Discerning the Mystery


I made a rather silly typo in a blog comment yesterday. Or, given that I repeated it twice, perhaps it was more a Freudian slip than a typo. Instead of writing “sola scriptura” I wrote “schola scriptura”. Perhaps I am just an irreformable closet Benedictine after all!

Now, I probably should not have written the comment (or the one that preceded it) in the first place, and I am not going to link to it as it is clear that there is really no room for conversation with the blogger concerned. It’s just that, well, there are certain things that I find really shocking, in this case the idea that Christ did not die for all people, that I felt that I had to say something. But in any case, I should have known better. (Note to self: do not comment on Calvinist blog. In fact, better, do not read Calvinist blogs. Of course the trouble is that, with a few exceptions, most Christian blogs in South Africa seem to be either Calvinist or post-everything, but that is another topic).

But, as I realised that I had written “schola scriptura” instead of “sola scriptura,” it struck me that it was perhaps not such an insignificant difference. For, the school of the Scriptures, with its attitude of sitting at the feet of the biblical authors, and being formed by them, sounds like a far healthier and more traditional attitude to have towards the Scriptures than to see them as a quarry from which to extract arguments with which to defend pre-existing positions. And that reminded me of these words from Father Andrew Louth that I posted over three years ago – how much has happened since then!

The presupposition that lies behind all this – a presupposition either defended (more or less desperately) or finally relinquished – is the principle of sola scriptura, understood as meaning that Scripture is a quarry from which we can extract the truth of God’s revelation: that allied to the more recent notion that the tool to use in extracting meaning from literary texts is the method of historical criticism. We have an alliance between the Reformation and the Enlightenment: not something that inspires confidence. But as will be clear from our considerations so far, both the principle and the method are questionable.

The principle of sola scriptura actually leads one away from the traditional devotion to Scripture as the Word of God which we find par excellence in the Fathers. Scripture is being understood as an arsenal and not as a treasury (to use the contrast drawn by Paul Claudel in his Du sens figure de l’Écriture). And such an understanding leads to a false and misleading notion of the nature of Christianity as a biblical religion. If the bible is seen as a quarry from which truth is to be extracted, then the truth thus extracted – the truth of Christianity – is naturally seen as ‘biblical’. … But as Henri de Lubac protests in his Exégèse Médiévale:

Christianity is not, properly speaking, a ‘religion of the Book’: it is a religion of the word (Parole) – but not uniquely nor principally of the word in written form. It is a religion of the Word (Verbe) – ‘not of a word, written and mute, but of a Word living and incarnate’ (to quote St. Bernard). The Word of God is here and now, amongst us, ‘which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled’: the Word ‘living and active’, unique and personal, uniting and crystallizing all the words which bear it witness. Christianity is not ‘the biblical religion’: it is the religion of Jesus Christ. [Exégèse Médiévale, II/1 (Paris, 1961), pp. 196-9.]

And in those words de Lubac echoes the cry of St. Ignatius of Antioch: ‘For me the archives are Jesus Christ, and the inviolable archives his cross and death and his resurrection and faith in Him.’ [Ep. Philad. VIII. 2.] The heart of Christianity is the mystery of Christ, and the Scriptures are important as they unfold to us that mystery, and not in and for themselves.

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery,  101-102.

My last post was the final installment in my reading of Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery and I have now provided links to all the posts in this reading on my Completed Series page.

I am sure that there is a lot more that one can say about this book, but I am leaving it aside for now. I had not intended to spend so much time on it or to write on it so extensively, but it somehow seemed to demand my attention. I’m aware that much of what I wrote was more recapitulating what Father Louth was arguing rather than providing a particularly intelligent commentary, but it has been having an effect on me that in some respects I still need to verbalise properly, and I’m not sure how much of that I really want to blog on in public!

In any case, I’m laying it aside for now. There are other books by Father Louth that I hope to read in the not-too-distant future, and a couple of articles that I intend writing on soon. And I really do intend picking up my reading of Being as Communion again: that was the real reason for starting this blog, but Discerning the Mystery sort of jumped up and said “Read me!” and it didn’t work trying to write on two books at once.

For theology is not simply a matter of learning, though we risk losing much of the wealth of the theological tradition if we despise learning: rather theology is the apprehension of the believing mind combined with a right state of heart, to use Newman’s terms. It is tested and manifested in a life that lives close to the mystery of God in Christ, that preserves for all men a testimony to that mystery which is the object of our faith, and, so far as it is discerned, awakens in the heart a sense of wondering awe which is the light in which we see light.

