Philosophical Investigations

According the Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations,[1] the purpose of philosophy is “not to resolve a contradiction by means of a mathematical or logico-mathematical discovery, but to make it possible for us to get a clear view of the state of mathematics that troubles us: the state of affairs before the contradiction is resolved” (Wittgenstein, 50). Language, like mathematics, comprises an agreed-upon set a rules which we must follow in order to understand one another; language as a whole is a kind of “game” and the rules of language comprise the mechanism or “technique” necessary for it to function. However the imperfect nature of these rules is such that we tend to get “entangled” in them; we try to express ourselves accurately but the method at our disposal, that is to say language, only allows for an approximate expression of meaning and occasionally produce contradictions. For Wittgenstein, the philosophical problem is not to resolve these contradictions but rather to understand the particular rule entanglement that caused them to appear in the first place.

Wittgenstein points out that when the single word “Slab!” means the same thing as the sentence “Bring me a slab!,” this meaning is derived in contrast to the meanings of other possible sentences containing the word “slab” such as “Hand me a slab,” “Bring him a slab,” or “Bring two slabs” (Wittgenstein, 9).  It is a feature of our language that we are able to produce different sentences using the same word (“slab”), each with different meaning, and it is because of this available variety of sentences and their associated meanings that we are able to select the one particular combination of words (“Bring me a slab!”) which in contrast to all the others has the same meaning as the single word (“Slab!”). As Wittgenstein points out, “someone who did not understand our language, a foreigner, who had fairly often heard someone giving the order: “Bring me a slab!”, might believe that this whole series of sounds was one word corresponding perhaps to the word for “building-stone” in his language” (Wittgenstein, 9). The foreigner would not conceive of “Bring me a slab!” as a sentence with multiple words because to him there would not be other combinations of the word “slab” with different meanings. To the foreigner, “Bring me a slab!” is a single thought or idea; he sees no need to break the sound down into multiple words. But Wittgenstein questions whether even those who master the language are conscious of the fact that the sentence “Bring me a slab!” contains four words as they are actually uttering it. For Wittgenstein, the thought comes first; then we express the thought by arranging words in a specific order according to the rules of language (Wittgenstein, 108).The fact that the single word “Slab!” and the word for “building-stone” in the foreigner’s language can mean the same thing as the four-word sentence “Bring me a slab!” suggests that mastery of language may be entirely unrelated to the ability to derive meaning from utterances.

Meaning, as Wittgenstein also points out, is indestructible, “for it must be possible to describe the state of affairs in which everything destructible is destroyed. And this description will contain words; and what corresponds to these cannot then be destroyed, for otherwise the words would have no meaning” (Wittgenstein, 27). There is a distinction here between the meaning of the word and the actual person or object that the name or word refers to in the real world. What the word corresponds to – its meaning – must not be the same as the actual thing referred to since the word still has meaning even when the thing referred to by the word no longer exists. For Wittgenstein, the meaning of the word is not the actual thing it refers to but rather what makes it such that the word is useful as an instrument of our language or a “paradigm that is used in connection with the name in the language-game” (Wittgenstein, 27).

For Wittgenstein, “to have understood the definition means to have in one’s mind an idea of the thing defined, and that is a sample or picture. So if I am shown various different leaves and told ‘This is called a leaf’, I get an idea of the shape of a leaf, a picture of it in my mind” (Wittgenstein, 34). But Wittgenstein then rightfully asks: “What does the picture of a leaf look like when it does not show us any particular shape, but what is common to all shapes of leaf?” We tend to think we understand what a simple thing like a leaf is but this understanding is composed of pictures of leaves in one’s mind which are only samples or particular instances of the shape of a leaf; none of these mental images convey what is common or essential to all leaves. As Wittgenstein further explains, “If you look at them you will not see something common to all, but similarities, relationships” (Wittgenstein, 31). The meaning of “leaf” is in fact “a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing,” which Wittgenstein refers to as “family resemblances” (Wittgenstein, 32).

[1] Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations;. New York: Macmillan.



