The preacher enters the pulpit. The waiting watchful befriend her like a cloak. In the round silence of those before her she breathes — in, out, in. But this moment! Perfect communion lies within her, just as the infinite bowl of the sky and the sea — arms open — enjoy their widest horizon. A poet lays down a line, scrubs it out, tugs a thread of memory up to the light, tests its tensile strength, rappelling down the sheer face of terror — almost delight. On the sea cliff a diver waits, counting the waves, marking his breaths, holding this moment — all heart and bones — as near to prayer as the cry of a newborn. Each one enters Creation innocent of the abyss, the leap itself containing all.
Let us then stop discussing the rudiments of Christianity . . . Instead, let us advance toward maturity; and so we shall, if God permits.1
I was sitting on the front row of the church, fuming. Apparently, I was making little fuming noises, too, because my friends and my wife were looking concerned. We two couples had arrived a few minutes late and there was no place to sit but at the front. We were guests, but this was to be our home church for the next nine months. We had come—the four of us—new college graduates and newly married, to spend a kind of gap year before graduate school and real jobs. We would live on volunteer stipends from the church while we started and ran a vegetarian restaurant, promoted healthier living, and created a place in this Canadian city where we could share God’s love.
Now I was in church in the front row, and definitely not feeling the love of Jesus in my heart. In those days I had a pretty clear picture of what Christian community and church should be like, and it was nothing like what I was seeing. Usually, I could be fairly sanguine about sitting through leaden religious services. I would zone out, read my Bible or another book I had wisely brought with me, and practice the patience of the saints. So I was as surprised as my friends were at my reaction to what was happening.
It was, sadly, nothing out of the ordinary. A middle-aged man, stolid and heavy-lidded, was reading from a Bible study guide in a droning voice. There were a series of questions directed to the individual reader, together with Bible verses that purported to answer them. Standard fare, completely harmless, and entirely forgettable. These printed guides were meant to be the starting point of discussion; presumably, the audience, having studied during the week, would now leap into spirited dialogue with each other and with the leader. It would be an occasion for bringing the Scriptures alive, the Word lighting us up, and the leader posing stimulating questions. None of that was happening. The leader droned, the people in the pews stared morosely back at him with a bovine intensity that reminded me of several Far Side cartoons. It was unbearable.
Listening to this with my head down, elbows on knees and hands clenching, I was emitting strangled cries. I felt like the demoniac banished to the tombstones, and I wished bitterly for a Legion of pigs to come thundering down the aisle or, failing that, to at least be unchained and in my right mind. My wife laid a restraining arm on mine; one of my friends leaned around and whispered, “Bear, take it easy. It’ll be over soon.” And soon enough it was and we went out, and in the course of things we did not return to that church nor did the vegetarian restaurant come to be. I was repossessed of my equanimity, the devils of my impatience and frustration driven out, and replaced in time with a more sympathetic spirit.
Certainly at the time I had little notion of spiritual maturity. For a number of reasons, becoming a Christian was presented as a binary choice: you were in or out. Having chosen to give your life over to Christ, the main event had taken place and life in Christ would settle into a kind of stasis, bounded on the one hand by avoiding the more obvious sins and on the other hand by being agreeable enough in the company of the unchurched that they would finally ask, unprompted, what kept you on such an even keel.
One’s growth in Christ is often measured on a negative scale: the giving up of this or the conquering of that, through a process of subtraction that would one day reveal us stripped to the core, too old to sin, but ready for translation. On that scale the people in the pews that day may have felt themselves to be dipped in acid, burning the corrosion of the week off through a ritual cleansing that brought no joy, but gave assurance of a (temporary) reset. Then back out into the world, carrying the umbrella of righteousness, the raincoat of faithfulness, and the galoshes of purity.
What obscures our understanding of spiritual “maturity” is that we associate it with chronological age, as if the older we get the more mature we get. If we can live long enough, we’ll eventually be senior citizens of the Kingdom of God. In that case, the church I visited should have been a hub of wisdom and spiritual vitality. But, I have met teenagers and children who were well on in this kind of maturity, and I’ve met older people who could never get past arguing about faith vs works.
The writer of Hebrews expects that his readers are beyond the rudiments. He rues the time wasted in discussing over and over “the foundations of faith in God”, and the process of “repentance from the deadness of our former ways.” He exposes the linear nature of our spiritual lives: the Genesis of our faith in God, the Leviticus of our ceremonial rites, and the Apocalypse of death, judgement, and resurrection. Time to get beyond that, he says. Those are the bones of the body of Christ—essential but incomplete.
One of the interesting things about the Apostle Paul is how much he makes of being a servant. He talks of bowing his knees before the Father and bearing all things with humility and gentleness. He says he is the very least of all the saints and the chief of sinners. He goes on in this vein in his letters enough that we begin to sense that his position of authority is a real concern of his. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he admits that he boasts “a little too much” of his authority, but he’s not ashamed of it because it was given him by the Lord to build up others. And while he dare not compare himself with those who boast about themselves, he thinks that when they compare themselves with others, they are not showing good sense. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” he says. “For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends.”2
By contrast, the ones whom Paul calls “children” are those who are tossed this way and that by the fads that blow through spiritual communities, who find themselves deceived by tricks played on them by those in authority, and who fall for lies told over and over. We are children—that is, inexperienced and immature— if we compare ourselves spiritually with others. That way only leads to frustration, and eventually, loss of faith. The marvelous thing about moving into the kingdom of God is that we all arrive from different places, from seeing God in different ways, but with the common experience of being caught up and held by God. What we share is forgiveness from God; where we differ is in what we are forgiven for.
Getting beyond the rudimentary elements of our faith is not to abandon them, but to gather them up and take them with us. If we can see them as portable, as adaptable to our changing circumstances because the expression of them in our lives is not fixed, but grows and deepens as we learn on the way, then we are maturing on the road. “Only when doctrine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance,” says Christian Wiman. “Truth inheres not in doctrine itself, but in the spirit with which it is engaged, for the spirit of God is always seeking and creating new forms.”3
Growing into spiritual maturity comes through exercise—stretching the sinews of faith as we experience the patience and the encompassing love of Christ. The more we stretch, the more we risk, the greater the sense that we are surrounded and enveloped by God. We may even—dare we say it—feel joy in the midst of all that “going beyond.”
