Sunday, September 8, 2013

On reading Sacred Scripture

Cutting to the chase, as he often did, St. Jerome once insisted that "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ." I could point to the writings of other Church fathers who state much the same thing. Take for example Origen, who said, writing of King David, he "knew that the one perfect and harmonious instrument of God is the whole of scripture. The one body of truth. You are, therefore, to understand the scriptures in this way: as the one, perfect body of the WORD."

It is not just reading Sacred Scripture (though that is a great place to start), but how we read the Scriptures, how we engage these inspired writings. In the first chapter of his book Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, Cistercian monk, Fr. Michael Casey, discusses very well how to engage Scripture in a meaningful manner. He insists that it is not enough to read Scripture in the way we read so many things these days (i.e., merely looking for information, scanning in a superficial way).

It is important to note that the Holy Spirit inspired, not the books of the Bible, but the authors of the books of the Bible. Hence, in addition to the divine imprint, the books of Scripture also bear the imprint of the human authors. It is not stating the matter too glibly to write that, through our careful reading, we need to get to know the inspired authors, have a feel for who they are, where are coming from, etc.

As to the divine imprint, when, in 2 Timothy 3:16, we read, "All scripture is inspired by God," the words "inspired by God" are the English translation of one Greek word: theopneustos, which literally means "God-breathed." As the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum, teaches us clearly, "Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church" (par. 10). They "form one deposit" of divine revelation because Scripture is tradition written down and handed on (tradere = the act of handing on; traditio = the content of what is handed-on) in a specific manner. I could write much more about this, particularly the acceptance of the Church of the Hebrew Scriptures we call the Old Testament, but this suffices for my purpose here.

When it comes to Tradition, Fr Casey does us the favor of pointing out that it "is meant to be a servant of the present and the future, not a tyrant imposing its own preferences on a very different world." This is to more concisely make the point Pope St. John XXIII made in his address to open Vatican II: "In order, however, that this doctrine may influence the numerous fields of human activity, with reference to individuals, to families, and to social life, it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world, which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate."

When reading Scripture we must enter deeply into what we are reading, giving ourselves over to it. Citing St. Paul as an example as to why this is necessary, Casey notes that Paul never begins his writings by getting to the point. Hence, each one of Paul's letters is constituted by a "unity"; "one part cannot be understood without reference to the totality." Paul is often misinterpreted not so much because he is so difficult to understand (though there is something to that when it comes to certain passages), but because in our rush to reinforce our own preconceptions, or merely arrive at some meaning, we simply don't read him in the careful manner befitting an inspired text. Fr Casey is spot on when he observes that because "God's word is addressed to us for our salvation," it is easy to "forget that this gift of salvation often runs counter to our own perceptions and expectations." Therefore, we must approach reading the Scriptures with "a willingness to be guided and changed." In other words, we need to "approach our reading as a disciple comes to a master: receptive, docile, willing to be changed."

We also have to be willing to venture into parts of Scripture with which we are not familiar because, as my current reading through the entire Chronicles of Narnia with my 8 year-old son is showing me:
God's saving of us takes place by dragging us beyond our own comfort zone into new territory and new adventures. It is an act by which we are drawn or even compelled to leave behind the boundaries that our selfhood has imposed upon our lives. We are called to transcend our own limited vision of the good life and to accept something of the all-inclusiveness of God's plan for human fulfillment
Having finished the next-to-last (I resisted using "penultimate"- 2 days in a row seemed gratuitous) story of the Chronicles- The Silver Chair- just this week, this insight of Fr Casey's strikes a very resonant chord with me today. Casey further insists that the Bible "is an instrument of salvation only because it challenges our habitual beliefs, attitudes and behavior" (italics added by me). Because of this, Fr Casey notes the utter importance of safeguarding "the Bible's radically alternative viewpoint."

I don't think that it's an exaggeration to note that many people avoid reading Scripture, preferring instead to hear someone tell them about it, preferably someone who reinforces and justifies their own preconceptions, precisely because what personal exposure they have had to God's word has challenged their way of seeing God, themselves, others, and the world.

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