Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Thank God for Committees: Contribution to a Reformation Day Panel

The Meeter Center for Calvin Studies asked me to be part of a panel reflecting on the legacy of the Reformation. We were each given five minutes. Here are the notes for my brief contribution:

There are lots of features of the Protestant Reformation for which I’m grateful. I see it as an Augustinian renewal movement within the church catholic that led to the sanctification of ordinary life. The Reformers returned us to Scripture, renewed worship, and released the self for encounter with the risen Christ.

But today I want to focus on an underappreciated legacy: the Reformation’s theological investment in polity, particularly their emphasis on a plurality of leaders and the priesthood of all believers. In other words—and I can hardly believe I’m saying this—I’m grateful to the Reformers for giving us committees! The hard, frustrating work of committees is how we learn to the work of forging the commonweal.

  • This isn’t just about doing things “decently and in order.” It’s not about a dazzling org chart, and it’s not just some curmudgeonly concern with “following the rules.” The plurality of leadership is rooted in an anthropological and institutional realism: eschewing any perfectionism, we see the ongoing failings of even regenerate hearts and minds, especially when they are inflated by the concentration of power. So leadership is diffused without being diluted; governance is shared; authority is borne by many shoulders. “The prophets are subject to the prophets,” as Paul put it. 
  • Gifts beyond professionalism: offices of authority are entrusted to those with gifts, desire, and calling not just those credentialed with divinity degrees or theological credentials. And it is surely one of the virtues of the Reformed & Presbyterian traditions to have discerned that these leadership traits—gifts, desire, calling—are not limited to those with testicles. (Image of the Lord’s Supper being served by all women elders as a kind of signal that the curse is being rolled back.)
  • Though this all hinges on formative, substantive catechesis: as go elders, so go the church. 
  • Why I’m particularly grateful for this Reformation legacy today: because of it’s spillover to political life. It was these Calvinistic intuitions that bequeathed to us the institutions of checks & balances that are now features of liberal democracy. 
  • On one level, they reasserted the dignity of the individual: when Jesus knows the number of hairs on your head, you can’t be reduced to a cog in some collectivist machine. 
  • On the other hand, Reformed intuitions about polity and healthy institutional life bequeathed to us governmental structures enshrining shared government, internal corrections, and the sort of life-saving bureaucracy that gums of the gears of impatient, willful kings and dictators. (Hi there, Robert Mueller!!) The multi-pronged, self-correcting government envisioned by the US Constitution was, in many ways, dreamed up by Calvinists who didn’t trust themselves. Dr. King would later remind them they should have trusted themselves even less—and yet he appealed to their founding intuitions to make the point. In that sense you could say King was asking for an even more Calvinist Republic. 
  • But this too depends on a kind of catechesis: civics and the formation of civic virtue, as well as a healthy dose of self-suspicion—all in short supply today. The hard good work of Reformed & Presbyterian polity is how we learn to be good citizens, too. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Translation and the Afterlife of Words: A few thoughts on Ruden's new translation of the Confessions

Translations are a bit like music: you attach yourself to what you encountered in your youth. You reify what emerged when you were coming of age. You canonize what formed you.

So if you first encountered Proust through battered paperback versions of Scott Moncrieff, you'll be disposed to resist Lydia Davis' masterful new translations. "Accuracy" hardly matters: for you, Proust just speaks Scott Moncrieff.  A different translation sounds like someone else's voice. These commitments and loyalties are not necessarily rational; they're more like an existential allegiance--even a kind of friendship.

So, too, with translations of Augustine's Confessions.  For some generations, it was Pine-Coffin. Others were passionately committed to Frank Sheed's rendition.  For me, it was and always has been Chadwick's translation for Oxford University Press--which is why, as you might expect, I found Boulding's translation a tad overwrought, like she was trying too hard.

No surprise, then, that I greeted the arrival of Sarah Ruden's new translation with skepticism.  And within the first page--in the first line!--my skepticism was confirmed and I recoiled in my Chadwick allegiance.  The occasion was her decision to translate dominus as "Master" rather than "Lord."  So the cherished opening line of the Confessions greeted me as: "You are mighty, Master, and to be praised with a powerful voice" (Ruden). Contrast this with Chadwick's opener: "You are are great, Lord, and highly to be praised."

I quite literally closed up the Ruden translation in a kind of literary disgust.