In Hermeneutics,[1] Stanley Porter describes deconstruction as “the theory, method, or hermeneutics for reading that seeks to uncover hidden assumptions (not necessarily meaning) and contradictions that shape texts” (Porter, 194). Deconstruction is something of a malicious enterprise insofar as its prime motivation is to demonstrate how any semblance of meaning or truth is illusionary. Deconstruction always seeks out internal inconsistencies within any interpretational construct and uses them to generate confusion, doubt and instability. From the deconstructionist perspective “there is no transcendental signified of the sort traditional metaphysics has attempted to disclose. There is only an endless ‘play’ that connects signs to other signs. Meaning is always contextual, deferred, provisional, and incomplete because it is structurally instable” (Porter, 195). Deconstruction’s main operating premise is the denial of essential truth; it is profoundly critical of the metaphysical mindset and deeply suspicious all truth claims. Deconstruction serves as a constant reminder to us that we can’t know anything absolutely. The raw material of our thought processes consist of signs (“signifiers”) that have a strictly representational value or purpose; deconstruction contends that we cannot reasonable equate these signs with the objects or concepts they signify because to do so would be to presume that we have access to the essential nature of those signified objects or concepts. Our knowledge is always limited by the fundamental disconnectedness between the signifier and the signified. For the deconstructionist, it is not so much that the signifier cannot truly equate to the signified; rather, it is that we cannot know about the true nature of this relationship since we only have access to one side of the equation, the signifier. All our intellectual constructs are merely specific configurations of the raw materials we are given to work with. We combine the various signs at our disposal to build what appear to be stable conceptual units but the deconstructionists warn us that this stability is merely an illusion because the essential nature of the building blocks themselves is not known. Furthermore, as Porter explains, “whatever defining constructs are used are themselves subject to further de-structuring, dismantling, and re-arranging to expose something else, something different” (Porter, 195). Hence, the assembled building blocks of the conceptual unit always have the potential to be configured otherwise, resulting in a different, perhaps even contradictory meaning. This in fact describes the structuralist perspective – the one according to which meaning is created from the limited inputs at our disposal and which cannot achieve an ontological or metaphysical status. The deconstructionist approach goes one step further than this, arguing that structuralism “becomes another way of making metaphysical truth claims and putting a center, order, and ground (structure) where there is none. For example, whereas structuralists view binary oppositions as stable in a more or less formal and logical structure, Derrida sees them as always unstable and unbalanced” (Porter, 197). Deconstructionists not only object to metaphysical truth claims, they also object to any kind of formal or logical structure, even if we set metaphysical considerations aside as the structuralists do. For the deconstructionists, the structures themselves are metaphysical (and therefore problematic) because they privilege a certain center and a specific order. Even if we deny the metaphysical status of the structure, the deconstructionists will argue that in merely creating these structures we are still employing the binary language of metaphysics and is so doing, legitimizing it to some extent. As Porter explains, “Derrida’s deconstructive approach attempts to first expose, then reverse, and finally subvert the use of binary systems and hidden centers (…) [Derrida] has no interest in reincorporating the binary language of metaphysics in something more critical or somehow more accurate. He is interested in exposing then subverting its either/or, showing that the “either” and “or” are always part of each other” (Porter, 199). As such, deconstruction is not about building anything at all; in fact it seems to deny the possibility of every arriving at a truly meaningful understanding of anything. It is, as Porter suggests, a “parasite” that nags on structural weaknesses – the overlooked or subverted parts of the text or tradition – in order to demonstrate the vulnerability of the overall structure. In a sense, the aim of deconstruction is to reduce all form of meaning to the level of indeterminacy and undecidability. For deconstructionists, anything is possible but nothing is knowable.

[1] Porter, S., & Robinson, J. (2011). Hermeneutics: An introduction to interpretive theory. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans.

Explanation & Understanding

In From Text to Action,[1] Paul Ricoeur struggles with the Gadamerian opposition between truth and method. Ricoeur describes this opposition as an antinomy because “either we adopt the methodological attitude and lose the ontological density of the reality we study, or we adopt the attitude of truth and must then renounce the objectivity of the human sciences” (Ricoeur, 72). For Ricoeur, the element of distanciation which is implicit to the objective nature of the human sciences does not limit our ability to grasp the ontological status of historical events by destroying our primordial relation to them – rather, this distanciation is the very condition of possibility for understanding those events. For Ricoeur, “interpretation is the reply to the fundamental distanciation constituted by the objectification of man in works of discourse” (Ricoeur, 79). This distanciation therefore provides the window of opportunity as well as the impetus to engage in the interpretive endeavor. Interpretation, for Ricoeur, is not so much about revealing concealed meanings, but instead about exposing ourselves to new ones. As Ricoeur explains, “to understand is to understand oneself in front of the text. It is not a question of imposing upon the text our finite capacity for understanding, but of exposing ourselves to the text and receiving from it an enlarged self” (Ricoeur, 84).

Ricoeur describes the “hermeneutical circle” in terms of a correlation between explanation and understanding. The first part of the bidirectional process – the movement from understanding to explanation – involves guesswork and validation. An understanding is a “presumption of a certain kind of whole” which we arrive at by an act of guessing the relative importance of the parts which constitute the whole. As Ricoeur explains, “there is no necessity and no evidence concerning what is important and what is unimportant, what is essential and what is unessential. The judgement of importance is a guess” (Ricoeur, 154). Then, the presumed whole, the understanding, is subject to a process of validation called explanation. As Ricoeur explains, “there are no rules for making good guesses. But there are methods for validating guesses” (Ricoeur, 153). The process of validation involves assessing the likelihood of the proposed interpretation using the objective criteria associated with the scientific method. As Ricoeur explains, “an interpretation must be not only probable but more probable than another. There are criteria of relative superiority which may easily be derived from the logic of subjective probability” (Ricoeur, 155). Furthermore, the process of validation constitutes “judicial reasoning” such that an interpretation is, after all, merely an argumentative situation. As Ricoeur explains, “the intermediary function of juridical reasoning clearly shows that the procedures of validation have a polemical character. In front of the court, the plurivocity common to texts and to actions is exhibited in the form of a conflict of interpretations, and the final interpretation appears as a verdict to which it is possible to make appeal” (Ricoeur, 157).

Ricoeur equates the term “explanation” with objective meaning which is separate and distinct from the subjective intention of the author. For Ricoeur, “the text’s career escapes the finite horizon lived by its author. What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say, and every exegesis unfolds its procedures within the circumference of a meaning that has broken its moorings to the psychology of the author” (Ricoeur, 144). This freedom from the psychology of the author, this explosion of the dialogical relation between author and reader as a result of the act of writing, opens up a new world of interpretive possibilities which constitutes, as Ricoeur describes it, the spirituality of discourse. The second part of the bidirectional hermeneutical process alluded to above – the opposite movement from explanation to understanding – constitutes a departure from the initial discourse towards more meaningful ones. In regards to this deeper interpretation or these “depth semantics” of the text, Ricoeur explains: “What has to be understood is not the initial situation of discourse but what points toward a possible world. Understanding has less than ever to do with the author and his or her situation. It wants to grasp the proposed worlds opened up by the references of the text. To understand a text is to follow its movement from sense to reference, from what it says to what it talks about” (Ricoeur, 160).  Following the circular nature of the hermeneutical process, once arrived at these deeper understandings are in turn subject to the same method of argumentative validation.

