Monday, October 04, 2010

The German Mind and Biblical Scholarship

I ran across a very interesting section of "War and Peace" last year when I finally picked the book back after my first attempt 20 years previous, and there was a very insightful comment about the national character of Germans that is relevant when you ponder much of the German Scholarship on the Bible. In this section, Tolstoy is talking about a German strategist (Karl Ludwig von Pfuel) who was serving in the Russian Army:

"Pfuel was one of those hopelessly and immutably self-confident men, self-confident to the point of martyrdom as only Germans are, because only Germans are self-confident on the basis of an abstract notion— science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth. A Frenchman is self-assured because he regards himself personally, both in mind and body, as irresistibly attractive to men and women. An Englishman is self-assured, as being a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore as an Englishman always knows what he should do and knows that all he does as an Englishman is undoubtedly correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and other people. A Russian is self-assured just because he knows nothing, and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe that anything can be known. The German’s self-assurance is worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth— science— which he himself has invented but which is for him the absolute truth."

I discussed this with a parishioner who is German, and he agreed that it was an insightful observation. Of course, as with any generalization, it is only generally true, and not always true in any given case. Nevertheless, keep this in mind as you read about such scholars as Bultmann, Wellhausen, and Schweitzer. There is a sense you get from these scholars that the mysteries hidden from the ages were waiting for Drs. Rudolph Bultmann, Julius Wellhausen, and Albert Schweitzer to come along and unveil them. All previous generations had been fooled, but not these clever fellows.

This arrogant rationalism is to be found to one extent or another in most Western European and American thinking since the so-called "Enlightenment".

I should note I am not sure whether I am more German or more English genetically, but it would be a close call... so no slam on Germans intended.

And by the way, if you have picked up the book War and Peace, only to put it back down after losing track of who is who, I would encourage you to get the Soviet era multi-part movie (Russian title "Voina i Mir") by director Sergei Bondarchuk.

It is one of the best movies ever made, and is surprisingly respectful of the book, and of Orthodoxy -- though Orthodoxy is somewhat downplayed compared with the book. Watch the movie, and then read the book.

The movie is available with English subtitles.

Here is a clip of excerpts from the movie, to give you a taste of it: