Sunday, 18 January 2009

Scripture and Ecumenism

There is a very interesting article by N.T.Wright (of whom I am a huge fan) in the Catholic Herald this week. It turns out he was an Anglican Fraternal Delegate to the recent Bishop's Synod in Rome on Holy Scripture, and he has some things to say about it.

This has inspired me to make some comments on his comments and also to make a few remarks of my own, particularly on the ecumenical status of Scripture reading. So firstly, to Wright's comments. I must disagree that if Dei Verbum had been stated in 1525 that things would have been very different. The Reformation was never about Scripture. The only place where it was in any great way connected with lay Scripture reading was in England, where the effects of the Lollards were still being felt. The reason for this is quite plain.
It is, of course, human nature to associate bad things with good things when you find them together. So, when the Albigensians came along in the thirteenth century, naturally people (including clergy) associated itinerant preaching with dualism and recoiled from both. It took the Dominicans to show that preaching outside of church walls was no bad thing simply because dualists did it and could actually be used to convert them. Praise God for St Dominic's lateral thinking.

A century later, in England, people (including clergy) associated vernacular Scripture reading with new and dodgy ideas about the Eucharist and with the idea that public officials in mortal sin held no authority (so I only have to obey a judge or a police officer if they are in right relationship with God, something which of course I could not possibly know with certainty and therefore an idea which would have had huge social consequences in law, politics and traffic ticket collecting) because they found all these ideas together in John Wycliffe and the Lollards. Unfortunately there was in England no St Dominic to show otherwise and the prejudice held for another century or so, giving rise to the misconception that the Catholic Church was against vernacular Scriptures and afraid of what might happen if laypeople ended up knowing their Bibles. This misconception, it should be noted, only obtained (and often still obtains) in English-speaking countries. On the continent it was another story. There were dozens of vernacular Scriptures in German, French, Italian, Spanish and so on. Luther was far from the first person to translate the Bible into German- there had been about thirteen editions before he ever put pen to paper.

Indeed, the idea that laypeople should be exposed to the Bible (and to the best Biblical scholarship available) was not an exclusively Protestant idea. Erasmus, who fought Luther tooth and nail over his denial of free will, was responsible for the best Greek New Testament edition then available (which, interestingly, Tyndale and many other Proetstants went on to use to translate from). The Douay-Rheims, which was the Catholic English Bible and had to be printed in France lest the Church of England prevent its publication, was printed several years before the King James Version. I also recently found out that the Church was perfectly aware that its focus on Scripture could and should be augmented. At the Council of Trent, many parts of the liturgy which were simply the result of pious creativity or derived from other sources were excised and replaced with more Scripturally-based texts and prayers. The Sybilline oracles, for example, were done away with. These are not things one often hears about.

Far from being the heart of the Reformation, it was the way one read Scripture that caused problems. William Tyndale's translation was condemned mostly because of the heretical sidenotes in the margins (some of which I have read and would make even some modern Protestants blush). N.T.Wright recognises this later on in his article when he speaks of the framework within which we read Scripture. It is this framework that has to be addressed in the context of ecumenical relationships.

I think Wright (and the bishops) are definitely onto something with lectio divina. Firstly, for centuries ecumenical relations and arguments have been characterised by a mentality that sees Scripture as a weapon. A mentality fixed on prooftexts that sees passages and verses as ammunition to be shot at the opposing side. Whoever one believes is interpreting Scripture correctly, this is a poor way to treat the Word of God. Encouraging lectio divina on both sides of the divide would be an excellent step towards reinvigorating apologetics with the spirit of Christ, rather than the factional spirit St Paul condemns.

I want to make a few comments about the state of Scripture reading ecumenically. There are some truths in the stereotypes and there are some falsehoods also. And having been on both sides I'd like to think I can speak with some authority or, at the very least, experience.

It is absolutely true that there are different cultures regarding Scripture in the Church and in Protestant Evangelicalism. To the naked eye it seems that Evangelicals know more Scripture than Catholics. This is sometimes true but the impression is strengthened by the fact that Evangelicals can quote chapter and verse wheras Catholics never can. If one presses, however, most Catholics (with some exceptions) will know the verses one is quoting, will recall having heard them at some point even if they don't remember which book they come from. There is a simple reason for this. Evangelical knowledge of Scripture comes from reading. Catholic knowledge of Scripture comes, largely, from hearing. This leads to a slightly different dynamic between the two. Both have advantages and disadvantages. One of the big disadvantages for Catholics is the lack of context. This has become more of a problem in the last 30 years as catechetics has taken a dive thanks to liberal theology, but is beginning to be addressed. The problem here is that few Catholics know where particular passages and stories fit into the whole. They are rarely taught the overall story of God's People in the Old Testament or in the New. This does not mean they do not want to. Many recognise the gap in what they were taught as children (Thanks, liberal theology!) but don't know where to start as adults. I have given several lectures giving overviews of particular books and of the Old Testamant as a whole and have been surprised by the positive response. There is a need there that needs to be addressed. I believe in the next decade or so it will be.
On one hand, it must be said that the Evangelical has much to teach the Catholic about orthodox biblical scholarship. As far as scholarship goes, there is great shallowness in Catholic circles. What little depth there is (for example in something like The Jerome Biblical Commentary) is often brought to the aid of dodgy historical and theological positions. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Reformation where the same thing happened, but we now must not be deceived into lumping together bad biblical scholarship and biblical scholarship in general as though the two were coterminous. Here is where the Evangelical can help. I have, for example, over the last couple of months been making forays into a magnificent Lutheran commentary on Leviticus. It is brilliant for its insight, its scholarship and its orthodoxy. That there are presently no Catholic resources of this calibre available in English (I don't know how things stand in other languages) is a thing to be first lamented then rectified.

