The most exciting book of historical analysis I’ve read in ages — indeed the most exciting book period — is the Classical scholar and translator Sarah Ruden’s “Paul Among the People” (Pantheon) which attempts to defend St. Paul against his modernist critics (e.g. those who consider him an impossible troglodyte for his views on women and homosexuals) by explaining the Greco-Roman social and cultural context in which he composed his letters. It’s quite eye-opening, and remarkable in part because Ruden is a research fellow at Yale Divinity School (no bastion of Christian conservatism), as well as a Quaker pacifist. What makes reading Ruden such a pleasure, aside from the quality of her thinking and her prose, is her willingness to question settled truths, and to do it with such a lightness of spirit. She doesn’t cast herself as a culture warrior, as such, but as someone who simply thinks that Paul gets a bad deal from contemporaries, who judge him by the standards of our own time, heedless of the cultural realities of his era, that the Apostle addressed in his letters. In short, she’s sticking up for a man who in some leading circles is an underdog.
Clearly a pacifist who would take on translating “The Aeneid” is someone with an intrepid character and an iconoclastic way of seeing the world. Did you know Ruden is the first woman to have translated the entire epic poem?
I recently had an e-mail exchange with her, and publish it here, with her permission. It’s a little long; part one is here, and part two is below the jump. What she has to say I find remarkable — especially the respect she learned for the power of faith on the ground in South Africa (that part is after the jump, which is to say, in the extended entry):
I told an academic friend about your St. Paul book, and he said, “Wow, I guess she doesn’t much care about her future in academia.” The idea is that by writing a book defending the apostle’s most controversial positions, especially on women and homosexuality, you are sabotaging your career prospects. What do you say to that?
Well, luckily I don’t have to worry about my future in academia, because I’m only a virtual academic now. I can only credit God for bringing me out of what was and might have stayed a catastrophe.
My father was an environmental biology professor, and my mother taught high school biology. My brother is a biological anthropology professor. My sister is an entomologist (bugs) and married a biology professor. But as a teenager I couldn’t get started on the science career expected of me: I still can’t add up a column of figures or read a diagram, though I’m good at languages.
I couldn’t imagine life outside the academy, but my family wasn’t able to advise or help me in the humanities. At twenty-one I took a dumb flying leap into a Harvard Ph.D. program in Latin and Greek. I’d rather not go into the practical results, except to note that any serious effort on my part toward an academic career ended when I dropped off the tenure track at the University of Cape Town fifteen years ago. I’ve now had a series of non-funded visiting scholar appointments (with occasional teaching), which I enjoy and am grateful for, and I make my living through writing and editing. I’m blessed beyond hope in being able to write anything I like.
One good thing, I think, coming from a lot of hard experience is that, though I’ve seen a lot of the academy, I still see it the way a child would. It was never made comfortable for me, and I never developed any insider rationalizations. I’m sure I have the sourest of grapes, but I do encounter people who ask the same childish questions–more such people now that so much of the money is gone, and now that Western culture is in such distress and doubt.
Here’s some of what I want to know. Why should we hugely compress the range of historical time from which we cause students to read, and also the array of permitted thematic questions? (In many schools, you’re now not only kept to race, gender, and class, but you’re punished if you say anything ABOUT race, gender, or class that quite a tiny elite wouldn’t also say.) And why at the same time do we tell students that, anyway, it’s all about their expressing their own concerns, when they don’t yet know what an intellectual concern is? Isn’t that going to produce little more than a confused boredom and a little skill at parroting?
I’d like to see some of the seriousness of science brought back to the humanities. My father treated both his curriculum and his research as life-and-death matters. He looked at a biology class and believed it was up to him to dissuade them, for example, from smoking, or from allowing toxic waste dumps without proper liners in their future communities. He looked at an epidemiological study and pictured a childhood leukemia victim shrieking as her IV shunt is put in, and his mind raced over the knowledge and technology and laws that could prevent such suffering. My sister and brother-in-law don’t see any important difference between their work in a college and their environmental activism–in short, people need them. What’s the big difference between those attitudes and the attitude that should prevail in the humanities?
That’s especially true right now. Through literature, and especially religious literature, we can ask questions related to our survival. “Now that we have such hard choices, what’s actually useful to us? Who and what are we, anyway?”
If I could give one suggestion for revitalizing higher education, it would be to re-emphasize and reward general knowledge and good teaching, and slacken publication requirements. These compel scholars to produce rickety treehouses of specialization. If you can get papers and books out on topics nobody on the outside cares about, you can fill your quota in safety from competition and criticism–with the cooperation of colleagues who are doing the same in their own research. I don’t blame any of them–they have families to support and few professional alternatives, and they can’t change the system from inside. But I do fervently wish it would change.
What do you say to those who would argue that you, a Quaker pacifist, are giving aid and comfort to their enemies the religious conservatives with this book?