In my frustration, I was in no condition to commandeer that becalmed ship of a church all those years ago. Those whom the Lord commends are those who are “speaking the truth in love.”4 I had yet to learn that God knows us intimately—better than we know ourselves—and God knows our bearing and position relative to each other and to the kingdom toward which we voyage. We are on a voyage of discovery in which, “if God permits,” we may advance toward maturity.
I’ve got a question for the child in you before it leaves
Are you tough enough to be kind?
Do you know your heart has it’s own mind?
Darkness gathers around the light
Hold on, hold on — U2, 13 (There is a Light)
I glanced through the window of the classroom door and took a deep breath. I was just out of graduate school and this was my first day of teaching. Inside were 60 students tightly crammed into a room that comfortably held 40. The course was Jesus and the Gospels, standard religious education fare at Adventist colleges, but still my favorite of all the classes I have taught in the intervening 37 years.
I did not have a detailed lesson plan for the day beyond talking about the requirements of the course. I hoped that we could open up together about who Jesus was for us and what the Gospels meant to us. So I drew an inverted pyramid on the board with the widest side above and the narrowest point below.
“What is the most general category you could identify with as a person?,” I asked. “Where would you begin?”
If we teach as we were taught, then I was channeling teachers who had radically challenged my worldview since middle school. They assumed a wideness to the intellectual horizon before us that lifted my imagination and tilted my perspective. While I could not equal their breadth of knowledge I could at least match their enthusiasm for the subject.
And so I asked again, sensing how difficult it would be for someone to break that first-day silence. “Who are we, really?” I was realizing that posing good questions is harder than it seems. “This is not a trick question.”
At last one person raised his hand. “We are humans?” It was more a question than a statement, but it would do. It seemed a good place to start a religion class, with that which unites us in the most general and inclusive way possible. From there we stair-stepped our way down, from general to particular, from inclusive to exclusive, shifting categories up and down the column as we fine-tuned our choices.
We were playing out in practice the theory that S. I. Hayakawa, former semanticist and English professor at San Francisco State University—and later a U.S. senator from California—had proposed for understanding how words and labels affect our thinking and speaking. In public speaking, suggested Hayakawa, the specific is preferred to the general. His “ladder of abstraction” had, as its lowest rung, the general (Human) and its highest rung the particular (Annie). Abstractions can confuse and bore our audiences, he said, details focus their attention and imaginations.
True enough in a certain context, but turning the ladder upside down gave us a whole new perspective. As the students worked it out, we are humans first, male and female second, and from there the discussion flared out with many possibilities. Ethnicity next? Language? Citizenship?
At this point I suggested a swerve: what about religion? Where does that fit in? After some sifting and defining and a lot of back and forth, the class arrived at a line of descent that ran in Western history from the apostolic community to the Catholic Church through the Protestant Reformation, and then to the fracturing into denominational and sectarian fragments, of which Adventism, whose origin in 19th-century American millenarianism, was one. Adventism, then, was inserted at the bottom, the sharpest point, the narrowest passage to anything that might follow.
S. I. Hayakawa and his “ladder of abstraction” helps us understand the gradations of meaning between abstract and specific terms as part of clear communication. I was interested in how our moral and theological vision would change if we turned the ladder of abstraction upside down, began with the most inclusive category, and thought of ourselves first as members of the human race.
This may seem obvious to many, especially those who regard the human race to have evolved from simple life forms, a la Darwinism and evolutionary theory. But growing up in a religious community with a distinctive form of creationism, we were taught that humans were created in the image of God, fell into sin through a tragic error, and are now living with the consequences of that original willful misstep. It takes an act of God, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, to restore humanity to the crowning act of creation, and the shortest route to that goal is to belong to a religious tradition with clear and certain beliefs that are founded on Scriptural and theological truth. Believing the right ideas and behaving according to the rules is how one proceeds through life. Thus, it is a matter of supreme importance, one that has eternal consequences, to belong to the right religious body. If you grow up in this way you identify as an Adventist first and everything else after that.
Or an orthodox Jew or a deeply observant Muslim or, for that matter, a political ideologue committed to the Party above all. What all these religious and political bodies offer is a framework within which our personal identities can be developed—nurtured even—and ultimately compressed into similar forms. There is stability, consistency, a reliable level of expectation, and a sense of belonging to a movement that can put things right. But resentment and envy can grow where contractual obligations stand in the place of the risk of faith.
Our identity is built up over a lifetime, but begins with an irritant like a grain of sand: Who am I? What am I to do? Whether it becomes a pearl or a festering sore is largely the result of a myriad of decisions, some imposed upon us as children and others carved out of our own experience as we gauge the distance from where we are to the sunlit clearing up ahead where we think we want to be.
Of the many quotes from Ellen White, one of the founders of the Adventist church, that my generation took in as youth, the one that moved me the most and has remained a touchstone for me as a teacher is, “It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts,” from the book, Education.
Adopted as a general principle of education this idea has a quietly revolutionary power to it. It suggests first, that thinking is not incidental, but is the goal of true education; that no matter what the content of the course, the primary outcome should be the training of the mind for independent thinking. Second, that thoughtful reflection within a religious context is not an adjunct to religious rules and practices but is the grammar and language of one’s spiritual expression. And finally, that for all the knowledge one might gain from others, there is no substitute for personal experience.
At no other time in history have we had the capacity to know so much about other religions, cultures, mindsets, and philosophies of life. Yet, on all sides we see not openness and capaciousness, but fearfulness and divisiveness and retreat. This is not the first time in history for such a reaction, and it most certainly will not be the last, but neither is it the worst expression of this debilitating exclusivity. But we must take responsibility for our own ignorance and fear. A good start is to think of ourselves as belonging to the human family.
I remember an afternoon spent in a open-air market in Bali, when two young Balinese men and I began a conversation near a memorial to the bombing in 2002 which took the lives of over 200 people from 22 nations and injured hundreds more. A granite slab with the names of the victims now stands where the pub that was the initial target was incinerated in the blast. The two had been teenagers when the bombing occurred and knew some of the Balinese victims. They taught me some Indonesian words and I taught them some English. We talked about Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. They talked about their families; I talked about mine. They spoke of their hopes for a university education and I shared my love of teaching with them. Nothing earthshaking, no headlines, but simply three people overcoming numerous barriers to communication for the joy of understanding another person, another culture.
Looking back over a lifetime of teaching and learning, my willingness to be open to different ideas and experiences has varied in proportion to my confidence that I am always on the road to Emmaus, and whoever my companion of the moment may be there is, as Eliot wrote, ”a third who walks always beside” us.
