Biblical Interpretation

This morning I took down from my shelves the slim volume, The Bible without Illusions by the two Hanson Brothers, Bishop Richard and Professor A. T. Hanson (it was their last book together since Bishop Richard died before its publication in 1989). I purchased the book for €1 from Milltown Institute when it’s library closed in 2012.

The topic of the book is essentially biblical hermeneutics. It dispels early on the notion, popular among some fundamentalists, that a pure interpretation of the biblical text, unmediated by other forms of interpretation, is not only possible but is the only valid way to read the Bible. The authors are at pains to stress early on that there is no such thing as an un interpreted biblical text. There is no such thing as an un interpreted Bible.

It speaks to my poor knowledge of scriptural hermeneutics that I was until now largely unaware that the LXX introduced a certain accommodation of the original Hebrew text to the circumstances of the day in its translations. Hanson notes, for example, that the LXX translation of the Psalms tends to emphasise the universalist dimensions of revelation, a perspective more suited to the context of the spread of Judaism to the Diaspora and beyond. He also points out the ways in which the LXX sought to tone down the cruder anthropomorphises when referring to God in the Hebrew text. Clearly, we can see here the influence of the more philosophically aware prevailing Greek culture.

In the second chapter of the book he provides some examples of how the New Testament writers interpreted Old Testament texts from within the tradition of first century Judaism. Furthermore, he points out how Jesus himself did the same. The example in this regard is the discussion of the Sabbath where Jesus refers to a text from Samuel concerning David. Jesus speaks about David and his little band. However, the biblical text contains no mention of ‘a.little band of followers’. But this was the interpretative tradition in first century Judaism. Clearly, Jesus was aware of it, as were his hearers, and so it served to underpin the point he was making concerning the Sabbath.

The chapter refers to many other examples showing how the New Testament writers consistently interpreted the OT in light of the prevailing rabbinical tradition of their day. All of which reinforces the main point: there is no such thing as an uninterpreted bible.

At the end of the chapter Hanson notes the progress in the development of an ecumenical understanding of the Bible in the twentieth century. He refers to Pope Leo XIII’s attempt through the 1902 establishment of the Biblical Commission to provide authoritative interpretations of biblical texts that would assist Catholics who were confronted by the initial phase of post-Enlightenment thinking and the findings of historical criticism. In Hanson’s view this was a total failure. The Biblical Commission no longer exists and is incorporated into the Pontifical Institute with a relationship to the CDF.

On a more personal note I discovered that Father Fearghas O’Fearraill, the amiable and learned parish priest of Windgap in County Kilkenny, is a member of the Pontifical Institute.

All Things were Cast Down

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th. If you live in Ireland, you will know that this was a traditional pre-Christmas shopping day. People from ‘the country’ (that is anyplace outside the M50 Dublin motorway!) got on the train to come to Dublin to spend the day shopping and, hopefully, get home in time for tea. It was a happy day, full of expectation and warm feelings about family. Mothers, of course, were on the frontline braving queues and armed with Santa lists.

Theological Considerations

But there is also the deeper and more tangled side of this Feast of Our Lady.

There was a time when theologically the interpretation of the feast-day biblical and doctrinal texts all cohered and made sense in a way that the traditional school catechism could explain so clearly. That is the ‘clarity’ of the old days that many conservative Catholics miss so keenly. What was the basis of this clarity? It all went back to Adam and the original sin. Sin is the overarching category that casts a long shadow on everything. According to the catechism understanding what we celebrate today, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is the first sign of retreat of our ‘original condition of sin’ in the anticipation of the coming of Christ, the Saviour of the World, God Incarnate.

Today, words like ‘original sin’, ‘sin’, and ‘redemption’ are uncomfortable, to say the least. They drift through our minds like so much ancient debris from a great primeval flood.

Most of the time what we try to do with these concepts and ideas that seem no longer to fit is to either ignore them or refashion them into something more amenable, something less edgy. But they are difficult to set aside, especially, if, like me, you continue to pray in traditional forms, using traditional words, because they are familiar, because they have shaped one’s spiritual life, because in some inexplicable way they continue to nurture hope, faith and belonging. They are the words from our two thousand year old tradition. Still hanging around and unwilling to just drift away on the secular tide.

Anselm again, God help us!

This morning I looked at the texts from my Benedictine Daily Prayer with some trepidation, my mind expecting to fight with the words. But that did not happen. Instead, armed with all my recent reading on the story of the Universe, the story of evolution, my struggles with Richard Dawkins, and wonderful memories of time spent with John Feehan, geologist, botanist and author of The Singing Heart of the World, I found myself in a good space. To use contemporary hermeneutical speak, I began to pay attention to the text beyond the text. It was an opening to that ‘fusion of horizons’ which Gadamer described so well in his challenging work Truth and Method. When we see to understand something we alway bring to it our own ‘horizon of understanding’.

