Blessed Rules

Rules can guard the sacredness of ordinary life.

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Reading the Acts of the Apostles can be exhilarating. We get an inspiring picture of life in the infant church. Christians gathered for joyful times of prayer, instruction, and fellowship. Financial resources were pooled into a common fund. The apostles went about healing, with some dramatic results.

We admire this picture of early church life. Since then many Christians have aspired to recreate it. Back in the early 1970s, I once visited a charismatic Catholic community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was trying to replicate life in a Christian community modeled on the infant church of Acts. Among other things, when they corresponded with other like-minded communities, they modeled their letters on the style of Pauline epistles.

The shock of the Pastoral Epistles

With this Acts model of church life in our minds, it can feel like a real downer to read the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), as I have been doing recently. We don’t find here the kind of spiritual sky-diving we find in Acts.

We find instead churches that feel so commonplace. The author (whether Paul or one of his disciples) seems consumed not with spiritual fireworks, but with ordinary, day-to-day issues like:

  • praying for those in civic authority, even if they are pagans,
  • choosing right leaders for the congregation,
  • caring for the churches’ widows and dependents,
  • ensuring the teaching of correct doctrine,
  • avoiding the allure of money,
  • being diligent in the public reading of Scripture, teaching, and exhorting.
  • living a godly life.

At one point the author even advises Timothy to drink some wine rather than water. It seems that Timothy has a somewhat temperamental stomach. We don’t expect such a commonplace concern to be on the mind of an apostle.

As we read these letters, we can feel like we are in the world of our own churches. Life in a local congregation can often feel less than spiritually elevating. We live with the imperfect task of finding right pastoral leadership. Churches struggle with raising the funds that finance their operations. Disputes arise among church members. Sometimes they are so severe that a church splits. Members can burn out after too much volunteer service. And we can be very critical when sermons don’t rise to our high standards.

Maybe this is why many Protestant Biblical scholars have detected in the Pastoral Epistles the beginning stage of the catholicization of the church. In the Pastorals we seem to be on the road to church life governed by rules, policies, and regulations. All this will ultimately be codified in the massive corpus of canon law. Where has the spontaneity and spiritual vitality of Acts gone?

Taking a positive view on the Pastorals

I do not hold to such a negative view of the Pastorals. As many young people in the 1960s who flocked into hippie communes learned, it is not easy to maintain a community in perpetual, ungoverned spontaneity.

The demands of everyday life begin to intrude. People acting spontaneously find that their spontaneous actions start to come into conflict with the spontaneous actions of others in the community. If the wellbeing of the community as well as the sanity of individuals are to be preserved, some rules governing behavior must be adopted.

This is just as true of congregations as it was of the ‘60s communes. I think it was inevitable that the infant churches would come to need the Pastoral Epistles. They needed their emerging rules, structure, and regulations if the spiritual wellbeing of the community as well as of all its individual members was to be respected, honored, and nurtured. The sacredness of their ordinary life needed to be protected.

The best motivation for these rules was to nurture the kind of love and service to which Christ calls his church. Within the boundaries of those rules, policies, and regulations, the life of love might be given a chance to flourish.*

Learning to respect the goodness of rules

This was brought home to me a few years ago by an incident in the presbytery where I serve. I chaired a presbytery committee that had the task of nominating candidates for various offices in the presbytery’s structure. In one case we had two candidates for one office that we were considering. One was white; the other African American.

We decided to nominate the white man because we thought him the best qualified. The African American challenged our decision, wondering aloud if we had let racial bias affect our decision. I decided to have lunch with him and talk over his concern.

He asked if we had followed all our rules in making the decision. Why, I asked, was it so important to him that we follow the rules punctiliously? I will never forget his answer. He said, “For African Americans, abiding by the rules strictly is the only way we can assure there is a level playing field for us.”

