English assuredly has the biggest dictionary; it beats most of them by a factor of five or more.

                I take your point about Hebrew and dictionaries; I’ve tried on a few occasions in order to “get to the bottom of” a problem text – yes, I have them too. I also take the point about the ramifications of meaning you can obtain in Hebrew from like combinations; I’ve looked at people doing this, and it amazes me.

                It’s interesting to see your analysis of looking back to an earlier time closer to God. I think I can at least partly understand that; I would personally like to be able to get back to the historical Jesus better, and can lament the passing of time (and the attentions of competing viewpoints in Christianity) eliminating so much evidence there might have been of that. However, my personal “primary God-encounter” was when I was 15, and was my own experience; everything else basically serves to expand my understanding of that (and of its several rather weaker repetitions). I privilege experience and then reason out of the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, experience and reason.

                Would you pick some other element(s)?