19 June 2012

The Ascesis of Scripture

With my friend Maximus Greeson I like to be sure I at least read the introduction to a book, so while I will likely not finish the entire volume, the other day I was reading the intro to The Art of Reading Scripture, edited by Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays. There I was struck by the observation—a corollary to the editors’ and contributors’ conviction that Scripture reading is indeed an art—that ‘like every other true art form, reading Scripture is a difficult thing to do well.’ [1] The editors elabourate:

Strangely, we do not often mention this difficulty in church, in sermons or in teaching. Our attitude seems to be that the interpretation of Scripture is a cut-and-dried kind of thing. In most liberal churches, it hardly seems worth discussing. But even in more Bible-oriented churches, there is little acknowledgment of the fact that making good sense of the Bible and applying that sense wisely to our lives is a hard thing to do. The disciplines of attentiveness to the word do not come easily to us, accustomed as we are to user-friendly interfaces and instant gratification. [2]

Of course, it seems so obvious that reading and understanding Scripture is difficult, but I think Davis and Hays are right, it’s not often mentioned, even when one is not among those with a serious dogmatic commitment to the doctrine of Scriptural perspicuity. When it is mentioned, moreover, there’s a kind of sense that things shouldn’t be this way. Why would God make the Bible so difficult to read?

I believe I first saw the beginnings of a potential answer to such an unspoken question at the blog of Esteban Vazquez (I know, I’ll stop mentioning him again soon). In this post, Esteban wrote, ‘As is true of other disciplines of the Christian life, the systematic reading [of] the Scriptures is an ascetical endeavor...’ (It seems like he said something else about this at some point too, but I’m not finding it just now.) It seems ridiculously obvious, of course, but again, there is that prejudice that Scripture-reading is supposed to be easy. At any rate, I’d certainly never simply equated reading the Bible with ascesis. Of course, I think Esteban was primarily speaking of the discipline of regular reading of Scripture—in other words, simply to pick up the Bible and read a chapter a day is itself an ascetic act, however modest it may seem. But the understanding of what we read can also be seen in ascetic terms, that is, the difficulty of interpreting Scripture constitutes a further arena of ascetic activity.

I first found this spelled out in much more detail in John O’Keefe’s and R.R. Reno’s excellent Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible. Because the notion really is elabourated rather painstakingly there, it is difficult to find a neat summary passage. Suffice to say, the authors point out that for Origen—who was, for all his problems, the pioneer of patristic biblical studies and an enormous influence, whether direct or indirect, on the most important later Fathers—‘God so orders and arranges the created world that our bodily suffering has the capacity to encourage us to direct our attention toward God’, [3] that is, the world itself has an ‘ascetic economy’. Similarly, ‘Divine wisdom, he argues, has made the scriptures difficult to interpret for the same reason that the world is set up according to an ascetic logic—so that the project of interpretation might be a properly disciplining exercise of every fiber of the reader’s being.’ [4]

Now, for whatever reasons, I’ve read a lot of patristic material, but probably no more than a paragraph or two of Origen in my entire life. This connection between the ascetic logic of the world and that of biblical study, however, was enough to convince me. Fortunately, the very ideas to which O’Keefe and Reno are referring are found in the passages from On First Principles that have been published in the extremely accessible anthology of Origen’s writings in the Classics of Western Spirituality series. At 2.7, we read:

They [the writers of Scripture] portrayed those mysteries, known and revealed to them by the Spirit, by narrating them as human deeds or by handing down in a type certain legal observances and rules. They did this so that not anyone who wanted would have these mysteries laid bare and ready, so to speak, to be trodden underfoot, but so that the person who devoted himself to studies of this sort with all purity and continence and careful watching might be able in this way to inquire into the profoundly hidden meaning of God’s Spirit that had been woven together with an ordinary narrative looking in another direction....And this is because no soul can arrive at the perfection of knowledge in any other way than by becoming inspired by the truth of divine wisdom. [5]

Then, in 2.9, Origen writes:

But if in all the parts of this garment, that is, the narrative, the logical coherence of the Law had been kept and its order preserved, because we should have a continuous way of understanding, we should not believe that there was anything shut up within the sacred Scriptures in addition to what is disclosed on the first appearance. For this reason the divine wisdom has arranged for there to be certain stumbling blocks or interruptions of the narrative meaning, by inserting in its midst certain impossibilities and contradictions, so that the very interruption of the narrative might oppose the reader, as it were, with certain obstacles thrown in the way. By them wisdom denies a way and an access to the common understanding; and when we are shut out and hurled back, it calls us back to the beginning of another way, so that by gaining a higher and loftier road through entering a narrow footpath it may open for us the immense breadth of divine knowledge. [6]