The Office of Readings has its first text the Discourse by Saint Anselm. I ‘bracketed’ my rejection of Anselm’s well-known atonement theory and allowed the text to speak within a new horizon, within the horizon of my awareness of cosmological time and of the evolutionary story of nature itself. Anselm had no clue of any of these things but probably had his suspicions.

Anselm says:

Heaven, stars, earth, day, night, and all that serves humankind has been raised up and newly graced in you, our Lady. All things died, as it were, for they had ceased to serve the needs and will of those who praise God, they were cast down and degraded to servants of idolaters.

All was cast down. Something has gone wrong with creation. Anselm goes on in the text to speak of Mary as the mother of ‘the new creation’.

A New Horizon of Understanding

Of course, the reflexes of my youth would prompt me to make a smooth transition to ‘catechism language’ but my new horizons allow me to see the new text emerging from behind the words. The text behind the text. There is always a text behind the text. And even a text ‘before’ the text, the new horizon of meaning.

I can sense Anselm’s joy in reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation and Mary’s role in it. He summons a cosmological perspective, one limited by his own cultural and pre-scientific knowledge. Within that he intuits that something momentous is at work. He perceives it happening in the miracle of the Incarnation and the work of redemption. Everything is transformed, including nature itself. That perspective is one that Paul takes up in Romans 8 and it has informed Eastern theology ever since.

For me, as I read, I am aware of the struggles in Paris at the COP21 conference and I can still hear the fading murmur of Storm Desmond passing over Ireland. Anselm presents a picture of a fundamental alienation from the cosmos, from nature, and, indeed, from ourselves. Nature, he perceives, has become degraded, become simply an instrument for ‘idolators’. It is we humans, our human consciousness, that enslave the natural world and its species. It is our ‘degraded’, ‘unredeemed’ consciousness that is bringing about the death of the natural world.

Towards an Emerging Understanding

Were Anselm alive today I have no doubt that he would read the biblical texts with a different mindset. He would understand the absolute necessity for a new redeemed relationship with nature itself, one that cannot wait for the ‘end times’, but must take place now and be given expression now in the birth through a new ecological awareness of a new appreciation of our graced relationship with the totality of the natural world, and, indeed, with the universe itself.

This is a cosmic vision on a grand scale. In this feast of Our Lady we celebrate the possibility through the Incarnation of just such a new world. But we need to shed the prejudices and naïvetés of the past.

This is what John Feehan, along with Thomas Berry and others, articulates so beautifully and so clearly in The Singing Heart of the World. What is important is the new horizon of meaning that we bring to the text, from whatever age the text comes. Gadamer was correct when insisted on the inevitability of the hermeneutical challenge. Our texts remain at once both wonderfully original and provisional. And that is the reason why they can prompt a re-calibration of our own mindset.

Something happened to Benedict in the 1960s

A reflective Benedict XVI when he was Joseph Ratzinger
A reflective Benedict XVI when he was Joseph Ratzinger

With the outcomes from the current Synod on the Family, those of a more conservative bent are inclined to look back to the Benedict XVI years with more than nostalgia. The ambiguities arising in some of the Synod statements alarm those who recall Benedict’s Cartesian clarity and his commitment to clear speaking. Social and theological conservatives perceived him as the one person who could confront western liberalism with a heavy duty philosophical and theological arsenal. Francis is seen as popular, non-ideological, and reluctant to take sides. In that sense he is a clear counterpoint to the Ratzinger years. The contrast is inevitable.

I think Joseph Ratzinger will continue to fascinate us, all the more so now that he is secluded in retirement in a villa at the rear of the Vatican Gardens. This casts upon him an aura of a faintly shadowy figure who may be second-guessing Francis from the safety of his Vatican study. On the other hand, it is equally clear that the personal relations between Francis and Benedict are warm. One might wonder whether they have been seen walking together in the cool of a Roman summer evening? Frankly, I don’t know. But I would not rule this out.

There is no doubt that the man who became Benedict XVI in 2005 was a person marked by his past, both his family upbringing and, in particular, the events of 1968 in the university town of Tübingen. Germany’s youth was then in ferment. Those of an older generation will remember Danny the Red, now a respected European MEP.

