Anagogical exegesis and memory through the magnification of meaning and the four senses of biblical enlightenment. An exposition on scriptural interpretation and the importance of meaning and memory.
Amanda Cooper is an author and psychotherapist, working in the field of mental health. She is also OSL’s Administrator and Librarian & has been part of OSL’s development since its foundation. She writes for the Order on subjects of the four senses of scripture, memory, allegory, psychology and delivering the message of the gospel. This work was originally published in 2017 as part of her studies in medieval exegesis at Harvard University.
In August 2011, Manof Yadav took a 13-hour train ride with his father from the remote Indian village of Uttar Pradesh to New Delhi. 18-year-old Yadav had been born blind, so did not see the vast scenery passing by on the journey; towns, temples, reservoirs, rivers and real estate flashed past, unnoticed. Only the clack of tracks, the humidity, the chatter of his fellow journeymen, the spiced aromas emanating from tiffin pots and the gentle rock of the carriage filled his world and informed his memory of this auspicious day.
After giving up on the hope of any treatment, Yadav had been selected for life-changing eye surgery – the chance to receive synthetic lenses to provide the capacity for sight. Pioneered by MIT neuroscientist Pawan Sinha in 2004, Project Prakash (meaning ‘light’ in Sanskrit) had set out as a humanitarian effort to help alleviate the suffering of some of up to an estimated 1.2 million Indian children – the largest known number of blind children in any country in the world. But beyond this incredible opportunity to restore sight, Sinha had a scientific purpose. He wanted to answer a long-pondered question: could the brain of someone who had never had sight, learn to see? (Chatterjee 2015).
Locke (1836) thought not. Having been asked the question by William Molyneux (Molyneux’s wife was blind) he determined a thought experiment that became known as Molyneux’s problem. If a person restored in sight were shown a cube and a sphere (objects that they would easily recognize by touch) would they identify them as such by sight alone? Locke determined, “Not. For though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, and how a cube, affects his touch; yet he has not yet attained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so.” (p.83).
Sacks (1996) describes the story of Virgil, a 50-year old man who underwent cataract surgery. After forty years of blindness, Virgil could technically ‘see’. And yet, he couldn’t. Virgil’s fiancée noted in her diary, the day following the operation, that Virgil was “Trying to adjust to being sighted…has to think faster, not able to trust vision yet…unsure of what seeing means.” Sacks described Virgil’s subsequent confusion and inability to decipher the visual world as “mentally blind.” The encounter reminded Sacks of his agnosic patient Dr P who, though sighted, viewed elements of information rather than the picture presented. “Instead of looking at me…in the normal way…made sudden strange fixations – on my nose, on my right ear, down to my chin, up to my right eye – not seeing, not ‘getting’ my face as a whole.” (p.104).
Marius von Senden reviewed over sixty cases of cataract operations, noting the difficulty of people in translating these images successfully; particularly with regard to shape, size and distances (Senden 1960). Scholars, medics and philosophers alike tended to agree that the plasticity of the brain within the area associated with the interpretation of visual imagery operated on a slim window of opportunity. Past this time in early development, the capacity to learn to see would be seriously impaired.
But the earliest documented recovery of sight provides more hope. Concerning the restoration of sight of a 13-year old boy in the 18th century, the English surgeon William Cheselden (1727-28) wrote that the boy “knew not the shape of anything, nor any one thing from another, however different in shape or magnitude; but upon being told what things were, whose form he knew before from feeling, he would carefully observe, that he might know them again.” (pgs.447-450). It is this, that he “might know them again” that prompts the argument on meaning. Without touch (or other sensory interaction) meaning does not exist, therefore vision is useless until shapes are learned in context. The shape is nothing until the meaning of the shape is restored.
