Monuments, Meaning, and the Fourfold Sense

Mark Gorman

Recently I suggested that Christians have much both to learn from and to contribute to public debates about monuments and meaning. Here I propose a distinctively Christian contribution: the fourfold reading of Scripture. A popular way of reading Scripture in the patristic and medieval eras, the fourfold reading of Scripture was revived in the mid-twentieth century by Henri de Lubac in his multivolume Medieval Exegesis (Eerdmans). This historic approach to reading the Old Testament was rooted in the Christian belief that language and meaning are good gifts from God, and it reflected the faith of the church that what God says in Scripture is likewise always for our good, even if it is sometimes difficult to understand how so.

In this spiritual reading of Scripture, the four senses are the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. Lubac refers to a medieval Latin saying for help in understanding the different senses: Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia. Roughly translated, this means, “The literal sense teaches what happened; the allegorical what to believe; the moral what to do; and the anagogical what the goal, i.e., hope, is.” Lubac underscores that the order matters; each sense builds on what comes before it.

What does this distinctively Christian way of reading Scripture have to do with the public debates concerning monuments and meaning? First, it allows us entry to those debates on terms that come from our tradition. Given our cultural pluralism, it is important for Christians not to default to the deracinated language that often serves as a basis for public debate. Drawing from the fourfold approach allows us to speak authentically, which can serve as an invitation for others, non-Christians, also to speak from their various traditions. By this we dignify one another with genuine conversation over real similarities and differences in perspectives and ideas, rather than fighting over who among us has the best claim to ownership of the deracinated default terms.

Second, the fourfold sense cautiously reintroduces a “hermeneutics of trust” to an arena marred by distrust and suspicion. This trust is placed in God, in whom is rooted whatever goodness we may find in anything, and not in the monuments and other “signs” themselves. In some cases, a fourfold interpretation may reveal little or nothing Christians can affirm as good. In most, if not all, cases we may expect meaning to be ambiguous at best. Still, because of our faith, we seek what goodness might be found. This “spiritual reading” approach allows us to discern layers of meaning by asking a series of basic questions:

(1) What act or event does this monument commemorate?

(2) What does this monument teach us to believe about our society/culture/world in light of that act or event?

(3) What does this monument teach us to do or to be?

(4) What hope does this monument teach us to seek?

Take, for example, a monument of a Confederate soldier. In this case, the answers are disturbing: (1) Fighting a war to protect the institution of slavery, (2) that the losing side valorously defended a “just cause,” (3) that we should preserve what remains of that “just cause” in whatever ways we can, and (4) that one day those who defended and defend the “just cause” will be vindicated. Thus, a fourfold reading of a Confederate monument leads to the conclusion that the monument is not merely ambiguous or problematic but totally depraved. In this case, it is hard to justify any Christian resistance to removing the monument.

Other cases, however, are more complicated. Each sense of a statue of Christopher Columbus is itself contested. (1) Does it represent a new era of global exploration and cultural achievement, the perverse dealings of a colonial power, or both? (2) Does it teach us to think well of “Western achievements,” or to exclude the cultural legitimacy of indigenous peoples? (3) Does it encourage exploration in new areas, like outer space, or further exploitation of marginalized peoples? (4) Does it teach us to hope in dreams or hope in “might makes right”?

Even more difficult is the case of the United Methodist logo, the cross and flame. Here, the answer to each of the fourfold senses is good: (1) a denomination that unites previously divided Christians, (2) teaching the importance of ecumenism through Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, (3) seeking the unity of the body of Christ, and (4) looking for the day when all Christian divisions are overcome. But its resemblance to a sign of unambiguous terror, the burning cross of the KKK, forces us to ask: Is the goodness in one sign sufficient to overcome the evil in another?

I do not, therefore, offer the fourfold sense as a panacea. By reminding us that all goodness, no matter where it is found, is always a gift from God, and by encouraging us to keep how we talk about anything in close company with how we talk about Scripture, the fourfold sense allows for a more Christian debate about monuments and meaning—but not necessarily for a neat resolution of that debate.

Posted Nov 02, 2020

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