Of course, this is Origen, and he can be a difficult pill to swallow. Lest we forget everything we have learned about allegory and fall back on the knee-jerk modern reaction, ‘To make Scripture difficult, to make the gospel a mystery, a puzzle—is not this the way of the gnostics?’, let us recall what Fr Andrew Louth says to this:

It is not a way of obfuscation, as it would be if allegory were a device for solving ‘contingent’ difficulties: rather allegory is a way of holding us before the mystery which is the ultimate ‘difficulty’ of the Scriptures—a difficulty, a mystery, which challenges us to revise our understanding of what might be meant by meaning; a difficulty, a mystery, which calls on us for a response of metanoia, change of mental perspective, repentance. [7]

Of course, I do not broach the topic of allegorical interpretation in order to gainsay one of the central points of Esteban’s post:

We should not be looking for moments of blazing insight (though such moments might come as we progress in our discipline); neither should we expect to settle, in the course of a single reading, the exegetical and theological issues on which the best minds of the ages have expended their magnificent intellectual powers. Our purpose should be much more modest: namely, to acquaint ourselves with the subject matter of Scripture.

For those of us accustomed to reading fluff, or perhaps worse yet, not reading at all but passing our days in front of the television, such a purpose is, naturally, ascetic enough already. St Tikhon of Zadonsk instructs us that just as we would read the letter of an earthly king to us with love and joy, ‘How much more must we read the letter of the Heavenly King with love and joy’, but at the same time, he writes, ‘Keep yourself, then, from prying into things which are above you. Believe in all things as the Holy Scriptures teach, and as the Holy Church believes and establishes in accordance with it.’ [8] Thus, when we do need to understand something in Scripture, we should be ready and willing to turn to the interpretive Tradition of the Church and to pray that we too might become ‘inspired by the truth of divine wisdom’.

[1] Ellen F. Davis & Richard B. Hays, ‘Introduction’, The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis & Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), p. xv.

[2] Ibid., p. xv.

[3] John O’Keefe & R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 2005), p. 134.

[4] Ibid., p. 137.

[5] Origen, An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer & Selected Works, tr. Rowan A. Greer (NY: Paulist, 1979), p. 186.

[6] Ibid., pp. 187-8.

[7] Fr Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford: Clarendon-Oxford, 1983; Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007), pp. 110, 111.

[8] St Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven: Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian, tr. Fr George D. Lardas (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991), pp. 18, 19.


Macrina Walker said...

Aaron, apart from being grateful that you are writing again, all I can say is that this is wonderful stuff! Should probably reblog it...

Aaron Taylor said...

Macrina> Thanks for the encouragement. Although I've been plunging ahead with apparent confidence, I've been much more dissatisfied with my posts since I returned to blogging than I ever used to be in the old days. I always feel like there's something not quite right. The criticisms from the editors on my Lewis paper didn't help. (This isn't a self-pity party, just an attempt to evaluate myself honestly!)

Elijahmaria said...

We will encourage all self-criticism that does not result in blank blog pages!! I too have been exceptionally happy to see you up and running again.

Fondly, in Christ,


Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you, Mary. That's very sweet!

TheraP said...

With regard to Origin, I've just started dipping into this book: Spirit and Fire. It's a translation (by Robert Daly) of annotated selections of von Balthasar (who wrote in German). The introductory materials are superb as is the translation. The book covers excerpts from Origin's commentaries on scripture, in particular. And the introductory remarks by both the translator and the writer (who has arranged the material in terms of themes and introduces not only each theme by the various aspect of a theme - prior to each of the selections from Origin).

I really cannot say enough about this book! It indicates how Origin's thought and writings have penetrated later spiritual writers and commentaries (often in hidden ways). Plus, Origin's "attitude" toward scripture is powerfully imbued with a deep reverence for God's WORD - even describing our reading or hearing of it as "spiritual communion" with the Body of Christ.

As I wrote in a recent post: "It's like finding an archeological site and recognizing your own deepest yearnings mapped out already long ago. Waiting to be rediscovered. Laid out like a kind of blueprint for spiritual writings read and pondered over the years."

For a long time I've had Origin on my "radar screen" - and from now on I suspect he will never leave it!