Scripture, however, has always provided a different narrative. Jesus restored the sight of a man blind from birth. The restoration was instant and the man proclaimed to all around him the miracle of sight. Maybe the miracle all along was not the physical restoration, but the ability of the man to both see and interpret the world around him the instant he had washed the mud from his eyes in the Pool of Siloam.1 Biblical allegory continues to provide the context for meaning; Jesus demonstrating the mud in the collective eyes of mankind and that washing in the clean pool of knowing will restore the meaning of not only what can be seen, but what cannot; “While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” 2
The mediaeval theologians understood this well. Interpreting scripture through the historical, allegorical, tropological and anagogical – they sought the actuality, the meaning, the moral and, crucially, the evidence of the eternal. Blindness in life as an allegory to eyes closed to the hope for eternity.
John 9:1-11 NKJV New King James Version
2 Cor.4:18 NKJV New King James Version
Salomon (2012) describes the preface to Genesis in the Glossa Ordinaria (an early commentary on the bible) as a “a collage – of passages, mostly from Augustine, held together with the glue of an assembler, a redactor or, as Augustine might call him, a cogitator, that is, one who recollects memories.” He notes Cicero and Quintilian’s view of memory as “a landscape, a forest” within which the reader “searches for the various sites of information (loci) in that landscape.” But it is the meaning, herein, that is key to personal understanding: “The analogous space of the page affords us the opportunity to search for the various loci in an effort to re-collect information and construct an entirely new, personal space.” Commentaries are, of themselves, an attempt to extract meaning from original texts, but the interesting object of the Glossa Ordinaria is in its personalization of such to individual experience of faith and theology. Augustine cautions against rationality, encouraging readers to “repair to faith” if “reason does not provide an acceptable interpretation.” (p.82)
If memory, however, concerns the past (what we have seen and learned and stored and have available for retrieval) and this is strengthened and contextualized by personal meaning (to add substance and relevance, creating scenery and clues to discovery) then this is, perhaps on first view, the antithesis of the concept of eternity. The poet Franz Wright (2005) wrote, “How does one go about dying? /The world is filled with people who have never died.” (p.2). Yet meaning is not just a chronological obversion, reserved for the classification of history. The Trivium itself provides just one facet based on facts or history – the episodic and semantic facets of memory that record events and places, explicit information and knowledge. The allegorical may be lost and in the post-Christendom society, morality and eternity may be overlooked in favor of the cultural or political zeitgeist. Michael Frisch (1990) commented on this phenomenon in his work on the relative meaning of historical events, “The means of denial in the world of scholarship are different, but already they have begun to exercise the same cauterizing, distancing influence. What the politicians ignore and the media abstract, the academics have begun to obliterate.” (p.18).
But what is fact without meaning? Perhaps obliteration and abstraction are less about the facts and more about what events and happenings meant to individuals or groups of people. When viewed retrospectively, it can be simpler to review with wiser eyes and cast scorn, doubt or ignominy upon a less enlightened age. But it is the context of the occurrence, the meaning in the memory, that is lost by disparate retrospection.
Descartes would counter that doubt should exist regardless. In his First Meditation on what can be called into doubt he noted, “Some years ago I was struck by how many false things I have believed, and by how doubtful was the structure of beliefs that I had based on them…I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself, sincerely and without holding back, to demolishing my opinions.” And it is here that the streams of memory and faith inexorably meet; is faith a memory at all? (Descartes and Cottingham 2013).
Returning to mediaeval theology, Hugh of St Victor would agree that it is. The religious imbuing of scripture by rote was implicit in moral development. Using loci methodology and a diagrammatic form, his technique for biblical study involved storing chunks of information or ‘divisio’; describing “a single glance” of memory (all that could be effectively presented in one ‘look’ of the mind at a time.) In place of a palace of loci, Hugh encourages the mind construction of Noah’s Ark, “Now I will offer an exemplar for our own ark, as I have promised. I depict it as an object, so that you learn outwardly what you ought to do inwardly, and so that, once you imprint the form of this example in your heart you will be glad that the house of God has been built inside of you.” (Carruthers 2008). Here, memory and faith merge in one miraculous bonding of instruction. The memory itself takes on a form; an allegory for faith. Memorized scripture constructs a house of God within. Memory becomes belief. Belief becomes memory. Both are evidence of each other and both exist within. Augustine was “lost in wonder” at the prospect of the prodigy of memory, describing it as a “vast, immeasurable sanctuary” and that the mind “is too narrow to contain itself entirely”. He calls out to God, “I shall go beyond this force that is in me, this force which we shall call memory, so that I may come to you.” But suggests that faith lies beyond; “If I find You beyond my memory, it means that I have no memory of you. How then, am I to find you?” (Augustine and Pine-Coffin 2003, p.17).