His comment has forever changed how I look at the place of rules, policies, and regulations in the life of the communities in which I participate, including churches. At their best, they are needed to ensure that community life is fair and nurturing to all who form a part of it. They are the servants of Christ’s call to love one another. I now dodge the rules with a lot less alacrity.

When rules need to be broken

This is not to deny that many rules and regulations are not servants of love, but agents of oppression. Every community, including churches, can go overboard with structure and law to the point that we stifle the demands of love and compassion as well as the energies of spontaneity and initiative.

There is Biblical warrant for this viewpoint. The gospels tell the storyof a time when Jesus and his disciples are walking beside a wheat field on a Sabbath. Because they are hungry, some of the disciples pick and eat some of the ripe wheat grains.

The Pharisees charged Jesus and his disciples with breaking the rules for keeping the sabbath. Jesus responds to their criticism by saying,The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.(Mark 2:27) For Jesus, there are times when the rules can be and may need to be broken for the sake of love and compassion in meeting human needs.

This is why the life of faith is full of risk. It is sometimes not clear cut when we need to abide by the rules for the sake of love, respect, and compassion, when order takes precedence over violation, and when the demands of love call for breaking the rules, for violations of the law. For the breaking of the rules can have serious consequences for the rule-breaker regardless of his or her benevolent motives.

But it is certainly not wise or spiritually mature to simply regard rules, policies, and regulations as impediments as we live out our Christian calling to love and compassion. That I think is one of the contributions the Pastoral Epistles make to the New Testament’s picture of life in the church. Let us have ardor but let us also have order in a healthy balance.

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* In my opinion one of the best exemplars of this point is the Rule of St. Benedict, which has governed much of Western monastic life for 1,500. Benedict writes with the heart of a pastor caring lovingly for the wellbeing of the whole flock. We should not limit the wisdom of Benedict to just monastic communities. I recently attended a presbytery meeting where a candidate for ordination talked about how she drew inspiration and guidance from Benedict for her upcoming pastoral ministry.

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Revealing Verbs

The verbs in a Biblical story disclose the character of the actors.

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The Rape of Tamar, by the French artist Eustache Le Sueur, ca. 1640

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I put great value on a close reading of the Biblical text. I like to pay attention to the words that writers use to tell their story. Their choice opens up new perspectives on a familiar story.

One of the most brutal stories in the Bible is the story of the rape of Tamar, the daughter of King David (2 Samuel 13). She is raped by her half-brother Ammon. The rape unleashes catastrophic consequences on the house of David. In the process David almost loses his throne.

Christian Century magazine has recently published an article by Anna Carter Florence, in which she focuses on the verbs used in the story to disclose the power dynamics at work in the rape. It is a brilliant example of a close reading of the Biblical text. I want to commend it to you for your reading. It will be worth your while.

Jesus Comes to His Hometown

When Jesus visits Nazareth, his neighbors don’t know what to make of him. 

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The gospels (Matthew 13:53-58, Mark 6:1-6, Luke 4:14-30) tell us that after his baptism, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. Here everyone must have known Jesus. He after all had grown up among them. He had probably played with the other Nazareth children as a child. He had undoubtedly provided his carpentry services to the village residents.

But the visit does not end in any celebration of a hometown boy who has done good. Instead the villagers drive him out of town and even try to kill him. It is a grim story of rejection.

Father Eric Hollas, a monk at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, takes up this gospel story and extracts from it a very thoughtful sermon. I want to commend it to you for your reading. He titles it Are We Citizens of Nazareth? It gives a very contemporary and practical take upon the Biblical story.

Father Hollas writes a blog called A Monk’s Chronicle. I find it nourishing reading. You may want to check it out.

He is also a talented photographer. So every blog posting comes with a selection of his photographs, taken during his frequent travels. If you delight in stunning views of ecclesiastical architecture or of landscapes and gardens or of close-ups of flowers and paintings, you might find them as much of a delight as I do.

Welcome the Wilderness

When the Israelites leave Egypt, they take the long route to Canaan for some very good reasons.

