REGAINING PARADISE: PAUL CLAUDEL AND THE RENEWAL OF EXEGESIS
The sense of wonder is not dead, nor is the famous Claudelian rage. The Scriptures may have fascinated him, hut the scholars infuriated him. 'Frightful pedants', he said, have turned a paradise, a promised land 'overflowing with milk and honey', into 'a museum and cemetery'  A 'pseudo-scientific apparatus of arbitrary conjectures and frivolous hypotheses' has served only to 'discourage, to disconcert, to dishearten the faithful'.  Claudel dedicated the final years of his long life to the task of regaining this Paradise Lost. While Charles de Gaulle (to whom a notable poem was dedicated) was fighting for the freedom of France, Paul Claudel struggled to save the Scriptures -- to rescue them from the 'experts' and return them to the People of God. He not only called for, but actually attempted, a renewed exegesis: a truly Catholic reading of the Scriptures in the Church, in the light of her Tradition, in the spirit of her Fathers, guided by her Magisterium.
Nearly forty years after his death, as a whole chorus of voices calls for a new beginning in Biblical studies, the old Academician has much to teach us.
THE BIBLE IN CLAUDET'S LIFE
In the evening of his conversion in Notre Dame on Christmas Day 1886, having welcomed the newborn Christ back into his heart, he took up a Protestant Bible belonging to his sister. 'For the first time I heard the sound of that voice so sweet and so inflexible which has never ceased to resound in my heart'. His reading of Renan had kept him from Jesus. Now 'every word, every line, with a majestic simplicity, belied the impudent assertions of the apostate and opened my eyes. "It is true'', I confessed with the centurion, "Yes, Jesus is the Son of God'''.  It was the gift of restored faith which opened Claudel's eyes to what was plainly to be found in the Gospels. By contrast, the allegedly 'scientific' critic had blinded him with the prejudices of unbelief.
From his voyage to China in 1895 to his death in 1955, Claudel was a daily reader of the Bible. The two fixed objects on his desk were the Vulgate and the Vulgate Concordance. Throughout his journal, from 1904, there are innumerable Biblical quotations together with comments, either his own or the Fathers'. No poet of modern times owes so much to the Scriptures, for doininant themes as well as imagery; even his prosody, the strange music of his verse, is in debt to David's Psalms. In the two decades before his death, this long love-affair bore fruit in a series ot exegetical books and essays, which now make up eight volumes of his collected works.
Claudel was modest in the claims he made fur his exegesis. He had no degrees in theology, held no chair in Biblical studies. He wrote simply as a believer and a poet. Of his study of the Canticle, he makes this admission:
Despite his lack of academic qualifications, he felt that as a poet he was in a better position to get at the meaning of Scripture than those afflicted by 'the total absence of any kind of poetic feeling, or rather of that sensibility of soul that the Bible itself calls "understanding"'. C. S. Lewis — Christian apologist, poet, novelist, literary critic — made the same charge in his famous essay 'Fern-seed and Elephants':
There is nothing élitist, nothing precious, about the claims of Claudel. He did not liberate the Bible from the classrooms of the scholars only to imprison it in the salons of the poets. He did not maintain the absurd thesis that only a literary artist can properly understand and appreciate the Scriptures. His was the much more modest conviction that, in his case, a poetic sensibility had been protection from deception. Because he knew the world's literature so well (Greek and Latin, French and English, Chinese and Japanese),  Claudel recognized what the radical critics, usually lacking his cultural range, ignored: there is no book in the world like the Bible. Faith is not required to perceive this singularity, but faith does confirm and explain it: this matchless book, it tells us, is none other than the inspired and inerrant written Word of God.
HOW TO READ THE BIBLE: CLAUDEL'S SUGGESTIONS
Claudel's exegesis is not systematic. His 'interrogations', as he calls them, are full of digressions both enlightening and entertaining. Nowhere does he set out a programmatic philosophy of exegesis.  Nonetheless, certain fundamental rules for reading the Bible can he extracted from his writings. I shall present them here in thesis-form.
