Friday, June 26, 2009

Biblical Interpretation and Authority.

A friend recently dropped me a note in response to some thoughts I had shared with him about biblical interpretation. Like me, he's from a Protestant background but loves the Catholic tradition. He said he's basically torn between "believing that Petrine doctrine is the only way out of the theological mess" or "agreeing with Luther that individuals reading the text with the guidance of the inner light is the only way to subjectively legitimize interpretations."

Now, I'm not sure Luther really felt the need for "the guidance of inner light." As I read him, he seemed to think that the literal meaning of scripture was plain for everyone to see and anyone who didn't read it like him was clearly succumbing to the leading of the devil. Luther was easy to get along with like that. On the other hand, my friend is a scholar of comparative religions, and I know he doesn't really believe the Petrine doctrine in a literal way any more than I do.

So that had me mulling things over again. What does the Bible really mean, and who says so?

On the one hand, I'm a bit of a Luther fanboy, and I tend to agree with him on the fact that the meaning of scripture is plain enough. On the other hand, fanboy or no, I disagree with him on an awful lot of the fine points of his reading, so it's kind of silly for me to agree with him on simply reading the plain meaning. On the third hand, the backdrop to the above mentioned discussion was a comment I had made of a bit from the Foreward of Pope Benedict's book Jesus of Nazareth in which he talks about the process by which the community gathered around the sacred texts reinterprets the texts, and how this is good and reasonable because the text created the community and the community created the text and so the text was somehow open to the reinterpretation all along. So there's something there of an ecclesial authority in interpreting the text which I believe and accept.

But the more I think about it, the more I think the problem is with how we try to locate authority relative to the Bible. We say the Bible is the final authority on matters of faith and doctrine, which I hope we understand to really mean that God speaking through the Bible is the final authority on matters of faith and doctrine. But the really big problem is that our interpretation of the Bible tends to become the de facto authority which we are trying to follow.

That is, we recognize the authority of the Bible and tip our hat to it, and we try as diligently as we are able to uncover the meaning of the Bible, and then we effectively legislate our behavior on the basis of the meaning we arrive at as our best guess at the meaning. This is essentially the logical outcome of the Protestant model, and I'm going on record right now saying it's wrong.

So what's the alternative?

First, let me suggest that in try to arrive at the meaning of the Bible, we're already a bit off track. The Church has long recognized multiple meanings embedded in Scripture. Some of these have been dismissed in modern times as silly, pious imagination. Nevertheless, as modern reading has given way to post-modern reading, we've been forced to acknowledge the simple fact that words, inspired and otherwise, tend not to have a single meaning.

And so I think we do well to look back at the history of how the Church has read various passages and see what may be gleaned from it. I think we also do well to consult Jewish traditions. And we do well to try to come at the text fresh (as if such a thing were possible) and hear it with new ears and respond. In all of these ways we will find many treasures, old and new (Matthew 13:52).

Does the Bible really mean all these things? Maybe. Maybe not. I think perhaps we should look at biblical interpretation as being somehow akin to wine tasting. A person can pick up a glass of wine, take a gulp and glibly say, "It tastes like wine." But an experienced wine taster may come along side and suggest that this person look for the hint of fruitiness in the finish. And perhaps the person takes another sip and finds this fruitiness. And so on. Merely having heard the suggestion of what's there gives us the ability to discern it where perhaps we did not before.

So that's interpretation. But what about authority?

I'd like to suggest that the authority of the Bible is also more like the authority of wine than it is like the authority of a constitution. Wine exercises its authority by the mere fact of having been imbibed. Even so with the Bible. The authority of the Bible is, and should be, in the effect it has upon us, the way in which it can transform us, not as something we can point to in order to support our arguments or to justify ourselves. It may be that I have misunderstood the meaning of the Bible, but in the act of engaging it and seeking it's meaning, I am transformed. It may have more to say to me, and the same passage may have more work to do with me, but having been transformed to the extent I have, I am to act as I have been led.

And so when I apply this to a controversial issue, such as same sex relationships, it's a mistake to lay out a list of verses and say, "These are the passages which justify my position." Instead, I can simply say, "Jesus calls me to love my neighbor, and this is what that seems to me to mean," and I am more genuinely placing authority in God through Scripture than if I were to cite chapter and verse.

You and I may even arrive at different positions in this way. That's OK, I think. We're not done. As long as we're both still opening ourselves to the authority of the Scripture and the action of the Holy Spirit upon us, we'll be moving, I hope, in the right direction.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Pope Taught Me to Pray

I've never been quite comfortable that I really understood prayer, or perhaps it would be better to say that I've always been at least vaguely aware that I didn't understand prayer. Prayer obviously has many aspects and different traditions emphasize different facets, but none of them have seemed to quite fit with me.

Something about prayer of petition always seems off to me. I mean obviously the Biblical support to ask for what we need is there, but I can't help feeling that prayer is often used like some magic incantation to achieve a desired result. And I'm not even talking just about the recent "name it and claim it" trend. I'm thinking of the kind of church meeting where you make a bunch a plans and then someone says that you need a group of people praying for the effort so that it will be successful. Does it really work like that?

On the other end of the spectrum, you have prayer as mysticism. Now this has always appealed to me in a certain way. I am, like it or not, a child of my age and so the "spiritual" feel of mystical prayer has something going for it. But the problem I have with this type of prayer is that it hasn't seemed to me to have any particular connection with Jesus' teaching.

Well, today I got some help with this problem from Pope Benedict XVI. No, I wasn't granted an audience with His Holiness. Rather, I've been reading his book, Jesus of Nazareth. This morning I began the chapter on the Lord's Prayer. In about three pages, he explained something about what prayer is that had never quite clicked with me before.

Listen to this:
The more the depths of our souls are directed toward God, the better we will be able to pray. The more prayer is the foundation that upholds our entire existence, the more we will become men of peace. The more we can bear pain, the more we will be able to understand others and open ourselves to them. This orientation pervasively shaping our whole consciousness, this silent presence of God at the heart of our thinking, our meditating and our being, is what we mean by "prayer without ceasing." This is ultimately what we mean by love of God, which is at the same time the condition and the driving force behind love of neighbor.

This is what prayer really is--being in silent inner communion with God. It requires nourishment, and that is why we need articulated prayer in words, images or thoughts. The more God is present in us, the more we will really be able to be present to him when we utter the words of our prayers. But the converse is also true: Praying actualizes and deepens our communion of being with God.

I don't need to pray for God to support and nourish my marriage in order for God to support and nourish my marriage. I don't need to pray for God to come to the aid of my neighbor in order for God to come to the aid of my neighbor. And so on. But, if I want these things and I don't bring them before God, then I am not welcoming God into those parts of my life. And if I do bring these things before God, I am deepening my communion with God in these aspects of my life.

This perspective also makes sense of the more mystical forms of prayer. Seeking union with God, then, isn't about just attaining the experience or escaping from material life, but rather is a means of connecting God to our lives.

I don't think there's anything here that I hadn't heard before, but today it fit together and made sense to me in a way that it hadn't before. I don't think I had previously seen how all these things are connected.