The 1968 students were vocal, even aggressive, demanding change and unafraid to voice their opinions. One professor has remarked that when the University Senate agreed to meet with the students all the members stayed except one, Joseph Ratzinger, who gathered up his things and left the room (a recollection of Dietmar Mieth, today a Tübingen professor emeritus of ethics, currently teaching at the Catholic university in Erfurt). That image says it all. It suggests an independent-minded contrarian personality. Not someone who can ‘go with the flow’.

There is a very interesting 2005 New York Times article by Richard Bernstein on all of this which can be found here. This article by Bernstein, himself a renowned philosopher and sociology theorist from the States, which suggests that what happened to Joseph Ratzinger in Tübingen in 1968 left its mark. That it may have coloured his later thinking, however, may be somewhat wide of the mark. What is clear is that it reinforced tendencies towards caution in Benedict’s personality that already existed.

The New York Times article says:

The caution drew on his childhood in the fervently Catholic villages of Bavaria, where he saw Nazism firsthand. He attended a state-run school in Traunstein, which had Nazi teachers, but boarded at a church-run institution, St. Michael, where students lived in a seminary-like setting, under the tutelage of priests.

For a shy, bookish boy whose father was resolutely anti-Nazi, according to his elder brother, Georg, the church was a haven from Nazi propaganda. Both boys became priests. The church gave them educations, and, perhaps not incidentally, improved their social status.

”This was the family of a poor policeman in a Bavarian village, with extremely gifted children,” said Professor Obermair. The church was their ticket to social, intellectual, and even cultural advancement.

The Bernstein article paints a portrait of a shy, reclusive and serious-minded academic who was appalled at what he perceived as the excesses of the popular student movements of the time. What intrigues me are the recollection of the Tübingen students of the time, among them Professor Dieter Mieth, that Joseph Ratzinger. although admired for his scholarship, provoked sentiments of anger among the students. I can understand that this may well have been the case as the free-spirits of the sixties ran up against what they experienced as dogmatism. There is a certain irony in this in that Joseph Ratzinger was one of the more open-minded periti at the Second Vatican Council.

Some years ago I attended a concert in the Vatican. Benedict occupied the central place of honour on a raised white podium in the centre of the audience hall. The concert was given by a German orchestra and choir, whose name I have long forgotten. I also recall seeing Benedict’s brother, Georg, the Kapellmeister from Regensburg, now a Monsignor, who occupied one of the seats close to Benedict. Also attending was Benedict’s close female friend, a German physicist whose name I have also forgotten. There was something very human and very intimate about this trio, a reminder that Benedict, for all his reputation of aloof academic remoteness, had a demonstrable human side. This was also in evidence during his UK visit in 2012 when his grandfatherly manner endeared him to many and won over the British press.

Today, Benedict, as the Pope Emeritus, remains something of an enigma. Conspiracy theorists have cast him in a kind of Svengali role, a shadowy presence manipulating opposition to Francis. I, for one, have little time for this view. I think he remains plain Joseph Ratzinger, academic, classicist, musician and cat lover. To die with that inspiration on one’s grave would not be so bad.

Newman and the Essay

Blessed John Henry Newman
Blessed John Henry Newman

This morning I picked from my shelves a worn copy of Newman’s classic text, An Essay on Development of Christian Doctrine. It had made its way to me via various libraries, from its original location in the O’Brien Institute, by way of Carriglea Park, and then, more recently, from Synge Street where it resided until threatened with the ‘skip’. It is the 1846 Second Edition. It was published and printed only a short few years after Newman’s conversion to Catholicism. How it ended up in a Christian Brother library begs numerous questions. For the moment I am happy to be its guardian and keeper.

The opening section of the book is a lengthy detailing on Newman’s part of his many expressions of distaste for the Church of Rome. These essentially take the form of extracts from the Tracts.

His predominant feeling appears to have been an expression of an inner conflict, occasioned by his recognition that there was a time when the Church of Rome was not in error and for that reason it remains the ‘mother Church’ to whom filial affection is due. This feeling has to live with his more rational conviction that the Rome of his day was heir to all kinds of deviations, depravities, and the perpetrator of monstrous acts of monarchical power. The Church of Rome, he believed, had become a depraved distortion of its former ‘good’ self.

Yet, in this opening section he also cites an Anglican friend who chides him severely for his prejudices. His friend accuses Newman of indulging in sectarian populism, appealing to base emotional outbursts and irrational contradictions. It is a measure of Newman’s greatness and intellectual integrity that he was able to admit to all of this and put it out there in public view for all to see.

