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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why I Am (Becoming) Orthodox

Almost since I started becoming interested in Orthodoxy, a recurring theme in my journal entries has been my attempts to write an "elevator pitch" for it, not as if I were trying to sell something but a concise summary of why I find it convincing and why I am in the midst of a long transition from evangelical to Orthodox Christianity. If my 23-post series is any indication, I haven't come very close to "concise" yet. After a lot of reflection and brainstorming, I'm giving it a try now. Here are ten reasons why I am (becoming) Orthodox, hopefully kept to a short enough length that you won't have to schedule a time to read them in your calendar. (Optionally, compare my list with that of Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, in which I see some similarities with my reasons)
  1. The Incarnation. Perhaps the most fundamental reason I am drawn to Orthodoxy is how totally the Incarnation pervades everything the Church believes, prays, and does—what Fr. Alexander Schmemann calls the "sacramental worldview". This manifests in at least five areas (although the -logy terms I use for them are not used very commonly in Orthodoxy, nor are they treated as much like distinct fields of study as they are in Protestant theology):
    • Epistemology: Reflects the reality that Jesus is "the Truth" (John 14:6), i.e. that the Truth is a human person, and deeply explores and applies the implications of this. The result is that the faith is never remotely reducible to a body of doctrines to be believed; knowing God or having right theology is irreducibly relational as it is also propositional. Both the head and the heart are involved in really doing theology (in Greek usage the human capacity to know God is thought to be centered in the heart).
    • Bibliology: Similarly applies the reality that Jesus is the Word (John 1:1); Scripture is read as a fully divine and fully human book whose purpose is to witness to Christ and express the core of the faith he embodies. The human and divine aspects of Scripture, as well as of the Holy Tradition of which it is the center and within which it is rightly read, are seen as complementary rather than conflicting.
    • Ecclesiology: The Church is viewed as the body of Christ, an incarnational (not just a socioloical) reality, defined as much by its unique and salvific relationship by God as by its members. In Orthodoxy the Church is seen as truly one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
    • Soteriology: Unabashedly synergistic; with the Incarnation as an example, there is again harmony rather than tension or competition between our will and God's, just as is embodied in Christ. (The doctrine of duothelitism, "two wills")
    • Doxology (that is, worship): Holistic, utilizing all the senses, reflecting the fact that God became matter and saves us through matter. Thus the form worship takes is viewed as just as significant and meaningful as the "message" it carries. It is centered around the Eucharist, which is in a sense  a weekly celebration of the Incarnation.
  2. Orthodoxy's unbroken continuity with the early Church. Amid a sea of Protestant churches, movements, theologies, and groups making conflicting claims to represent "original Christianity" and the resultant skeptical attitude that no one can claim to be the "one true Church", Orthodoxy's apostolic succession and Holy Tradition which seeks to receive, treasure, and preserve the Truth rather than modify it made its claims stand out as believable. I truly believe is it is the unbroken continuation of the apostolic faith into the present day. The relative similarity of Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, despite the fact that they split off from each other long before the Catholics or Protestants went their separate ways, is striking and compelling evidence of the historical continuity of both.
  3. Its clear, wholehearted, unqualified affirmation of God's goodness. Uncertainty about God's goodness was the center of the struggles with doubt that led me to question everything I believed. Is God somehow complicit in the problem that "the gospel" solves? Is he the one from whom we are saved? Is sin willed by God, another means he uses to show forth his glory? Is death a punishment for sin created by God? Does God need to punish our sin before he is able to forgive us? Does God will to save only some and not all? Orthodoxy's answer to all such questions is a resounding and decisive "No", and I am incredibly grateful for it. Of particular note is its teaching that hell is not a cruel and endless torture chamber, the damned soul's experience of God's anger and vengeance, but of his love, which to them is torment but which to the saints is unutterable bliss. The message is that the difference between heaven and hell is not simply in how God treats us (for his love towards sinners never wavers), but in how we are able (or not) to receive his presence.
  4. The indivisible unity of worship, prayer, theology, and life. The theology of the Orthodox Church is not best expressed in a systematic theology (John of Damascus' The Orthodox Faith is the closest I know of to one), but in its worship, creeds, and prayers. "Theology" is truly knowledge of God, not just knowledge about God; as Evagrius of Pontus put it, "if you are a theologian, you pray truly, and if you pray truly, you are a theologian." Orthodoxy is seen not merely as a faith but as a way (leading to salvation), a life, namely the common life of the Church in union with the life of Christ. Knowing the truth and practicing it are two sides of the same coin. As a corollary, there is not much of a gap between the Church and the academy; the Church's best theology is not done in isolation from its worship. Much more often, it is expressed in its worship.
  5. Its beautiful, compelling, and perfectly-balanced vision of the gospel. To name just a few of the things I appreciate:
    • The theological focus on what we are saved to, namely the lofty (but attainable by the Spirit) goal of theosis, holistic, mystical, transformative union with God. What we celebrate in church each week, what I find constantly throughout Orthodox writings ancient and contemporary, is a joyful exploration of the riches we have in Christ, that is, what we receive and become through our salvation. A quote by St. Athanasius that is very frequently thrown around exemplifies this: "God became man that man might become god." Orthodoxy sets the bar for salvation very, very high and is itself the Way to reach it.