Having begun my teaching life in an Adventist college, with every intention of staying there, I smile to find myself through circumstance, temperament, and opportunity, one semester from completing that trajectory in a Catholic women’s college serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all. . . Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.” — Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss.
Photo: Ben White, Unsplash.com
Men have no eyes but for those aspects of things which they have already been taught to discern. — William James, Psychology
In April 1931, George Orwell wrote a short piece entitled “The Spike” for a magazine called Adelphi. In it, he describes time he spent as a tramp. He became a tramp, a homeless person, partly of necessity and partly because he wished to understand the particular forms of suffering that tramps go through. One virulent irritation was boredom. Orwell came to think that boredom was the worst of a tramp’s burdens, worse than hunger and worse than the feeling of social disgrace. “It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel,” he said. “Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds.”
Today, Orwell would be accused of elitism and would be made to tweet an apology. But Orwell was nothing if not honest and having lived the life on the street could speak with authority. One need only pass through any metropolitan area to see the homeless on benches, median strips, near metro stations or on corners, many of them slumped against a wall, sleeping huddled against the cold or in a quiet corner of a coffee shop. Their days unwind with agonizing slowness, each minute trudging after the next. In this essay, Orwell recounts how he was saved from the ten hours of daylight boredom in the spike (homeless shelter) by the blessed reprieve of working in the kitchen. Even so, one suspects that with his powers of observation and his interests in literature, politics, and history, Orwell would not likely suffocate in boredom.
There are two elements at work here: memory and attention. Memory, because we are hardly human without it, and attention because it is necessary to learning of any sort. William James devotes a chapter of his seminal work, Psychology, to attention, describing it of two kinds. There is the effortless, involuntary, and passive kind, and there is the active and voluntary kind. Involuntary attention occurs when we follow a train of thought that is interesting as a means to an end or when the mere association with the thought burnishes us with a sense of satisfaction.
Active, voluntary attention is that which we make a determined effort to accomplish by bending our minds to it. James remarks that it is a feeling which everyone knows, but which is indescribable. We sense it when we try to discriminate between sensory experiences or attend to one voice near us against a babble of other voices. It is an effort whose accomplishment slips through our fingers like water. James says, “There is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time (his emphasis).” He describes a process that sounds like the building, layer upon layer, of a pearl around a grain of sand. The mind, finding something interesting, comes back to it, turns it over and over until the novelty wears off, then drifts away, only to return for the feeling of both familiarity and the stimulation of finding something new. And here is the sentence that lit up for me like a Jumbotron: “No one can possibly attend continuously to an object that does not change.”
We pay attention to what matters to us, says James, in a statement that seems so self-evident as to be trivial. That is, until you realize what it implies: that so much of what we overlook, do not see—not to say, ignore—is a result of us just not caring enough.
Actually, that’s not quite true: to say that we don’t care is to suggest that we somehow rank the sensations and ideas coming to us on a scale from exciting to dull, and we jettison everything that doesn’t bend the needle of our interest. But James’ research led him to what one of his sources called preperception, ”the imagining of an experience before it occurs.” In other words, there must be a memory, an image, an association already in us in order for something to become the object of our willed attention. While shiny and colorful objects may momentarily grab our attention, such eye candy cannot hold us for long.
The kind of intellectual attention needed for concentrated study or contemplation seems to be a combination of external sensation and internal preparation which, comments James, “always partly consists of the creation of an imaginary duplicate of the object in the mind.” To put it another way, when we give our attention to an object of thought we hold an image of it in our mind going forward. Not only that, but the image remains as a hook to snag passing thoughts, perceptions, even emotions, so that we can take up ideas where we left them in memory because we have something almost tangible to return to.
When we form such an image and it fills our attention we cannot unnotice it. James again: “But who that has once noticed the identity can fail to have it arrest his attention again? . . . Every bonnet in the street is momentarily taken by the lover to enshroud the head of his idol. The image in the mind is the attention; the preperception is half of the perception of the looked-for thing.”
We pay attention to what we have already been taught to discern. That is both good news and bad news. The good news is that what we’ve been taught has some chance, however slight, of catching our attention again. The bad news is: What would it take to have us care enough about what we don’t know to pay attention long enough to form an image in our minds? In the end, this is an epistemological question, a question of how we know, what can be known, and what we do with what we know. Inevitably, it is a question of learning—and teaching.
“I see everything,” says Robert Downey, Jr., playing Sherlock. “That is my curse.” But for most of us, our curse is not seeing enough of what we are paying attention to, narrow though that slice of life may be.
Attention must be paid! To pay attention reveals the cost of focusing with intention on something. When we focus on something, says Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, we select some things and leave the rest as a blur. What we select literally becomes our reality so that in a very real sense I have my reality and you have yours. The fact that much of our realities overlap means that we can communicate with each other while experiencing reality from singular perspectives. But I digress . . .
We select that which stands out—a red cardinal flitting through the trees, a hissing snake—whatever is new or different in our environment. Gallagher calls this “bottom-up attention,” the kind which keeps us in touch with what is going on in the world. It’s necessary, sometimes crucial, for our survival, but it also includes a host of unnecessary distractions. Think of dogs and squirrels and you get an idea of what life would be like if this passive form of attention was all we had.
The other form of attention is the “top-down” intentional and focused variety in which we concentrate on what we want. This active attention requires hard work and energy, but despite our intense focus, it will likely quickly fade. That’s the cost we pay for attention which can give us direction and purpose—a meaningful life rather than a jumble of confusing stimuli.
Given all this—given the fact that we have what Buddhists call ‘monkey mind’ that flits from one thing to another like a monkey swinging through the trees—how do we focus our attention upon God? Every religious tradition has sought ways to quiet the mind long enough to hear the still, small voice within the hurricanes and tremors of daily life.
There are techniques for quieting oneself, methods of breathing, ways and means for being truly present that people have used for thousands of years in this pursuit of God. All of these have their place; my purpose here is neither to endorse them nor diminish them. What I’m trying to grasp is how I might have the mind of Christ or pray without ceasing or meditate on the Lord both night and day. All of these states of being assume that we can still brush our teeth, put on our socks, drive our cars, and carry on conversations. Whatever it means to focus one’s attention on God it cannot necessarily mean that we isolate ourselves. “Christ comes alive in the communion between people,” writes Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. “What this means is that even if you are socially shy and generally inarticulate about spiritual matters—and I say this as someone who finds casual social interactions often quite difficult and my own feelings about faith intractably mute—you must not swerve from the engagements God offers you.”