Searching the memory to find God, whether in mediaeval theology or Platonic writings, suggests a contradiction of empiricism. If all knowledge is discerned from the world around, stimulated and communicated via the senses, then faith is irrelevant in learning and offers nothing to the human experience other than a narrative of fiction. On the identity of man, Locke (1964) notes, “But yet I think nobody, could he be sure that the soul of Heliogabalus were in one of his hogs, would yet say that hog were a man or Heliogabalus” and that “Nothing but consciousness can unite remote existences into the same person; the identity of substance will not do it; for whatever substance there is…without consciousness there is no person.” (p.25).
It is this consciousness that must be considered in terms of the ageing population and the contemporary prevalence of dementia. If consciousness is an awareness and connectivity, an effective connection between memories and current existence, then where does Locke’s ‘person’ begin and end? And if faith lies beyond memory, beyond the stream of consciousness to Augustine’s search for God, then this perhaps provides us with an insight into the prevalence of faith retention in advanced dementia states. Patients with prior faith may be able to recite scripture, sing hymns and lull themselves in prayer. Mills (1886) observes how Rush notes the faculties of the mind as including faith (as a disparate faculty to memory, passion, emotion and understanding). If memory is ravaged by dementia, faith may, on this premise, remain unaffected.
Memory is, therefore, not occluded by faith; neither does faith rely upon memory. Despite mediaeval theology and St Hugh of Victor’s stance on rote learning and imbuing biblical morality thereof this is, of itself, not the nature of exegesis. Learning a scripture is only part of this; Fitzgerald et al (1999) observed how Augustine’s teaching aimed to “heighten the mystery of God’s love, not to unravel it” (p.610) and of the alter bread he stated, “the mystery that you are lies there on the table; it is your own mystery that you receive.” (p.88).
This personalization of the experience of faith is well noted throughout history. This sense of meaning, personal morality, the impetus to rest upon the allegorical and tropological aspects of scripture range from Augustine to St Hugh of Victor and even in the advancing secularization of the worldview, the search for meaning prevails. Scattered across new age spirituality, eastern philosophy and ever splintering denominational factions, religion as a construct has failed to provide the solution. The question here, however, is not in the finding of the answers, such as with Augustine’s search beyond memory, but in the methodology employed. If scripture is noted in its historical, episodic, semantic contexts alone, its purpose and meaning has been lost to abstract mystery. As theologians dissect and dismantle every facet and translation of text, the allegories rest in layer upon layer throughout the pages. And it is, yet, this personal search for meaning to which the bible calls. Because, as Giberson (2011) notes, the bible is not a book, it is a library.
Back in New Delhi, Yadav awoke the day after surgery, ready for his bandages to be removed. The surgeon at the Dr Shroff Charity Eye Hospital had “excised his cataract-ridden lenses and slipped in synthetic ones in their place.” As the bandages were removed he saw light and strange shapes but “could not tell people from objects.” His brain simply did not know what to do with the images it was receiving. But it would not be many months before Yadav began to recognize the signals. Much later, Yadav said, “It took one and a half years before I could see everything clearly.” Afflicted with nystagmus, an involuntary movement of the eyes emanating from his earlier blindness, it did not however, interfere with his sight. He said, “I can even ride a bicycle through a crowded market.” (Chatterjee 2015).