Unless our minds and hearts are ecclesial, conformed to the thinking and loving of the Bride, we cannot hear the Bridegroom-Word.
(2) We must reclaim and continue the great tradition of spiritual exegesis as practised by the Fathers and the theologians of the Middle Ages. Claudel speaks of 'the great symbolic quest which for twelve centuries occupied the Fathers of the Faith and of Art'.  It was through reciting the Breviary that Claudel met and assimilated the Patristic and medieval tradition of exegesis. There is an echo of his own practice in the play L'Annonce faite à Marie, where Violaine gets Mara to read the sermons of Popes St Leo and Gregory the Great from Christmas Matins.
The spiritual interpretation of Scripture — reading it in the Spirit in whom it was first written  — was not, of course, the invention of the Fathers, It was authorized by Christ himself when he said that his words were 'Spirit and life' (cf John 6. 63), and again that not a jot or tittle of the law would pass away before all had been fulfilled (cf Matt 5, 18).  By these words, says Claude', Our Lord 'affirms and guarantees the spiritual value of the Law of Moses in its every detail'.  The Jews interpreted the Song of Songs mystically  Indeed, their whole tradition of midrash is testimony to their belief that the words of the Law and the Prophets had an inexhaustible richness and an unfailing relevance.
Claudel was convinced that spiritual exegesis was in an important sense more 'critical' than what he called the 'literalist prejudice'. Atter all, on almost every page of the Bible, the Holy Spirit tells us to use our minds.  The literalist remains at the surface of the text; the man who reads in the Spirit and with the Church is able to plunge into its depths.
(3) The spiritual sense is based on the historical, literal sense. Claudel's rejection of 'literalism' must not he misunderstood. He does not take the path recently followed by Eugen Drewermann, who, with a lofty Gnostic contempt for history, sees the Bible as no more than a psychologically exciting collection of myths. In his exegesis as in much else, Claudel is a faithful disciple of St Thomas Aquinas. like the Angelic Doctor, he maintained that the spiritual sense was based on and presupposed the historical, literal sense.  He does not use symbolism as a quicklime to dissolve historicity. Unlike the strictly timeless myths of pagan antiquity, the Bible is the record of a saving history.
Claude believed that the study of the historical sense, employing the skills of 'historical criticism', was 'a holy and a magnificent task', which in his own time had been taken up with admirable success by Father Lagrange and his co-workers.
He was fascinated by archaeological and historical research on the ancient Near East, especially the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, which 'promise new and important contributions to the religious, literary and civil history of the final years of the Jewish people before the coming of the Messiah, as well as to our knowledge of the milieu in which Christ carried out his work'. 
Thus the 'literalism' against which Claudel wages war is not the exegesis that starts with the letter, hut rather the exegesis that restricts itself to the letter, the reading that will not recognize, in the words of St Jerome, that the Bible is 'an infinite forest of senses'. Literalism, as Claude' defines it, is reductionism, the refusal of the Spirit-given richness. It is the explanation of 'the more by the less'. It comes from the same materialist mentality that would 'explain a Titian by the chemical nature of the colours'.  For the literalist, the text can only mean one thing, and that one thing is determined by the scholar, who works independently of the Church, 'brackets out' his faith, and uses purely naturalistic methods. What Claude' calls the 'literalist prejudice' is the mistaken assumption that where there is symbol or spiritual meaning, there cannot be history, and vice versa, From David Strauss to our own time, we have the same dull picture of evangelists running fact-factories: inventing events for their 'theological' purposes. It is the typical confusion of bookish men, who assume that texts point back only to other texts. Claudel the poet knew better. The Bible bears witness to things, uttered words and realized deeds. It is these which God has made dense with significance.