These may come in the form of people who do not look like God. We might not even see them because they are not usually within the scope of our attention. On the other hand, we may constantly be with people who seem wholly self-sufficient, confident, amiable enough—people much like ourselves—people for whom God is an article of belief rather than a mystery of faith. Nevertheless, those whom we meet are, in every case, an offer of communion from Christ.
God approaches us in the person of others: “the least of these,” the one-percenters, the strangers within our gates. Our attention, divided though it may be, honors God in this way.
Photo: Ehimetalor Unuabona, Unsplash.com
“The Bible, more than most books, forms part of one’s life once it is absorbed into the system. It does not remain static, any more than you remain ever the same. Your perspective of it will change with the years.” — A. N. Wilson, The Book of the People
I cannot remember a time in my reading life when a Bible was not within my reach, both literally and figuratively. In the home I grew up in, the Scripture was the primary source of one’s instruction and inspiration. It was read aloud morning and evening, discussed at church, memorized as Bible verses, emblazoned on bulletin boards at school, and called upon in times of celebration and grief. Its phrases came naturally to the lips, its stories became the video of our imaginations long before there were pixels, the grand highway of its narrative from Genesis to Revelation (pitted with potholes in the Pentateuch) provided both a spiritual history of humankind and a kind of eschatological weather report (“Look for a cloud on the horizon the size of a man’s hand!”). Later, through the ministrations of our well-meaning elders, its revelations came to us like birthday gifts from distant uncles who still thought of us as five-year olds. It was unavoidable and indispensable.
But I find I can trace out the course of my life by looking at the Bibles on my bookshelves, each one having played a role in my life that was both episodic and cumulative.
In high school my Bibles of choice were the Living Bible and Good News for Modern Man: The New Testament in Today’s English. The Living Bible was a paperback brick, lovingly slipped into a doeskin cover that my grandfather had gotten for me in Canada, with a painting of an Indian brave on the front. Inside the end pages I wrote notes of favorite verses, quotes from religious authors, and lines of poetry. The LB was fresh, a bit cheeky, conversational without falling into cultural jargon. The Good News New Testament was plain, small enough to carry in one hand, and modest in its literary aspirations. Its line drawings were simple, evocative, and good-humored. I was also reading a lot of C. S. Lewis at the time, along with Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Byron, Shelley, Yeats, and Matthew Arnold. It was a heady mix.
My first year in college, working on a double major in religion and journalism, I used a standard issue King James in my religion classes. I’d had it since my baptism at 12 and I knew my way around its paths by sight. These were the phrases and verses I had heard all my life. They seeped into my consciousness and became the language of my operating system, an eloquent counterpoint to the informality of the modern versions.
In the summer of 1971 I left California for England to work with friends in Coventry in starting and running a Christian folk club and then to spend the school year at Newbold College. Away from home for the first time, I spent the year in a constant state of wonder and discovery. That summer I bought my first New English Bible, a paperback Penguin version of the New Testament whose language and verses seemed like poetry to me. I found a tanner’s shop in Leamington Spa and made a book cover for it from suede leather, stitching a peace symbol with a cross in the center on the front. The cover art on the Penguin version was a reproduction of Georges Rouault’s Head of Christ, thus beginning a lifelong admiration for his art. In the fall, as a student at Newbold, I hitchhiked down to Reading and bought J. B. Phillip’s The New Testament in Modern English. I also started a year-long course in Koine Greek. I was terrible at it, but I scraped by with enough margin to be given a copy of the British and Foreign Bible Society’s Greek New Testament with critical apparatus. Burrowing into the permutations of Greek verbs and nouns reinforced my life-long fascination with word origins and their meanings.
That year I always carried in my backpack at least one Bible, usually two. As I hitchhiked to Scotland or down to Wales or up to London, these Bibles became my traveling companions, provoking comment and conversation from the generous people who gave me rides. Comparing these translations and paraphrases jolted my imagination and gave me different lines of sight to their meaning. And always I carried a small Authorized Version whose cover could be zipped closed. I left it behind in a train station in Milan one December; two years later it showed up in my mailbox at Pacific Union College, having made the journey through the kindness of strangers on the strength of my college address at Newbold.
All through graduate studies at Andrews University and Claremont Graduate University, my familiars were the New English Bible I had bought in Wales in 1974 when I worked in evangelism there, and The Jerusalem Bible, another chunk of a Bible whose lyrical Psalms were refreshing and whose Job was high tragedy. Later, teaching Jesus and the Gospels, Hebrew Prophets, and Paul and His Letters at Columbia Union College, I entered into a professional relationship with The New International Version. Those who knew their Biblical languages assured me it was the latest and most accurate rendering, but its starched and anemic language gave me no joy. Time and again I went back to my NEB, by now so annotated and stuffed with typed-out quotes and photos of friends, that when the spine finally collapsed my wife made me a book cover for it from the jeans I wore out hitchhiking through the UK.
In these later years I have come back to the New Revised Standard Version, not to be confused with the Revised English Bible, a second take on the NEB. As I write there is one just behind my shoulder on the bookshelf, another one next to my comfy chair across the loft, and a third one, barely marked, in another bookshelf. Recently, having finished my courses for the semester at Trinity Washington University, I stopped into the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, right across the street from Catholic University, and indulged myself in a beautifully leather-bound Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. I intend to study the Apocrypha this summer.
I’ve entered the Bible as into a vast and varied library — ta biblia, the books. Not a single, coherent narrative, but stories of wonder, beginning in a garden of light and ending in a city with a river running through it. To try to understand the people within the stories is to read with a dual vision: that in certain irreducible ways they and we come from the same stock and harbor the same emotions and motivations. And in other ways, bound by time, culture, language, and technology, we arrive at our final home having traveled such disparate paths. I am grateful to the archeologists, linguists, anthropologists, and theologians who have peeled back the layers of the Bible for us and interpreted its structures.
The Bible has meant different things to me through many different stages of life. It has both revealed and hidden God, and it has held a mirror up to myself. The Jesus I have found there is no less enigmatically divine than when I first began with the Gospels, but now even more touchingly human. The Bible, I’ve found, is large enough that it can play many roles in a person’s life. Like the Earth itself it presents a different but constant face to the observer hovering in orbit above it. It is guide, wisdom, puzzle, danger, mystery, and light. It is still the literary foundation of many of us.
