Noetic Noah and the Fluffy Hermeneutic

This started as a reply about hermeneutic in the context of the flood on my personal blog. Do we take the flood literally or not. My interlocutor was exasperated exclaiming that to not take the text literally implies words have no meaning. This is exactly backwords. Here is my response to him.

Yes, you are exactly right. Words have meaning. There is this word hermeneutic, which I have used on more than one occasion used in this sentence. Yet, you gaily trounce in with replies like “Why start with the Bible at all? Why not just make up your own stories if that’s what you’re going to do anyway?” or other remarks along the “making it all up” line as if every religious person just takes their preconceptions and hammers the text until it fits. That is not what any honest theologian does (and I think the majority of people atheist or faithful are as honest as they can be). That word, hermeneutic means, “the method by which one extracts meaning from a text.” See that word there. Method. It is there for a reason.

Look at the Garden of Eden story for a first example, as it is a little easier. At the beginning of the story there is a mention that this story is at the juncture of four rivers. Real rivers which however in reality are nowhere near each other. They do not “meet” anywhere. This we are taught is a signal found in other literature from the period. It is a sign or signal that the story at hand is poetic or symbolic. It doesn’t portray a real place but a noetic one. In the story of the flood, God finds every person but “Giants were in the land” and “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Now, a reasonable person might find that this is just such a similar obvious signal in the text. Giants are mythic or noetic creatures. Similarly the idea that every man but Noah thought of nothing but evil continually is also unreasonable.   That the following is a not historic but a moral tale. This is a consistent method for locating symbolic text. There are other hermeneutical methods, historical-critical, literary methods, and so on. The early Christians searched the text for signs and symbols of New Testament events, as noted early in this discussion where the Fathers located types or signs Baptism in the story of the Flood (through water evil is washed away) in this story and so on. Again, a consistent hermenuetical method. It is not “made up.” The method is developed outside of the text and then consistently applied.

Did everything recounted in Exodus take place exactly as the text recounts? Well, as a comparison there may have been a historic King of rocky Ithaca named Odysseus but that does not mean he killed a giant man with one eye. That also does not mean that nothing recounted in the Odyssey took place or that the story contains no great moral truths because Polyphemus is purely or mostly noetic.

You  have never granted anything but literal interpretation of the meaning of these words in a modern Western anthropological context as a valid hermenuetic to be used. While this is consistent with your intention of belittling religion is it not useful in interactions with anyone but a small percentage of fundamentalists within of any modern religion today. You should realize that there are a variety of hermenuetics and any one person may find one (or even to use more than one at the same time) a useful method when approaching texts.

Again, its just like with the Year of Our Lord, a poetic phrase used on a graduation document filled with artistic calligraphy and other poetic imagery to note a rite of passage. Yes, the original people who founded that phrase meant it literally. But does that mean that it is the only way to extract meaning from text?  No. This phrase also means just plainly a definition of a year 1 to be used in common. And you are exactly right words have meanings. But the plural there is important. They have many meanings and can hold many meanings at the same time. You want to hold to the literal meaning in this case, because it can rile you up and anger you. But the problem is that doesn’t correspond to the reality. Most people don’t think of Jesus birth when they read “In the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Nine Hundred and Eighty” on their High School diploma at all. To pretend differently is just plain dumb. And as I suggested because there is no poetic rendering of CE that is why “In the Year of Our Lord” remains today.

Finally, you wonder that a person who does believe in the literal flood and I, who does not, can be said to worship the same religion. There is another word I’ve used frequently on this site. Adiaphora. This word is used to describe doctrine. One differentiates statements made by and about a faith  as either dogma (which means essential) or adiaphora (which mean not dogma or unessential). For me, and for I think most modern Christians with whom I interact, whether you take the flood literally or not (or whether Moses himself wrote the Pentateuch) is adiaphora. It is not important. The empty tomb is dogma. That is, if you don’t believe the tomb was empty, then you do not follow the same religion as me.

For the Eastern Orthodox defining the boundary between dogma and adiaphora is not the same as the legalistic West. There is not complicated legalistic “Confession of Faith” defining the line between dogma and adiaphora.  We hold as dogma the Creed, that which was stated by the 7 Ecumenical councils and has been accepted by the church, and in that which has been proclaimed as true based on a collective reading of the Church Fathers. But there is there is a lot of leeway within some well defined boundaries here. The Fathers for example wrote bookshelves full of texts which don’t always agree … you have to find the center. What does “accepted by the Church mean” regarding the councils. For that, knowledge of church history, our liturgy, and tradition defines and describes those boundaries. Exactly where this boundary is might be termed a mystery. And the word mystery here is taking the meaning I noted in an earlier post, as that which cannot be put into words but is experienced instead. Hence, there is not now and will likely ever be an Eastern Orthodox confessional statement.

Our liturgy doesn’t talk about the literal Pharaoh and Moses but the noetic Pharaoh is mentioned more than once. You can believe in him and his interactions with Moses as history or not. Adiaphora. What you cannot do is dismiss the story as worthless for the liturgy and tradition does not. The noetic Paraoh is real (and a mystery).