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Former monk cells carved into the volcanic rock of the Cappadocian wilderness of Turkey.

Exodus 13:17-18 tells us that when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, God did not permit them to take the shortest route to Canaan. That way would have been the road that followed the Mediterranean coast into the Gaza region of Canaan. The trip would have taken only weeks.

Exodus anachronistically calls this road the way of the Philistines. It was the historic route that travelers, merchants, and armies followed in making the trek from Egypt to Syria and beyond. It was therefore heavily guarded by Egyptian garrisons.

Exodus tells us that God was afraid the newly freed Israelites would come into conflict with one of these armed camps and lose heart. They might just then return to Egypt. Instead God directs them into a more roundabout route through the heart of the Sinai wilderness. The journey to Canaan ends up taking 40 years.

I think, however, the Biblical text gives only one part of God’s rationale in making this change of course. There is much more going on in those 40 years than just avoiding skirmishes with Egyptian troops.

The Wilderness as a Place of Testing

For one, the Israelites have just been freed from slavery in Egypt. They have experienced a totally unexpected liberation, thanks to an unbelievable act of God’s grace. But now who is this God who has set them free? What is his character? Can he be trusted always to be for them?

The Israelites need time and experience to come to know this God who has called them. So the years of wandering in the wilderness become a time of testing, as Israel tests God to see if God will provide for them and guide them. There will be much wavering along the way. It takes time, truly a lot of time, to come to have a deep trust in this God.

In a similar way, God does not fully know who this people are whom he has just liberated from Egypt. Will they trust him? Will they follow his guidance? Or will they fight him and vex him?

Over the 40 years God will learn much about this people. He will learn that they are a mixed bag of faith and fear. One day they will covenant with God and promise to have no other god before them. The next day they will give way to anxiety and grumble about God and Moses. On occasion they will even break their promises and flirt with other gods.

In the first years of any marriage, a husband and wife are engaged in a process of coming to know each other more deeply. Will this deeper knowledge lead to greater commitment or to new alienation? Will they be able to love each other despite the flaws and failures they find in each other?

In a comparable way God and Israel are coming to know each other during those long 40 years in the desert. This process of coming to know each other takes on more intimacy because in the desert the people are deprived of the many distractions that go with urban life in a city or with rural life in a settled agricultural community. In an environment of deprivation, the partners must deal directly with each other.

Understanding this about the 40 years of wilderness wandering gives insight into the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ temptation after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). The texts say this time of temptation was 40 days long. It took place in the wilderness.

The gospel writers are clearly looking backwards at the exodus story. Just as Israel faced a time of testing in the desert, so must Jesus as he makes an exodus journey in his own life. Can God count on Jesus or not? Can Jesus count on his heavenly Father? Only a time of testing will demonstrate.

The Wilderness as the Place of Nation-Building

There is, I believe, a second important reason why Israel must spend 40 years in the wilderness.

When the Israelites fled Egypt, they experienced the giddy exuberance of a long-desired freedom from oppression. You hear their giddiness in the joyful song that Moses and the Israelites sing in Exodus 15.

But this mass of freed slaves is still just a disorganized rabble. The Israelites need a national structure that will give them an identity and a stability that will enable the work of national development to proceed. Without some organizing focus, this rabble will fly in all directions and dissipate as a people.

God clearly understands this need. He sets out to give Israel this organizing focus through the covenant established at Mount Sinai. In its wake come two important gifts. The gift of torah law will give structure to Israel’s corporate life. The gift of the tabernacle and priesthood will give it a focus for its worship.

With these gifts God begins the hard work of replacing a slave’s mindset with the mindset of a people who can confidently take responsibility for their life under God’s rule. In short, this is the task of nation building, a necessary task after any revolution.

As we Americans should especially know, nation building is not a quick and easy task. It takes time and constant vigilance. It is especially challenging to change a people’s mindset. But without that change, the risk of the people surrendering their freedom and returning to the patterns of Egyptian oppression is very high.