[1] Ricoeur, P., Blamey, K., & Thompson, J. (2008). From Text to Action. London: Continuum.

Truth and Method

Interpretation cannot strive for perfect enlightenment since consciousness is always historical. As Hans-Georg Gadamer explains in Truth and Method[1], “the standpoint that is beyond any standpoint, a standpoint from which we could conceive its true identity, is a pure illusion” (Gadamer, 423). We should not try to exclude the author’s historical perspective in the hope of revealing some ultimate truth concealed within the text; rather, the historical consciousness must “think within its own historicity” – through interpretation we acquire the author’s perspective and merge it with our own, which in turn broadens our own horizon. As Gadamer explains, we acquire the concepts of the historical past “in such a way that they also include our own comprehension of them” (Gadamer, 421). Since consciousness is shaped by history, the interpreter has no option but to view the text and its author from a perspective informed that history. For Gadamer, the act of interpretation does not involve revealing pure knowledge but instead should be understood as the interpreter’s attempt to reconcile the historical information with his/her own historically effected consciousness. When this reconciliation is successful, a “fusion of horizons” has occurred, which is to say that the interpreter’s horizons have broadened as a result of the hermeneutical exercise.

For Gadamer, interpretation is essentially a question and answer exercise: “That a historical text is made the object of interpretation means that it puts a question to the interpreter. Thus interpretation always involves a relation to the question that is asked of the interpreter. To understand a text means to understand the question” (Gadamer, 417). If interpretation means understanding the question, it follows that there can be no genuine interpretation unless questions are being asked in the first place. Furthermore, the posing of questions entails a degree of openness on behalf of the interpreter towards the historical data. As Gadamer explains, “the openness of what is in question consists in the fact that the answer is not settled (…) The significance of questioning consists in revealing the questionability of what is questioned. It has to be brought into this state of indeterminacy” (Gadamer, 410). The act of interpretation involves raising the possibility of finding out that what was previously assumed to be true may not quite turn out to be the case; to pose the question itself is to admit uncertainty. Therefore, as a prerequisite the interpreter must be sufficiently open-minded on the subject to actually pose the questions and be willing to genuinely entertain various possibilities. As Gadamer explains, “the hermeneutical consciousness culminates not in methodological sureness of itself, but in the same readiness for experience that distinguishes the experienced man from the man captivated by dogma” (Gadamer, 409). The process of interpretation introduces indeterminacy; for the interpreter, there are no certainties, only questions and more questions. The view the matter otherwise is to falsely objectify our knowledge of history.

What is fundamentally important here in relation to Gadamer’s theory of hermeneutics is that the questions posed by the interpreter are not arbitrary – they always originate within the interpreter’s own historical consciousness and are in this sense delimited; that is to say, they are specifically the questions which “make sense” to the interpreter at that point in time. As Gadamer explains, history “determines in advance both what seems to us worth inquiring about and what will appear as an object of investigation” (Gadamer, 350). Furthermore, as part of this hermeneutical process the interpreter anticipates the answers to these questions, again within the constraints of a historically effected consciousness. Gadamer explains that “anticipating an answer itself presupposes that the questioner is part of the tradition and regards himself as addressed by it” (Gadamer, 424). For Gadamer, the interpreter’s anticipation of the answer to the question obviates the point that the interpreter is always already transposing his or her perspective or “historically effected consciousness” onto the text. The posing of the question and the anticipation of the answer is the means by which the interpreter’s existing horizons merge with those of the author to form new ones. As Gadamer explains, historical consciousness is “only something superimposed upon continuing tradition, and hence it immediately recombines with what it has foregrounded itself from in order to become one with itself again in the unity of the historical horizon that it thus acquired” (Gadamer, 356). In this way, the interpreter’s historical consciousness is continuously supplemented through the process of interpretation and prompted to expand and evolve as a result. What is finally arrived at is not the ultimate truth but just a modified historical consciousness that will once again be superimposed onto the next subject of interpretation. For Gadamer, “to be situated within a tradition does not limit the freedom of knowledge but makes it possible” (Gadamer, 408). Our historical consciousness should therefore not be viewed as a limitation – the historical nature of consciousness is precisely what allows us to build upon it.

[1] Gadamer, H., & Weinsheimer, J. (2004). Truth and method (2nd, rev. ed.). London: Continuum.

Introduction to Hermeneutics

As Stanley Porter explains in Hermeneutics[1], “in its most basic sense hermeneutics refers to the many ways in which we may theorize about the nature of human interpretation, whether that means understanding books, works of art, architecture, verbal communication, or even nonverbal bodily gestures” (Porter, 1). Hermeneutics therefore tries to understand how we understand, or as Porter puts it, “it endeavors to describe the already present structure of human understanding and to highlight the conditions for clearer insight and comprehension” (Porter, 5). Hermeneutics is a complex task since we must rely on the very structures of understanding themselves in our effort to try to make sense of these same structures. Any rational or scientific conclusions that we may eventually reach through this endeavor are largely suspect since there is no truly objective lens through which we can observe the phenomenon. We are constantly interpreting, it is how we go about making sense of things in our minds each time we interact with others, pick up a book or walk through a museum. As Porter explains, the structures of human understanding are already present; they are unconscious mechanisms which operate behind the scenes to deliver an end product in the form of an understanding or interpretation of some object or act. Attempting to analyze or expose these structures of understanding in a rational and scientific way is somewhat paradoxical since it is these very structures that will produce whatever interpretation we eventually come up with.