Imagine my sense of chastisement, then, when no less than Peter Brown--the unsurpassed biographer of Augustine--praised Ruden's translation. Even worse, Brown particularly lauded Ruden's decision to render dominus as "Master."  Here's Brown making the point:

The measure of the success of Ruden’s translation is that she has managed to give as rich and as diverse a profile to the God on the far side as she does to the irrepressible and magnetically articulate Latin author who cries across the abyss to Him. Most translations of the Confessions fail to do this. We are usually left with the feeling that one character in the story has not fully come alive. We meet an ever-so-human Augustine, with whom it is easy to identify even when we most deplore him. But we meet him perched in front of an immense Baroque canvas called “God”—suitably grand, of course, suitably florid, but flat as the wall. 
How does Ruden remedy this lack of life in God? She takes God in hand. She renames Him. He is not a “Lord.” That is too grand a word. Its sharpness has been blunted by pious usage. Augustine’s God was a dominus—a master. And a Roman dominus was a master of slaves. Unlike “Lord,” the Latin word dominus implied, in Augustine’s time, no distant majesty, muffled in fur and velvet. It conjured up life in the raw—life lived face to face in a Roman household, lived to the sound of the crack of the whip and punctuated by bursts of rage.

He continues: "To make God more of a person, by making Him a master, does not, at first sight, make Him very nice. But at least it frees Him up. It also brings Augustine to life."  

When someone like Peter Brown is making this point, you step back from your allegiances and start to question yourself. 

But having done that, I'm digging in and sticking with my Chadwick, and disagreeing with Brown (and Ruden).  It comes down to the life of words and who "owns" Augustine.

First, the life of words: Every translation is an adventure in sailing from one language to another, and often from one time to another. (I have some of my own experience with such mis/adventures.)  And words in either language are not static: they have a life of their own. Indeed, they have an ongoing life that survives their speakers and authors such that words come to us encrusted with all kind of barnacles and freeriding associations by the time they disembark on the shore of our imagination.  This is certainly true of the three words at stake here: dominus, Lord, and Master. 

Brown thinks "Lord" carries a whiff of medieval feudalism and prefers "Master" because it reflects the antique world of Augustine's use.  But this is to evaluate a translation of the Confessions as a classicist, and to imagine that readers of Augustine are coming to it as classicists.  For those who encounter the Confessions as a devotional classic--which is still the vast majority of its readers, I expect--their interest and investment is not merely historical or antiquarian.  More to the point, I doubt many of them appreciate the late-ancient connotations of dominus, nor do they think of feudal fiefdoms when they hear the word "Lord." 

Conversely, to praise the rendition "Master" for its classical accuracy and literary verve seems to quite willfully ignore all the connotations that have attached themselves to the word "Master." Indeed, perhaps I found it particularly jarring and offensive to read that opening line of Ruden's translation because I had just finished Colson Whitehead's disturbing but essential novel, The Underground Railroad, which paints a world full of "Masters" that were one more reason to believe God couldn't possibly exist.

This brings me to my second point. In some ways, this is a question of who "owns" Augustine--not in the sense of who can claim him, or invoke him, and claim to speak for him.  I mean something different: which afterlife of words is most germane to the project that Augustine himself is engaged in?  Which history of connotation overlaps with Augustine's endeavor?

When we consider these questions, I think "Lord" is the right choice precisely because of the afterlife of this word in Christian piety.  When the vast majority of Christians hear or say the word "Lord," they are not academic historians for whom medieval feudal orders are rumbling around in their heads.  They are people who are part of a larger people that has been praying to a Father for millenia.  "Lord," for them, is not "grand;" it is familiar.

Indeed, this is what's so surprising about Ruden's decision in that opening line. By rendering it "You are mighty, Master, and to be praised with a powerful voice," she virtually cuts off the echo of allusion to Psalm 47:2 that Chawick recognizes. Ruden's rendition is a decision that hides this as the language of prayer--which is surely an odd thing to do for a work that is, in its entirety, framed as a prayer. The language of Chadwick (and others), invoking "Lord," pays homage to language prayed for centuries before him and, more importantly, prayed for centuries after him.  It is a translation decision that recognizes the ongoing effect of the King James Bible in transforming the connotation of "Lord" for English-speakers ever since (a reality that is still true even in our so-called "secular" age).  And its find its home among readers who are co-pilgrims with Augustine, who approach their dominus as co-heirs with the Son.