The Bible creates an alternate world that runs parallel to our own. It is like holding two magnets in tension so that you feel the pull of one to the other. Let one go and the tension is gone, the case closed, the story resolved, the horizon suddenly walled up. Unless we see both the fragments of light it illumines around us and the Light itself — and the distinction makes all the difference — the Bible remains just another revered and unread bestseller.
Photo: Rafael Barquero, Unsplash
“The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age
One of the extraordinary features of religion, as one studies it, is the infinite variety of its expressions. The moment we step out of the holy place wherein we worship, and into the crowd swirling past outside, we are enveloped in a multitude of faiths, each one with a history, symbols, myths, art, language, casualties, diagnoses and prescriptions. They pour past us as we stand transfixed in the midst of the stream.
Some might picture themselves as a rock, immovable and stalwart, dividing the waters that flow past, resisting the current, sure in their grounding in the streambed. Others, less sure than curious, join the flow to ask those at their elbows and around them where they’re going, what set them on their path, or why they continue. Still others will do their best to divert the stream into side channels, away from the swiftly-flowing current into quieter, shallower rivulets, and eventually to pools of standing water.
We will step lightly up on the riverbank now, away from the analogy, carrying with us the twin observations of the variety of religious expressions and our attitude toward them.
The sheer number of religions sparks in us wonder that God could be filtered through so many veils and still be perceived in coherent form. At the very least the history, traditions, and practices cause us to view our own thin wedge of religious history as one among many.
Ask yourself this: If you joined your religion as an adult, what was the deciding factor? If you were born into your religion, why do you continue in it?
Joiners or borners—the questions stand open.
Is a religion a vehicle to deliver us to a destination, at which point, our quest fulfilled, we will enter into a sacral bliss? Is a religion a chrysalis within which we are transformed into another creature, a new creation? Perhaps we are pilgrims traveling through a barren land, seeking a city not made with human hands. If we become disciples of Jesus we will have no place to lay our heads, even if foxes have their dens and the birds of the air their nests.
“What makes a man human,” says Abraham Heschel, “is his openness to transcendence, which lifts him to a level higher than himself.” Religion, despite its flaws and obsessions, and depending on its light source, can be both a mirror and a window to transcendence.
Metaphors matter, because they both reflect and shape our experience and behavior.
Machiavelli regarded religion as a paltry crutch for an individual, but he saw the value in it for creating conformity and confining the masses. Durkheim regarded it as the social glue that created community and provided fellowship between people — solidarité.
When we bow in epistemological humility before our need for evidence that will undergird our faith, it is bracing to recall the debate between W. K. Clifford and William James.
Clifford, a British mathematician and a psychologist like James, was a friend of his, but also someone with whom he was delighted to debate. Clifford’s assertion in his The Ethics of Belief begins with the idea that our hypotheses ought never to be accepted until we have solid evidence for them. We find easy comfort in that which pleases us and soothes our doubts, says Clifford. We need to resolutely turn our backs on these superficial comforts and take the manly road of ethical integrity to face the universe as it really is. As it is in science, so it ought to be in all matters of life, including religion. As James quotes Clifford: “Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer . . . It is wrong always, and everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”(Emphasis supplied)
James answered Clifford in a closely reasoned essay entitled, The Will to Believe,a title that James came to regret because so many erroneously took it to mean “believe what you will.” In fact, it is about both the right and the will to believe.
There are two ways of dealing with received opinion, says James: “Believe truth! Shun error! . . . by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life.” Clifford, asserts James, would have us choose the latter, to remain in suspense forever as we wait for conclusive evidence in order to avoid the risk of believing lies. In the thousand ways each day that we believe and act on the thinnest of evidence, says James, even Clifford fails his own stringency. But in withholding our trust until all—how would we even knowif it was “all”—the evidence is clocked, tallied, and catalogued, James says we have already made our decision. Not to decide is to decide—a forced option.
Where do we get the spark of trust in order to light the fuse of faith? Augustine writes of the faith that precedes faith in God—and intimates that God gives us that faith as well.
No trust is without risk, as anyone who has ever fallen in love knows. We think that the currency of trust is backed by the gold standard of the degree of risk involved. In our calculus great risk should equate to great reward. But when it comes to trusting God we often find that a step taken in clenched fear, with a breath of hope, turns out to be merely a passing shadow in the waves of joy and relief after the act.
The debate between W. K. Clifford and William James in The Will to Believe is an example of calcified certainty (Clifford) versus the right to believe (James). We cannot wait for all the evidence to be in before we make decisions; James chooses to believe with both reason and passion.
For those of us born into our religion, we must choose at some point to make it our own or to search elsewhere for transcendence. What goes into choice? Circumstance, inclination, temperament, and tradition. But also reason, coherence with our reality, conviction, and passion.
“But the spiritual life can be lived in as many ways as there are people,” says Henri Nouwen in Making All Things New. “What is new is that we have moved from the many things to the kingdom of God. What is new is that we are set free from the compulsions of our world and have set our hearts on the only necessary thing. What is new is that we no longer experience the many things, people, and events as endless causes for worry, but begin to experience them as the rich variety of ways in which God makes his presence known to us.”
Photo: Johannes Plenio, Unsplash.com
When I was teaching a world religions class from semester to semester I would sometimes ask my students a question: Are God and Allah the same entity?
It was a complex question, but it would invariably provoke a simple response. At first, there would be a momentary silence, with faces looking back at me in shock or puzzlement, as if they were waiting for me to say, “Just kidding!” But I wasn’t, and then the hands would go up and we were off, with questions and assertions richocheting around the room for the next few minutes.
The lines of consensus would usually form up in some fairly consistent ways. There was one group that was unequivocal: Allah is not God, no way, not ever. How could they be sure? Well, look at the kinds of horrific crimes against humanity that the followers of Allah have perpetrated. How could a real . . . god . . . be in charge of such a cruel and capricious lot?
Others would then point out the crusades of Christians against Jews and Moslems, the genocide by American Christians against native Americans, and the centuries of slavery. The Holocaust would be raised and apartheid in South Africa would be recognized.
Having fought to a draw, both sides would then stand down, panting a little. Then a hand would be raised. “Yes, I think they are both the same entity.”
“Because God can appear as Allah if He wants. He can do anything He wants. Besides, who are we to say who God is or what He does?”
If we think of this response as illustrating an epistemological pebble causing a ripple, then the degree of certainty expressed diminishes rapidly as the energy dissipates outward.
