Thursday, May 2, 2013


Some of my favorite passages in any texts are about texts that cannot be read.

Take the story of a man writing on the ground with his finger thousands of years ago. We do not know what he wrote, we only know that he wrote.

The story is in John’s Gospel, and the scene was this: some men brought Jesus a woman whom, they said, they had caught in adultery.

The passage does not occur in the oldest manuscripts, but it appears in some that are old enough that this pericope has been included in the canonical text.

And it is a delicious passage.

For one thing, it reminds us that even if we have the whole of the Scriptures, we still do not know everything Jesus said or wrote. Or thought.

It is one of the blank spaces in which commentary has not yet been written. Which makes it an invitation to imagine – not to devise religious rules on the basis of conjecture, but to engage in the work of strenuous wonder: what might he have written?

I came up with an answer once, and Merold Westphal put it even better in his book Suspicion and Faith. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you now.

In his writing on Aristotle, Charles Peirce sometimes invokes “that scamp, Apellicon,” the ancient editor of Aristotle's texts.  Peirce charges him with altering Aristotle’s texts so that we now must guess at what Aristotle really wrote.  (And by "guess" I mean a long and difficult reasoning process involving imagination and testing of hypotheses, not just wild conjectures.)

As I have read Peirce’s manuscripts, occasionally I’ve wanted to curse some unknown scamp who mishandled Peirce’s papers (perhaps Peirce himself) as when he will say “see my note on page 18 of this manuscript” and then I discover that the manuscript is incomplete, ending on page 17.

So I have to guess. What might Peirce have written? Aldo Leopold wrote about this in his essay “The River of the Mother of God,” which was named for a river on an old map of South America. Some explorer had come upon the river in the wilderness but did not know where it began or ended, so he drew a short section of river without beginning or end, leaving it to future cartographers to fill in the unknown sections.

It’s good to have some mysteries, some lacunae in our knowledge. Or rather, it’s good to be aware of some of the gaps in what we know. As Socrates knew, this awareness of our own limitations is one of the beginnings of the love of wisdom.

From there, curiosity draws us further on.

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