Literature: Literature and Religion
LITERATURE: LITERATURE AND RELIGION
The most apparent and apposite justification for including literary materials in the study of religion is the historical one. What is most obvious, however, is often overlooked. In virtually every high-cultural system, be it the Indic, the Islamic, the Sino-Japanese, or the Judeo-Christian, the literary tradition has, though in vastly different forms and guises, developed in intimate—indeed, often intertwining—relation to religious thought, practice, institution, and symbolism. Without paying due heed to Greek myth and thought, to Hebrew saga and wisdom, and to Christian symbolism and piety, the twenty-five-hundred-year "drama of European literature," as German scholar Erich Auerbach calls it, simply cannot be understood. Conversely, our knowledge of these three religious traditions, of their self-expression and cultural impact, would be grossly truncated without specific consideration of their literary legacy in both canonical and extracanonical writings. In a similar way, Daoist rituals, Buddhist dogmas, and Confucian ethics joined, in imperial China, to shape and sustain the classic forms of Chinese lyric poetry, drama, and prose fiction. The itinerant Buddhist priest and his exorcistic exploits in medieval Japan have provided numerous plots for Nō drama, while subtle debates on the buddhahood of trees and plants (somoku jobutsu ) underlie many of the exquisite waka of Saigyo, the twelfth-century poet. In Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and several major divisions of Buddhism, sacred and secular hermeneutics have developed, at various periods, in a parallel or mutually influential manner. To ignore this interrelatedness of holy and profane texts and the interdependence of their interpretive sciences is to distort large segments of the world's literary and religious history.
The Testimony of Literature
Scholars have frequently suggested that certain genres of literature, notably poetry and drama, may have arisen directly from religious rituals. While such a view may not be applicable to all forms of literature, the Romanian-born American religious scholar Mircea Eliade determined that the origin of some types of epic is traceable to the practice of shamanism. One of the most important and conspicuous features of literature's relation to religion is thus that of affirmation, in the sense that literature—both oral and written—functions to preserve and transmit religious ideas and actions. Witness the detailed description of Sibylline prophecy in the Roman poet Virgil's Aeneid (6.77–102) or haruspicy (foretelling the future) in the Roman dramatist Seneca's Oedipus (303ff.). Sometimes in a particular culture, as in the case of ancient India, literature may be the principal record of a religious tradition.
German scholar Albin Lesky noted in A History of Greek Literature (1966) that the "relation between gods and men is central in the world of Homer" to an even greater extent, Lesky's observation would describe a vast amount of ancient Near Eastern and Indian literature. Dubbed "une initiation manquée" by Eliade in Histoire des croyances et des idées religieuses (1976), the Epic of Gilgamesh, in its Sumerian and Old Babylonian versions, is a classic example of religious materials commingling with entertainment and adventure, the accepted hallmark of secular literature. Although its action is concerned with the ostensibly human quest for knowledge and escape from mortality, and though there is no firm evidence that the poem was ever recited as part of religious ritual (as was Enuma elish, the Babylonian poem of creation), Gilgamesh itself nonetheless provides its readers with a full and intricate view of Mesopotamian cosmology and theogony. As the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu unfolds through its several extant episodes—the siege of a city, a forest journey, the routing of a fickle goddess, the lamented death of a tutelary companion—the epic simultaneously describes the character and activity of a host of deities. The vast pantheon and the important role these deities play in the poem reveal important conceptions of the divine in this ancient civilization. Moreover, the story of the Deluge and vivid accounts of the underworld have, understandably, elicited illuminating comparison with Hebraic notions of creation and eschatology.
To students of the Indian tradition, it is entirely appropriate, indeed even commonplace, to assert that religion provides both form and substance for virtually all of its classical literary culture. So indivisible are the two phenomena that in The Literatures of India: An Introduction Edward Dimock and his colleagues write that "until relatively modern times in India—meaning by India the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent—it is sometimes difficult to distinguish literature from religious documentation. This is not because there has been an imposition of a system of religious values on the society; it is rather because religion in India is so interwoven with every facet of life, including many forms of literature, that it becomes indistinguishable" (1974). The truth of such a sweeping declaration is to be found first and foremost in the exalted doctrine of the spoken word in Indian antiquity, in every sense a potent equal to the Hebraic davar or the Johannine logos. This view holds that literary speech, not that of home or court but a way of speaking that is deliberately cultivated, is virtually identical with divinity, "the Goddess herself, the first utterance of Prajapati, Lord of Creation, and herself coterminous with creation" (Dimock). Literary speech is the language enshrined in the Vedas, four collections of hymns with origins dating to the second millennium bce. Although these hymns are themselves magnificent and majestic ruminations on humankind's place in the cosmos and our relation to our fellow creatures, and on the great questions of life and death, it is the language itself that was supremely revered long before the texts were transcribed. It is as if the serene sublimity of the text, called sruti ("revelation" or "that which one has sacramentally heard"), demands of its earthly celebrants a method of transmission that would defy the corrosive power of time. To the long line of priests entrusted with this awesome responsibility, this concept means the obsessive concern for letter- and accent-perfect recitation of these sacred hymns and sacrificial incantations. This profound respect for the word not unexpectedly gave rise also to a science of linguistic analysis, in which detailed etymological investigation complements the exhaustive, minute dissections of words and their linguistic components. The Sanskrit grammar of Pāṇini (fl. around 400 bce), comparable in effect to the minister Li Si's codification of the Chinese radical system (c. 213 bce) and Xushen's compilation of the first great dictionary, Shuowen Jiezi (c. 121), exemplified this science and standardized Sanskrit as a national literary language.
That language, of course, is also the mother tongue of many of India's major literary monuments. As the texts of the Vedas have led to the development of philosophical speculations later embodied in the Aranyakas and the Upaniṣads, so the literature in Sanskrit, as defined according to Pāṇini's grammar, encompasses the two monumental epics, the Mahābhārata (compiled between 500 bce and 400 ce) and the Rāmāyaṇa, authored by the poet Valmiki in the first century. The length of the former is unique in world literature; it is a one-hundred-thousand-line poem about the protracted conflict between two rival brothers, Dhrtarastra and Pandu, and their descendents, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Sometimes called "the fifth Veda," it is also a massive compendium of mythologies, folk tales, discourses, and dogmas (the Bhagavadgītā is an insertion in the sixth book of the poem) that epitomizes what scholar Northrop Frye has termed "the encyclopedic form."