The question about God and Allah is complex because we cannot prove, by the usual standards of observation or deduction, if there are such entities, much less ones that answer to this name and not that one. What this question does first is to stop us in our tracks as it reveals the limits of language in the service of knowledge. As Job says into the whirlwind, “I have spoken of things I do not understand.”
This is not a concession by Job to withdraw his demand that God answer his charge of injustice, but an admission that putting his charge aside, Job cannot grasp all that God is. But this does not stop him from addressing the God he does know, nor should it stop us.
The mystery is that God is more than we can know but not less than we can desire.
Traversing the terrain of God’s nature in this way is throttled by some people when the conversation about the divine leaps into the higher elevations. Often, in the midst of animated conversations after the church potluck, someone will play the Homo sapiens card: “Now you’re thinking man’s thoughts. If they speak not according to the word it is because there is no light in them.” The fact that it took human cogitation to come up with that sentence is lost on such a person. For him, the Bible is a literal transcript of pronouncements God gave in dictation to selected secretaries over the course of thousands of years. In his view, it is an answer book for vexatious questions and a recipe book for doctrinal casseroles.
The problem with such a fundamentalism is, strangely enough, a coldly indifferent lack of respect for God. The metaphors of God that ring through the Biblical stories are about a being who is fiercely—and tenderly—involved with His creations. By contrast, the contractual obligation of the fundamentalist God is to deliver on the promise of an eschatological gated community in return for fulfillment of stipulations on conduct and creed. It keeps God at a distance, a being so abstract that the only indications of its existence are the myriad ways it is not like us.
There is no intellectual curiosity, but even worse, no spiritual wonderment and awe.
But there is a second purpose for such a question, and that is for us to discover the values that form our descriptions of God and how those values shape our action in the world. Like Parent, like children, you might say. Who do we think God or Allah is? How do we characterize them? How do the values we attribute to our gods align with those we live by? What do those values have in common with believers in other religions? And most importantly: What practical effect do such “God-shaped” values have as we learn to live with others and their divine values?
There are two ways of thinking about this. Conceptual thinking reasons out the problems and is useful when we try to add to our knowledge of the world. Situational thinking involves an experience. We need them both.
Abraham Heschel, the great twentieth-century rabbi and philosopher, says in God in Search of Man, “Situational thinking is necessary when we are engaged in an effort to understand issues on which we stake our very existence.” The nature of God and our relation to people of faith in all religions would qualify for both kinds of thinking. Conceptual thinking would explore the history of the ideas, the development of nuances in religious philosophies, the sources of wisdom in the traditions. But situational thinking would look to events, the times and places where the gods touch the earth, and the songs and visions and psalms that well up from those springs.
Somewhere, theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said, “The truth of a religion is found in the kind of people it produces.” On the face of it, the hearer might nod and agree, thinking, perhaps, that the proof is in the pudding and that our puddings should be of the highest quality, lest they be spewed out of the mouth of the Lord. But then a second thought occurs: Wait! Given our record as human beings and the monumental capacity we display for turning a silk purse into a sow’s ear, what hope is there for any religion? Considering the many shortcomings and pure screw-ups of any given denomination, especially one’s own, surely this is a bar no one can reach, a standard that cannot be achieved?
We do, however, have Jesus saying, “By their fruits you shall know them,” and cursing a fig tree for not producing fruit in due season, and stories about cutting down trees that don’t produce. Behavior seems to matter to Jesus.
I would amend it to read: “The truth of a religion is found in the kind of people it is producing.” We are not end-products; we are in process. The gardener knows the tree will thrive when it has the nutrients it needs.
Christian Wiman, poet and essayist, notes in his wonderful book, My Bright Abyss, that “An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive.”
In the loving embrace of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, we may sense, rather than see, the One who is closer to us than the vein in our neck.
Photo: Val Vesa, Unsplash.com
“In the transition stages of falling asleep and waking up again the contours of everyday reality are, at the least, less firm than in the state of fully awake consciousness. The reality of everyday life, therefore, is continuously surrounded by a penumbra of vastly different realities.” Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy, 42.
Somewhere, I once read that Salvador Dali would take a nap every afternoon in the heat of the day, lying upon a couch with a spoon clutched in his fingers. As he slipped into sleep and his fingers relaxed, the spoon would clatter to the tiled floor and Dali would spring up, his head full of the bizarre images that we see in his paintings—headless torsos, eyes on legs, soft clocks dripping over the edges of tables, crutches supporting distended body parts. It was from this transition state that Dali derived so much of his imaginative power; he had learned how to lure it up from the depths and coax it out into the harsh light of day. Such a wonder should not go unremarked.
I have experienced something like this time and time again, usually while waiting at interminable traffic lights in my commute to the university where I teach. Lest the reader draw the conclusion that I am an accident waiting to happen, let me say that so far my powers of concentration and alertness haven’t let me down. I may also have guardian angels who draw down overtime and hazardous duty pay.
My Dali state does not take the form of vivid images, but of words that, for the brief duration of seconds, are like overhearing the one-sided conversation of an alien anthropologist reporting back to base camp. With eyes half-closed, I marvel at the collision of ideas, metaphors that lunge out of dark crevasses, similes like clanging cymbals, and the occasional meteorite of a thought arriving at the speed of light from a distant galaxy. I wish I could conjure up this stuff when I’m staring at a blank computer screen.
Being a product of the 20th century, I naturally view all this through psychologically-tinted glasses. It’s all there in the unconscious, I say, so at some point I must have snatched up these bright baubles and tossed them into a bin for later use. But instead of a sober and reflective scrutiny of them through the lens of reason, I see them flung in the air, catching the light as a mad juggler tosses them from hand to hand. In the Dali state they have a coherence that vaporizes when the light turns green and the SUVs around me lumber into motion. Just as our dreams impress us with their genius in the dark hours, but seem overwrought in the first light of day, so the messages one gets in the Dali state find a place in polite conversation only with difficulty.
Yet, in pre-modern times such messages were often thought to be of divine origin, having arrived in the nick of time to avert catastrophe or to predict one. Millenia before Freud lit his torches in the labyrinthine tunnels of the mind, the boundaries between waking reality and the visions that unfolded behind the eyes of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and many more throughout the centuries, were seen as permeable. Not only that, the scripts of these ultimate reality shows were written down, turning the mysterious and numinous into prose for us to ponder in these witless and distracted times.