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983). 147.

Father Louth proceeds to consider another attempt to transcend the division introduced by the Enlightenment by looking at Iris Murdoch’s attempt to escape Kant’s distinction between reason and the will. Instead of viewing moral activity as centring on moments of conscious moral choice, she sees moral activity as arising out of the sort of person one is, out of a system of energy that is not always clear cut and which is as much dependent on the moments between the choices as it is on the choices themselves. If this is so, then the moral challenge posed is: “are there any techniques for the purification and reorientation of an energy which is naturally selfish, in such a way that when moments of choice arrive we shall be sure of acting rightly?” (142)

Murdoch responds by pointing to contemplation and attention which enables the liberation of the soul from fantasy and releases in it the capacity to love. It is this accurate vision, rather than simply the exercise of the will, that occasions action. Louth comments (quoting Murdoch):

To speak in such terms is to revive ideas of a unity in man’s soul which transcends any division between reason and the will: ‘will and reason then are not entirely separate faculties in the moral agent. Will continually influences belief, for better or worse, and is ideally able to influence it through a sustained attention to reality.’ (142)

Louth then proceeds to consider how for Josef Pieper, as for Plato, our original relationship to being can only be realised through a sense of wonder, and Pieper underlines the role of wonder in philosophy. Wonder shakes us and unsettles us. However, since Descartes, this unsettling effect is all that remains.

Wonder becomes reduced to doubt, the doubt that threatens a man’s intellectual being: if for Socrates wonder was the beginning of philosophy, for Descartes and his followers it is doubt that is the beginning of philosophy. But, asks Pieper, ‘does the true sense of wonder really lie in uprooting the mind and plunging it into doubt? Doesn’t it really lie in making it possible and indeed necessary to strike yet deeper roots?’ (143)

While wonder deprives us of penultimate certainties, this is really a process by which the mind is stripped of illusions, for “the innermost meaning of wonder is fulfilled in a deepened sense of mystery.” (143, quoting Pieper) This love of wisdom (philo-sophia), which recognised that true wisdom is beyond the grasp of finite creatures, was the traditional task of philosophy but has been lost in modern philosophy which instead seeks a knowledge that it holds to be possible.

Thus Father Louth returns, again, to the notion of mystery. This is both essentially irreducible and, for Christians, centred on the mystery of God in Christ. He writes:

Christians want to speak of the centre of their faith as being the mystery of God in Christ. By that they mean that the problem of existence, the mystery of the ultimate, is truly a mystery: it cannot be unravelled. To say that the problem of existence is the mystery of the ultimate is to say that God exists. If the problem of existence can be solved, then there is no need to think of God or bring him into the picture. But to think of God is not to solve the problem of existence (as Heidegger thought it did when he maintained that theism was a way of evading the ultimate metaphysical question – Why is there anything and not rather nothing? – by giving a simple ‘answer’), but to hold us before the mystery of being. Christians do not simply believe in the mystery of God, but the mystery of God in Christ: they believe that in the life and death of a man called Jesus of Nazareth, God lived among us a human life. (144)

The mystery of God is thus the mystery of humanity.

Here, more than anywhere else, we realize the true character of mystery: mystery not just as the focus for our questioning and investigating, but mystery as that which questions us, which calls us to account. (145)

Because the humanities are concerned with human beings, they need to acknowledge the centrality of mystery. When they lose sight of the mystery of human freedom and the human will, they fade into the social sciences and ultimately into “hard” science. Moreover, theology anchors this mysteriousness of the human being in our creation in God’s image. Thus

The fundamental thing that Christian theology can contribute, as one way of pursuing knowledge, to all other ways of pursuing knowledge is, as Pieper puts it very well, ‘that it should hinder and resist the natural craving of the human spirit for a clear, transparent and definite system’. And it should do this by keeping open access to the tradition which is the vantage-point from which we can behold the mystery of God, which has been revealed in Christ. (146)

Against the idea of a method that anyone may, in principle, use to attain truth, Newman points to something less easy to define, something learnt by example, something rather like a skill or a developed insight or sensitivity working through sympathy, something whose archetype is not the clever arguing of a debater, but the humble understanding of the saint, whose faith is tested and proven in a life.

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983). 141.

Father Louth proceeds to consider Newman’s understanding of the nature of faith, in which faith is understood as both an act of the intellect, and as intimately connected to action. However, for Newman, intellectual excellence includes an aspect of intuitive knowledge and it is this that constitutes genius. Louth comments:

What Newman is doing here is to explore the shallowness of the view that reduces the intellect to mere ratiocination, and to argue that the deepest level of the intellect transcends ratiocination and has an intuitive grasp of what it understands. He is seeking to show that it is what the Greeks called nous that is the deepest level of the intellect. (138)

This deepest level of the intellect is something essentially moral that leads to action.