Newman’s is a voice from another age. Yet, there is a humility and integrity in that voice that still carries weight. His scholarship is deep, well-founded and considerable in its scope. One imagines his study, not extensive, I would imagine, but populated with original texts and well-thumbed volumes. What Newman represents above all is the quest for truth. He is unswerving in his devotion to this intellectual search. But his heart is also present and eventually appears to have won out. He’s a kind of English Pascal. I admire him greatly.

In the Introduction proper to the work I find the following (admittedly long) sentence revealing and pertinent:

Or again , it has been maintained, or implied, that all existing denominations of Christianity are wrong, none representing it as taught by Christ and His Apostles; that it died out of the world at its birth, and was forthwith succeeded by a counterfeit or counterfeits which assumed its name, though they inherited but a portion of its teaching; that it has existed indeed among men ever since, and exists at this day, but as a secret and hidden doctrine, which does but revive here and there under a supernatural influence in the hearts of individuals, and is manifested to the world only by glimpses or in gleams, according to the number or the station of the illuminated, and their connexion with the history of their times. Introduction, p. 2. ((1846 edition).

It is not difficult to recognise in that passage some of the currents of opinion that are found today. Perhaps it has always been this way. The search for an ‘original’ Jesus or a ‘pure’ Christianity can prove illusory. We then take refuge in ‘secret and hidden’ teachings, sometimes ascribed to the mystics. Or, nowadays, we appeal to TED talks.

It is in such times that we are brought up short, as we are at the present time, by the intense and honest debates within the Synod on the Family. The questions are perennial. Does the Church possess some inner dynamic of authority and truth that opens up for us the authentic voice of conscience? Newman was very strong on the ‘voice of conscience’.

It is interesting, as the Synod in Rome draws to a close, that it is to this ‘inner forum’ of the voice of conscience that appeal is made. Pope Francis’ ‘ who am I to judge’ can be interpreted by some as opening the floodgates of relativism while for others, including myself, it is a recognition that the judgment of personal conscience is supreme. But this conscience, as Newman would remind us, has to live organically within the lifeworld of the Church. It is not the judgment of the Nietzschean ego.

Since you Went Away

Autumn Leaves, Marino Institute of Education Campus, 2015
Autumn Leaves, Marino Institute of Education Campus, 2015

Everywhere I’ve gone in the last few days I find myself kicking around leaves or cycling through the late Autumn leaves. On the avenue where I live the trees are gradually being laid bare. This also coincides in the northern hemisphere (I live in Ireland) with darkness arriving earlier each evening. We are beginning that rapid descent into Winter. As we say in these parts, “The evenings are drawing in!”. We all know what it means. Time to hunker down, make the tea and watch the telly.

It is natural to be somewhat melancholy at this time of the year. The song by Nat King Cole, Autumn Leaves comes to mind.

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sun-burned hands I used to hold

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall

It’s a song full of nostalgia, melancholy and longing. These are profound feelings. They come unbidden at those times when we miss people, either because they have gone away or, often, because they have passed away. Since you went away … I am missing you. Missing people is good. It tells us that our hearts are alive and well, even there is a hole there as big as a Dublin bus.

Often, such feelings coincide with us asking deeper questions about life. Maybe, we feel life is ‘passing us by’. Maybe we are unhappy in our present life choice. We feel it is time to ‘move on’. But to where?

Saint Augustine, that wise saint from the fourth century knew these feelings only too well. Augustine is regarded as one of the first great psychologists. He wrote with great insight into the human condition. He is also believed to be the first person in Western literature to have written his own life story in a book called simply, Confessions.

Right there, on the first page of that book, Augustine insightfully says:

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

Of course, a modern psychiatrist would tell us immediately that these feelings of longing and restlessness have nothing to do with God. Albert Camus, the French writer from North Africa, wrote about these feelings but expressed them in terms of existential angst. His solution for this was not entirely helpful. But we won’t go there.

For the person of faith, though, these feelings and thoughts often prompt the question whether God, the divine Spirit, is taking a personal hand in things. Perhaps we are experiencing the soul speak to us, as Carl Jung would have it. It’s all good. It’s all normal. But just maybe that still small voice is trying to get a word in amid the noise of everyday life.

Could be.

To be a Saint

Sitting quietly before evening Mass in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral yesterday evening my thoughts went towards the Feast we celebrate today, the Feast of All Saints. I reflected much on the inspirational lives of deceased members of my own family, some who had experienced World War I and had lived through the hardships of modern Ireland’s early years. All of those who came to mind during those moments were people I had known as devout prayerful Catholics living modest lives and caring for others, especially the poor in their respective parishes. There was no ‘social protection’ in those days. So much depended on the now much derided ‘Catholic charity’. All of them are, in my view truly saints.