With freedom also comes anxiety. Too many people find the pain of anxiety so high that they will willingly surrender that freedom to someone who will relieve them of that pain.  Israel will prove just as vulnerable to that temptation as have been many peoples in history since.

The 40 years Israel spends in the wilderness constitute a noble effort to accomplish this important change of mindset. In the terms of Christian spirituality, we call that change conversion.

The result is decidedly mixed. When Israel finally enters Canaan, it will fall prey over and over again to the appeal of an Egyptian pattern of living. Yet Israel will never completely forget its calling. Its prophets will repeatedly remind the Israelites of what a converted life looks like. And Israel will seek to reform over and over again.

The Wilderness as Model for Our Spiritual Journey

Here is the power of the exodus story as a model of the spiritual journey for anyone who sincerely seeks to engage in that journey. The journey may begin with baptism or an emotional altar call response or simply a serious though rational decision for God. But however the journey begins, the start is just that, a start. The spiritual journey of conversion always remains a journey. And for all of us it takes a lifetime and then beyond to complete.

If we are serious about this journey, the exodus story tells us that periods of living in the desert are necessary stages on that journey. Those experiences deprive us of the distractions of ordinary, daily life. We can then concentrate our attention on the Lord and our life with him. In the process we hope to experience that deeper conversion of life to which the Lord calls us.

This is why the early monastic movement began in the Egyptian, Syrian, and Anatolian wilderness. The first monks fled the Greco-Roman cities for the desert exactly to escape the distractions of city life so they could concentrate their energies on their spiritual growth and maturation. In their desert cells and communities, the monks sought to become deeply converted men and women. Once that conversion was advanced, some might safely return to life in the city, there to live and serve without succumbing to a Egyptian mindset.

Though many people may not explicitly realize it, it is why spiritual retreats hold such appeal. When we go on retreat, we are returning in a sense to the desert to refocus our lives free of the distractions of our daily living. Most retreats are short in duration and so may not lead to any deep conversion. But they still give us a taste of the blessing of detachment.

This is also I believe the appeal of contemplative prayer for many people today. As we enter into the silence of contemplative prayer, we too experience a kind of return to the desert, a spiritual desert where we seek to be free of our distracting thoughts, emotions, and verbosity so we can simply be with the Lord and come to know him as he knows us.

So let us welcome the wilderness experiences in our lives. They bring their own special blessings.

 

A Biblical Response to Jeff Sessions

Be careful when you quote the Bible in the public sphere. The Bible may bite back.

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The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, by the Italian painter Giotto, 14th century. Jesus himself was a refugee baby fleeing homeland violence.

This past week we heard Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeal to Romans 13 as Biblical warrant for the administration’s no-tolerance policy on illegal immigration. I had to smile. He appealed to the one passage in Scripture that autocrats and divine-right kings have always claimed as their own. Sessions placed the administration right in their company.

But it is always dangerous to quote the Bible as isolated prooftexts. The Bible is not one simplistic message. It embraces many voices. When we quote one passage in isolation, we run the risk of one of those other voices rising up to challenge our single-minded viewpoint.

This is certainly the case when we look at what the Bible has to say about immigrants. For it has a lot to say. To be fair to the Bible, we must hear these alternate voices as well.

The Old Testament’s Vulnerable Ones

A striking feature of the Old Testament is the partiality that God shows for the vulnerable in Israelite society. In particular three classes of society are singled out as a focus of God’s concern. They are:

  • The widow, especially the childless widow
  • The orphan
  • The resident alien (Hebrew: ger)–a foreigner who is living permanently, not temporarily on Israelite soil. They are analogous to the green card immigrant in the United States.

All three were especially vulnerable in ancient Israelite society as they did not fit securely into the structure of the patriarchal family and clan. All three were, therefore, subject to being taken advantage of, abused, or oppressed.

The phrase–the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien–becomes therefore a stock phrase in the Old Testament for referring to the most vulnerable and marginalized members of Israelite society.