Unlike its companion, the Rāmāyaṇa is a shorter work with a more unified perspective, a romantic tale in which the hero, Rāma, assisted by a host of magical monkeys led by Hanuman, their simian leader, routs the god Ravana, abductor of Rāma's wife. Similar to the compendious nature of the two epics are the Purāṇas, a repository of "stories and tales and sayings that document the thoughts, the religious attitudes, and the perceptions of self and world of the Indian peoples" (Dimock). The first century ce, which saw the Rāmāyaṇa 's composition, also witnessed the birth of the kavya style of writing, the poetic expressions of which include both the longer narrative form (the mahakavya ) and the short lyric (the subhasita ).
Sanskrit is just one of the major linguistic and literary currents in the history of India. Other significant tributaries which must be mentioned include the Dravidian literatures, of which the four primary languages are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam, each having its own forms and conventions and its own epic, lyric, and narrative works. There are also rich and varied specimens of Hindi and Bengali religious lyric, and for students of Buddhism, Pali and Prakrit literatures constitute the indispensable vehicle for both canonical and extracanonical writings. Though the scholar of Indian religions, like all scholars of religions, must also study art and architecture, rites and institutions, icons and cults, social structures and cultural patterns, the length and breadth of that nation's literary history offers a magnificent panoply of virtually all the salient themes of religion: cosmology and eschatology, theogony and theomachy, dharma and karma, sin and redemption, pollution and purification, fertility and immortality, initiation and apotheosis, austerity and piety, and the thousand faces of the divine. In From Myth to Fiction: The Saga of Hadingus (1973), the French scholar Georges Dumézil demonstrates in his studies the inextricable link between the gods and heroes in an epic like the Mahābhārata. The five Pandava heroes, as well as countless others, are bonded to the mythic by divine parentage. These heroes replicate on earth the tripartite function of their parents: sovereignty, force, and fecundity. Moreover, whole mythological scenarios have been "transposed," according to Dumézil, onto the human level to undergird the characters and their actions in the epic. The eschatological conflict at the end of the world becomes the great battle of the Mahābhārata and numerous other Indo-European epics. The ancient opposition between the Sun and the Storm God in the Vedas is transplanted in the famous duel between Karna (son of the Sun) and Arjuna (son of Indra). To understand this aspect of the epic characters and their exploits is therefore to recognize "an entire archaic mythology," displaced but nonetheless intact. For this reason also, Dumézil can claim that what we know of the formation of such epics is equivalent "to the same thing in many societies, the formation of 'the history of origins'" (Du mythe aux roman, 1970).
India is not the only culture wherein a developed body of literary texts serves as a fundamental datum for the scholar of religion. In a well-known passage, the Greek historian Herodotos has observed that "Homer and Hesiod are the poets who composed our theogonies and described the gods for us, giving them all their appropriate titles, offices, and powers" (Histories 2.15). This claim is not in dispute, though the picture drawn by these two poets must be supplemented by the Homeric Hymns and the works of Stesichorus, Pindar, and the tragedians.
Theogony, a work attributed to Hesiod and composed soon after 700 bce, contains meticulous descriptions of the underworld. This feature indicates the Greeks' deep interest in the condition and physical locale of the departed; moreover, the thematic resonance of the subject would, through Book Eleven of the Odyssey, spread beyond Hellenic culture to touch such subsequent Western poets as Vergil and Dante. As befits its name, however, Theogony is centrally concerned with the processes of divine emergence, differentiation, and hierarchy. Since it purports to trace the successive stages by which Zeus (a sky and storm god of unambiguously Indo-European origin) attained his unchallenged supremacy, the poem devotes greater attention to those immediately related to this deity and his dynastic struggles (Kronos, Hekate, Prometheus, and a motley crew of monsters and giants) than to other prominent members of the Olympian circle of Twelve Gods. While the earlier portion of the work focuses on cosmogonic development in which Ouranos and Gaia, sky and earth, were first enveloped and then separated by Chaos, the latter part chronicles among other events the series of Zeus's marriages—to Metis, Themis, Eurynome, Mnemosyne, and Hera. The significance of these multiple unions and erotic adventures is discernibly both religious (hierogamy) and political. Eliade notes, "By taking to himself the local, pre-Hellenic goddesses, worshiped since time immemorial, Zeus replaces them and, in so doing, begins the process of symbiosis and unification which gives to Greek religion its specific character" (Histoire, vol. 1, 1976). This portrait of Zeus's growth and triumph has its literary counterpart in the depiction of the central heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey, who are also transformed from local cultic figures to the Panhellenic heroes of immortal songs.
The Homeric poems offer possibly the earliest and certainly the fullest account of the gods after they have achieved their permanent stations and functions. Throughout the two epics, the presence is felt not only of Zeus but also of martial and tutelary deities like Athena, Hera, Apollo, and Poseidon and of gods with particular functions like Hermes and Hephaestus. The critical roles such deities assume, as well as their unpredictable behavior, confer on the relation between gods and men its characteristic antinomies: distance and nearness, kindness and cruelty, justice and self-will.
Of the heroes of Greece, Herodotos has said that they "have no place in the religion of Egypt," implying that the worship of noteworthy dead men and women, real or imaginary, is peculiar to Hellenic culture. In fact, however, because these sorts of individuals do populate other Indo-European literatures, their presence in Homer sheds an odd, distinguishing light on these poems as both literary masterpieces and religious documents. The fact that they are local cultic figures celebrated by a Panhellenic epic tradition means that the central heroes "cannot have an overtly religious dimension in the narrative," according to Gregory Nagy in The Best of the Acheans (1979). On the other hand, it is not the near-divinity of the Greek heroes—their cultic background, their fully or semidivine parentage, or their elicitation of subsequent speculation on how virtuous humans can become gods—that makes them impressive. It is, rather, says author Paolo Vivante in The Homeric Imagination (1970), the "disconcerting ambiguity" of their humanity—"to be born of gods, and yet to be human"—that sets apart figures like Achilles and Prometheus (in Greek dramatist Aeschylus's trilogy) and endows them with problematic magnitude.
The Homeric poems are famous for their portrayals of the deities in the image of human virtues and vices, of precipitous actions and petulant emotions. These anthropomorphic features, however, cannot obscure the one profound feeling pervading all classical Greek literatures: that between gods and men a great gulf exists. Whereas the blessed Olympians are immortal, humans are miserable, short-lived creatures who may, in the words of Apollo, "glow like leaves with life as they eat the fruits of the earth and then waste away into nothing" (Iliad 21.463).
