Feast upon the Word Blog

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Ricoeur’s “The Bible and Imagination” (Part 2)

Posted by Robert C. on December 3, 2007

In my previous post on this article of Ricoeur’s, I drew an analogy between Ricoeur’s use of the term imag-ination and the way in which Alma talks about receiving the image of Christ in our countenances. I focused on the movement inherent in such a process—movement that we might also describe using the term reproduction: Alma challenges each of us to reproduce Christ’s image in our own countenance. For Riceour, this characterizes the way in which the meanings of a text are transferred, produced, and reproduced.

Ricoeur focuses in this article on parables, largely because the meaning of a parable is figurative and obviously transcends the parable’s own context by affecting the meaning of the narrative in which the parable is embedded. The interplay between the meaning of the parable and the meaning of the narrative which embeds the parable is thus circular: the narrative context gives the embedded parable meaning, yet the embedded parable gives meaning to the narrative context.

Ricoeur claims that this “crisscrossing” (p. 160) of meaning is symptomatic of all texts since no text would have meaning outside of a world in which the language of that text already had meaning, and yet texts don’t simply draw on already-existent linguistic meaning, they also change the linguistic meanings, if only slightly. This is perhaps most obvious with the use of what Ricoeur calls “enigma-expressions” such as the “the kingdom of God” (p. 164). The enigmatic nature of the meaning of this phrase is precisely what guarantees that this phrase will not become “a dead image,” or one of many “frozen religious representations” (p. 165). Because the precise meaning of this expression “kingdom of God” is not immediately obvious, the expression retains a powerful kind of fecundity. That is, the meaning will change and develop through the process of reading the gospels (Mark’s gospel in particular), and this continually-changing meaning will help inform our continued readings of the gospels.

Although I don’t have time or space to elaborate on this, the heart of Ricoeur’s article is a brilliant relating of this kind of interacting production of meaning to the images of fecundity in the parable of the wicked husbandmen and the parable of the sower—parables which are found near the beginning and end of the Gospel of Mark, respectively, and thus open up rich interpretive courses for understanding the entire Gospel of Mark, as well as several other scriptures and scriptural images which Mark’s gospel alludes to, via these themes.

On one level, then, there is an interplay of meaning between a parable and the narrative in which a parable is embedded, Yet, on another level, this interplay is characteristic of any process of interpreting meaning or coming-to-understanding. Ricoeur does not develop this second level of interplay very much in this particular essay, but I’ll close by quoting something from the end of Ricoeur’s essay which illustrates how he sees these issues relating to larger interpretive issues (this quote will also give you a taste for how much I’ve been simplifying the richness of Ricoeur’s writing and thinking…):

The new configurations of people’s religious experiences and the rectifications of their representations are still accompanied by the new restructuration that the expression-enigma “kingdom of God” and others similar to it impose on the signifying dynamism working in the narrative-parables. In short, it is still the parabolizing of the narrative, brought to its highest degree of incandescence, that gives rise to the transition from semiotic interpretation to existential interpretation. Here is where we pass from the work of imagination in the text to the work of imagination about the text. (p. 166)

6 Responses to “Ricoeur’s “The Bible and Imagination” (Part 2)”

  1. Clark said

    The notion of reproduction of God in us which ends up being the very meaning of becoming One with God ends up being very interesting. In traditional conceptions of texts, propositions, and knowledge, the logical implication is that we cease to exist and there is only God. (This kind of nothingness can be found in many mystic traditions) After all if we are one with God, and totally replicate him, we cease to exist and there is no difference.

    If we instead talk more about a kind of hermeneutic circle then of course eternal progression, difference, yet unity is possible.

    Of course this debate between the two conceptions goes back to the ever popular Brigham Young and Orson Pratt. Pratt tried, I think, to avoid the implications of full reproduction by making this audacious metaphysics where the “substance” of the Trinity was really this spiritual fluid made up of atoms. It filled the universe sufficiently that God was everywhere even though there still were other atoms. You then have a kind of emergent phenomena where everything in harmony with this fluid is God (or the Divine) in a manner akin to how my arm is one with me.

    It doesn’t work of course for a whole slew of reasons I’ll not bore people with.

    But I think the issue of hermeneutics (which just never arose for Pratt: there was always this sort of foundational ideal communication inherent in his metaphysics) really avoids these problems.

  2. s james said

    Robert, not an easy work to re-present here, and I’ll declare my position is ambivalent, and not as robust as yours.

    “Alma challenges each of us to reproduce Christ’s image in our own countenance.”

    This may be an overextension (or interpretation) of Alma’s question: “Have ye received his image in your countenances?” and its reference to spiritual re-birth. Though, for me, this is not a reproductive phenomenon, but a revelatory phenomenon.

    “For Riceour, this characterizes the way in which the meanings of a text are transferred, produced, and reproduced.”