The Vulnerable Ones in the Torah

What is striking about the Old Testament is how this divine concern for the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien enters into the text both early and late. The Book of Exodus, for example, includes commands from God about this vulnerable people in its very earliest statement of torah law, the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23).

There we find God instructing the Israelites:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. (Exodus 22:21-24)

God’s concern for the immigrant gets repeated just a few verses later:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

What is striking about these commands is the rationale they give for treating the resident alien benevolently. Israelites are to do so remembering that they too were once aliens living in a foreign land. They know the precarious lot of a resident alien, who lives and works in a land but is not a citizen.*

When we get to Leviticus, we find the focus on the resident alien rising to an even high level of intensity. Leviticus 19:18 lays down the command that Israelites are to love their neighbor as themselves. In the context, the neighbor is clearly a fellow Israelite. But just a few verses later we find this striking extension of the rule:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Here the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is extended to loving the immigrant as we love ourselves. We are to treat him or her like a citizen.

In Deuteronomy, we find God’s concern for the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien moves beyond just words to concrete actions that the Israelites are to take on behalf of these three vulnerable classes of society.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. 

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The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, by the Italian painter Giotto, 14th century. Jesus himself was a refugee baby fleeing homeland violence.

(Deuteronomy 24:19-22)

Concern for the widow, the orphan, and resident alien means taking action to see that their physical needs, their very livelihood, is being taken care of. This is a vision of a generous society, not a parsimonious one. Welfare for the poor is built into the very way the Israelites are to do their daily business.

The Prophetic Contribution

Concern with the life needs of the widow, orphan, and resident alien are not confined to the Pentateuch. We find references to them in the psalms (see, for example, Psalm 94:1-7 and Psalm 146:5-10) and in the prophets (see Isaiah 1:12-17, Jeremiah 7:5-7, and Zechariah 7:8-10).

I find the most striking prophetic passage in Jeremiah. It reads:

Thus says the LORD: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say: Hear the word of the LORD, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David—you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.(Jeremiah 22:1-5)

The Jeremiah passage makes clear that the security and well-being of the kingdom itself is dependent upon the way it cares for its most vulnerable members. If the kingdom chooses to oppress and abuse them, then the very stability of the country is placed into jeopardy. Without using the stock slogan of the widow, orphan, and resident alien, the prophets Hoses and Amos declare a similar message.**

Absorbed into the Spiritual DNA of the Early Church

The New Testament writers do not use the stock phrase—the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien—but we find a concern with these categories appearing all through the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic church. The message of the Old Testament has been so absorbed that it resides as part of the spiritual DNA of the early Christians. I wonder if it was not one of the reasons why the early Christian community found itself ultimately opening its ranks to include the Gentile believer—the spiritual outsider.

Jesus himself builds upon the warning of Jeremiah. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus describes the last judgment when the Son of man comes in glory and sits in judgment. He separates the sheep from the goats.

What is striking in this account is the basis of judgment. It is not whether someone has placed saving faith in Jesus, but how someone has related to the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the prisoner, and the stranger.

What is also striking in the account is that this judgment is not just a judgment of individuals. The text says explicitly that the ones gathered before the throne are all the nations. Here again we meet that note that the security and well-being of a society is contingent on how it treats its most vulnerable ones.

I recognize these Biblical passages are not dealing with the issue of society’s need to control its borders and balance the need of immigrants with the needs of the native society. But they clearly say that a society’s “me-first” approach to the challenges of immigration and population movements is not ultimately going to secure the long-term well-being that its citizens crave.

If we are going to take seriously the message of the Bible for America, then I believe we Americans are going to have to listen to the full message of the Bible and not just one sole prooftext.

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* When we read this rationale, we can’t help recognizing how it mirrors the American experience. Unless our ancestry is native American, every American today comes from immigrant stock.

** In the prophets two great sins ultimately bring God’s judgment onto the two Israelite kingdoms. They are religious apostasy and social injustice.