Only against this background of life's brevity and human insignificance can the strivings of heroic virtue be seen in their greatest intensity and special poignancy. Only in the light of the constant injunction against excess and aspiration to divinity, that one should not forget one's mortality, can the heroic epithet "godlike" attain its fullest ironic impact. In Homer and in the tragedians, the gods are free to uphold or to dispose, to confirm or to deceive, to enable or to destroy. They may even be tied to particular individuals (Apollo and Hector, Athena and Odysseus) by means of an affinity that is both natural and ideal; yet at no point in this divine-human encounter are the gods to be trusted. "The gods have made us suffer," declares Penelope to her husband Odysseus at their long-awaited reunion, "for they are jealous to think that we two, always together, should enjoy our youth and arrive at the threshold of old age" (Odyssey 23.210-212). The pathos of this utterance notwithstanding, the mood of this epic is not one of bitter regret for what fulfillment life might have brought had the divine powers been more benign. The Odyssey is, rather, a celebration of the exercise of human intelligence, resourcefulness, courage, and loyalty in the presence of overwhelming odds, as is the Iliad also, specifically when depicting Hector's farewell and departure for battle, or Priam's solitary confrontation of Achilles. In After Babel (1975), George Steiner writes, "The totality of Homer, the capacity of the Iliad and Odyssey to serve as repertoire for most of the principal postures of Western consciousness—we are petulant as Achilles and old as Nestor, our homecomings are those of Odysseus."
To speak of the gods' jealousy and self-will is to confront the character of their morality, already a problem disturbingly felt in the Homeric poems but reserved for the keenest scrutiny by the tragic dramatists. The fundamental issue is whether human suffering is an affair of crime and punishment, as when Paris in his sin brought down divine wrath (nemesis ) upon his city (Iliad 13.623), or whether suffering is the result of capricious interference by the gods (often referred to as atē ).
Tragedy's enduring bequest to Western civilization, and its first paradox, is the arresting but troubling spectacle of the failure of an extraordinary individual. Men and women like Ajax, Philoctetes, Oedipus, Antigone, and Medea, because of their exalted station in life and nobility of character, should in all likelihood enjoy success. Tragedy, however, disabuses us of that expectation by showing us that, as the classicist James Redfield puts it in Nature and Culture in the "Iliad" (1975), "virtue is insufficient to happiness." Its second paradox stems from the realization that such a spectacle can be intensely pleasing. Aristotle's Poetics, attempting to explain both these phenomena, concentrates on the ideal properties of tragedy's internal structure and its designed effect on the audience. Many modern interpreters believe that catharsis, whatever its precise meaning, represents the key to the Aristotelian understanding of tragic pleasure. The aesthetic appeal of tragedy lies in its capacity to neutralize or purge the tragic emotions of pity and fear aroused by the incidents in the plot, much as the mimetic medium itself delights the audience by working to remove the repugnance caused by certain natural objects (Poetics 1448b). The realization of tragedy's aesthetic power, however, hinges on the proper resolution of the first paradox. Hence Aristotle highlights the concept of hamartia: an good but not perfect person fails, not out of his or her own vice or crime, but through error or ignorance.
Such a formulation clearly reflects the philosopher's perception of the necessarily unequal balance between culpability and consequence. The protagonist must not be wholly innocent or wholly wicked, for his suffering should neither revolt nor exhilarate. Only undeserved suffering or the kind that is disproportionate to one's offense can arouse the requisite tragic emotion of pity (cf. Aristotle, Rhetoric 1386b). The audience's cognitive and emotive response thus depends on its accurate assessment of the hero's situation, which in turn depends on how a drama unravels the causes of faulty knowledge or ignorance of circumstance that can initiate a disastrous sequence of action. Although Aristotle's explanation stresses human motivation and action, the literary texts themselves are more ambiguous, for they frequently point to the complementary image of divine interference as the ultimate cause of evil in human existence.
Whereas atē in Homeric religion invariably implies the awful delusion instigated by capricious deities, writers such as Hesiod, Solon, Theognis, and Pindar tend to see it also as a form of punishment for human arrogance and violence. Both strands of emphasis converge in the theology of the dramatists. In Aeschylus's The Persians, for example, Xerxes is both victimized by a demon, which exacerbates his actions, and guilty of hubris, for which he is further afflicted by delusion. In the Oresteia, Zeus is extolled as all-seeing, all-powerful, the cause of all, and the bearer of justice. Against such a high view of the godhead, nonetheless, there is at the same time the discordant and jarring emphasis, notably in Prometheus Bound, on Zeus as a cruel and truculent despot, one who is hardhearted (160) and is not open to reason or entreaty (184–185). The string of testimonies on divine malevolence extends even further in the plays of Sophocles and Euripides. Perhaps the extreme expression of the god who blinds and dooms is to be found in the latter's Heracles when Lyssa, at Hera's command, appears in palpable form to madden the pious hero, who kills his wife and children, mistaking them for the sons of Eurystheus.
Even in the dramas which make no use of such sensational devices as the deus ex machina, in Hamartia: Tragic Error in the "Poetics" of Aristotle and in Greek Tragedy (1969), Jan Bremmer notes that there is a constant depiction of "an arbitrary and malicious interference of the gods with human action, causing infatuation in man and resulting in disaster." In the language of the dramatists, atē has consequently been interpreted by contemporary scholars as the counterbalance to Aristotle's concept of hamartia. Though it neither exculpates the guilty nor exempts the person from accountability, atē helps the reader think the unthinkable. The momentous error leading to disaster cannot be "explained" fully by human irrationality, excess of passion, or finitude of knowledge alone. "When adverse circumstance seems to give evidence of a hidden pattern hostile to man," as Redfield notes, the dramatists invariably invoke the deed of the god who strikes for producing the ironic perversion of purposive action (including Oedipus's desperate moves to save his city and Phaedra's tactics under the influence of Aphrodite). This aspect of tragedy is what shocks Plato, for its explicit formulation, as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur succinctly points out in Symbolism of Evil (1967), "would mean self-destruction for the religious consciousness." Therefore, the notion of evil's divine origin cannot be suggested or made explicit in reflective wisdom, cultic worship, or the reasoned discourse of formal theology. It can come into thought only through the concrete, albeit circuitous, medium of art. The figure of the wicked god is not, however, an isolated cultural aberration of ancient Greece; the historian of religion Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty notes in The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (1976) that the Indian tradition also embodies many paths of theodicy and antitheodicy. The literary data that enshrine tragic theology, scandalous though its implications may be, will therefore always be pertinent to the study of certain types of religious phenomena—from primitive sacrifices to the modern anomaly of a Jonestown massacre.