    Yes the notion of reproduction (or at least production) is active in Ricoeur. The role of ‘imagination’, for example: Wallace quoting the early Ricoeur: ‘The subject can experience “redemption through imagination” because in “imagining his possibilities, man can act as a prophet of his own existence”‘.

    Certainly we may be able to imagine possibilities stimulated by the metaphorization or parabolization of the text as Ricoeur suggests, but the “experience of redemption” is more than a experience of imagination or to use his phrase: the interpretive dynamism of the text.(p161).

    While Ricoeur’s semiotic analysis of the parable of the sower and the parable of the wicked husbandmen is rich and informing, the interpretive work, for me, hesitates: “May we not say then that if the word is to increase, the body must increase?”. I can’t see many arriving at this same destination.

  3. s james said

    Apologies, last sentence should read:“May we not say then that if the word is to increase, the body must decrease?”

  4. Robert C. said

    Clark, yeah, I’ve been reading about fecundity in Levinas’s Totality and Infinity which makes this question of reproduction quite profound—I think Levinas is largely taking aim at this mystic oneness you’re talking about, as well as the oneness implicit in most modern philosophy (inherited, surely, from Plato and the neoPlatonists). Also, I keep hoping to read up on Pratt (and Church history and thinking more generally), but it’ll probably be a while before I get to it. When reading this post at the FPR blog, I had the distinct thought that the time seems ripe for a serious and sustained investigation into the history of Mormon thought—I really think such an endeavor will help us think more carefully about our doctrines and scriptures….

    s james, interesting question about revelation vs. reproduction, though I’m not quite sure I follow your distinction here. I’m not sure how related this is to what you have in mind, but I’ve been wondering quite a bit about the difference between revelations and instructions that we are given which leave little room for interpretation vs. revelations and instructions that need to be interpreted. In particular, I’ve been studying God’s command to Abraham to go to Moriah to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22) and Abraham’s “bargaining” with God about Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18). To me, the direct kind of obedience seems akin to your receiving whereas the bargaining/interpretive side of this coin seems akin to your version of my reproduction (indeed, I did mean to emphasize a certain amount of individual engagement and hence freedom in the way we are to “receive” Christ’s image in our countenance…).

    Also, about the word-increasing and body-decreasing bit, I agree that this reading relies a bit on Ricoeur’s imagination, but I don’t think it’s inconsistent with the spirit of a typical reading of these parables, do you? For Mormons, esp., I think the “if ye give place, that a seed may be planted” phrase in Alma 32:27 makes Ricoeur’s decreasing-body notion sound pretty familiar (at least if we interpret Ricoeur’s “body” without too much of a physical emphasis…), and although of course I’m adding another layer of intertextuality to Ricoeur’s essay, I think it’s largely in keeping with his point (not to mention the corn of wheat dying in John 12:24…).

  5. s james said

    Robert, thanks for clarifications.

    I guess I was expressing a view of ‘receiving’ as a form of endowment(which is different from your usage). That is, to receive Christ’s image in our countenance IMO is something like receiving the Holy Ghost or receiving ‘grace for grace’, or receiving divine forgiveness which entails a degree of divine transformation.
    Hence the way I read the expression ‘to reproduce’ was that it did not adequately acknowledge the role of divine agency at work, rather suggested to me that reproduction, was our work. Though you may say that it is our work, I read it as a gift, a grace;.

    I agree Ricoeur’s imagination is well at work, but I don’t think the ‘body-decreasing and the word-increasing’ is a typical reading as it relies on Ricoeur’s excursion into intertextuality. It would seem to me that most LDS would not read across parables but stay within a parable. It does open up other dimensions, however. In fact it could be argued an almost infinite number.

    For example, the body-decreasing and the word-increasing interpretation may also be applied to the ‘death’ of the Saviour’s body, the church (as in the apostasy); and the seeds on the different soils representing the period during the apostasy until we get the seed on fertile soil, the coming of new life (the restoration), and the wresting of the Kingdom from the wicked.

    The blending of parables for such interpretations only seems possible because we are dealing with written versions of these texts. In their oral contexts it is unlikely such connections could be made for all sorts of reasons. Not only that, such interpretations are made easier because they are made with via hindsight, nor foresight as originally. However, my question is, where do we draw the line on interpretive ‘meaning’.

    In the worlds of interextuality and heteroglossia all texts are made from other texts – there is no such thing as an ‘ex nihlio’ text – sounds familiar doesn’t it, and once we move into semiotics (as Ricoeur does) we have questions of infinite signification, and ‘unlimited semiosis’ or meaning deferral(Pierce). While social meaning emerges in interaction, the question of the referent in texts is more problematic.

    But you have prompted me to further thought given your reference to Alma 32 and the growing seed.

    I do wonder sometimes what might be being perpetuated when scriptures from different times, places and worlds suddenly find themselves in association.

  6. Clark said

    I think receiving the spirit (and accepting the gift) is what Alma is getting at. However what this means ends up being the interesting question.

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