May 22, 2012

Learning the Language of Sacred Scriptures

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, refers to a conversation he had with an old soldier about God. The soldier said he did not need theology because he found God on the battlefield and what he experienced was completely different from anything he had ever heard from any theologian. Since he knew God personally, why would he need Church doctrine or theology? C.S. Lewis took this objection seriously as too should we.


He dealt with this critic of doctrine with a simple comparison. God is to doctrine what the ocean is to a map. If all one wants to do is go for a quick swim it is arguable that a map might not be necessary. However, if one wants to get somewhere, to dive in the ocean and just begin to swim could be dangerous. He suggests it is similar with God.

Christianity is about more than an experience of God. It is about being saved from certain peril and spending ourselves for one another so that all of us together might arrive at a destination prepared for us from the foundation of the world. Accordingly, the Christian life requires us to steep ourselves in sacred doctrine and to apply our whole intelligence to the saving truth proposed to us by the Church. To this end and through the centuries, Christians have devoted their lives and fortunes to learning, arguing about and trying to live the language of the Sacred Scriptures.

Is it necessary to take up a scientific investigation of the Holy Bible? Yesterday in my post on De Doctrina Christiana Saint Augustine provided us a glimpse of his vision of theology by addressing the objections of those who cannot understand or apply his teaching. In his vision, theology looks out upon the wonders of what God has done just like astronomy looks up into the heavens. Whether his students understand what he teaches or whether they can apply it does not diminish his investigation of the truth anymore than someone with bad eyesight diminishes the beauty of the stars or the joy of star gazing. In today's post, we will consider the position of those who object to a disciplined approach to contemplating Divine Revelation because of their direct experience of God in prayer.

Saint Augustine is aware that in addition to those who do not understand or else are unable to apply what he teaches, others might criticize his teaching on the basis that they have mystical knowledge of God's Word and therefore do not need his scientific rules to know what the Scriptures are saying. St. Augustine does not discount this important form of knowing, but he does argue that this kind of knowing is not sufficient for the demands of divine revelation. Mystical knowledge is not sufficient to persuade others. To help others understand the reason for the hope we have inside we need to present what we believe in a manner which appeals to what can be known in reality itself. Mystical knowledge is super-conceptual and can not be conveyed from one created person to another. It is rather a knowledge received from God in a supernatural manner. Yet the Word of God has not chosen to reveal himself spiritually to each soul by grace individually alone. Instead, God respects our humanity.

Our humanity is not only spiritual but also material, historical, particular and concrete. God bases his invisible mission in the life of the soul on his visible mission in the history of the world. Foreshadowed by the Law and the Prophets, the Word of God expressed himself in human speech and performed tangible signs for the salvation not so much of isolated individuals but of a heavenly community, a divine family. Although He could have saved us in isolation from each other, the Word made flesh has bound us together through the preaching of the Church.

Sacred Doctrine is what the Church proposes for our belief as saving truth, the truth we need to know for our salvation. When we believe what the Church proposes, we open our hearts to encountering Christ who draws us deeper and deeper into a communion with one another in his new humanity, a humanity He refashioned by his death and resurrection. Through this humanity, we convey the wonders of what God has done by applying all the powers of our intelligence to what He has revealed.  Although the subject matter is incomparably beautiful, great effort and suffering is called for in distinguishing, comparing and finding the connections between what God has revealed to us and what we can naturally know about ourselves and the world.  

This intensely human engagement with the Word of God disclosed in the Sacred Scriptures is the task of Christian theology.  In this effort, we learn a kind of wisdom by which we are able build up each other's faith not only by repeating biblical sayings to each other but also with our own words.  Here, theological wisdom is at the service of mystical wisdom, the loving knowledge which increases in us as we cling to God by love and prayer.  With both theological wisdom and the wisdom that comes from prayer, our thoughts become so baptized in sacred doctrine we find ourselves thinking with the mind of Christ and more fully living a transformed life - that is, a life completely offered to God.  

To refer back to C.S. Lewis's comparison, one wisdom is the kind we get from looking at the map and the other from catching the waves. For those who want to avoid danger and get somewhere, both kinds of wisdom are necessary. In theological wisdom, we learn to understand the language of the Sacred Scriptures so that something beautiful of what God conveys to the soul through its life of prayer can be shared from mouth to mouth. In this way, through our life together in the Church the saving truth resounds not only in one's own hidden depths but also from the rooftops for the salvation of the world. This is why St. Augustine believes Christians must study the Holy Bible in a disciplined way.