Essay / Misc.

Thinking in Commentary

It is hard for people today to respect commentary as an actual exercise of the intellect. We can’t help thinking that great minds, when engaged in worthwhile thinking, must surely strike out on their own. If you want ideas, you should look to modes of thought such as argument, analysis, persuasion, polemic, enquiry, or advocacy, but surely you should not look to a mode of thought such as commentary.

Commentary as a mode of thinking is—by definition—dependent on a prior text. It seeks to be judged by how well it leads its own readers into that prior text, in whose service it places itself. How servile! How timid! How thoughtless!

Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic would like to “restore commentary as a primary activity of serious intellectuals.” He protests against

the idea that commentary is in some way a benighted activity, a secondary or tertiary activity rather than a primary one. Anybody who knows the history of commentary knows that it was for many centuries, and in some ways still is—at least in the books that will really matter—one of the great intellectual opportunities for originality, indeed radicalism, of thought. Certainly the great works of Jewish philosophy are almost all of them works of scriptural commentary … The majesty, the depth, the diversity of this tradition strongly suggest that it is almost incumbent upon a serious philosophical mind to engage in the work of commentary. (Leon Wieseltier, in Center Conversations 27:7-8. I first found this passage cited in Jaroslav Pelikan’s new Acts commentary)

Wieseltier is right, and the point could also be illustrated in Western thought at large. Count this down: the most sophisticated sustained argument of the medieval period developed from (4) arguments over (3) Boethius’ commentary on (2) Porphyry’s introduction to (1) Aristotle’s Categories. And in the Eastern traditions, you get classic commentaries on Confucius, who was in turn discussing the older classics and trying to be deeply traditional.

John Webster, in a programmatic 1997 lecture with the somewhat puckish title “Theological Theology” (reprinted in the collection Confessing God), has pointed out that it is all but impossible for Christian theology to be itself if it accepts this modern bias against commentary. “Bias” is really too weak a word for the contemporary estimate of the genre of commentary. It is not merely that commentary is considered a lesser form of intellectual investigation, but rather that commentary is not recognized as University-worthy academic discourse at all. Saying what somebody else said simply doesn’t count as science, and science is the standard by which all University disciplines are being judged.

The problem is not with the sciences themselves, but in the exporting of scientific standards to other disciplines which ought to have their own standards. “[M]odern theology,” Webster notes, “suffers particularly acutely from the effects of the standardization of discourse which has afflicted the humanities in modernity.”

When theology frees itself from this captivity to alien standards, it can begin to be interesting and to make the kind of progress appropriate to it. It will be reinvigorated not only in the kind of things it says, but in the way it says them, extending to the very genres in which theology is conducted. Here is one of my favorite passages from the Webster essay:

The history of the genres of theological writing is still largely unexplored in any systematic way; yet the importance of such a study for interpreting the situation of thteology in modernity can scarcely be over-emphasized. What happens to styles of theological writing when Wissenschaft replaces citation as the dominant mode of enquiry and argument? When citation is in the ascendant, the literary forms of theology are generally governed by the fact that the Christian worlds of meaning are shaped by biblical, credal and doxological texts and by the practices which both carry and are themselves carried by those texts. Theology’s literary forms and intellectual architecture, its rhetoric and its modes of argument, are controlled by proximity to these sources. Hence its favoured genres: biblical commentary, exposition of texts which have a heavy presence in the tradition (such as the creeds, the Lord’s Prayer or the decalogue), or polemic conducted within an agreed frame of reference supplied by a stable canon of biblical materials and of major voices in the tradition. When they function well, these genres are transparent to that into whose presence they seek to introduce the reader.

What’s a theologian to do? When you do your best work, and the people who make the rules in modern Universities blink at you without being able to acknowledge that the thing you just said can even be counted as academic discourse, it’s an awkward moment. The easy thing to do is to find out what a more acceptable mode of discourse is, and to assimilate future theological work to that. A host of support structures are already in place to help: peer review systems, publishers, promotion standards, and accreditation reviews can get your theological discourse sounding like the rest of the University in no time.

Or there is the way of commentary, which Wieseltier called “one of the great intellectual opportunities for originality, indeed radicalism, of thought.” What he said of (Jewish) philosophy is also true of (Christian) theology: “The majesty, the depth, the diversity of this tradition strongly suggest that it is almost incumbent upon a serious philosophical mind to engage in the work of commentary. “

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