Moreover, Newman rejects the dichotomy between reason and the will that had become common in the West since Saint Bernard. To say that faith is an intellectual act goes further than simply a concern with reasons, arguments and evidence, for the real reasons why we do things lie deep. Such reasoning is usually implicit and can only rarely be made explicit. Faith is a “presumption, not a proving”. It is less concerned with evidence than with anticipations and presumptions; not a passive reception of knowledge, but a “reaching forward of the mind”. Faith is a skill rather than a method, something that can be compared to a mountaineer’s skill in scaling a cliff, which relies on an inward faculty rather than a set of rules. Such a skill is acquired by practice, the practice of love, humility and trust in God. It finds its archetype in the life of the saint and specifically in the Mother of God who Newman calls “our pattern of Faith”.

She does not think it enough to accept, she dwells upon it; not enough to submit to Reason, she reasons upon it; not indeed reasoning first, and believing afterwards, with Zacharias, yet first believing without reasoning, next from love and reverence, reasoning after believing. And thus she symbolizes to us, not only the faith of the unlearned, but of the doctors of the Church also… (141 – Newman)

In the next post I will continue with Father Louth’s discussion of Iris Murdoch and Josef Pieper.

A division between the rational, communicable but superficial, and the intuitive, which moves us and determines our will, but which is incommunicable – a division between the objective and the subjective as Kierkegaard understood that distinction – resolved at the level of the saint, or more exactly at the level of the saintly life, resolved not in a concept, but in a life, or an act, or a succession of acts, acts which are lived not in a clarity they attain to, but through a darkness and confusion of ‘dim apprehension’. It seems to me that this draws together some of the themes we have been considering and points us to a more fundamental unity.

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983). 135-136.

In the concluding chapter of this book, Father Louth summarises the movement of the various chapters, highlighting the theme of division and the search for an underlying unity. He then turns to the work of von Hügel who explored the contrast between reason, logic and abstraction, on the one hand, and instinct, intuition, feeling, and the concrete and contingent, on the other. While the former is necessary for expression, the latter moves us and determines the will although it is seemingly neither transferable and nor repeatable. The solution, for von Hügel, lies not in theory but rather in life, and more specifically in the life of the saint, for religion is not constituted by holding particular views, but rather by

holding this view and this life to proceed somehow from God Himself, so as to bind my innermost mind and conscience to unhesitating assent. Not simply that I think it, but that, in addition, I feel bound to think it, transforms thought about God into a religious act. (134-135)

In this process, the first cheery clarity must disappear to be followed by a dreary confusion and obtuseness of mind before a second clarity arises from the depths of the unconscious. The soul realises, gradually and passing through “dim apprehension”, that all that it does and is is somehow given to it, and that “inasmuch as it is permanent at all, it is grounded upon, environed, supported, penetrated and nourished by Him who is its origin and its end. (135)

Theology is thus a supremely practical wisdom, and is necessarily linked to a life of the virtues and a life of asceticism. While it is true that theologians work in “libraries not laboratories,” as Louth had argued in chapter three, this should not allow us to see it as something abstract. The monuments of the ancient faith that we find in our libraries were very often texts (such as sermons and letters) that were directly concerned with fostering the spiritual life. This connects also with Gadamer’s emphasis on interpretation as performance, for understanding takes place for him not simply in conceptual understanding but in application and it is this application that involves a process of undeceiving us from those of our prejudices that do not fit reality.

In the next post I will continue with Louth’s discussion of Newman.

Since beginning to focus more on the Fathers of the Church in the last couple of years, I have become conscious that their use of Scripture is something that I need to get a better understanding of. This relates both to the priority which they give to Scripture, and to their understanding and use of it. And it is also concerned with how allegory is related to contemporary readings of Scripture, most notably what one may term a hermeneutical tradition.