If Greek religion has had lasting impact on major genres of classical literature, the effect of the Christian religion on Western literary tradition is even more pronounced and far-reaching. In the incisive observation by author E. R. Curtius in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953), "It was through Christianity that the book received its highest consecration. Christianity was a religion of the Holy Book. Christ is the only god whom antique art represents with a book-scroll. Not only at its first appearance but also throughout its entire early period, Christianity kept producing new sacred writings—documents of the faith such as gospels, letters of apostles, apocalypses; acts of martyrs; lives of saints; liturgical books." There is, however, one crucial difference between Classical Greek literature and Christian writing. Whereas the former is largely reflective of a religious ethos peculiar to one culture, the latter is by no means the unique product of one solitary community. Even the language and form of Christian canonical writings bear the imprint of antecedent religious milieus, notably the Jewish and the Greco-Roman. In his zeal to defend Christian particularism, the second-century apologist Tertullian once posed the famous question "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" In this rhetorical question, however, he failed to remember that Jerusalem as a sacred city and a symbol of faith was not solely a Christian notion. Throughout its long history, Christianity and its environing culture have always developed in a dialectical fashion of discreteness and syncretism, invention and adaptation, disjunction and harmony.
Such a process is apparent at the outset of Christian literary history, in the twenty-seven documents that make up the New Testament. Virtually all four major literary types found in the canon—gospel, acts, letters, and apocalypse—possess the paradoxical features of distinctiveness and newness in utterance on the one hand and affinity and alliance with local literary cultures on the other. In its formal totality, the gospel may be regarded as a novel genre created by the early Christian community, since its synthetic amalgamation of narrative, biography, history, dialogue, and sermonic materials defies easy classification. When analyzed in the light of historical and form criticism, however, many of the gospel's smaller, constitutive units are demonstrably comparable to other verbal forms and expressions found in the religious and philosophical movements of the Hellenistic world. There are, for example, elements of the biographical apothegm, which chronicles the life of a sage climaxing in pregnant sayings or dramatic dialogues; and there are tales of the miracle worker or healing hero common to Mediterranean religions of that era. The permanent legacy of Jesus as master teacher may well have been his highly individualized use of the parable, but the form itself was long known in rabbinic instruction. The content of Jesus' teachings on many occasions again may show striking originality or deviation from tradition, but the language in which his teachings and actions are cast (e.g., the marked series of anaphoras that introduce the Beatitudes, and the deliberately crafted introduction to Luke and Acts ) can also significantly reveal the author or redactor's familiarity with classical rhetoric and literary form.
This phenomenon of originality joined with conventionality also characterizes the named, anonymous, or pseudonymous epistolary writings of the New Testament. Students of the apostle Paul's letters are understandably prone to stress their distinctive features: the Christian transformation of the opening and address; the special use of the diatribe; the vivid autobiographical accounts; the intimate, personal tone of his concerns; and the powerful texture woven out of both kerygma (the proclamation of Christ as crucified and risen Lord) and parenesis (exhortations and advice to churches). To balance such an emphasis, it must be pointed out that these apostolic documents are not isolated instances of letter writing. Letters in the ancient world were used, among other purposes, as a medium for the exposition of ideas, and such writings as those of Epicurus on philosophy, Archimedes and Eratosthenes on science, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus on literary criticism still provide an illuminating context for the study of Christian epistolary achievement. Increasingly, contemporary New Testament scholarship has come to recognize that Paul's education may well have included exposure to the rhetoric of Roman law courts, the practices of itinerant Greek philosophers, and the conventions of Greek letter-writers. For example, Hans Deiter Betz has analyzed the letter to the churches in Galatia in terms of the classical apology (whose form includes the exordium, narration, proposition, proof, and conclusion), and Wayne A. Meeks sees the famous chapter on love in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 13) as a possible imitation of a Greek encomium on virtue.
In the subsequent centuries of the Christian era in the West, the tension between "pagan learning" and an emergent Christian literary culture continues to be evident. Anticipating by more than a millennium some of the sentiments of Milton's Christ in Paradise Regained, the Didascalia apostolorum (Teachings of the Apostles, 12) solemnly instructs the faithful:
But avoid all books of the heathen.… If thou wouldst read historical narratives, thou hast the Book of Kings; but if philosophers and wise men, thou hast the Prophets, wherein thou shalt find wisdom and understanding more than that of the wise men and philosophers. And if thou wish for songs, thou hast the Psalms of David; but if thou wouldst read of the beginning of the world, thou hast the Genesis of the great Moses; and if laws and commandments, thou hast the glorious Law of the Lord God. All strange writings therefore which are contrary to these wholly eschew.
The persistence of Greco-Roman paideia (education and acculturation) in the schools and the gradual increase of educated converts, however, rendered it inevitable that a narrow parochialism had to modify itself. In his On Christian Doctrine, Augustine of Hippo (354–430) epitomizes the alternate attitude in a rhetorical question: "While the faculty of eloquence, which is of great value in urging either evil or justice, is in itself indifferent, why should it not be obtained for the uses of the good in the service of truth?" Once Christians had settled on this prosaic but potent justification for art, realizing that beauty could be enlisted for the cause of faith, incentives for adapting alien cultural forms and creating original productions multiplied. Echoing Augustine's sentiments, the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert asked of his God:
Doth poetry Wear Venus' livery, only serve her turn? Why are not sonnets made of thee, and lays Upon thy altar burn?
In view of such zealous concern, it is not surprising that Catholic meditative techniques and Protestant biblical poetics would combine to produce in the late English Renaissance an abundance of the finest Christian devotional lyrics.
Although the bulk of patristic prose literature remains in the categories of dogmatic treatises, apologetics, exegetical and hermeneutical writings, homiletics, and pastoral disquisitions, Christian writers of the early centuries have also contributed to noteworthy and lasting changes in literary language. While the likes of Minucius Felix (d. about 250) and Cyprian (d. 258) faithfully and skillfully emulated classical models, Tertullian forged a new style through translation, word-borrowing (Greek to Latin), and the introduction of new Latin diction based on vernacular usage. By means of extensive translations (of both sacred scriptures and other Christian writers), letters, lives of saints, travelogues, and the continuation of Eusebius's chronicle, Jerome (c. 342–420) also mediated between classical antiquity and Christian letters.
