The Second Shoe: An Appreciation and Critique of Walter Wink's the Human Being

By Rollins, Wayne G. | Cross Currents, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Second Shoe: An Appreciation and Critique of Walter Wink's the Human Being


Rollins, Wayne G., Cross Currents


In this exegetical and theoretical tour de force, Walter Wink has dropped the second shoe. The first shoe was dropped twenty-nine years ago with the publication of his Bible in Human Transformation. The subtitle of that book reads: "Toward a New Paradigm for Biblical Study" (italics added). Wink's plan in 1973 was to "do a sequel spelling out with case studies the process" he had described there. Twelve volumes later, with his Principalities and Powers trilogy and Transforming Bible Study in tow, we have the sequel, the second shoe, and a fitting match for the first. Why?

In that 1973 volume, he opened with the memorable declaration, "Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt." He explained that by "bankrupt" he did not mean something valueless, or useless, but rather something

   no longer able to accomplish its avowed purpose.... It is bankrupt
   solely because it is incapable of achieving what most of its
   practitioners considered its purpose to be: to interpret the
   Scriptures that the past becomes alive and illumines our present
   with new possibilities for personal and social transformation.
   (1-2)

Wink hasn't skipped a beat. This has been his purpose from beginning to end.

The Human Being is a virtuoso combination of historical and literary criticism, of ethics, philosophy (Ludwig Feuerbach has an entire chapter), of spirituality, etymology, of Geistesgeschichte (which means not only the history of ideas but also the history of the strong cross-cultural currents that move in the human psyche), of depth psychology, and even a touch of neurophysiology.

For the biblical scholar there is a feast of original exegetical insight in well-traveled Synoptic territory, but also, virtually for the first time, the full inclusion of the Fourth Gospel as a worthy interlocutor in conversation about the impulse that the historic Jesus inaugurated in the human psyche. But above all, the book alters forever the way in which the Son-of-the-Man passages will be read by all of us who have read Wink's book. It achieves this by placing the discussion in a totally new context, namely, the process, in which and out of which the Son-of-the-man image emerges as a heuristic force within the human psyche.

Wink writes out of two hearts. I could say two minds, but it would fail to capture the passions with which he thinks and writes. The first heart is focused on what he calls, the pre-Easter Jesus, as opposed to the post-Easter, following Marcus Borg's categories. Wink is heavily invested in the pre-Easter Jesus because it provides for him the paradigmatic image of the Human Being archetype.

But, it is the second heart of Wink, associated with the phenomenon of the post-Easter Jesus, that marks his most original contribution, and we should add, at a considerable remove from the classical historical critical method. Three examples of this remove will suffice.

First he spells out his method, telling us he will "not seek to get behind the text" as much as to "penetrate deeply into the texts." "I employ historical-critical tools wherever they seem appropriate," Wink tells us, but basically wants us to see the text as "the Sinai of the Soul, where God still speaks," hardly a run-of-the-mill historical-critical objective (5).

Second, Wink tells us that truth is to be valued above historical accuracy. Throughout, Wink intriguingly insists that his goal is to determine not "so much whether Jesus actually said something, but whether it is true, regardless of who said it" (15). To illustrate his point he adds a flourish seldom heard on the plains of historical biblical scholarship, quoting Black Elk the Lakota Sioux, "This they tell, and whether it happened so or not I do not know but if you think about it, you can see that it is true" (112).

Third, reflecting the work of his former student Hal Childs and his highly important volume, The Myth of History and the Evolution of Consciousness, Wink concurs that all attempts to reclaim the historical Jesus are mythic in content and agenda and that the goal of historical Jesus research from the perspective of psychological realism (in Childs's words) is to contribute to "the evolution of consciousness, both for the individual and for culture . …

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