Would we know a vision if we saw one? I’m under no illusion that these traffic-light dreamlets are anything more than the venting of steam from an overactive curiosity reactor, but that’s partly the point here. The “plausibility structure” of ancient religions made room for such phenomena; there is no space in our metaphysical blueprints for anything like that. Maybe we see no burning bushes, not because they don’t exist, but because we’ve ruled them obsolete.
Dali used these intimations for his flights of visual imagination; John Lennon would read in his garden and then look up and hear music to the words for a song he was working on. However they appear to us, they come from the same place, I believe, and that is our consciousness.
Huston Smith, one of the greatest teachers and scholars of the world’s religions in our age, explored this in one of the last books he wrote, Why Religion Matters. He thought of consciousness not simply as “an emergent property of life, as science assumes, but instead the initial glimpse we have of Spirit,” and likened it to a screen upon which is projected our perceptions, sensations, dreams, thoughts, memories, and feelings. “The light itself,” he writes, “without which no images would be possible, corresponds to pure consciousness . . . the common property of us all.”
When we experience pure consciousness, whether through introspection or meditation, Smith writes, “we have every reason to think that what I experience is identical with what you experience in that state . . . The infinitude of our consciousness is only potential whereas God’s consciousness is actual—God experiences every possibility timelessly—but the point here is that our consciousnesses themselves are in fact identical.”
We Protestants and we Adventists hold a resolute consistency in hewing to a sober, almost literalistic, perspective on this life. In our desire to define the lines which we are to toe, we brush aside the imaginative impulse, preferring the legal to the hopeful. Our art, our symbols, and our worship are the poorer for it. To walk into an Adventist A-frame church on a Sabbath morning is to realize the triumph of the utilitarian over the holy. There is little chance to be awed, even less to catch a glimpse of the sublime. We could do better, and without exorbitant cost.
It’s a paucity of imagination, a bankruptcy of collective consciousness, the desertification of the Spirit in our midst. Young Adventist artists, musicians, writers, and film-makers who have been discouraged as children from opening up their imaginations, may struggle not only to excel in their arts, but also to channel the Spirit in creative ways. It takes practice from an early age to allow one’s imagination to emerge and to flourish.
I’ve longed to sense the numinous, “to dream dreams and see visions,” as Isaiah promised the Hebrews 2700 years ago. While I seem to have little capacity for transmission, I do believe the receptors are there. Perhaps the signal needs to be amplified or there is presently too much noise in the channel. Wordsworth lamented:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
We see now in a mirror darkly, and our efforts to know God as we are known are—for this time and place—stunted and bound. But, if nothing else, that channel of consciousness can be deepened and widened, its banks cleansed of the litter left behind after our floods of guilt and frustration. We can, we are told, open ourselves to “the promptings of the Spirit” if we open up the bandwidth.
“I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.”
Rainier Marie Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, translators.
Photo: Saksham Gangwar, Unsplash.com
“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” — Mark 9:36, 37
Jesus called a child to him. I am that child. Or was. That was many years ago and now I have a child of my own. I remember him that day, how he smiled at me, and touched me on the shoulder as I was playing. He drew me to him and put his arms around me. I looked down at his tanned hands, the fingers interlaced across my chest. When he spoke to the men around me I could feel the resonance of his voice rumbling through his face next to mine.
I knew these men. They were friends of my father and my father was one of them. I was glad that day because my father was at home, finally, and I hoped that he would stay for a few days this time, before he and the others and Jesus went off again.
I liked Jesus. He was kind to me and he listened to me. Sometimes he would carry me on his shoulders down by the lake and he would tell me stories as we skipped rocks. But sometimes, when we were sitting by the lake, he looked sad. I knew children weren’t supposed to ask grownups questions about themselves. “You don’t want to pry into other people’s business,” my mother always said, but it made me sad to see him that way.
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?’ He called a child, set him in front of them, and said, ‘I tell you this: unless you turn round and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven. Let a man humble himself till he is like this child, and he will be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” — Matt. 18: 1-5
The grownups are acting like children, we say, when they squabble and bicker over who gets to be first in line. In the midst of this revolutionary experiment of living up to a higher plane, the disciples want to know, in all seriousness, who will be first in the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus does not react with impatience or astonishment. Instead, he draws a child to him and, encircling him with his arms, speaks of turning in the opposite direction, away from the door which the adults have crafted and toward a child’s doorway, one that you would have to bend down to get through—that is, if you’d even noticed it.
Once again, Jesus reverses expectations with such abruptness that you can almost see the skid marks. “Become like children,” he says, in a society in which children, while loved, were to be seen and not heard. Decisions were made for children, not with them. Children gazed upward, puzzled, as the adults vigorously debated the consequences of their behaviors and the perils of nonconformity over their heads. No one, having been a child, would want to return to that state.
To turn around on this track (the word is metanoia, to repent) means to recapture the difference between childishness and childlikeness, the latter of which picks up the simplicity and trustfulness of childhood. We cannot, knowing what we know as adults, simply reverse the tape and re-record our lives. Nor is there any goodness in a pious helplessness that refuses action without a direct command from God.
We don’t chide children for being “childish.” It’s what we call people whose behavior doesn’t match their age. But to be “childlike” is to suggest a sense of trust, of wonder, of innocence. When spoken of an adult there is sometimes a tinge of pity, as if this naif was off picking flowers when he should have been reading up survival guides for the apocalypse. Sometimes you sense a bit of wistfulness for eyes that can see goodness in the world or in another person.
And then there is Paul:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways . . . Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults. — I Cor. 13:11; 14:20
Except you become as a little child you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Christ wants us to be childlike; Paul wants us to grow up.
It’s a question of maturity and, as Reinhold Niebuhr suggests in Beyond Tragedy, “Childhood cannot see beyond its time and place. Maturity extends the range of its knowledge to larger areas of life and experience. Maturity is thus the fulfillment of the promise of creation. It represents a larger life than childhood.”
But maturity can also signal the atrophy of imagination and eagerness. Sincerity devolves into deviousness, ‘mere’ honesty into becoming brutally honest. Maturity that has lost its anticipation of the new relies on the sighs of cynicism to carry the weight of authority.
The consciousness of childhood gives way to the self-consciousness of the youth, and the egotism of the adult. Every adult experiences the reality of the Fall, over and over, in the course of life. Our rational freedom, a gift from God, opens possibilities to transcend our situation. But it’s also reason which often sabotages our ability to achieve such harmony. Niebuhr warns that, “Therefore man is estranged from himself and discovers that there is a law in his members which wars against the law that is in his mind (138).”
