Four Interpretations

Four Interpretations

I am thinking these days about writing, and to what extent it conveys or fails to convey our experience.

For example, during the current pandemic, tables of statistics provide information which is then described factually, and developed into scientific theories using the logico-deductive mode of explanation. Reading an imaginative work of literature set during an epidemic provides us not just with information, but with meaning: for example the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, or Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez.

Four common modes of writing are descriptive, expository, narrative, and persuasive. Some people add a fifth mode – the imaginative mode of writing. A good nineteenth-century source on these four modes is Samuel P. Newman in A Practical System of Rhetoric, which codifies them.

A novel is narrative and imaginative, using symbols, myth and metaphor. The narrative mode involves story-telling.

Poetry is imaginative, using symbols, myth and metaphor. Epic poetry gets into story-telling (the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey…), but shorter poems are bursts of energy, like bolts of lightning.

Journalism is descriptive, expository and sometimes intended to be persuasive. I remember two years I spent as an editorial-writer at The Montreal Gazette. My editorials were supposed to be persuasive, although I often wondered whether they really were! Feature-writing and documentaries are narrative.

Creative non-fiction uses journalistic techniques, but as a work of imagination incorporates symbols, myth and metaphor. My book Robber Baron is a work of creative non-fiction. I would defend my research and statements in that book as factually accurate, but I sometimes made digressions, alluding to symbols, myth and metaphor, and asking questions, since I realized facts alone could not tell the story.

Sacred writings, like the Bible, are narrative, imaginative and persuasive, focusing on myth and metaphor, and seeking to reinforce belief.

But how should we interpret the Bible? As a collection of stories? As a series of writings often derived from oral traditions over a 2000-year period, combining inspired poetry, prayers, history, prophecy, psalms, proverbs, visions, nightmares, demonology, parables, etc?

Scientific writing is expository and logico-deductive. It is based on scientific data, which are abstractions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word abstract as “existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence,” and abstraction as “the process of considering something independently of its associations or attributes.” An abstraction is an idea decontexualized, epitomized, unclothed.

Science popularization is expository but also narrative, since it involves converting scientific data into stories rich in symbols, which means changing the level of meaning. Science popularization reclothes the abstractions of scientific data, by recontextualizing them.

What about symbols and science? Consider symbolic code at the expository level of meaning: A, C, G, and T are the letters of the genetic code; A represents the chemical adenine, C cytosine, G guanine, and T thymine. These account for the nucleotide bases of DNA. Then consider symbolic code at the narrative level of meaning. One time, Sir John Sulston told me the Human Genome Project would establish the blueprint for the human species. Another time, he told me he felt like an archaeologist, deciphering ancient clay tablets in the desert of Mesopotamia. So he was happy to use symbols and metaphors (story-telling) to give a sense of the significance and adventure of discovery.

The Church Fathers in the early centuries of Christianity proposed using four methods of interpretation to study the Bible. They sometimes cited the example of the Roman Quadriga or four-horse chariot (like the one pictured above, at San Marco Cathedral, Venice), to remind people how to keep these four methods in mind: the literal, the anagogic, the allegorical and the moral.

A Latin rhyme helped medieval scholars remember these four methods: Litera gesta docet, Quid credas allegoria, Moralis quid agas, Quo tendas anagogia.

My late uncle Robert M. Grant translated this as:
“The literal teaches what God and our ancestors did,
The allegory is where our faith and belief is hid,
The moral meaning gives us the rule of daily life,
The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines apologetics as “reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine.” This constant shifting from one interpretation to the next enabled Church Fathers and other theologians to defend Scripture, in view of the incongruities of the Bible, the contradictions, the irrational character of miracles. Resorting to four modes of interpretation was a fluid strategy: it meant being able always to defend a single interpretation, no matter what, so the Church would always be “right.”

Science popularization has also sometimes drawn on myth and metaphor, shifting from the literal to the anagogic, allegorical and moral – particularly during the 19th century, when Auguste Comte, Ernest Renan and other positivist thinkers treated science as a new religion, and scientists as a new priesthood.

What about scientism in more recent times? According to the philosopher of science Tom Sorell: “Scientism is the belief that science, especially natural science, is . . . the most valuable part of human learning . . . because it is much the most authoritative, or serious, or beneficial. Other beliefs related to this one may also be regarded as scientistic, e.g., the belief that science is the only valuable part of human learning….”

Scientism is a form of apologetics as well. It strikes me as a single-minded distortion, in an either/or world, as if natural science alone should be taken literally. But then, scientism comes with a strong sense of its own superiority, which has moral dimensions.

Science and religion do not fit together, like two halves of one whole

Science and religion offer completely different takes on reality. They use different modes of writing and interpretation; they search for meaning in different ways; they operate on different levels and in different dimensions. There is no point trying to harmonize them, as if they could actually fit together, like two halves of one whole. Sacred writings are inspired works, like poetry, rich in myth and metaphor, and full of meaning. In any case, I find Buddhism more compatible with modern science than Christianity, especially the Buddhist approach to uncertainty and wisdom.

Which best conveys truth: science or religion? I notice, in my own life, that what I have taken for truth has evolved over time, as I have aged, gained experience and come to realize how little I know. And this includes the truth of natural science. Actually, natural science is a self-correcting and somewhat unstable enterprise, discarding previous hypotheses, replacing them with new ones, testing these hypotheses, then discarding them in turn. Some of what people considered scientific truth in the 1960s now seems laughable.

The problem with descriptive expository (literal) writing is that by avoiding myth and metaphor for the sake of accuracy, it falls short: by cataloguing facts, it is incapable of conveying the emotional and imaginative dimensions of experience, the meaning of what is happening.

This comes to mind particularly now, during the pandemic, when tables of statistics strike me as strangely meaningless, as if lives and deaths could be reduced to equations, algorithms and percentages. Of course, we all want to be sure not to end up as a mere statistic!

This puts imaginative narratives (fiction & creative non-fiction) in a kind of middle ground between what we actually live and what we imagine. Even then, what we believe we are experiencing is shaped by our imagination; what we believe we imagine is shaped by what we experience.

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