Claudel followed St Thomas in maintaining that the senses of Scripture are multiple 'not because one word signifies many things, but because the things signified by the words can be themselves signs of other things'.  This manifoldness of meaning is possible because the primary author of Holy Scripture is the Hloly Spirit. In the words of St Thomas, quoted by Claude', 'the author of things can not only adapt words to some significance, but he can also arrange for one thing to be the figure of another'.  He who is both Lord of history and inspirer of Scripture can give events a 'figurative eloquence'. Thus little David took on the might of the Philistines in historical truth, but he also 'represents the folly of the Cross' 
Like the great exegetes of the Middle Ages (especially St Bonaventure), Claudel saw an analogy between the Scriptures and the cosmos. The Bible is a world, but then the world is a book, and in both cases God is the author. God did in the Bible what he had already achieved in the visible creation: he made one thing stand for another. 'Everything is symbol in nature, and everything is parable in event'.  The significance of things, as found in the world and recorded in Scripture, comes not from the imagination of observer or reader but from a richness of mutual reference implanted by the Wisdom of God. Only a non-poet would imagine that symbol implies fantasy and fiction.
Similarly, only the prosaic would think that the Gospel-writers have conjured the matchless deeds of Christ from their imagination. In his poem on St Matthew, Claudel shows us the evangelist as the Church has always seen him: not myth-maker or theological novelist, but faithful disciple of the Word Incarnate, committed to telling the 'honest truth about Jesus', what he really did and taught for our eternal salvation. 
It was Matthew the publican who had the idea first,
(4) The Bible is a whole and must be read as such. If we were to choose a word to capture the essence of Claudel's art and thought, it would he Catholicity — universality, wholeness, totality.
The Church's faith, like the world of God's creation. has a wonderful wholeness, a peace and harmony of interconnected parts. This is also true of the Church's Scriptures — of each book and of the complete canonical collection. By contrast, the tendency of Biblical criticism at every stage of its development has been to pull the Scriptures apart: to accentuate apparent contradictions, to shatter apparently unified works into a multitude of sources or stages of redaction, to distance the sacred authors as far as possible from the events they recount. This is sterile, says Claudel. The Bible has the unity of a work of art, bestowed on it by a divine craftsman using human instruments.
If the Bible is an indissoluble whole, then its parts — New Testament and Old — must not be separated. Claudel's passionate concern was the Old Testament, 'that ocean of love and beauty ... where so many saints, so many geniuses, have found inexhaustible sustenance'.  His is perhaps the most robustly anti-Marcionite exegesis of our times 
'The Old Testament must he returned to the Christian people. There is no more necessary and urgent work'.  The professional exegetes have lost their Christian nerve. They have largely abandoned the concepts of prophecy, type and shadow. Somehow we must recapture the Patristic conviction that 'the New is hidden in the Old and the Old is made plain in the New'.  Claudel did this in all his Old Testament exegesis, but especially in Emmaus (1949), where he places himself in the company of Cleopas and his companion (Claudel thinks it may have been St Luke himself: Pourquoi pas?) and listens to the Risen Lord as he expounds the Scriptures concerning himself.
If the Bible is a whole, then the Gospels must not be played off against each other; John must not he 'torn' from his 'brothers'.  There is no inner canon: no John without the Synoptics, no Synoptics without John. Each helps us see the one incomparable face from a different angle. There is concord, not contradiction, between them.
(5) The Bible must be read in the light of Christ. Claudel reads the whole Bible, as did the Fathers, in the light of Jesus Christ: in the Old he is prophesied, and in the New he comes. 'The ancient Fathers are not mistaken when they seek in Scripture only Christ and esteem all else as vanity'.  'No way through the Bible is there other than Jesus Christ, and to find it you have to have wings and rise above the vast ranges which to the pedestrian explorer appear confused and disconcerting'.  Claudel would have been delighted that the new Catechism of the Catholic Church includes this luminous text from Hugh of St Victor: 'The whole of divine Scripture is but one book, and that one book is Christ' 
Claudel) finds Christ everywhere in the Bible, and when he finds him, he is not alone: he is there with his Mother and his Church. Claudel's reading of Scripture is Marian as well as Christ-centered.