Oliver Collignon, a neuroscientist at the Italian University of Trento said that Prakash “beautifully demonstrates that there is still room for plasticity and recovery.” However, he notes that the brains of blind people appear to be “wired differently” and that their visual cortexes also produce sound (unlike sighted people) – providing the capacity to respond more to sound in the absence of vision. (Chatterjee 2015).
The experience of blind people and their capacity to ‘see’ – not just to receive visual images but also to understand meaning in context, supports the understanding of memory as a contextual and meaningful facet. Whether with scripture and Arks or palaces of loci, meaningful ‘theatre’ accessorizes and strengthens the impact and restoration of memory, aiding recall. Of course, this meaning is not always accurate – perception is the guide of memory and recall is filtered through the lens of understanding and historical context – but this, too, mirrors the experience of those who once were blind, but now can see. Filtered through understanding, re-learning the nature of visual images in relation to the meaning within. So, is it thus with biblical anagogy? That we cannot yet, nor accurately, ‘see’ the concept of the eternal, nor detect the allusions to the afterlife, because our context has not yet matured? Perhaps it is that our biblical exegesis is floundering through the overwhelming essence of light; shapes as-yet un-named and undescribed descended through the allegory and into the immortal.
Lubac notes that “There is a very sweet drink in history; but still sweeter in allegory; most sweet, however, in morality; but incomparably sweetest by far, the one in anagogy.” (p.177) These “four senses” of scripture can mirror the sensory interpretation of the world around us, through our visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and kinesthetic devices. In scriptural anagogy, scripture must be interpreted historically, allegorically, tropologically and anagogically. Recovering from spiritual ‘blindness’ involves a two-fold process – first the realization of the mechanism of seeing (the exegesis) and then of learning to see (the allegory, tropology and anagogy) – the interpretation for personal meaning and enlightenment, with the purpose of discovery of the eternal. Anagoge in the Greek, ἀναγωγή, is to ‘climb’ or to ‘ascend’, thus confirming the intention to lift the mortal mind to allegorical heights in order to better understand the spiritual determination of eternity.
The four senses of biblical enlightenment are summarized in this mediaeval couplet, found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.”
(“Catechism of the Catholic Church – Sacred Scripture” 2017)
If eternity is destiny, then it is of little wonder that the bible instructs “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus on whom our faith depends from beginning to end.” 3
John Bunyan, in Pilgrim’s Progress, echoed the sentiment. “Do you see yonder Wicket-gate? The man said, No. Then said the other, Do you see yonder shining light? He said, I think I do. Then said Evangelist, Keep that light in your eye and go up directly thereto.” (Bunyan & Sharrock 1965) Bunyan’s journey toward the ‘celestial city’ is his allegory on the search for eternal life. Written in 1678, when God filled the hearts of English Puritans, the expectation of, and hope for, eternity was less clouded by secularism. But this principle of biblical hermeneutics, the fourth principle of anagogy, is less prevalent in contemporary Christian activity. Just as heaven and, particularly, hell are largely overlooked in favor of populist models of kindness, service and benevolence: a seeker-friendly gospel is propagated to a modern, and infinitely more discerning ‘consumer’.
Belief, and the narrative of the gospel to make disciples, has, however, contemporaneously rooted itself into the abyss of retail. Christian retailing in the US, once the premise of tiny stores, was estimated at $7 billion in 2005. (Stevenson 2007, p.4) but this dollar amount proves insignificant when added to the pool of value placed on religion as a whole in the
Hebrews 12.2 GNT Good News Translation
US; estimated at $1.2 trillion in 2016 (Grim & Grim). Under the bright lights of consumerism, revelation and the art of understanding the true meaning of biblical allusion is just too difficult for the untrained eye.