In his phenomenology, Heidegger rightfully points out that we cannot reflect in a purely objective way about our hermeneutics or how we go about interpreting or understanding things. As Porter explains, “for Heidegger, an analysis or description of pure consciousness misses the fundamental truth that we are always already being-in-the-world. The world cannot be bracketed or judgment about actually existent things suspended, for the meaning that things have is known in the context of our relationships to them within the world. Things are perceived and understood as they are encountered and practically used during the course of an ordinary day, and, therefore, known in ways that the act of bracketing would preclude” (Porter, 60).  Everything that we know and understand in the world is determined by our existence in the world and our relationships to people and things within it. Heidegger is justified in his attack against hermeneutical approaches which do not acknowledge this fundamental limitation and which proceed as if the structures of understanding were separable from us and the world. Our relationships to things in the world make it possible for us to understand them in the first place; the world provides the necessary context for interpretation and without the relationships which we constantly engage in within it, there would simply be nothing to understand or interpret.

As Porter further explains, in relation to Heidegger’s phenomenology, “we are thrown into a world in which language, culture, and institutions of life are already given, so no matter where or when we find ourselves we will always be conditioned by our own historical situatedness” (Porter, 61). All aspects of our research into hermeneutic structures such as the methods and approaches of investigation we adopt, the culture and the institutions to which we and our subjects of investigations belong, the history of scientific research and its current general orientation, and even the words we employ to describe phenomena, are all already invested with a certain hermeneutical disposition. Therefore, investigations of this kind are destined to finally reveal no other hermeneutical structures than the ones already deeply established within the observer’s point of view. As Porter further explains, still in relation to Heidegger, “to be being-in-the-world is to be more like actors than neutral and objective knowers. We are participants in and not observers of the world through an abstract and distanced perception of things” (Porter, 61). The being-in-the-world is in constant interaction with the world and these interactions continuously reinforce a specific, pre-existing hermeneutical schema. In this sense, the being-in-the-world is simply acting out a predefined script on a predefined stage, or to put it differently, translating a continuous flow of sights and sounds into knowledge and information that is coherent within the grander scheme of things. It is impossible for the actor to step off the stage and proceed to evaluate what is happening there from an external standpoint; it is always within the confines of the set stage that the being-in-the-world must procede with investigations of any kind.

[1] Porter, S., & Robinson, J. (2011). Hermeneutics: An introduction to interpretive theory. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans.

Revelation Through Literature

Works of literature which touch upon religious themes or ideas require special consideration from the scholar interested in the presence of theological forms concealed within the products of Western culture. The enlightenment has had a decidedly secularizing effect on mainstream Western mentality, effectively encouraging a rational, critical thought process in relation to religious ideas. This has lessened Western dependence on traditional religious doctrine while increasing the intellectual autonomy of the individual to decide for him/herself what to believe. Still, there are certain figures within our society who continue to occupy the roles of spiritual leaders by suggesting, sometimes in a covert manner, definite theological schemes through their work.  Literature is a convenient avenue for the discreet but effective promotion of theological views, and authors, as we shall see, do at times assume this role of spiritual leadership, even though many of them would deny that this was their intent. The purpose of this paper will be to discuss what might be some of the theological intentions concealed within five works of literature by Robert Alter, Leonard Cohen, Timothy Findley, Elaine Pagels and Salmon Rushdie.


I will begin by considering Robert Alter’s translation of the biblical Psalms. In The Book of Psalms, Alter’s stated intent is to rectify what he considers to be translation inaccuracies with respect to the Psalms in the King James Version as well as other English versions of the Bible. For Alter, the most pervasive problem in translating Psalms is the “intrinsic structural compactness of the biblical Hebrew, a feature that the poets constantly exploit musically and otherwise.” Alter explains that “biblical Hebrew is what linguists call a synthetic language, as opposed to analytic languages such as English.” Alter thus acknowledges the difficulty in conveying this rhythmic compactness in English but insists that “more strenuous effort to approximate it is called for than the existing translations have made.” In Alter’s opinion, “the King James Version is often (though not invariably) eloquent, but it ignores the rhythms of the Hebrew almost entirely. The various modern English versions are only occasionally eloquent and sometimes altogether flat-footed” (Alter, xxix). Aside from rhythmic compactness, Alter is concerned with numerous other linguistic considerations in translation, such as syntax (biblical syntax is more flexible than English syntax) and the concreteness of language (biblical Hebrew uses few abstractions). Alter therefore presents numerous concerns regarding the existing translations of the Psalms – concerns which, taken individually, seem like mere technical and linguistic considerations. Yet Alter does not simply identify these linguistic matters, he employs them as a pretext to reformulate the Psalms in his own fashion. My intent here is not to criticize Alter’s translation, nor to evaluate its merits in relation to other English translations. Finally, I do not contest Alter’s right to undertake such an endeavor. My point is, rather, to emphasize the shear boldness of Alter’s project and its inherently theological nature.