The priest, the Canon of the Pro-Cathedral, gave an excellent, well-prepared homily in which he touched on similar points, evoking his own twin-sister, happily still alive and giving selflessly to the care of a daughter who lives with severe disability. As Canon O’Reilly pointed out to us, sanctity is about doing the ordinary things of life extraordinarily well. An old phrase but one that still rings with the truth it expresses.

In front of me in the pew there was a young Italian family who seemed either to have just arrived or were set to depart as they had their suitcases with them. I wondered about what drew them to the church, its proximity to O’Connell Street and the airport bus stop perhaps, or was it because of the church’s reputation for good music. I also wondered about their lives and what sanctity would mean for them. To attend Church today in modern Ireland is an act of cultural rebellion, a considered option that suggests awareness and conviction as well as deep faith.

And, it is, somewhere there that I discern the ‘holy’ dimension of what being a saint means. My own family experience, which I am certain is shared by many, suggests that being, or becoming, a ‘saint’ is about a commitment to living out our humanity fully in all its dimensions. Many people today opt to live humanly in a few dimensions: socially and culturally, but not spiritually, and certainly not religiously.

Somewhere in the back of my mind there was an echo of modern people in times past who had expressed the desire to be a saint. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux comes to mind, but also people like Etty Hillesum, Simone Weil and Dorothy Day. Thomas Merton, too, as I recall in his Seeds of Contemplation. I am sure they did not have in mind canonised sainthood, but the ordinary sainthood of living out our humanity fully in all its dimensions in imitation of Jesus of Nazareth. They also had in view the example of the lives of canonised saints whose stories once inspired us. Less so. now, for all the obvious reasons.

Robert Ellsberg has a wonderful article in America magazine where he explores this way of seeing what it is to be a saint. He takes as his focus the current campaign to have Dorothy Day declared a canonised saint. He takes on the criticism that Dorothy Day was not conventionally pious; she certainly was not so. But she witnessed to the kind of stout-hearted rough-hewn Catholicism that I admired in my own family. Peter Maurin, her mentor, often shared with Dorothy just such a notion of what it is to be saint. He put before her a model of heroism and selflessness that she certainly lived out in her work with the poor and the homeless.

See this article here

Maurice Blondel

Maurice Blondel

When I was a student at the Institut Catholique in the 1980s, I participated in a course by Dominican priest, Bernard Quelquejeu, a course entitled, “Action”. My theological education at that point was eclectic that I failed, at least, initially to make the connection to Maurice Blondel’s 1893 seminal work of the same title. To this day, the word ‘action’ in this context leaves me confused. I had thought of the term as referring to ethics, to the how we answer questions about what is the good and just thing to do. That was a kind of Aristotelian response to my question. More recently, re-reading old essays of mine, I have begun to see that the term refers to some thing more like the ‘work of human hands’ in the liturgy. It is about the connection between the divine and the human in world of human affairs.

However, I now know that it is more precisely about the relationship of human subjectivity to the objectivity of divine revelation. One writer, William Portier, an American, refers to the Baltimore Catechism definition of faith: faith as the assent to revealed truths on the authority of God. My own Maynooth Catechism was equally a reflection of the Neo-Scholastic position on these matters. If I had read Garigou-Lagrange’s Reality (1949) I would have heard exactly the same definition of faith.

It seems that the question revolves around those twin poles of objectivity and subjectivity. On the one hand, the search for truth presumes that there are objectively knowable religious truths and on the other hand there is the human subject who appropriates these truths. It was Blondel’s historic insight to appreciate, probably one of the first to do so, the fundamental importance of the subject in the assent of faith. I am presuming that Newman was also on to the same thing.

The opposition to Blondel was in large measure prompted by the Church’s total opposition to the turn to the subject that took place in the nineteenth century, a reaction that was in large measure against Immanuel Kant. All of the calamities that the Church experienced in the nineteenth century were laid at the door of subjectivism. It was the Jesuits of La Fourvières in Lyon who were among the first to read Blondel sympathetically, among them the famous Henri de Lubac who published his famous Le Surnaturel in 1940. This book and de Lubac himself contributed significantly to Vatican II.

What I found interesting in reading Portier’s essay was the later connection to John Paul II’s encyclical Fiedes et Ratio which appeared in 1998. This encyclical was intended both to reconnect with De Lubac and also a rehabilitation of Blondel.

See William Portier’s Blondel paper in Communio here.

See the following for notes from Notre Dame on Fides et Ratio.

See also John Fagan’s commentary and summary of Fides et Ratio on the CERC site here.