Well, I wouldn’t agree that anyone accusing me of giving aid and comfort to enemies is a fellow pacifist in the first place. Among pacifists, that ought to be a compliment, not an accusation.
To “walk orderly” as a Quaker is to appreciate the feelings of people who disagree with you. In dealing with homosexuality, individual Meetings had to decide, though complete consensus, to what extent they would include and accommodate the gay men and Lesbians who came to them. The concerns of even the most conservative members, as well as the petitioners, had to be respected, so the process was trial-and-error and quite slow, and in some places it has halted up to this day. Some so-called Conservative Friends will never be comfortable with open homosexuality, so certain default decisions of their Meetings will remain the same as the positions of the Catholic Church: not to sanction a gay marriage, for example, or not to let homosexuals teach in the sectarian school. The Mennonites, another pacifist sect with which I spend time, are in a similar quietly divided situation.
Christ–and Paul–called us first of all to love one another. That’s why the liberal Quaker Meetings, no matter how right they thought they were, and no matter how frustrated they became, didn’t say to their dissenters: “Hey, obviously we must allow gay marriage, and if you don’t like it, you’re reactionary and don’t belong here.” That’s also why, in the book, I worked hard not to denigrate the liberty of conservative Christians–including Paul! The modern conservatives have had different experiences than I have, as Paul did. That doesn’t say anything against their goodwill, or against their membership with me in the family of Christ.
[Read more of my exchange with Sarah Ruden by clicking forward…]
I am an Orthodox Christian, and what most people would call a religious conservative, though “traditionalist” would be more accurate. I find myself ever more frustrated with an alienated from the cultural politics of American religion, because they impoverish our understanding of what Scripture and Tradition has to tell us, and condition our minds to regard faith instrumentally. I don’t want a church or synagogue to be The Republican Party at Prayer, or The Democratic Party at Prayer. In my daily prayers and thoughts about how to live out my faith more perfectly in this world, I am growing more aware by how radical the Christian call is to stand in opposition to some of the most cherished dogmas of both the liberal and conservative political movements. (Robert Inchausti’s great book “Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws, Revolutionaries and Other Christians in Disguise” is the book to read on this). I suppose what excited me so much about your book on St. Paul is how even though you come out of what is generally thought to be a liberal religious tradition (insofar as that label means anything today), you fiercely reject our culturally conditioned reading of Scripture, and the Pauline letters, in an attempt to figure out what the Apostle was actually trying to say to his readers. It seems to me to require an almost heroic effort to clear away all the ideological Kultursmog that the culture warriors of left and right put out, and to try to see a thing for what it is — and to wrestle with it openly and cleanly. Put another way, I’m eager to let the ignorant armies of left and right carry on their trench warfare, while we who may generally identify broadly with either the conservative or progressive religious and intellectual traditions run off together to recover the ability to see things with fresh eyes, and to talk about them honestly and rigorously, but without rancor. I mean, what else is there? What could possibly be more dull than the same old polemical pissing matches between left and right, and the self-satisfied congeries of the righteous on both sides, standing together to affirm their mutual goodness against the evil Other, from whom they arrogantly believe there is nothing to learn?
Is this impossibly Utopian, in your view?
It IS impossibly Utopian, in the best way: it’s religious! As long as we acknowledge that Utopia belongs to God, then our work will be humble enough to strive toward God’s Kingdom, not our own rigid and very limited notions of what’s right and good.
In my circles, we’re supposed to deride the flag-waver who asserts that God loves our nation more than others, but I’m bored with that, and more inclined to get annoyed with the typical clerical politician of the left–just because no one around me challenges him, however strange his statements: for example, that “poverty elimination” and Christianity are functionally the same thing.
Aside from the obvious Scriptural and theological objections you could make to that, there are horrors of the twentieth century to look back on: the massive poverty elimination projects in the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cambodia, China, and Tanzania. The result was always elimination of the poor, those irritating barriers between human ideology and agency, and the paradise leaders insisted that these can create on their own.
In many South African NGOs, I saw played out the paradox that faith is the basic thing that brings social justice. Activists who relied on their human capacities were ground into the dust. Activists who believed that God was in charge were unstoppable. If they got things wrong, they just tried another way, because they saw themselves as weak sinners with a very partial vision; it was okay, and in fact comforting, to admit they were wrong. If their practical goals turned out to be destructive or impossible, they could cheerfully let them go–to love God was their mission, which no one could take away from them. And like Paul, they have done far more for human justice than they ever consciously intended, merely by impressing on people–who had never heard such a thing–that God cared about them and had suffered for them. The passion for justice in southern Africa is, I believe, mainly a legacy of the Scottish missionaries. So dig it–I’m a Quaker in awe of Calvinists.
Love that Sarah Ruden. Buy her books, willya? She needs to be encouraged to write more of them.