It should be said, however, that the Catholic Church has resources and techniques Evangelicals, on the other hand, are totally unaware of. When I became Catholic, I heard rumours about what are called the four senses of Scripture. But it was not until about two years ago that I took a course on them and discovered the richness and potential in this method of interpretation. In the Middle Ages, the four senses was fundamental to learning how to read the Bible. Now, among both Catholics and Protestants, it is largely forgotten. This is a tragic circumstance. The four senses gives Christians the tools to do what I was always taught should be done with Scripture. It should be understood and then it should be applied. The four senses allows one to do this with every passage. It also prevents people from making common mistakes in interpretation. For example, the passage in the Psalm that begins "By the waters of Babylon" where it says "Blessed is he who takes their babies and smashes their heads against a rock". I have heard the interpretation of this given as "The babies represent small sins that look harmless and enticing. But when we see them, we must not be deceived. They are from Babylon (i.e. the world trying to live without God) and must be rejected no matter how innocent they appear." This is a good interpretation but it is the moral sense of Scripture. Augustine teaches that every sense of Scripture depends upon the literal, and, if this is as far as we go in our interpretation, we have still not discovered the literal sense of this passage. In fact, we have probably interpreted it morally because the literal sense makes us uncomfortable. Armed with the four senses, we can recognise that the literal is important and any kind of allegorical interpretation must take the literal sense as its starting point.

On the other hand, I can take a passage like Josiah's discovery of Deuteronomy in a niche in the wall of the Temple. If I stop at the literal sense here, seeing it simply as an interesting bit of history, I have missed the full meaning of the passage. Armed, however, with knowledge of the four senses, I notice that Josiah only discovered the scroll because he had chosen to do renovation work on the Temple. Allegorically, I realise from this passage that Christ loves to manifest Himself to those who seek to worship Him in truth and according to His commandments. Morally, I realise that in my own heart, once I have made the commitment to know Christ better, have repented of my sins and firmly decided to follow Him completely, it is then that He will take me to the next step and I will see both Him more clearly and myself more clearly, as Josiah does when he reads the scroll and laments that the People of God had sinned more greatly than even he realised. Finally, anagogically, the Temple is a figure of heaven where worship of God is brought to its ultimate fulfillment and is recognised for what it is, our ultimate purpose as human beings and the only thing that will truly make us happy. Josiah's renovation work on the Temple is actually, in an ultimate (i.e. anagogical) sense, a preparation for heaven, and an attempt to display to the People of God what they have been called to, what they are made for. And while, in our fallen state, discovering something new about God, as Josiah does in discovering Deuteronomy in the wall, leads to both grief and joy, St Paul gives us a different picture that puts the anagogical meaning of this passage into focus. He says that we will be transformed "from glory to glory", that our knowledge and love of God will be constantly renewed, constantly discovering new facets of the Divine Persons and marvelling, rejoicing, exulting in these. The joy of heaven, of union with God, will be an ongoing active personal knowledge and love, inexhaustible, never boring, ever-new.

If I had stopped at merely the literal sense, I would not have even begun to contemplate the richness of this Scriptural text. It is no wonder that the sermons of the ancient Christians are more interesting and profound than most modern ones when one realises this is how they naturally read Scripture. Moreover, using this method of interpretation puts me more in touch with Apostolic Tradition because this is the way the Apostles interpreted Scripture. So when before I would find a passage from the Old Testament quoted in one of Paul's letters and check it and think, "What on earth is he thinking? That passage has nothing to do with what he is talking about!", now I find that I can follow his train of thought and discover how he derived what meaning he derived from a passage. And this is all possible because the ultimate basis of the four senses of Scripture is what Christ Himself said, "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me." and "These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” All of Scripture is ultimately about Christ. A good knowledge of the four senses of Scripture gives us the tools to discover this, not simply as a general principle, but in the specific interpretation of every Scriptural passage. It is something worth recapturing, something Protestants should discover and Catholics should rediscover. This would contribute in no small way to the common lectio divina that Wright and the bishops are so keen on.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Impressions of Purgatorio

I just finished Dante's Purgatorio today.

Good heavens, where to start? It is a thing of magnificence, to be read over and pondered multiple times. Below are some things that stand out for me.

