- The Drama of Scripture:Reading Patristic Biblical Hermeneutics through Lonergan's Reflections on Art
Recent developments have questioned the predominance of the historical-critical method as the only approach to scriptural exegesis. Contemporary discourses in philosophical hermeneutics and literary theory have suggested that discovering meaning in a text is more complicated than discerning the authorial intention or a single, fixed meaning rooted in historicity.1 Another development can be detected in the increasing attention that scholars are giving to the sophisticated modes of biblical interpretation displayed by patristic authors.2 In light of both developments, the aim of this article is to re-read the patristic mode of exegesis through the lens of the Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan's (1904–84) reflections on art.3 The article's guiding conviction is that the appeal of art to the affective, imaginative, aesthetic, and dramatic dimensions of the human person can serve as a heuristic for recovering the meaningfulness and intelligibility of one element of patristic exegesis in contemporary theological discourse, namely, its connection with ordinary living and its desire to generate a particular way of life. [End Page 126]
II. Patterns of Experience
The first task will be to place Lonergan's theory of art in the context of different patterns of experience. A crucial distinction in his work Insight is between description and explanation, between things as they relate to us and things as they relate to one another. This advance of science from description to explanation is indicated by the construction of a technical vocabulary, that is, distance, time, motion, matter, and so forth. Art, however, relates more properly to things as they relate to us. Although Insight treats in depth the intellectual and rational capacities of the human person, Lonergan also recognizes the complexity of human experience in his analysis of the various patterns of experience. Concretely operating human experience comprises a rich dynamic flow of biological, aesthetic, dramatic, and intellectual patterns. The intellectual pattern is the experience of unrestricted wondering; the biological pattern is the set of intelligible relations that link together sequences of sensations, memories, images, conations, emotions, and bodily movements.4
Most relevant to our discussion of art, however, are the aesthetic and dramatic patterns. In the aesthetic pattern, experiencing can occur for the sake of experiencing. It reveals the spontaneous authenticity of the joy of conscious living, embodied in such things as the play of children, the exhilaration of sunlit morning air, and the swing of a melody. An artist exercises his or her intelligence by unifying and relating the act and content of aesthetic experience. For Lonergan, art involves a twofold freedom: a liberation from biological purposiveness and a liberation of intelligence from the wearing constraints of mathematical proofs and scientific verifications. The aesthetic pattern is symbolic and communicates through a participation in, and in some sense a reenactment of, the artist's inspiration and intention.5 According to Lonergan, symbols operate through images to evoke feelings that may supply the motivation for executing human decisions.6 [End Page 127]
The dramatic pattern of experience recognizes that our own living is our first work of art. Human beings are animals "for whom mere animality is indecent." Impulses for food are humanized by the elaborate equipment of the dining room. Sex is transformed into a "great mystery, shrouded in the delicacy of indirect speech, enveloped in the aura of romantic idealism, enshrined in the sanctity of the home."7 In this pattern, we discern the roles we will play in the variety of social and cultural networks.8 The dramatic pattern includes the concrete tensions and struggles that emerge in human communities as we move toward our respective destinies.9
Beyond Lonergan's differentiation of the various patterns of experience, it is important to note that these different patterns operate, at times simultaneously, in one concrete conscious subject. It also should be noted that art is properly situated within the aesthetic and dramatic experiences. Richard Liddy has pointed out that "even though in Insight he had written of art as providing 'the spontaneous joy of free intellectual creation'" Lonergan's appropriation of Susanne Langer's Feeling and Form helped...