OPINIONS OF CLAUDEL'S EXEGESIS
Many of the Biblical professionals were, to say the least, annoyed by Claudel's criticisms and proposals. Others applauded his efforts. At the very highest levels in the Church, he received consistent praise and encouragement, Through Monsignor Montini, Pope Pius XII showed his high regard for Claudel's efforts in the exegetical field.  Cardinal Gerlier of Lyon invited him to give a conference on the Bible.  In his monumental study Exégèse Médiévale Cardinal de Lubac quotes Claudel in a matter-of-fact way alongside the commentators of the Middle Ages. The message is clear: he is in the great tradition.
A LONE VOICE NO LONGER
Since Claudel's death, the rationalistic and reductive reading of Scripture that he called 'literalism (and regarded as a species of Modernism)  has reached proportions beyond his blackest dreams. In his 1988 Erasmus Lecture, Cardinal Ratzinger said that 'to speak of the crisis of the historical-critical method today is practically a truism',  and went on to offer the 'basic elements of a new synthesis, in which the exegete would come to the text not with a 'closed hand, hut with 'an opened eye', without 'ready-made philosophy' and yet 'ready to learn from the extraordinary'. This attitude would be neither 'fundamentalism' nor 'a merely positivistic and rigid ecclesiasticism', It would simply be the acknowledgement that the Bible is the Church's book, and that her faith is 'that form of sym-pathia without which [it] remains a closed book'.  In other words, the only way to rid ourselves of the rationalistic prejudgements that block off the Bible from us is to read it in the attitude of the Church's faith. Claudel had no other message. Father Ignace de la Potterie SJ, doyen of Catholic Biblical studies, has deplored the destructiveness of 'separated exegesis' — Biblical studies cut off from Church and faith and prayer. He has called for a renewed spiritual exegesis. With and like the Fathers of the Church, we must look for the spiritual sense 'not outside, but inside the literal sense: we must look for the Spirit in the letter'.  This was exactly the quest of Claudel.
There are imbalances in Claudel's exegesis. There are occasions when, in his zeal to defend the divinity of the Scriptures, he appears to obscure their humanity. For example, in J'aime la Bible, he presents us with this stark choice:
This needs nuancing. The choice is not between the Bible as divine work and the Bible as human work. It is neither exclusively divine (as the fundamentalists maintain) nor merely human (as the radical critics imply). It is at once, divine and human, which is why the Fathers of the Church see a certain analogy between the Scriptures and the person of Christ, true God and true man in one person. (The Alexandrian tradition even speaks of the Scriptures as a kind of 'embodiment' of the Word.) As Pope John Paul II has recently said, it is precisely because the Church takes the 'realism of the Incarnation' so seriously that, from the encyclicals Provaalentissimus Dent and Divino Afflante Spiritu to the constitution Dei Verburn, 'she attaches great importance to the historico-critical study of the Bible'. 
The Bible, like the Incarnation, is a wonder of 'condescension'. In it the Holy Spirit speaks to men 'through men and in the manner of men'.  The eternal God is the primary author of the Scriptures, but men of particular times and places are his living instruments; he does not suppress their faculties of intellect and will, but works in and through them. There can be no sound exegesis, therefore, that ignores the concrete historical humanity of the sacred writers — who they were, when and where they lived, the language they spoke, the imaginative and conceptual world they inhabited.
Claudel accepted all this, despite the simplistic contrast in the text J'aime la Bible quoted above. He granted the necessity of historical criticism, he argued strenuously against any attempt to make it all-sutticient. What he was trying to say was this: the human aspects of Scripture are the essential beginning of exegesis, hut they are not the end.  In words written by men there and then is a message valid always and everywhere. It is the infinite richness of God's Word and Wisdom that is enfleshed by the Spirit in the body of the letter. Only when a sense of that richness is retained, through faith and prayer and 'thinking with the Church', can the historico-critical method hear its fruit. When the richness is forgotten, the method becomes just another pretentious form of worldly wisdom.