Regardless of the technical inaccuracies cited by Alter, the King James Bible has been the standard biblical text for centuries. As such, it has served as the main textual point of reference for countless spiritual followers. With respect to the Psalms in particular, as Alter himself explains, “through the ages, Psalms has been the most urgently, personally present of all the books of the Bible in the lives of many readers” (Alter, xiii). Alter reformulates the Psalms in the interest of technical accuracy, but in so doing he, to an extent, negatives the existing English translations in favor of his own revision. While it may be granted, for argument’s sake, that Alter’s version of the Psalms is more accurate from a purely linguistic perspective, it remains that Alter, in modifying the sacred text, introduces a new theological reference point for believers. As Alter himself readily admits, the technical limitations of translation are not insignificant, and considerable judgement is often required on behalf of the translator. Hence, in order to complete his undertaking, Alter must, to some extent, engage in a creative process. His version of the Psalms should not be viewed simply as a more technically accurate translation of the original text. Rather, Alter puts forth a new version of the Psalms; a version different from existing ones and thus far unknown to believers; a version which negates old formulations in order to make room for new ones.


In Leonard Cohen’s Book of Mercy theology is once again present, although in a different form. This deeply personal set of Psalm-like poems constitutes a dialogue between the author and God, or at least an address or an appeal to God on behalf of the author. The poems, then, presuppose the presence of the divine and the accessibility of the divine through the written word. Consider the following entry:

From you alone to you alone, everlasting to everlasting, all that is not you is suffering, all that is not you is solitude rehearsing the arguments of loss. All that is not you is the man collapsing against his own forehead, and the forehead crushes him. All that is not you goes out and out, gathering the voices of revenge, harvesting lost triumphs far from the real and necessary defeat. It is to you I speak, solitude to unity, failure to mercy, and loss to the light. It is you I welcome here, coming through the coarse glory of my imagination, to this very night, to this very couch, to this very darkness. Grant me a forgiving sleep, and rest my enemy (Cohen, #39).

In this poem, Cohen characterizes God as an entity with quite specific preoccupations. Cohen enumerates a series of human concerns which, according to this poem, do not concern God, such as physical suffering, justification of loss, accident and revenge. Cohen then seems to suggest the presence of a merciful God of unity and light, and hints at some sort of eschatology of ultimate defeat. Finally, Cohen speaks to God directly, inviting Him to his couch and asking Him for sleep and forgiveness. As this passage makes clear, Cohen is not simply reiterating pre-established notions of the divine. He is in fact revealing to the reader the nature of his personal God, a God he knows to be present and who he converses with sometimes through natural and physical phenomena, such as described in the following passage:

I entered the hour of self-accusation. A strange sound trembled in the air. It was caused by the north wind on the electric lines, a sustained chord of surprising harmonies, power and duration, greatly pleasing, a singing of breath and steel, a huge string instrument of masts and fields, complex tensions. Suddenly the judgement was clear (Cohen, #23).

These are personal writings, and it would be quite unfair to assume that Cohen is somehow trying to promote a specific theological scheme intended for public consumption. Cohen, one might assume, remains totally indifferent to the reader’s reaction to what are his deepest spiritual feelings transposed into written form. The personal/divine revelations contained in these poems are not up for discussion or debate, just as someone’s emotional retelling of a dramatic personal crisis cannot be the subject of intellectual critique. Yet it remains that Cohen, through these poems, invites the reader to consider his personal theological setup, one that sustains the primordial emphasis on God but substitutes to some extent the constrictions of traditional doctrine with personal spiritual freedom. In Cohen’s theology, God is retrieved or reconstituted from the devastation of institutional practice and released from His designated sacred location. In displaying the nature of his personal connection to the divine, Cohen acknowledges the divine presence and the human potential to relate to it.


Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage is a quite different project from Alter’s and Cohen’s, since Findley is neither trying to “improve” the linguistic reliability of a sacred text (as Alter does), nor is he engaged in some personal appropriation of a religious tradition (as Cohen seems to be). Not Wanted on the Voyage distorts the biblical story of Noah and the ark to such an extent that Findley appears to be making a statement against the authority and credibility of religious texts as such. Findley seems no more interested in pursuing historical accuracy as he is with reinforcing the essence of sacred texts through creative exploitation. Not Wanted on the Voyage is a display of tremendous imagination and literary talent, but unlike Cohen and Alter, Findley is decidedly uninterested in orienting his efforts in support of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Quite to the contrary, Findley seems to be suggesting that the Noah story is merely a product of human imagination, not unlike his own, extravagant version of the biblical tale, which includes among other things a seven-foot-tall transsexual woman with webbed fingers. Not Wanted on the Voyage can be understood therefore as a celebration of the immense power of our imagination, as witnessed in both the creative process of artists and the wilful adherence of inspired believers to sacred stories.

In the book, Noah is obsessed with Yahweh to such an extent that he becomes abusive to those surrounding him, and the willingness and ability of his wife Mrs. Noyes to stand up to him adorns her with the glow of feminist empowerment. Part of Findley’s agenda might then be understood as an attempt to reverse the overwhelming patriarchal bias within Judeo-Christian texts and institutions. But Findley’s broader theological aims are not straight-forward. Findley boldly desacralizes the biblical flood story, leaving little, if any, possibility of reconciliation between his version and the original. Findley’s work borrows its main premise from the biblical narrative but deviates from it to such an extent that the fixation on God as the centerpiece of devotion is lost in a cloud of magical possibilities. It is as if Findley, through his lively and daring recreation, invites each of us in turn to invent our own sacred stories.                   