Becoming as a little child again is not a promise of a recaptured innocence. “To repent and be converted,” says Niebuhr, “cannot mean to achieve perfect honesty. It must mean to achieve the honesty of knowing that we are not honest (142).”
Paul sees spiritual maturity as the conscious evolution of the child in Christ. There’s no condescension toward being a child: the child speaks, thinks, and reasons as a child should. Rising to maturity, on the other hand, is not inevitable as one clocks the years. The very fact that Paul has to exhort the Corinthians suggests that becoming an adult involves a clear-eyed decision to take the long view over the short-term gratification of childishness.
“Be infants in evil,” says Paul, “but in thinking be adults.” Paul, of all people, is neither naive nor cynical. Don’t be experts in the latest ways to do others in. Don’t be sophisticated in your conspiracies against your enemies. Be innocent of evil and be grown up in how you think.
As I say, I remember Jesus from that day, the last time I would see him. He went up to Jerusalem. He was killed there, my father told us. Something else happened soon after. My father wouldn’t say much about it, but every time he talked about it he’d shake his head in wonder. A few years later someone read us a letter at our gathering that said, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
“And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
— William Blake, Songs of Innocence
Photo: Carolina Sanchez, Unsplash.com
In 387, Augustine, the man who would become the greatest theologian of the early Christian church, was baptized by Bishop Ambrose in Milan, giving up a glittering career in the emperor’s court and renown as a celebrated teacher of rhetoric. A year later he and several equally distinguished friends returned to North Africa and Thagaste, where he was born. Settling there on his family’s estate, Augustine began a life of writing and contemplation. But by 391 he was ordained to the priesthood and had moved to Hippo Regius, on the coast of Algeria, to found a monastery. Legend has it that one Sunday as he was attending services in the cathedral, the presiding bishop, Valerius, looked out in the congregation and cried out, ‘Stop that man! Do not let him escape. He is to be my successor when I die.’
Four years later, in 395, Augustine was consecrated as Bishop of Hippo Regius and remained its bishop until his death in 430. But in 397, a decade after his baptism and only two years into his bishopric, Augustine was 43, approaching middle age. In the midst of a busy life of teaching, pastoring, and defending the faith, he wrote his Confessions, a remarkable work of intellectual and spiritual therapy set as a literary prayer to God which we are allowed to overhear.
Were we not already numbed by countless current memoirs that revel in self-defecatory ‘honesty’ we might find his Confessions startling. Unlike so many ancient and medieval biographies, for instance, which depict their subjects as heroically exhibiting ideal qualities, Augustine reveals himself as a man whose past still resonates in his present. He is a bishop whose youthful sexual adventures still haunt him and whose memories are still painful. He underscores the force of desires that result in habits which become engrained and lock a person into paths not easily reversed. Long before Freud, Augustine understood that childhood experiences shape the adult. But unlike Freud he knew that change could only come from processes beyond one’s control. His prayer is suffused with wonder and gratitude at God’s intervention in his life.
The Confessions is comprised of thirteen books, what we would call chapters. In Book 12 Augustine takes up a dispute over the meaning of the phrase “heaven and earth,” in the Genesis Creation story. It’s an argument on whether God created ex nihilo,’ out of nothing,’ or whether He used pre-existing material on hand in order to bring a new world to life. Within the intellectual and theological community of which Augustine was a member, this was, apparently, a matter worth coming to blows over.
He poses a number of interpretations of what the phrase could mean and assesses their relative merits. Some make more sense than others, but Augustine asserts that any of them could be true, since we don’t know exactly what Moses was thinking. What we do know is that what comes from God is truth.
Augustine believes that the interpretation he has arrived at is that which God prompted him to understand, but he holds that others may have arrived at different truths. His principle is to settle for one truth, “so long as it is firm and helpful, however many other truths may suggest themselves.”
When there are so many possibilities for interpreting scripture Augustine confesses that “I make my testimony on the understanding that if I have identified what your servant Moses meant, that is the best and highest truth, the one I was bound to strive for.”
That would be the ideal, as difficult as that would be to reach. In humility, though, Augustine concludes that if he didn’t reach that truth, “let me at least express what your truth willed me to take from the author’s words, just as your truth willed what the author himself said.”
Apply your understanding through love, says Augustine: “So when one man says Moses meant what he means, and another says Moses meant what he means, I think it is more in the spirit of our love to say: Why cannot both be true?” After all, why shouldn’t we think that Moses intended all these various meanings?
God, states Augustine, “has suited his Scripture to readers who will find various truths when different minds interpret it.”
Augustine had come to realize that his earlier difficulties with understanding the Bible were because of spiritual pride; the scriptures were only accessible to those who had rid themselves of conceit and self-importance. God spoke through images that we could understand, but even so we could never know the whole truth in this life. Language fails us, even in our relationships with others. How impossible, then, that we should be able to fully express the mystery of God in our own words. Wrangling and bitter disputes about the meaning of scripture were futile. As Karen Armstrong puts it in her The Bible: A Biography, “Instead of engaging in uncharitable controversies, in which everybody insisted that he alone was right, a humble acknowledgment of our lack of insight should draw us together.”
Augustine had arrived at the insight of the renowned Rabbi Hillel and others: “Charity was the central principle of Torah and everything else was commentary (Armstrong).” For him, the rule of faith was not lodged in a doctrine, but in the spirit of love.
This would not be easy—Augustine rather ruefully begs for divine help in disputations:
“O my God . . . rain down gentleness into my heart, that I may patiently put up with such people, who say this to me not because they are godlike and have seen what they assert in the heart of your servant, but because they are proud, and without having grasped Moses’ idea they are infatuated with their own, not because it is true but because it is theirs.”
If we can each see some truth in what the other says, observes Augustine, where do we see it? “I certainly do not see it in you, nor do you see it in me; we both see it in the immutable truth itself which towers above our minds.”
Thus, we can arrive at a principle of Bible study: trust that if we open our hearts in humility to God’s teaching through scripture, and if we do not claim to have the sole authoritative interpretation, then we can trust that we have been led into a truth which God has for us.
In Armstrong’s felicitous phrase this is “a compassionate hermeneutic.”
What would such a hermeneutic look like in practice? We might, with charity toward all, apply it to our current controversies. We have nothing to lose but our fear.
Translations of The Confessions used are those by Garry Wills (2006) and Sister Maria Boulding (2017). Image is by Anna vander Stel (Unsplash.com)