Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bullfighting and theology - really!

Here is a strange “when worlds collide” moment for you.

I'm doing a tiny bit of research about bullfighting. It's a long story, but basically I'm trying to look for some way to help a bar mitzvah boy find some meaning in the ritual slaying of animals. But, that's not really important, right now.

What is important is an article I found on the web, about bullfighting. Some interviewer, of whom I've never heard, is interviewing some bullfighting expert, of whom I've also never heard, not surprisingly. The interviewer asked the expert to explain the “meaning” of bullfighting. The response was, to me, utterly fascinating:

The meaning of bullfighting is open to interpretation (as long as the bull is strong and the bullfighter knows what he is doing). The spectator has flashes of intuition that come about from the sheer emotionality of the event. These small flashes open the door to seeing different meanings, to nuances, to another sensibility. Later, from intuition, we usually try to create theories. But the theory is never true. It is just a possibility that we verbalize, just one interpretation that expands our comprehension. There is no “one truth”. It’s more like a dream: we have small images and feelings, but as we try to articulate them, they become foggy or disappear. Bullfighting is an ephemeral art and its meaning is also fleeting. Theories attempt to rationalize it and hold on to a meaning, but the truth of it always escapes us.

I'm not interested in bullfighting itself (I don't think anyone will be surprised to find out that I'm not, exactly, in favor of it). But this idea, that the “meaning” of bullfighting is inherently slippery is one which I've encountered before. You have an experience, and then when you're done, you try to put that experience into words. But, the description of that experience is always, inherently, and wildly, inadequate. There is absolutely no chance that the description can accurately capture the experience itself.

This is exactly how Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes theology. People have an experience of the numinous, and then when they're done, they try to put into words. It would be a tragic mistake to think that those words were the experience itself, but that's exactly what we do. We take the descriptions of holiness, and pretend that they are Holiness, themselves.

Heschel refers to “Depth Theology,"  which is the practice of trying to get close to God (more or less).  “TTheheology” is the description of those moments. Thinking that a theological statement can accurately capture the reality of God, in any sense, is exactly the same mistake as thinking that a love poem can accurately capture the experience of being in love.

No one thinks that love poems are being in love. Why do we persist in believing that our theological theories are God?

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