Unlike Alter, who updates sacred text in the interest of technical accuracy, and Cohen and Findley, who in their respective ways employ sacred text as a point of departure for their own imaginative constructs, Elaine Pagels in The Origin of Satan is concerned with the dynamics of power and the regimes of truth unfolding throughout the Gospels. As such, Pagels is taking a critical look at the substance of the Judeo-Christian story of Satan as it is presented in the sacred text without intending to necessarily adjust it or in some other way depart from it. In The Origin of Satan, Pagels intends to show how Jesus’ early followers appropriated and transformed the Israelite concept of Satan for the purposes of forming and consolidating a Christian identity in opposition to the Jewish majority. As Pagels explains, for Israelite writers “satan is not an animal or monster but one of God’s angels, a being of superior intelligence and status … In the Hebrew Bible, as in mainstream Judaism to this day, Satan never appears as Western Christendom has come to know him, as the leader of an ‘evil empire,’ and army of hostile spirits who make war on God and humankind alike” (Pagels, 39). Through her careful analysis of the intricate dynamics of power embedded within the sacred texts, Pagels intends to demonstrate how this apparently dramatic alteration of the nature and character of Satan took place within the Judeo-Christian narrative.

Pagels’ approach does have one important thing in common with Alter’s, which is to engage religious text from a safe academic distance, only to wind up nonetheless deeply enmeshed in the game of religious hermeneutics.  Indeed, while Pagels’ investigations may be deemed academic in nature, they also clearly constitute religious interpretations, or re-interpretations of biblical sources.  While Pagels proceeds under the guise of scholarly research, implicit condemnation of Christianity lingers as a constant theme throughout The Origin of Satan. Subtitled “How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics,” The Origin of Satan as a whole stands as an indictment of the Western Christian tradition, a tradition which, according to Pagels, was built on the premise of a toxic dichotomy which opposed God’s people to His enemies. Pagels’ engages in a sort of “theology of history” then, where the cruel historical record of Christians against Jews is traced back to its biblical origins. Pagels avoids broad and immediate conclusions, but the outlay of her analysis highly suggests that much of the Christian animosity against the Jews throughout Western history is anchored in the Bible. The Origin of Satan is a detailed and enlightening academic work, but the intellectual rigor of Pagels’ analysis is overshadowed by the inculpating spirit of her endeavour, and her effort to derive from a mere biblical device an entire history of Judeo-Christian tensions is, finally, more of a theological enterprise than an academic one.


In The Satanic Verses by Salmon Rushdie, we find ourselves once again in the adventurous territory of the literary appropriation of sacred texts. What Rushdie is doing in relation to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad is in a broad sense similar to Findley’s reworking of the Noah story insofar as both works comprise a sort of fantasy derived from religious narrative but characterized by undefined moral aims. Findley and Rushdie both belong to a class of writers with enough courage to directly reference religious material and to produce from it works of fiction with the open-ended interpretational possibilities typical of the genre. That is to say, Findley and Rushdie take what belongs to tradition and transform it into something else, something the tradition no longer owns or controls. As a result, the power of interpretation is transferred from religious authority and its institutions to the individual reader.

But Findley and Rushdie differ in their styles of critique, Rushdie often employing his unique brand of wit and sarcasm to poke fun at the rituals and beliefs of the faithful in a very direct and unrelenting fashion:

Amid the palm-trees of the oasis Gibreel appeared to the Prophet and found himself spouting rules, rules, rules, until the faithful could scarcely bear the prospect of any more revelation, Salman said, rules about every damn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one’s behind. It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left unregulated, free. The revelation – the recitation – told the faithful how much to eat, how deeply they should sleep, and which sexual positions had received divine sanction, so that they learned that sodomy and the missionary position were approved of by the archangel, whereas  the forbidden postures included all those in which the female was on top. Gibreel further listed the permitted and forbidden subjects of conversation, and earmarked the parts of the body which could not be scratched no matter how unbearably they itched (Rushdie, 376).

The passage quoted above is a good example of how Rushdie is willing to ignore the sensibilities of the faithful by purposely ridiculing their beliefs and practices.  Throughout The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s humoristic take on various facets of the Islamic tradition seems to be a call on his part for a general calming of religious sensitivities. Rushdie seems to be asking, if the faithful cannot stand a little humor or sarcasm directed at their beliefs and practices, then what does that tell us about the basis and real strength of their convictions? But The Satanic Verses is more than a simple test of Islamic sensitivity. Instead, Rushdie is making a broader statement about the place and relevance of overdone religious sensitivity within our advanced modern world.

It is clear that Rushdie, unlike Findley, is not rewriting a sacred narrative. But what the approaches of Rushdie and Findley do have in common is the willingness to assert the imaginative nature of our sacred stories, with the undeniable implication that they are just that – stories. The religiously devout, however, are prone to confuse the separate worlds of fiction and reality, with undesirable consequences. For Findley and Rushdie, religious followers should not be upset by the fictional transformation of traditional religious narratives since, in the final analysis, all stories, including religious ones, are mere products of the human imagination. Any negative reaction to a creative manipulation of a sacred story is therefore unjustified, since the authors of these manipulations are merely engaging in the human propensity to become inspired and to create. Cohen, in his own way, is performing a similar exercise, but without the element of provocation. His work too is a definite affirmation of the human involvement in divine inspiration.