Within this context of continuity and change, Augustine of Hippo justifiably occupies a place of pivotal importance. Not only did he set forth a profound and mature theological vision that across the centuries has exerted abiding influence on both Catholic and Protestant thought in the West, but his mercurial mind and voluminous speculations also directly funded such divergent developments as medieval literature, science, and aesthetics. More than any other figure in early Christian history, Augustine exemplifies the near-perfect fusion of pagan wisdom and Christian invention, of thought and style, of ideology and language.
As the astute analysis of German scholar Erich Auerbach has shown, the sermons of Augustine are masterful transformations of the Ciceronian model of oratory. To the ornate abundance of rhetorical figures and tropes at his disposal, the bishop of Hippo brought new depths of passion, piety, and inwardness. Of the three styles (magna, modica, and parva) that defined the ancient gradations of writing, the last and the lowliest is now endowed with unprecedented dignity and employed with new flexibility, precisely because sermo humilis is structured to mirror the threefold humilitas of the Incarnation, the culture of the Christian community, and the relative linguistic simplicity of scripture.
Just as Augustine's Confessions exists for all posterity as the undisputed prototype of both spiritual and secular autobiographies, and his City of God as an unrivaled exemplum of Christian philosophy of history and historiography, so his On Christian Doctrine remains a milestone in the history of interpretation theory and homiletics. The Augustinian understanding of rhetoric, hermeneutics, poetry, and allegory pervades medieval formulations of literary theory, notable in the works of Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636), Vergil of Toulouse (fl. seventh century), Bede (c. 673–735), Alcuin (c. 730–804), Rabanus Maurus (c. 780–856), John Scottus Eriugena (fl. 847–877), and Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274). The grand themes of his theology—creation, the human image as analogy to the divine, the fall, the incarnation, election, redemption, history, providence, temporality, and eternity—and his particular mapping of the ordo salutis find reverberations and echoes, not only in such specifically Christian poets as Spenser and Milton, but also in some of the Romantics and moderns.
Unlike writing in prose, poetry had a discernibly slower development within Christianity. Although three of the largest works in the Hebrew canon are essentially poetical—Job, Psalms, and Proverbs —and long passages of poetry stud the historical and prophetic books, what passes for verse in the New Testament amounts to no more than bits and fragments. Christians had to wait for over a thousand years before they produced devotional and liturgical verse of comparable intensity and complexity to "the songs of David." The author of Colossians, in a well-known passage (Col. 3:16), bids his readers to sing "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs," and hymn singing was apparently a common act of worship among the early Christians (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26, Eph. 5:19, Mk. 14:26, Acts 16:25). But the texts of such hymns or songs are all but unknown. Even the so-called Magnificat, preserved in the first chapter of Luke, displays greater indebtedness to Hebraic sentiment and diction than to Christian feeling. Beyond the canonical corpus, examples of early Christian versification in classical languages may be found in such diverse contexts as the pseudo-Sibylline Oracles (additions by Judaic Christians in the late first to third centuries); an anonymous poem at the end of Paidagogos by Clement of Alexandria (early third century); the partly allegorical Symposium of the Ten Virgins by Methodius (fourth century); the Peristephanon, Cathemerinon, and Psychomachia by the Spaniard Prudentius (late fourth century); the Carmen Paschale by Sedulius (mid-fifth century); and in such verse paraphrases of the Bible as Juvencus's Historia evangelica (fourth century) and Marius Victor's Alethia (fifth century). With the possible exception of those by Prudentius, these works are now read more for their historical than for their literary merit. The ensuing Carolingian age produced verse (both accentual and quantitative) on a variety of subjects, which would eventually fill four massive volumes (in Monumenta Germaniae Historica ), but no poet ranking with the immortals. As for vernacular literature, such poems as the Chanson de Roland, Beowulf, and the Víga-Glímssaga continue to fuel scholarly debate about the extent to which Christian conceptions of virtue and piety colored pagan notions of heroism and fate.
In contrast to the relative simplicity of their predecessors' accomplishments, the poetic genius of Dante, Spenser, and Milton seems all the more remarkable, for the Christian tradition would be immeasurably impoverished if it did not possess their writings. These eminent theological poets, however, are so well known and their works have been the subject of so much sustained commentary that additional analysis may be superfluous. Yet, their permanent greatness in the annals of Western religious poetry surely rests on their creation of original, large-scale works of art that are at the same time monuments in the history of religions. Neither ponderous paraphrases of scripture or doctrinal treatises nor the unassimilated union of poetic forms and religious substance, the texts of the Commedia, The Faerie Queene, and Paradise Lost represent the fullest, most systematic exploration and embodiment of the poets' faith. Each in its respective manner is, as Dante said of his own masterpiece, "a sacred song / To which both Heaven and Earth have set their hand" (Paradiso 25.2–3). Their luminous, mellifluous sacredness is measured not only by the way they faithfully reflect or document tradition, but also by the creativity and acuity wherewith they challenge and revise tradition. According to Curtius, for example, Dante claims for his poem "the cognitional function Scholasticism denied to poetry in general," and Auerbach, in Dante: Poet of the Secular World (1961), holds that Dante reverses Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologia by disclosing "divine truth as human destiny, as the element of Being in the consciousness of erring man." Milton's attempted theodicy significantly alters patristic and reformed dogmas (Christology, election, creation, and sin) to stress a dynamic conception of the image of God and the import of free will and human love in the drama of fall and redemption. Their distinctive elucidation of scripture and embroidery of tradition render these articulate canticles part of Christian exegesis and theology, for they participate as much as any work of "the doctors of faith" in seeking to comprehend and interpret the original mystery of faith, of revelation itself.
The Study of Literature
The foregoing survey of religious and literary history has sought to demonstrate how individual texts, figures, genres, movements, and periods may provide crucial data for the student of religion. The survey has been deliberately focused on more traditional materials, since its principal thesis is manifestly more restricted in the modern era, given the undeniable shifts in historical development and cultural climate. However, inasmuch as the study of religion frequently, if not exclusively, involves the study of verbal texts, the discipline is even more indissolubly bound with the study of literature. Both disciplines entail the deepest and most wide-ranging engagement with the analysis of language, and this engagement implicates all the concerns of the human sciences.