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  1. Boonton says:

    I have to say an excellent post Mark. I like the idea of adiaphora quite a bit, esp. since it seems a lot of modern discourse is about forcing the vast land of adiaphora out of existence and making everything a battle between two sides of opposing dogma often headed by cartoon figures (let’s say someone like Pat Robertson on one side and Christopher Hitchens on the other….although I think that’s a bit unfair to Hitchens)

    I think we agree on the “In the Year of our Lord” question in the sense that it is being used as meaningless fluff. But I disagree with you calling that ‘poetic’. I’m not big on poems myself but that’s because poetry is hard. You don’t use poetic language to make something look pretty. You use poetry to say something deep, something that’s hard to communicate. The people objecting to the language are doing so because they do take words seriously, the defense that words should not be taken seriously isn’t very serious in my opinion. If people take a moment to think about what they are saying when using “year of our Lord” then I think that’s a good thing whether they decide to use “Lord” or not.

  2. Boonton says:

    Perhaps you might like to react to this:

    Guiness says, “In many ways, the new atheists are partly created by the Religious Right. You can see that in America there is no vehement repudiation of religion until recently. In Europe, the atheism is a reaction to corrupt state churches. Here, you’ve never had that until the rise of the Religious Right.” Part of the reaction against religion, he argues, stems from the poor ways people of faith think about science.

    What level of responsibility does ‘Culture War Christianity’ have for the lack of adiaphora in discussions of religion? In the US at least the hermeneutics of both the left and right seems to veer towards taking the Bible literally just about everywhere. Wouldn’t Christianity be well served by a counter reaction of conservative Christians pointing out that not taking it all literally is not an idea that Christians came up with in 1969!

  3. Mark says:

    Perhaps “poetry” is the wrong word. What I mean is that is it is a more elegant phrase. They could use “Arial” or a typewriter as the font of choice on diplomas too. But it is inelegant and not fitting to a document marking a rite of passage.

  4. Boonton says:

    So how would you feel about a phrase that ran totally counter to something you felt was one of your most cherished dogmas? Say something asserting Christ never rose or there is no God. Assume that this phrase makes for an especially elegant sound and it is used by many who pay no particular attention to the actual meaning of the words.

  5. Mark,

    1) Thanks for distinguishing between dogma and adiaphora — that’s an important distinction.

    2) My complaint is not that you don’t take the flood story (for example) literally, but that the interpretation you put forward does not seem to me a reasonable interpretation of the text. It seems to me that the interpretation carries almost the opposite message of the text, which raises a big warning flag for me. In the text, God is a merciless and violent tyrant who kills the overwhelming majority of humanity (not to mention animals!) because he thought they were evil. In the interpretation, God is protecting the church from the turmoil around it. That interpretation makes no sense to me, because in the text, God is the CAUSE of the turmoil, not the protector from it.

    3) Regarding the “In the year of our Lord” thing. Don’t you think it’s presumptuous to tell non-Christians that they should be okay with having an explicitly Christian phrase on their diplomas because it’s poetic? They’re the non-Christians, it should be up to them to tell you what they find poetic and want to keep. You’re the Christian. It’s like those white people who tell blacks they should just be okay with the confederate flag hanging over the state capital because all it means is heritage. Well, maybe to you it’s heritage. To them, it’s slavery. Why can’t you just be respectful of people with different perspectives instead of forcing your stuff onto them?

  6. Mark says:

    Well, I suppose I could say it wouldn’t bother me, and JA would chime in that he doesn’t believe me. And hypotheticals have that danger, we can suppose all we want about situations but our testimony is unreliable as it is not really being tested. But, I’ll attempt give an answer on why I don’t think it really would make such a big deal for me.

    As you know I’m a somewhat recent convert to Christianity in general and Eastern Orthodoxy in particular. The EO church has a very different existence regarding living in unfavorable circumstances in recent times compared to the West. Greece and the Ottoman, the Coptic Christians in Egypt and in general Middle Eastern Christians in Islam dominated countries like Iraq, Syria and the like not to mention the Church in the former Soviet regime. Presumably in Egypt for example, lots of official documents such as we are discussing may include examples just like this, diplomas with dates noted with references to the Prophet for example. Yet it is my intuition that the Copts in Egypt aren’t objecting to that, but instead to real oppression like kidnapping, killings and other limitations placed on them by having and professing a faith different from the majority.

    So my feeling is, if you think this is oppression or problematic then you need to wake up, count your blessings, and go forth and get a thicker skin. Read the phrase in the way that 99% of the other people do, an elegant and customary turn of phrase signifying very very little. If you are counting this as significant it means that there is not any real oppression you are suffering under. And that is what is important.

  7. Boonton says:

    OK if I had to live in Egypt or Syria for a while I wouldn’t make too much of this either. These are places that are not free and when living in tyrannicl environments one must compromise. But that is not making an allowance for the ‘poetic’. I might view an inscription referencing Greek Gods or mythology as poetic since actual belief in ancient Greek religions are dead as far as I know.

    And I’m not sure you’re right that such references to the Prophet are likewise ‘fluff’ in many M.E. countries, rather they are intentioned efforts to show that their society is Muslim. I suspect that while you may defend ‘year of our Lord’ as meaningless fluff, many Christians defend it on quite different grounds; a little bit of envy for Muslim societies who haven’t accepted the secular meme dividing Church from civil society.

  8. Thank you for this post Mark. It has helped me very much.

  9. John says:

    What if the “garden of Eden” is not a geographical or biological place?

    But a metaphor re the Garden of Indestructible Light in which all of this appears?

    Plus on the primacy of the Tree as a Spiritual metaphor about the intrinsic structure(s) of the human body-mind and Consciousness.