Tuesday, February 17, 2009

For the Letter Kills, but the Spirit Gives Life

The Master said, "Unless a man has the spirit of the rites, in being respectful he will wear himself out, in being careful he will become timid, in having courage he will become unruly, and in being forthright he will become intolerant." (Confucius, Analects 8.2a; trans. Lau)

It sounds a bit like Paul in 2 Cor. 3:6: "For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life." The hallmark verse, at least for Augustine, for his "spiritual" hermeneutics that he learned from Ambrose (Confessions V.xiv (24)):

Above all, I heard first one, then another, then many difficult passages in the Old Testament scriptures figuratively interpreted, wehre I, by taking them literally, had found them to kill.

This was while listening to Ambrose's sermons. And then reading on his own:

I was also pleased that when the old writings of the Law and the Prophets came before me, they were no longer read with an eye to which they had previously looked absured, when I used to attack your saints as if they thought what in fact they did not think at all. And I was delighted to hear Ambrose in his sermons to the people saying, as if they were most carefully enunciating a principle of exegesis: "The letter kills, the spirit gives life." Those texts which, when taken literally, seemed to contain perverse teaching he would expound spiritually, removing the mystical veil. (Augustine, Confessions VI.iv (6); trans. Chadwick; cf. Ambrose, Sermon 19).

Yet, returning to Confucius, Confucius does not refute the precise actions of the rite (especially when you read the Analects as a whole), but just when those actions are not done in the spirit of the rite. Without the spirit, the letter kills, but the spirit does not exclude the letter...at least, not for Confucius. And, seeing Augustine's mature reflections of various modes of interpretation, he would not either (except when he deemed the "letter" to be absurd).

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