Prior to any textual interpretation there must be an acceptable text. This truism forcefully reminds us that textual criticism, the science developed since the Renaissance for the establishment of the so-called proper text, already locates the unavoidable convergence of classical scholarship, biblical criticism, and the techniques of literary analysis. Most religious communities are not as fortunate as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has in its possession both partial and complete versions (the latter in the church's reorganized branch) of the Book of Mormon 's original manuscript. For Jews, Christians, and Buddhists, however, the original documents of revelation exist only in a scholarly construct called the "ur-text" and, if even that seems an impossible ideal, in a family or group of the best texts, critically ascertained and adjudged to approximate the original form. Of necessity, therefore, the study of sacred texts at its most fundamental level already employs procedures and methods that transcend the provenance of any particular religious tradition or community. The author of 2 Timothy may claim that "all scripture is inspired by God" (2 Tim. 3:16), but all scripture is not thereby protected from wayward readings by errant mortals or the corruptions of temporal transmission. As Jerome McGann puts it in A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (1983), "To repair the wrecks of history" requires the use of "a historical method," and any religion of the book or books must rely on this most venerable of humanistic disciplines (that is, textual criticism, which for McGann depends on the historical method) for its continuance and propagation.
Were textual criticism merely an affair of the mechanical activities of editing, collation, and application of the canons of textual criticism, the consequence of its pursuit might not appear to be immediately relevant. But scholars have long recognized that in many instances, textual criticism does bear powerfully on textual interpretation. On the one hand, the modes of critical reasoning used to determine variant readings are identical with or similar to those engaged in the determination of verbal meaning, in exegesis, and in translation. On the other hand, the difference of a single word or of an entire edition can drastically alter the text's meaning. Whether Christians, as a result of their "justification by faith," are told that they in fact have peace with God or that they are to have peace with God depends on the selection of either the indicative (echomen) or the hortatory subjunctive (echōmen) found in the different manuscript traditions of Romans 5:1. Even modern literature is not free of the accidents of textual indeterminacy. "Soiled fish of the sea," a phrase lodged in the Constable Standard Edition of Herman Melville's works, led the great American critic F. O. Matthiessen to speak unwittingly in American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1944) of "the discordia concors, the unexpected linking of the medium of cleanliness with filth, [which] could only have sprung from an imagination that had apprehended the terrors of the deep," only to have his eloquence vitiated by the cruel discovery of a typesetter's oversight, when "coiled," not "soiled," proved to be in both the English and American first editions of the 1849 novel White Jacket. The publication in 1984 of James Joyce's Ulysses: A Critical and Synoptic Edition, edited by Hans Walter Gabler, with five thousand corrections and additions heretofore unavailable, has led critics to reexamine and revise many previous interpretations of this modern classic.
Because textual criticism wishes to retrieve a text as free as possible of historical corruptions, its goal is often taken as the starting point for textual interpretation. Paradoxically, however, such criticism can also set one kind of limit for interpretation. The authoritative text in such a discussion means that which is closest to the author's final intentions, whether those intentions are perceived to be identified with a manuscript or one of the first printed editions. Although such considerations are germane to many modern texts, they become unsuitable for editing (and thus for interpreting) many medieval and older texts. In A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (1983), Jerome G. McGann notes:
In their earliest "completed" forms these texts remain more or less wholly under the author's control, yet as a class they are texts for which the editorial concept of intention has no meaning. These texts show, in other words, that the concept of authorial intention only comes into force for criticism when (paradoxically) the artist's work begins to engage with social structures and functions. The fully authoritative text is therefore always one which has been socially produced; as a result, the critical standard for what constitutes authoritativeness cannot rest with the author and his intentions alone.
In the example from Romans 5 cited above, even the recovery of the original manuscript may not be decisive enough to decipher authorial intention, since the fact that the Greek words are homonyms could easily have dictated the particular spelling of the amanuensis known to have been used by the apostle. Short of questioning Paul himself, the reader is left with two perhaps equally plausible readings, but with definitely different meanings. A scholar can recover, independently and without difficulty, the meaning of these two Greek words, but no amount of attention to what the literary theorist E. D. Hirsch in Validity in Interpretation (1967) calls the "shared experiences, usage traits, and meaning expectations" can determine exactly what Paul wished to convey by this particular sequence of linguistic signs. Inability to discern final intention in this instance is also synonymous with inability to discern original intention, but the indeterminancy of textual meaning is not caused so much by the historicity of modern understanding as it is by the historicity of the text.
In his effort to elevate the discourse of contemporary literary criticism, author Geoffrey Hartman, in Beyond Formalism (1970), wants to make it "participate once more in a living concert of voices, and to raise exegesis to its former state by confronting art with experience as searchingly as if art were scripture." This noble proposal unfortunately does not make clear how searchingly scriptural exegesis has been confronted with experience. More importantly, it overlooks the fact that scriptural exegesis itself throughout its history, much as any other kind of exegesis, has always had to struggle with the question of how a verbal text is to be read, how its language—from a single word to an entire book—is to be understood. If biblical critics of late, according to the scholar Frank Kermode in The Genesis of Secrecy (1979), "have been looking over the fence and noting the methods and achievements of the secular arm," this tendency is not radically different from the Alexandrian school's appropriation of Philonic allegory to interpret Christian scriptures or the Protestant reformers' use of humanistic philology to advance their own grammatical-historical mode of exegesis. Wary of misreadings through willful or unintended anachronism, some contemporary biblical scholars are justifiably skeptical of the current movement to read the Bible as literature, and to expound upon sacred writ by means of secular norms and literary classifications.
Although comparing Hebrew narrative with Homeric epic or analyzing a parable of Jesus' in terms of plot and character can yield limited results, the reverent affirmation that scripture must be read as revelation or the word of God does not itself explain how language is used in divine literature. The confusion here arises from the too-ready identification of literature with fiction, itself a common but nonetheless a particular view of the nature of literature. The rejection of this view, on the other hand, in no way absolves the biblical reader from wrestling with the linguistic phenomenon that is coextensive with the text. Does the Torah or the New Testament or the Lotus Sūtra use language as human beings do, and if not, what other contexts are there for their readers to consider and consult? What sort of literary competence or what system of conventions ought to be operative in reading sacred texts?