 

 

The Bible as Network

If we are alert, we can come to recognize connections we may not see at first.

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It always gives me a thrill when I recognize a connection between two Bible passages that I’ve not seen before. That happened twice for me last week.

In the first case, I was reading the passion story in Mark 14. Mark describes the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane just before Jesus’ arrest. Jesus is emotionally struggling to accept the gruesome death that is coming. He has come to the garden to pray.

He retreats into a secluded spot, taking with him three disciples, Peter, James, and John. He asks them to remain with him and to keep awake. Presumably they, too, are to engage in some form of prayer. Then he goes off to pray in private.

When he returns, he finds all three disciples asleep. This happens two more times. Each time the disciples are asleep.

Jesus singles out Peter, saying: Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”[Mark 14:37-38]

As I pondered those words, that’s when I made the connection. Peter will shortly deny Jesus three times. Jesus seems to be suggesting that if Peter had been diligent about staying awake and praying, then he might have had the spiritual strength to resist temptation when it came in the high priest’s courtyard just hours later. Instead Peter fell asleep. When his time of trial came, he had no inner resource to help him resist.

I discovered that the story of the prayer session in the garden and Peter’s denial are more connected than I had ever realized.

And Now to the Exodus Story

Later in the week I was reading the account of the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus 14. The Israelites panic as they watch the Egyptian army chasing after them. The army hems the escaping slaves into a place of no escape on the sea shore.

In this dire situation, Moses says to the Israelites: The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still. (Exodus 14:14) Israel is to remain calm and await its deliverance from God. They, as well as the Egyptians, will soon come to know the exalted power of God.

This is the exact same counsel we find in Psalm 46. Israel once again seems to be in great threat. Its world is in an uproar. Kingdoms are tottering. Armies are on the march. Yet the psalmist quotes God as saying:

“Be still, and know that I am God!

             I am exalted among the nations,

            I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;

            The God of Jacob is our refuge.

 I was struck by how Psalm 46 and Exodus 14 mirror each other. The counsel to keep still ties the two passages to each other. I don’t know if the psalmist knew the Exodus passage, but certainly both passages advocate the same spiritual stance as the people face an existential threat.

I love it when I see such connections in Scripture. I become aware that the Bible is really a network, with lines of connections going this way and that, binding seemingly disparate passages into a whole. I find that fascinating.

Photo: The dome of the meditation hall, Yogaville, Virginia.

Truth Beyond Understanding

Rationality has its limits as a way of knowing reality.

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The south transept rose window of Chartres Cathedral–for me a visual symbol of trans-rational knowing.

I am glad that the canon of the Bible includes the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Its weary skepticism provides a needed antidote to the many times we get way too confident in talking about our faith.

Towards the very end of his book, the author (known as Qoheleth, the Preacher) expresses this opinion: Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Recently I find myself saying with him: Amen.*

I have spent a good part of my life studying the Christian faith, reading theology, pondering the Bible, all in an effort to make rational sense out of this faith that I inherited from parents and the religious culture in which I grew up. In particular, I’ve wanted to see if I could separate the distortions in what I was taught from the pure truth of the gospel.

I’ve then in turn devoted great energy to sharing my discoveries with others, through preaching, teaching, writing, conversations, and even this blog.

And yet that pure, unadulterated grasp of the truths of Christianity still exceeds me. The faith I study so diligently continues to hold mysteries, paradoxes, and puzzles that I cannot resolve.

Especially puzzling are the mysterious ways God works in God’s world, ways that seem to refuse to yield to rational comprehension. This is no new insight on my part. It is the old, old message of the Book of Job in the Bible. Job resonates with anyone who tries to discern where God is at work in times of unspeakable tragedy.

What all this does for me is underscore the fact that the truth for which we long seems to exceed our rational ability to grasp it. This is not to say that truth is irrational. Neither is it rational. Rather, I have come to believe, it is trans-rational. It eludes any rational attempt to understand it or cage it in human words.