We are left to wonder then about the theological void left once the Findleys and the Rushdies of this world have exercised their right to tamper with our spiritual sources. What is an appropriate response on behalf of the faithful to these attacks on the foundations of religious belief? While the literary offensives of Findley and Rushdie might seem harmful and disturbing to the faithful, it is important to realize as well that, given the public attention received by these works, they in their own way continue to generate awareness about the traditions they objectify. While The Satanic Verses is hardly informative on Islam, one of the effects of the public attention it generated was certainly to spread some degree of awareness about Islam amongst those not familiar with the tradition, if by no other means than merely the clarifications put forth by Rushdie’s critics regarding the fundamental tenets of the tradition that ought not to be ridiculed. And while The Satanic Verses is a primarily a work of fiction, which Rushdie did not put together for the purpose of educating the public on Islam, some real aspects of the tradition are conveyed in the book, such as, for example, the oral nature of the transmission of the message of God to the Prophet via the archangel Gabriel.

Yet critics will rightfully point out that it is precisely through his treatment of these characteristics of Islam that Rushdie ridicules the tradition. For instance, the reliability of the oral tradition is questioned by Rushdie as he imagines the Prophet’s suspicious scribe taking it upon himself to modify the words of the Prophet as he records them in writing, seemingly without causing the expected reaction from the Prophet:

So there I was, actually writing the Book, or rewriting, anyway, polluting the word of God with my own profane language. But, good heavens, if my poor words could not be distinguished from the Revelation by God’s own Messenger, then what did that mean? What did that say about the quality of the divine poetry? (Rushdie, 380)

Still, it remains that the book itself, as well as the controversy it triggered, all comprised a discourse related to Islam, and as such mainly served to focus our attention on the tradition.

In defense of Findley, and especially Rushdie, it seems unreasonable to set limitations on the acceptable range of literary exploitation of sacred material. If it is acceptable for Alter to reformulate the Psalms in the name of linguistic and textual integrity, and for Cohen to digress from tradition by way of personal inspiration, then how can it not be acceptable for Findley and Rushdie to submit their own respective creative outputs in regards to religion?

The academic study of religion, despite itself, often gets entangled with theology, the boundaries between religious studies and theology being somewhat unclear. As I have tried to demonstrate here, Alter, Cohen, Pagels, Findley and Rushdie all have their respective theological agendas. Alter and Pagels are special cases, since their work is not explicitly theological, but upon closer examination, definite theological positions can be ascertained within it. Findley and Rushdie seem to be mocking, respectively, the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, but at the same time their tales comprise alternate, magical narratives that invite spiritual reflection, and so in this sense they constitute theologies of their own kind. As Rushdie’s defenders point out, freedom of expression should supersede the interests of a particular religious group. But if all Rushdie was doing in The Satanic Verses was entertaining his inalienable right to free speech, the book might not have caused such uproar. Rather, it is the dazzle of Rushdie’s detailed, elaborate and carefully constructed alternate religious universe which the faithful should find so disturbing.

In one way or another then, all the authors addressed in this paper allow themselves a certain degree of literary freedom in dealing with their respective traditions. In this sense, all of them to some extent engage in theological discourse. This is not surprising, even with respect to Alter and Pagels whom you might more closely associate with the academic study of religion, since religious traditions are, after all, not dissociable from the theologies which constitute their intellectual foundations. Still, religion is not like any other subject of academic investigation, due to the sometimes irrational basis of religious belief and the potentially sensitive emotional dispositions of believers in regards to their faith. It is therefore not the case that a writer or scholar can simply make any statement about a religious tradition without potentially offending someone or triggering an emotional reaction of some sort. Then again, there are those like Findley and Rushdie whose work might be understood more as a statement against religion as such, as a denial of the legitimacy of the continued presence of religion within modern society, along the same lines of the arguments put forth by Christopher Hitchens, who incidentally described Salmon Rushdie as a personal friend. These authors and their supporters will claim that the negative reactions to their work should be understood merely as symptoms of the continued presence in society of an evil force which must be eradicated.


Alter, R. (2007). The book of Psalms: a translation with commentary. New York, W.W. Norton.

Cohen, L. (1984). Book of mercy. New York, Villard Books.

Findley, T. (1984). Not wanted on the voyage. New York, Delacorte Press.

Pagels, E. H. (1995). The origin of Satan. New York, Random House.

Rushdie, S. (1989). The satanic verses. New York, N.Y., Viking.