The history of Christian biblical exegesis is filled with examples of how interpretation changes along with different reading assumptions and conventions. A particular view of language has led patristic writers to understand in a certain way the terms image and likeness (Heb., tselem, demut; Gr., eikona, homoiosin; Lat., imaginem, similitudinem ), used in the first creation narrative of Genesis. Irenaeus, in the second century, thought the former signified the anima rationalis (rational soul) in human nature, whereas the latter referred to the donum superadditum supernaturale (an additional divine gift of perfection) which will be lost in the fall. Later interpreters, notably the Protestant reformers, challenged this developed Catholic doctrine of the imago dei on the ground that it missed the Hebraic convention of linguistic parallelism (pairs of words or phrases with closely related meanings), though the reformed interpretation itself is by no means free of dogmatic presupposition. Similarly, the precise meaning of the Eucharistic formula, "This is my body … this is my blood," has eluded interpreters and divided Christendom for centuries because the issue of whether it is a literal or a figurative statement is as much linguistic as it is theological.
These examples of biblical exegesis reinforce one basic insight of the German Protestant theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), namely that special or sacred hermeneutics "can be understood only in terms of general hermeneutics" (MS 2, in Hermeneutics: The Handwritten Manuscripts, ed. H. Kimmerle, 1977). For this very reason, every significant turn or development in literary theory and the culture of criticism should, in principle, be of interest to scholars of religion. Because verbal texts are more often than not the objects of their inquiry, author Robert Alter believes they must know "the manifold varieties of minutely discriminating attention to the artful use of language, to the shifting play of ideas, conventions, tone, sound, imagery, syntax, narrative viewpoint, compositional units, and much else" (The Art of Biblical Narrative, 1981). That last amorphous category, in the light of the American and European critical discourse since the mid-twentieth century, would certainly include such large and controversial subjects as phenomenology, philosophical hermeneutics, psychoanalysis, feminist criticism, genre theory, reception theory, communication and information theory, linguistics, structuralism, and deconstruction. Although space does not permit extensive treatment of any single facet of this new "armed vision," a brief review of the problem of where to locate textual meaning may be instructive.
In the heyday of New Criticism, distinguished by its apologetic zeal to honor literature's intrinsic worth and mode of being, meaning was virtually identical with the text. In contrast to scientific denotative language, literary language was held to be reflexive and self-referential; hence the perimeters of a single text constituted its most proper context. Meaning was generated by the text's essential form or verbal structure, which Cleanth Brooks, in his 1947 book The Well Wrought Urn, said resembled "that of architecture or painting: it is a pattern of resolved stresses." Because the poem represented the most felicitous union of ontology and praxis—"it is both the assertion and the realization of the assertion"—its meaning was thus paradoxically comprehensible but supposedly could not be paraphrased. Similarly, the act of interpretation was itself something of a paradox. On the one hand, the aim of interpretation was to ascertain "the way in which the poem is built … the form it has taken as it grew in the poet's mind." Since interpretation was thought to be determined by no factor other than that single object of the text, even the consideration of its origin or effect (the celebrated "intentional" and "affective fallacies") was deemed extraneous and irrelevant. Because the text was taken as the privileged vehicle of meaning, its integrity could be preserved only if the interpreter were purged as much as possible of his or her own assumptions, prejudices, beliefs, and values. Despite such noble effort, the New Critics confessed, the interpreter's act carries the pathos of a quixotic quest, for the adequacy of criticism will always be surpassed by the adequacy of the poem.
In various ways, the history of literary theory since the mid-twentieth century may be regarded as a steady and increasingly stringent attack on such New Critical doctrines of the text and the interpreter. The Heideggerian notion of Vorverstädnis (fore-understanding), mediated by the writings of the German biblical and philosophical scholars Rudolf Bultmann and Hans Gadamer, demonstrated the impossibility of unprejudiced, objective interpretation, because no act of knowing can be undertaken without a "pre-knowing" that is necessarily bound by the person's history and culture. In fact, both texts and the historical "horizon" of the interpreter, when scrutinized by such hermeneuticians of suspicion as Marxists, neo-Marxists, and Freudians are inevitably obscured by ideology, false consciousness, or the subversive language of repression. In place of the "closed readings," in which purity and objectivity are ensured by an innocent and submissive critical consciousness, the languages of both text and critic seem more likely to wear the masks of deceit and desire, as well as those of domination and violence. Instead of the text being the bearer of meaning as intended by the author, textual meaning is regarded as a product either of readers or communities of readers or of the dialectical interplay of the text and the reading process. Meaning may be actualized by uncovering the deep structures—the equivalences and oppositions—buried within a poem's semantic, syntactic, and phonological levels, by the delineation of the vision and world projected "in front of" the text, or by the per-ception of generic codes that at once familiarize and defamiliarize.
The most radical treatment of the problem of text and meaning is certainly that fashioned by French philosopher Jacques Derrida and his followers. The traditional view of language in Western civilization has been essentially a mimetic one: that is, language can faithfully and fruitfully mirror the interchange between mind, nature, and even God. Deconstruction, however, undertakes the most trenchant and skeptical questioning of the symmetrical unity between words and meaning. According to Terry Eagleton in the 1983 book Literary Theory: An Introduction, "For the signified 'boat' is really the product of a complex interaction of signifiers, which has no obvious end-point. Meaning is the spin-off of a potentially endless play of signifiers, rather than a concept tied firmly to the tail of a particular signifier.… I do not grasp the sense of the sentence just by mechanically piling one word on the other: for the words to compose some relatively coherent meaning at all, each one of them must, so to speak, contain the trace of the ones which have gone before, and hold itself open to the trace of those which are coming after." (For this reason, meaning in the Derridean view must be qualified by the characteristics of différance [in the sense of both difference and deferral], absence [in the sense that signs are forever inadequate to "make present" one's inward experiences or phenomenal objects], and decentering [in the sense of rejecting the "transcendental signified" and reconceptualizing any notion of the fixed origin or metaphysical Urgrund as merely the product of desire.]) To speak of the stability and determinancy of textual meaning is therefore meaningless, just as it is futile to refer to a poem's language as its proper context. The context of a poem, rather, is the entire field of the history of its language, or, in commentator Jonathan Culler's apt dictum, "Meaning is context bound, but context is boundless" (On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism, 1982). Meaning is thus finally coincidental with the Nietzschean concept of free play, both labyrinthine and limitless; and interpretation, far from being an affair of passive mimesis, is another form of mediation and displacement, of substituting one set of signifiers for another.