The serenity that comes from resting in the heart of Mary-Church fills all the autumnal works of Claudel. There is also an attractive humour, exercised as much at his own as at others' expense. (This is a virtue not always evident in the solemn essays of today's Biblicists.) Claudel wants science in the study of Scripture, but he also demands simplicity and an abiding capacity for wonder at the history of God's redeeming love. What Hans URS von Balthasar has said of the late verse applies equally to the exegesis.
I. But not all the plays had been performed. The Satin Slipper was premièred. In occupied Paris, in 1943. The miraculously glittering production at the Comédie
Française — directed by and staring Jean-Louis
Barrault, with music by Honegger — was a defiant celebration
of Christian culture in the face of Nazi paganism.
3. Lettres au R. P. Paroissin sur la Bible (= Lettres) (Paris, 1955), p.7.
4. Lettres, p. 11. 'What is the Pentateuch?' , he asks pointedly, with Wellhausen in mind, 'Moses or mosaic?' (Journal I (1904 - 1932) (Paris, 1968), p. 43).
5. In 'Magnificat', one of the Five Great Odes, he says of Voltaire, Renan, Michelet, Hugo 'and the rest of the scum' that their very name after their death is poison and putrefaction' (Oeuvre poétique, p. 261).
6. 'Ma conversion', Contacts et conversations, Oeuvres complètes 16 (Paris, 1959), p. 193.
7. Le cantique des cantiques (= Cantiques), Oeuvres complètes Vol 18 (Paris, 1963), p.7.
8. J'aime la Bible, Oeuvres complètes, vol. 21 (Paris, 1963), p 363.
9. Fern-seed and Elephants (London, 1975), p. 107.
10. On the day at his departure from Japan in February 1927, the English-language Japan Times paid this tribute to the 'poet-envoy's' knowledge and appreciation of Japanese culture: His literary and artistic genius has enabled him to penetrate into the hidden quarters of Japanese life and art as no westerner could ever hope to reach, and the result of his investigation and study has enriched western life and art, and revived our own interest in the old Japanese art and music' (Journal I p. 839).
11. 'Du Sens figuré de l'Écriture' is the nearest thing, but it too rambles and leaves many questions unanswered.
12. Penme p. 383.
13. Emmaus, Oeuvres complètes, vol. 23 (Paris. 1964), p. 234.
14. Positions et Propositions I, 207.
15 Act 3, scene 3, Théâtre, vol. 2 (Paris, 1965), pp. 198ff His journals contain frequent references to the Divine Office.
16. Cf the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum: Since Sacred Scripture is to be read and Interpreted in the same Spirit as it is written ...' (n. 12).
17. The crucial New Testament text is 2 Cor. 3. 6, where St Paul distinguishes between the death-dealing letter and the life-giving Spirit.
18. J'aime la Bible, p. 398.
19 Cantique, p. 9.
20. Paul Claudel interroge l'Apocalpyse, 230-232.
21. 'Du sens figuré de l'Écriture', Oeuvres complètes, vol. 21 (Paris, 1963), p. 13. Cf Summa Theologiae 1a 1, 10.
22. Ibid., p. 13.
23. Ibid., p 14.
24. Journal II (1933 - 1955) (Paris, 1969), p. 668. Claudel is here quoting Father A. Brunot.
25. Ibid., p. 23.
26. A letter to Gabriel Frizeau in P. Claudel, F. Jammes, G. Frizeau, Correspondence (Paris, 1952), p. 58.
27. Summa Theologiae 1a 1, 10, ad 1.
28. Quodlib. 7, 4, cited in 'Du Sens figuré de l'Écriture', p. 63.
29. Ibid., p. 63.
30. J'aime la Bible, p. 361.
31. 'Introduction à un poème sur Dante' , Oeuvres en prose, p. 423f.
32. Cf Dei Verbum n. 19.
33. Oeuvre poétique, p. 421f.
34. 'L'Esprit et L'eau', Cinq Grandes Odes, Oeuvre poétique , p. 240.