Inculpating Christianity

satanIn The Origin of Satan, Elaine Pagels intends to show how Jesus’ early followers appropriated and transformed the Israelite concept of Satan for the purposes of forming and consolidating a Christian identity in opposition to the Jewish majority. As Pagels explains, for Israelite writers “satan is not an animal or monster but one of God’s angels, a being of superior intelligence and status … In the Hebrew Bible, as in mainstream Judaism to this day, Satan never appears as Western Christendom has come to know him, as the leader of an ‘evil empire,’ and army of hostile spirits who make war on God and humankind alike” (Pagels, 39). If we trust Pagels’ interpretation, Satan’s transformation within Christianity has been quite dramatic, evolving as he did from a supremely intelligent being in the Israelite version into some kind of animal or monster. The point that Christians introduced a revamped notion of Satan is adequately supported through Pagels’ analysis of the Christian Gospels, yet in the passage cited above and elsewhere in the book, Pagels demonstrates a certain proneness to sensationalism. To claim that the Hebrew Satan is not an animal or a monster is also to suggest that the Christian notion of Satan, by contrast, does represent such things. By logical extension then, since Christians equate Satan principally with their Jewish enemies, Pagels seems to be arguing that, from a Christian perspective, Jews are effectively “animals” or “monsters.” Pagels’ conclusions clearly need to be situated in their appropriate historical context, that is to say, the period of the first couple hundred years after Christ. Pagels, however, is not particularly keen on restricting the implications of her findings to this early period within the Christian era (note that Pagels, in the passage cited above, refers to current mainstream Judaism as well as Western Christendom, understood as the cumulative history of the Christian movement). Pagels’ investigations of the Christian Gospels in general, and of the use of Satan in particular, may be deemed academic in nature, yet they also clearly constitute religious interpretations, or re-interpretations of these Biblical sources.  While Pagels proceeds under the guise of scholarly research, implicit condemnation of Christianity lingers as a constant theme throughout The Origin of Satan.

As Pagels explains in the introduction, “Conflict between groups is, of course, nothing new. What may be new in  Western Christian tradition … is how the use of Satan to represent one’s enemies lends to conflict a specific kind of moral and religious interpretation, in which ‘we’ are God’s people and ‘they’ are God’s enemies, and ours as well” (Pagels, xix). The Origin of Satan presents itself as a work of religious and social history, yet these introductory remarks suggest an underlying agenda which extends beyond mere historical analysis. For reasons that may have less to do with scholarly rigour and more to do with generating popular interest in her book, Pagels begins her work with the sensationalistic hypothesis that Christians are somehow responsible for the inception of a terrible idea with profound historical implications. Subtitled “How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics,” The Origin of Satan as a whole stands as an indictment of the Western Christian tradition, a tradition which, according to Pagels, was built on the premise of a toxic dichotomy which opposed God’s people to His enemies. Yet the dualism suggested by Pagels is not a Christian novelty. We need in fact to look no further than The Book of Psalms for ample evidence of the existence of this same spirit of confrontation within the Hebrew Bible. As Pagels herself even explains, “from the beginning, Israelite tradition defines ‘us’ in ethnic, political, and religious terms as ‘the people of Israel,’ or ‘the people of God,’ as against ‘them’ – the (other) nations, the alien enemies of Israel, often characterized as inferior, morally depraved, even potentially accursed” (Pagels, 36). Thus, it is unclear how this dualism inherent to Judaism differs significantly from the dualism resulting from the Christian interpretation of Satan. Furthermore, Pagels identifies strong similarities between the Christian appropriation of Satan and that of certain marginal or extreme Jewish groups such as the Essenes. As Pagels explains, “these dissidents began increasingly to invoke the satan to characterize their Jewish opponents; in the process they turned this rather unpleasant angel into a far grander – and far more malevolent – figure. No longer one of God’s faithful servants, he begins to become what he is for Mark and for later Christianity – God’s antagonist, his enemy, even his rival” (Pagels, 47). If the Essenes converted Satan into a malevolent figure as effectively as the Christians did, how can it be that this represents a uniquely Western Christian phenomenon, as Pagels claims in her introduction?

It is understood that the specific focus of Pagels’ book is the notion of Satan and its specific deployment within Christianity for decidedly strategic purposes, and it is fair to say that Pagels describes this deployment in a convincing manner, demonstrating how Christians transformed the Hebrew notion of Satan from merely the Adversary into something far more antagonistic. Yet Pagels oversteps the bounds of her scholarly endeavour by suggesting that Christians, through their demonization of others, effectively demonized themselves. While the events that characterized the two thousand year history of Christianity, including the many instances of persecution against the Jews, remains technically outside the scope of Pagels’ analysis, her work contains much indirect insinuation regarding the actual repercussions that this early Christian demonization of the Jews would eventually cause throughout that history. As Pagels explains, “as the Christian movement became increasingly Gentile during the second century and later, the identification of Satan primarily with the Jewish enemies of Jesus, borne along in Christian tradition over the centuries, would fuel the fires of anti-semitism” (Pagels, 34). Also, as she states in the conclusion, “for the most part, Christians have taught – and acted upon – the belief that their enemies are evil and beyond redemption” (Pagels, 184). In these passages, Pagels seems to be diagnosing Christianity’s basic illness; a fundamental corruption within the Christian worldview to which many unfortunate events over centuries of Western history can somehow be attributed. But anti-semitism, as it has been witnessed throughout Western history, cannot simply be explained by the Christian identification of Satan with the Jews.  Yet Pagels allows herself significant liberty in interpreting the historical effects of the Christian deployment of Satan, an imprudent move that may cause certain readers to conclude that it is somewhere defined within the fundamental spirit of Christianity that it should tend to engage in the massive destruction of its enemies. Religious violence in the modern, Western world is not simply attributable to biblical doctrine; it is far more complex than that, as historians and sociologists have shown.[1] The credibility of Pagels’ narrative, however thorough, detailed, and enlightening, is somewhat compromised by the false suggestiveness of her conclusions. The intellectual rigor of Pagels’ analysis is overshadowed by the inculpating spirit of her endeavor. Her effort to derive from a mere Biblical device an entire history of Judeo-Christian tensions is, in the final analysis, more of a theological enterprise than an academic one.


Pagels, E. H. (1995). The Origin of Satan. New York, Random House.

[1] For an example of the complexities involved in understanding modern religious violence, see Zigmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1989).