The merit of deconstruction for literary study remains hotly debated. To the study of religion, a discipline committed to investigating the infinite varieties and morphologies of "the irreducibly sacred," a program so replete with logocentrism, the challenge posed by the uncanny, Cassandra-like utterances of Derrida seems all too apparent.
Deconstruction and Religion
By the end of the twentieth century, the term deconstruction had become commonplace in popular culture and across the humanities and social sciences. Its effects on inquiry into religion have proven to be as paradoxical as Derrida himself, who has written of religion appreciatively as well as critically. To grasp this perhaps surprising development requires noticing how Deconstruction differs from other critical practices.
In many ways, it resembles what Ricoeur calls the "hermeneutics of suspicion." Derrida exposes arbitrary, seemingly innocent dualities in texts and traditions (e.g., where "depths" are assumed to be truer than "surfaces," and "originals" more authentic than "copies"). He intersects with feminist, psychoanalytic, Nietzschean, and Marxist-related critiques of gendered interests, racism, collective neuroses, and unacknowledged power. Some of the earliest deployments of Deconstruction sought to dismantle the "logocentric" assumptions it detects in both classical and modern reasoning.
Deconstruction follows a distinctive trajectory, however. First, it must indicate its own norms cautiously, ironically, or "under erasure," since principles of justice or compassion would also be part of the disconcerting play of signifiers. Secondly, deconstructive readings—almost as if they were guests, hosts, or parasites—insinuate themselves into the language at hand. The reader, after all, has no place to be other than amid the play of differences in the texts and traditions being read. This strategy of textual interplay can make reading Derrida's writings quite challenging. When he writes of religion, he locates himself in proximity not only to theory about religion but also adjacent to scriptures and practices. And appropriately so, for he is a francophone Jew born in Algeria, who remains both apart from yet in contact with Judaism; his work has affinities with midrashic commentary. So one should be cautious in assuming that deconstructive criticism is only suspicious, since its attentions to linguistic and rhetorical details often elucidate textual meaning.
Derrida himself has encouraged one of the positive appropriations of Deconstruction in religious thought, acknowledging its resonance with apophatic, or negative, ways of knowing God. Clearly, his numerous near-synonyms for différance (écriture, trace, dissemination, supplement) do not name some unnamable, ultimate referent of negative theology. Since différance is but a neutral possibility, which both enables and destabilizes language and knowing, it is neither the hidden God nor the death of God. Yet some have observed that when différance is described as "wholly other" (tout autre) than being and knowing, its convergences with theological ideas of transcendence are hard to ignore. Dutch Philosopher Hent de Vries considers Deconstruction and negative theology to have become "silent companions in an attempt to establish new discursive forms and practices of philosophical and cultural analysis, of ethical deliberation and political engagement" (Philosophy and the Return to Religion, 1999).
Other religious responses to Deconstruction have attended less to its emphasis on différance than to its critiques of modernity. If one comes to doubt the self-sufficiency of Enlightenment beliefs about the autonomy of reason, then modern reductions of religion to social categories can begin to seem insecure. Deconstructive-like interpretation has cleared openings for reappraisals of religious practice and thought, such as Daniel Boyarin's Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (1990) and Jean-Luc Marion's God Without Being (1991). Some who have otherwise appreciated its critiques of modernity, however, have strenuously dissented from what they regard as the nihilism of Deconstruction, viewed less as a critical practice than an ideology that regards writing as another instance of Nietzsche's will-to-power. Similarly, Deconstruction has been valued for unmasking the political and religious rationalizations so often evident in histories of oppression, and for listening carefully to the silences in testimony about such events—as when survivors of the Shoah (Holocaust) challenge consoling ways of coming to terms with evil. Nevertheless, its approach to texts that bear witness to great harm or injustice has prompted the worry that postmodern critique can be rather ahistorical; it may risk reducing the limits of mimesis in suffering to a general theory of linguistic limits, instead of considering how history may rupture reflective language in particular ways.
Derrida addresses these issues of particularity and universality in his works on religion. He learned much from Emmanuel Levinas, one of his earliest interlocutors. Their decades-long exchange concerned how far one may universalize the encounter with the "face of the other," which creates, for Levinas, the ethical imperative that precedes all philosophical issues. If this encounter reduces to a universal "otherness," then particular others may be eclipsed. Because Deconstruction does not understand the other reductively, however—it claims only to probe the intertextual milieus in which others are met—then arguably it is an approach that respects particularity.
Rhetorical innocence may be a quixotic dream, yet religion is most intriguing, believes Derrida, when it desires "the impossible." It is more compelling in its practices of prayer, mourning, giving, confession, circumcision, hospitality, and testimony than when conceptualizing the divine. In his essay "Faith and Knowledge" (in Acts of Religion, 2002), Derrida likens religion, as least in the West, to an ellipse, whose foci are the idioms of faith (belief, trust, obligation) and of the holy (the sacred, "the unscathed," purity). This unstable structure figures in ancient and modern histories of "enlightenment" and can now be seen globally in perplexing, even contradictory alliances. Derrida observes how religious personalities and institutions frequently attempt to use the machinery of telecommunication and cyberspace to preserve identity and resist the ways that the machine alienates persons from one another. Yet there also remains, anterior to the shifting terms of religion, the metaphor of the "desert." While Derrida alludes to Sinai and to eremites and mystics, by the desert he means the all but impossible "place" of différance, where the other is met. His late ruminations invite us to contemplate the inherited and contingent uncertainties of signs, as they play host to protean transformations of meanings and identities in literature and religion.
Aesthetics, article on Philosophical Aesthetics; Augustine of Hippo; Bhagavadgītā; Biblical Exegesis; Biblical Literature, article on New Testament; Brāhmaṇas and Ᾱraṇyakas; Buddhist Books and Texts; Cosmogony; Dante Alighieri; Deconstruction; Drama, articles on Ancient Near Eastern Ritual Drama; Enuma Elish; Epics; Evil; Gilgamesh; Hermeneutics; Heroes; Language; Law and Religion, article on Law, Religion, and Literature; Mahābhārata; Myth, overview article; Poetry, articles on Christian Poetry, Indian Religious Poetry; Quests; Rāmāyaṇa; Scripture; Shamanism, overview article; Upaniṣads; Vedas.
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