Trans-rational knowing

Can we know the truth? Yes, I continue to hope that we can, but we must approach it in a trans-rational way. What is that way? I concede that I don’t know.

That’s because it is likely to be far different from the way of knowing that we are taught in our schools, a way of knowing that goes back to the Greek philosophers and scientists that lie at the start of the Western cultural tradition. The Greek tradition assumes that the truth is an objective it that can be grasped intellectually and expressed in rational propositions. Its reward is the gift of an intellectual certainty on which we can build a secure base for our lives.

When I try to guess what this trans-rational way of knowing looks like, I am brought back to those lines in Psalm 27 where the psalmist writes:

Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,

            be gracious to me and answer me!

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”

            Your face, LORD, do I seek.

         Do not hide your face from me.(Psalm 27:7-9)

The psalmist, it seems to me, here describes a way of knowing God that he metaphorically calls seeing God face-to-face. It is a kind of knowing that is direct and deeply relational. It is a way of knowing that is hard to express in words because it is so deeply direct and relational. Yet it is still a way of knowing the Truth (with a capital T), which turns out to be not a proposition, but a deeply personal One.**

If what I say is correct, then I think we must take seriously the contemplative and mystical traditions of Christianity. For it is the mystics who bear witness to this kind of trans-rational knowing. The mystics claim that they have come to know the One, but they struggle to find words to express that quality of knowing.

Words cannot express their experience adequately. And so the words they do write can sound awfully befuddling to one who has not had their experience. Sometimes, as a result of their experiences, the mystics may abandon writing words completely. One can know what they have experienced, they say, only by experiencing it for oneself.

For me the best exemplar of this is Thomas Aquinas. There are few theologians who have relied more upon reason to express the truths of the Christian faith systematically or written more voluminous books. Of Aquinas’ scholarship, it can truly be said there was much making of books.

The trans-rational experience of Thomas Aquinas

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Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274

One of his companions reports, however, that towards the end of Aquinas’ life, Thomas heard Jesus speak to him during mass, saying “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?” Thomas replied: “Nothing but you, Lord.”

It seems that afterwards he experienced some kind of spiritual vision or ecstasy. Aquinas never shared precisely the details of what he experienced. But it dramatically changed the course of his work. He stopped writing and never wrote again during the remaining months of his life.

When his confessor urged him to take up his writing again, Aquinas responded: “Reginald, I can do no more. Such secrets were revealed to me that all I have written now appears of little value.”

When I read this account, I find myself asking: In his mystical experience, did Aquinas move into that realm of trans-rational knowing where he perceived the inadequacy of words to express the Truth he had come to know directly and relationally?

There comes, it seems to me, a point in the life of any scholar (as it seems to have come in my own) when one must finally admit that reason alone cannot ultimately answer all the questions we bring to our study of life and the world.

To continue to trust in reason alone is to imprison oneself within the constantly fluctuating world of scholarly opinion or to experience emotional burnout as one seeks a certainty that constantly eludes us. What is given in this trans-rational way of knowing is not intellectual certainty, but a connection to the Truth that serves as an anchor through all the vicissitudes of life.

If we cannot make the leap into trans-rational knowing, then maybe it is wisdom indeed to follow the further advice of Qoheleth: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.(Ecclesiastes 12:13). And for most of us that may indeed be the way of wisdom in our daily living.

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* In recent months I have been experiencing severe pain in my neck. The doctor says the pain results from hyper-stressed neck muscles. The cause, he says, is the head posture I assume when I am doing my reading and writing. The making (and reading) of many books, it seems, can indeed become a pain in the neck.

** I say the One (with a capital O), because I am trying to express the idea that the Truth is not an impersonal It. But another way of saying it is to say that the Truth we seek to know is a Thou. That is the way Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, expresses it in his book I and Thou. This is a book (among the making of many books) that has had a deep influence on my thinking.