Father Louth speaks of a “fundamental distaste” for allegory in modern theology on the grounds that it is dishonest and distorts the original meaning of the text, yet I rather wonder to what extent this is universally true today, twenty-five years after this book was originally written.* Now I must hasten to stress that I am not a biblical scholar, nor have I ever been one, and I am moreover out of touch even with those academic contexts that I once inhabited. But, apart from a couple of undergraduate courses in a very distant past in which the dominant mentality would I suppose correspond to the sort of context that Father Louth is addressing, this soon gave way to another context with different concerns. While not directly involved with Scripture myself, I became aware of a variety of interpretative frameworks which did not necessarily situate the meaning of the text in the original intention of the author, but variously sought to locate it behind the text (socio-historical readings), in the text itself (literary readings) or in front of the text in the world which the text opens up for its readers (thematic or theological readings). It was the last possibility, especially as expressed by Gadamer and Ricoeur, and developed further by Sandra Schneiders in response to the question of what it means to interpret the Bible as Sacred Scripture, that I was most exposed to and found the most inspiring.

But I have found myself wondering at the relationship between this hermeneutical approach and the patristic use of allegory. There are clear similarities in that both allow the text to become freed from its original historical context in order to take on new meaning in new contexts. While the Fathers are working within a dominant Christological framework that sees the Old Testament finding its fulfilment in the new, and which provides a theological delimitation to their interpretation, Ricoeur and Schneiders are also clear that while a text can take on endless new meanings, it cannot take on just any meaning. Yet I am surprised, looking at Schneiders’ book** again now, years after reading it, that she doesn’t engage the patristic use of allegory.

I find Father Louth’s discussion helpful in both broadening and deepening my understanding of allegory in his focus not so much on the details of specific meanings or differences of method, as on the purpose of an allegorical reading being to hold us before the Mystery that is revealed to us in Scripture. It is here that the commonalities with the hermeneutical readings become apparent to me, and a reason why their relationship fascinates me. While I have the feeling that this requires further unpacking, that’s about all I’m able to say about it for now.  
 

* For the uninitiated, the book that I have been discussing is, Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) – to order the new edition, which I would highly recommend doing, go here.

 ** Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text. Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture, (Harper San Francisco, 1991).

… the spiritual meaning of the New Testament is the literal meaning. In what Jesus was and did – at his baptism, in this instance, and even more in what that foreshadowed – we have not a symbol of something else, but that to which all the symbols refer. And the symbols are present in this passage – in the voice and the dove – as providing the frame, as it were, in which we can see the significance of the events: they ‘what was at work at the time and afterwards ceased’.  The spiritual meaning of the New Testament is the history of the Incarnate One, a history which is a ‘new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh’ (Heb. 10:20) – a way which we are all to enter upon and tread.

And it is, of course, our baptism and the life of faith, hope, and love to which it commits us that provide our entrance into the history of Jesus. So the themes that we have just outlined are naturally picked up in the baptismal liturgies of the Church and in the Church’s celebration of the feast of the Baptism of our Lord.

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983). 125.

In the rest of this chapter Father Louth proceeds to give an extended example of the way in which allegory can open up the theological significance of a biblical passage by examining the readings of  Origen, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria and Augustine of the Baptism of Christ. The Fathers regularly see this passage as a revelation of the Trinity, in which the Father is revealed in the voice, the Son in the man, and the Spirit in the dove. However, for all of our authors the manifestation of Son is central, for it is historical in a unique way, whereas the voice and the dove provide symbolical allusions which further open up the significance of this event. They become bearers of biblical meaning, which both interpret the passage for us and open the way for us to respond to it. Thus Cyril tells us that Christ “opened the heavens, which the first Adam had shut, showing how the power of baptism effects an ascent to heaven” (124) and he and other Fathers recall the role of the dove at the flood showing the link between the old covenant and the new.

Moreover Origen sees the gentleness, innocence and soaring nature of the dove as opening the way for our response to revelation given in prayer, namely, that we too are enabled to ascend to heaven on the wings of a dove, for in the manifestation of Jesus as Son of the Father our identity is also revealed and we too are given access to the life of the Father.

Louth discerns a similar approach in the sermons of Jeremy Taylor, a seventeenth century Caroline divine, in which we find the last echoes of the tradition of the Fathers in which allegory comes into its own in the liturgy.

He concludes with Augustine’s observation of the contrast between the complexity involved in interpreting the Scriptures and the belief that Scripture teaching nothing but charity. In the fall we have fallen from simplicity to confusion and multiplicity, yet

The Scriptures tell the story of God’s way of leading men back into unity, and the way has to be from the fragmented to the unified. The history of the Old Testament fashions a matrix, a kaleidoscope, which shares in our fragmentedness and yet harks forward to the simplicity of the One who will restore all things…

And it is allegory that enables us to discern this pattern, and not only discern it but by means of this pattern restore within ourselves the unity and simplicity lost by the Fall, and so come again to love. The heart of Scripture is the end of Scripture: the love of God in Christ calling us to respond to that love. (131)

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