1. The delight and joy of those who have recently died and are deposited by the boat at the base of the mountain, singing "When Israel came forth from Egypt" (Psalm 114). The heart exults vicariously with them after the self-absorption of the souls in Hell and the general claustrophobia there. The sight and sound of people who will taste bliss and who long for it- whose choice has been made and made for the good- is a tremendous source of refreshment in the narrative. Particularly delightful are those individuals who are genuinely surprised to find themselves there, who perhaps had had deathbed conversions or the like. They are, first of all, a reminder to those hung up on certainty and eternal security (like the gung-ho Anglicans at WYD) that our certainty rests in Christ, and not in ourselves or in our own sense of assurance. It doesn't matter what I answer to the question, "Where will you spend eternity?" What matters is what Christ answers to the question, "Where will Glenn spend eternity?" The parable of the sheep and the goats leads us to believe that there will be plenty of people who had assurance but who will not be saved on the Last Day. The delight of this episode in Purgatorio is that there will probably be others who fully expected to be damned and who- to their supreme shock- will find that that barely vocalised prayer of humility, that minute turning of the will in the final moments of life, was enough- that, contrary to all expectations, they are standing on the shores of blessedness. A kind of divine serendipity.

2. The contrepassos. There are some great ones which bear meditating upon. The impatient, for example, who must now wait at the foot of Mt Purgatory before scaling it. The dialogue that Dante has with one of these (whose name I have forgotten) who has clearly begun to learn patience but still shows signs of impatience here and there- and yet his willingness to submit to this penance knowing when he finally does begin to scale, the life of Christ in him will have grown to full flower. The worldly, who must lie with their faces in the dust, since in their lives they refused to turn their eyes or minds to heavenly and ultimate things. The nature of so many of these penances to teach the souls of the true nature of their sin so they would see it for what it is.

3. Pope Hadrian. A case study in conversion and one of only two contemporary popes in the Divine Comedy who are not in Hell.

4. There is an unnerving and arresting moment when Dante reaches the final stage of Purgatory, where the lustful are cleansed. Up until this point, Dante has moved through Purgatory much as he did in Hell, observing the punishments and penances and conversing with those who receive them. After having conversed with some of the lustful, however, there is a turn. The angel on the other side of the flames informs Dante that he too must pass through the cleansing fire. His sins too must be purged. The point where he can be a passive observer has ended. Dante's turn has come- he too must die to self utterly just as the other penitents are. There is a jarring here, a shock and mental rebellion, like a wartime journalist who suddenly finds himself captured by the enemy and threatened at gunpoint. "I became, when seeing what he meant, as though, still living, placed within a tomb. Over my suppliant hands entwined, I leaned just staring at the fire, imagining bodies of human beings I'd seen burn." Virgil is honest with Dante but at the same time reassuring. "My dearest son, here may be agony but never death...Have done, I say, have done with fearfulness. Turn this way. Come, and enter safely in!" The fire is no mere pious abstraction but a true penance, and Dante, when he has entered into it, describes both the sheer, mind-numbing pain of it and yet the hope that springs from it at the same time. "Once within, I could have flung myself for coolness in a vat of boiling glass....And guiding us, a voice sang from beyond." Here is the heart of Purgatory- the pain of every vice rejected and burned away, every bad habit, every sin that we would like to hang onto submitted to the divine cleansing and purged away forever. The divine scrubbing that leaves the skin raw but finally cleans away every last skerrick of mud. I too fear it and long for it.

5. The scene where Dante finally comes face-to-face with Beatrice is some of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful poetry I have ever read. I don't say that lightly. There are so many layers to it also. I think I will have to read it many more times before I have properly internalised all that is in those verses. Some of my thoughts, having read it only once.

A reminder of grace. Virgil congratulates Dante immediately prior to the peak of Mt Purgatory on his long-fought-for maturity. From his first steps in Hell, where Dante wrongly sympathised with the damned, he has come a long way. Dante has reached a peak of understanding of the nature of virtue and vice, of what leads men to salvation and of what robs them of it. The reader feels a sense of achievement with him. Yet, in the moment he meets Beatrice at long last, all sense of achievement, every atom of pride, is gone. "There is not one gram of blood in me that does not tremble now." Beatrice shows Dante himself, tells him matter-of-factly the story of his life to the point where he had gone astray in the wood in which we found him at the beginning of the Divine Comedy, every moment of grace ignored or rejected, all his lost opportunities when God was seeking to draw him to Himself, when Beatrice was praying for him, and he refused. And Dante is reduced to a blubbering schoolboy, sobbing uncontrollably and barely able to form two words because he is too ashamed to speak. Summoning all his will, finally he speaks, acknowledging the truth of her words, whereupon she paints for him a different picture, a picture of his life as it should have been. With this in mind, Dante is drawn through the Rive Lethe, the river of forgetting, where the memory of all his sins is washed away as if they had never been (the baptismal symbolism is palpable) and, having reached the other sde, he looks into Beatrice's eyes and there sees Christ reflected. At this he is overcome with love, and the end of that canto bursts into florid praise. "Splendour of living and eternal light!"

Purgatorio has been a wondrous read, and I know there are parts I will return to many times to meditate on them more fully. But now, further up and further in. Paradiso awaits.