Frank Kermode and “Ecclesiastical Formation”

In The Genesis of Secrecy, Frank Kermode observes that religious scholars increasingly study secular as well as religious texts, but the reverse is not true (or at least not in 1979 when he published his book):

For a secular critic to work on the reserved sacred texts, as I have chosen to do, is rarer. It is easy to understand why this should be so: there is a lack of interest (which I deplore but recognize); and there is a lack of necessary skills. The volume of scholarship is dismaying, and any outsider is bound to make mistakes. I am sure I have done so, in the teeth of good advice. (ix)

He explains his own lack of skills by observing that he does not know Aramaic or Hebrew, knows just enough Greek to get by, and his German is “so enfeebled that whenever possible I use translations.” Why does he even try, then, not only to study the subject but also to publish?

I have undertaken the studies here reported only because the importance of the subject, and the need of a secular approach, justify a measure of rashness. I think the gospels need to be talked about by critics of a quite unecclesiastical formation. (ix)

I agree. With few exceptions, scholars who specialize in scripture are members of religious traditions that influence or determine the perspective from which they approach the texts. These scholars’ interpretations willy-nilly tend to favor one religious tradition’s view of things over others, which arguably tends to promotes a certain narrowness of mind and sense of exclusivity among vast numbers of people who continue to regard these texts as life guides.

Of course it is possible to take a “secular approach” even while remaining within a particular religious tradition. Peoples’ minds are malleable, and an “ecclesiastical formation” can be transformed into “unecclesiastical formation.” I count myself among those who have managed this transformation. For three years I attended a seminary, and in spite my own firm conviction at the time that I retained full independence of thought and opinion, I emerged from that experience with a mind quite ecclesiastically formed. The last twenty years since then have been a process of gradually shaking off those mental fetters. Many factors contributed to this, but I’ll mention two.

Instead of continuing graduate studies with the Master of Divinity as a start, I started over with an M.A. and then a Ph.D. in Russian history. This gave me a secular historian’s “formation,” which is decidedly unecclesiastical. That mindset was reinforced by teaching college courses in both Russian history and world history at secular institutions.

Another important part of this fetter-shaking-off process resulted from a course in world history that I taught at Bellevue Community College. It covered the beginnings of civilization to 1000 AD, a period during which many of the world’s major religions came into being. Until then I had been a Christian who investigated other religions only superficially and saw them as traditions or institutions which could not and did not ever quite live up to the innate goodness and truth and moral purity of Christianity. (OK, that’s naïve, but ecclesiastical formation does that to you.) Suddenly I had to study and understand a whole series of other religions in some depth and on their own terms in order to teach them. That broadened my perspective and gradually let the air out of my smug sense of the absolute uniqueness and superiority of Christianity.

The religion that effected this realization most effectively for me was Buddhism. The more I read, the more I saw that at heart it shared everything that I held to be good about Christianity even though most people consider the two religions to be worlds apart, one theistic and one not. At one stage in this process I even developed an informal list of the evidence behind my new conviction that Eastern Orthodox Christianity was actually more like Buddhism than it was like Western Christianity.

In time I even began to realize that Buddhism had some spiritual resources of great value that were altogether absent from Christianity. This led eventually to my attending a Soto Zen Buddhist retreat four years ago, and in some ways that experience has had more of a lasting positive effect on my life than the three months I spent one summer in an Orthodox monastery on Mt. Athos (see my journal from this retreat). I know there are those who believe that Christians effectively abandon their own religion if they seek to experience the benefits that other religious traditions may offer, but in my view this is part of that narrowness of mind and exclusivity that ecclesiastically formed scholars of scripture tend to promote.

By now my “formation” is as “unecclesiastical” as Kermode’s. Plus I have relevant academic qualifications that he does not — an academic background in scriptural studies and knowledge of both Greek and Hebrew. In addition I have ongoing connections with certain scriptural scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of the subject. I may not be a full-time university-employed professor of scriptural studies, but I am well prepared to act as the proverbial “dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant.”

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