35. Lettres, p. 41f.
36. J'aime la Bible, p. 379,
37. Marcion was the anti-Semitic Gnostic who said that the God of the Old Testament was not the God of the New Testament. The former was evil, the creator of matter; the latter was good, the creator of spirit. He rejected from his canon of the New Testament whatever he felt was too Jewish. This programme was taken up in our own century by the German Christians of Nazi Germany.
38. Lettres, p 11.
39. Cf Dei Verbum n. 16, citing St Augustine.
40 L'Apocalypse, p 54.
41 L'Apocalypse, p 53f
42. J'aime la Bible, p. 441.
43. Quelques principes d'exégèse, p. 3. This short essay is not the systematic essay which the title promisingly suggests.
44. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 134.
45. Lettres, p. 41f.
46. Cantique, p. 9.
47. Lettres, p. 45. In 1935 Claudel records
in his journal that 'Cardinal Pacelli tells me that he reads my works with great pleasure' (Journal II, p. 101). In May 1949 he learns from Paul Lesourd
that Pope Pius XII thinks that 'Paul Claudel is the greatest writer of Christian France. We very much appreciate
his works' (ibid, p. 684). In April 1950 the papal admiration tor his poetry was expressed in a most remarkable
way. In the Consistory Hall ot the Vatican, in the presence of the Holy Father, a group of French actors gave dramatic
readings of some of his religious poems and ot his meditation on the Fourth Station of the Cross, all of which
manifest his distinctive approach to Scripture. Claudel regularly sent copies ot his exegetical works to the Pope
and received warm responses each time through Monsignor Montini. For example, there's this letter of January 18,
1949: 'The Holy Father greatly appreciates the Sentiments of respect that led you to present him with your recent
works on the Psalms and the Song of Songs. One cannot but admire the deep devotion you show to the Sacred Scriptures,
in which your poetic genius is able to told magnificent inspiration. It is not surprising, though, that the Book
of Books should he a source, as inexhaustible as it is exhilarating, not only for piety and for life, but also
for art, which is one of its highest expressions. In this respect, Divine Providence has showered on you, lavished
on you, exceptional gifts, which you know well how to put to the service of your faith' (Journal
II, p. 669f). Claudel heard on the grapevine that a Dominican father had been claiming
that it was Claudel's exegesis that Pope Pius was attacking Divino Afflante Spiritu (Journal II, p. 538. The warmth and positive tone of
the letter quoted above make it highly unlikely that Claudel was Pope Pius' target. What he was attacking was the
spiritualistic approach to Scripture, expressed in a recent anonymous pamphlet in Italy, which wanted a 'mystical
exegesis' at the price of total rejection of the historical-critical method. As we have seen, this was never
48. Lettres, p. 31.
49. Exégèse Médiévale. Les quatres sens de l'écriture, Seconde Partie II (Paris, 1964), p. 84, citing Paul Claudel interroge L'Apocalypse.
50. 'Today there are the modernists, and this "scientific" literalist teaching that a bunch of learned clergymen and clever religious are pouring into the seminaries ...' (L'Apocalypse, p 76).
51. 'Foundations and Approaches of Biblical Exegesis'. The Erasmus Lecture 1988, origins 17 (1988), 593.
52. Ibid., 601.
52. 'Die Lesung der Heiligen Schrift "im Geist"' Internationale katholische Zeitschrift: Communio 15 (1986), 224
54 J'aime la Bible, p. 400
55. Address to a special gathering ot the Pontifical Biblical Commission to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Providentissimus Deus and the 50th anniversary ot Divino Afflante Spiritu.
57 'In order to respect the coherence of the Church's faith and of Scriptural inspiration, Catholic exegesis must be carelul not to limit itself to the human aspects of the Biblical texts' (Pope John Paul II, ibid. ).
58. These lines were written by Balthasar at the end of his German translation of the late verse, Antlitz in Glorie (Einsiedeln, 1964), p. 143
The above first appeared in The Downside Review 114 (1996) 79.
This version: 1st June 2008