Or perhaps believers have simply forgotten. They have studied and memorized their scriptures; they have worshipped and prayed and attended sermons. They have lived their lives in compliance with canon law and understood, cognitively and intellectually, the instruction therein. But they have, largely, missed the point. As if the bandages were removed from their eyes just yesterday and they are still trying to discern the shapes in the light, faith is compartmentalized as adjunct, not absolute. Augustine understood the reason for this, asking for chastity and purity, “but not yet”. Yet Augustine also offers some insight into the reason for this disconnection with anagogy. The concept of eternity is known throughout the Christian world, there’s no secret to it. Yet it is beyond daily consideration largely because evidence does not exist. “My eyes tell me ‘If they have colour, we reported them’. My ears say ‘If they have sound, it was we who gave notice of them.’ The sense of taste says ‘If they have no taste, do not put your question to me’. The sense of touch says ‘If it is not a body, I did not touch it, and if I did not touch it, I had no message to transmit.’” (Augustine and Pine-Coffin 2003). Just as the five physical senses combine to memorialize information, so, too, must the four principle ‘senses’ of biblical hermeneutics be employed to ‘remember’ the message of the bible. Knowing is not enough. Just as memory requires context and meaning to engender recall, with abstract information quickly forgotten in the overload of sensory stimulation, so, too, is scripture a work of sensory interpretation through the factual, allegorical, topological and anagogical. To imbibe information, critically and chronologically; to rest upon the layer upon layer of meaning contained therein; to translate that meaning into personal and individual morality and then to filter it all through the context of access to life eternal. Heraclitus noted, “He who does not expect the unexpected, will not find it, since it is trackless and unexplored.” In what was hailed as Heraclitus’ new doctrine of destiny after death, Kahn (2010) notes Heraclitus’ eschatology “that the inquiry or search for wisdom will not be complete until it has resolved the riddle of death. (p.210)
The parallels are clear. Human memory is gathered via the conduit of the physical senses; via sight, aroma, taste, sound and touch. A missing sense renders a dimension lost; early philosophical thinkers like Locke believing that this was irretrievable, but which has, in practice, been proven recoverable via the brain’s inordinate plasticity and impetus for learning. So, too, does biblical exegesis require the conduit of the senses – not just the physical array but beyond into the senses of fourfold hermeneutics. Whilst the anagoge is denied, dismissed, ignored or overlooked, the senses are deprived of a fundamental dimension of interpretation and understanding; “mentally blind” as Sacks noted (ibid) in a context that runs analogous: seeing the constituent parts, but never the bigger picture. The allegorical loss mirrors that of sight: spectrum, distance, spatial awareness, positioning. Not seeing the light, not discerning the heights to which can be ascended, not regarding creation in context, not reflecting the place of mankind within it all.
Deploying senses is the imperative; just because a sense is available doesn’t mean that it is immediately useful to understanding, there is work involved in the translation and application thereof. Just as babies with normal sight take many months to translate objects into understanding, there is still a preservative error in the things that are ‘seen’. Piaget (2000) notes that a baby of around 9 months of age will search for an object that has been hidden under a cloth, in the baby’s sight. Hiding the object repeatedly in the same place will result in the baby’s continued searching under the same cloth. However, if the object is hidden under a different cloth, still within the baby’s sight, the baby may initially attend to the second cloth, but if not immediately located will revert to searching under the original cloth. This, Piaget notes, is an egocentric response; the baby believing that the object will appear upon lifting of the cloth (not that it is there all along) and that the location of disappearance is not connected to the reappearance of such (p.52).
Thus, it is with things unseen in biblical anagogy; the expectancy to ‘see’ or understand coming from a place of logical iteration, understanding being based on the episodic or literal, not employing any of the three remaining senses of scriptural exegesis. Whilst the bible gives a simple assurance, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life”4, it is the understanding and interpretation of that belief that is found in the mystery of hermeneutics. Just as the restoration of physical sight, where such did not previously exist, is the precursor to learning to see; so too is the requirement to engage the spiritual senses in scriptural interpretation through the memorialization and personalization of meaning. Just as, without visual interpretation, an image of a tree is not a tree, nor does a tree exist in this sense, so, too, without scriptural sense deployment, the anagoge exists only in the narrative of the semantic, a single dimension, not as an imperative for life and personal meaning.
John 3:16 NKJV New King James Version
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