    • The gospel is cosmic as well as individual; objective as well as subjective. The constant focus in worship is on praising and making present objective spiritual realities, not just their subjective effects on and in me.
    • Salvation is physical as well as spiritual (the incarnational soteriology again); there is no popular misconception that Christianity is about "going to heaven when you die". Death in all its senses is the enemy just as much as sin is. The veneration of relics, far from idolatry, is a reflection of God's power to redeem even our physical bodies. Nothing God has made is outside the scope of the gospel.
    • Salvation is therapeutic rather than legalistic: we are saved not by meeting the right requirements in an impersonal system or being declared "not guilty" in a heavenly courtroom; though these metaphors can be applied, God does not need to do any such thing in order to forgive us, and they certainly do not describe the primary meaning of salvation. Rather, it is is viewed as healing, and sin, death, and the devil as oppressors from which Christ rescues us. What changes, what needs to change, is ourselves, not God's disposition towards us, which is in fact unchanging.
  6. Putting Christ and the cross front and center, in their fuller context. The divine victory was won just as much at Christmas and Easter as on Good Friday. Salvation is equally the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit, not the Son in isolation. Orthodoxy proclaims this reality clearly.
  7. Its wise wariness of the power of human reason, as well as its detachment from modernity and related tendencies like rationalism and individualism. In fairness, this may be in part a historical accident reflecting Orthodoxy's isolation from Scholasticism and the Enlightenment, but I see a somewhat similar trend of cautious, thoughtful engagement in its relations with classical philosophers. I sometimes hear talk of the "noetic effects of sin" in Protestant circles, but Orthodoxy is much more methodologically thorough in its distrust of human reason, not least in its sensitivity to the role of mystery in theology and the necessity to read the Scriptures with the mind of the Church instead of one's own judgment. Rational thought is considered a useful tool to support our knowledge of the truth, but is not a necessary or absolute criterion for believing it.
  8. No age discrimination in worship. In an Orthodox Church, there is no Sunday school, at least not during the liturgy; children and infants are baptized and chrismated and thereafter fully participate in worship alongside their parents, up to and including the Eucharist. I didn't realize how significant this is until I had experienced it for a while, but now I think it's quite beautiful (many Orthodox cite it as an advantage over Roman Catholicism as well). This reflects quite visibly Orthodoxy's lessened focus on reason and head-level understanding, as well as its understanding of salvation as healing and sacrament as mystery. You don't need to rationally understand grace in order to partake in it; in fact, the ways in which we receive grace are at bottom not rationally understandable. It strikes me as the fulfillment of Jesus' words in Matthew 19:14: "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven." Fr. Josiah Trenham comments on this: "It is not the children who must grow up and become like adults in order for them to be baptized and saved as the Baptists would have us believe, but, on the contrary, it is the adults who must be converted and become like children if they hope to be saved."
  9. Its realization of things that feel like unreachable ideals in Protestantism. Orthodoxy has great unity and clarity on "essentials of the faith", which is nominally the goal for Protestant unity but only rarely and incompletely achieved. Any Orthodox can tell you just what "praying continually" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) looks like in life, even if the saint who fully becomes prayer is a rare and precious sight indeed. There is no sense of a need to recover, rehabilitate, reclaim, or move towards important but missing parts of the faith; there is instead an almost tangible "fullness of the faith", which I heard mentioned by many others in my catechism class as a reason for their interest in Orthodoxy. This reflects the Church's unbroken continuity with the apostles, its preservation of the faith entrusted to them by Jesus, leaving nothing out.
  10. A consistent stance toward all of these things, rather than a confused or conflicted one. They are applied, not merely talked about or paid lip service. I found many of Orthodoxy's truths at least hinted at in the books I read while searching for the truth on my own, but too often they were just academic ideas, applied on a small or individual level if at all. But in Orthodoxy they are much more.
These reasons aren't meant as a decisive "proof" of the Orthodox faith (the concept of a "proof" connotes a kind of objectivity which I don't think is attainable at all in religious truth), or even as an argument for it; again, refer to my 23-post series if that's what you're looking for. They are rather a quick outline of why I find Orthodoxy convincing, and why I am joining it. Do any of them resonate with you as well?

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Culture of Martyrdom

It feels like every few weeks that American Christians find something new to get angry over. Some examples from this year: the false allegations against Planned Parenthood that it sells aborted fetal tissue for profit, Kim Davis, the Obergefell vs. Hodges ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, the recent absurdity over Starbucks changing their cup design to not include generic symbols of winter, the more general perception of a "war on Christmas", and the perennial controversies over states/cities/schools not supporting public prayer or public endorsements of Christianity (as distinct from cracking down on the private practice of religion).

Why is this Christian outrage so common? Some degree of pharisaic self-righteousness, of wanting to be (or feel) vindicated over against the sinful "world" probably has something to do with it. It is always far easier to identify and deplore error than it is to repair it, to proclaim the truth and embody the love with which we have been loved. There is also (as I pointed out in the context of the allegations against Planned Parenthood) a failure to love those one considers one's enemies, and an eagerness to believe the worst about them—and then get outraged over it. The capability of modern media, news and social, to spread a source of outrage like an epidemic well beyond its original scope to infect people who have nothing to do with it also has something to do with it. (Conversely, the media's role in amplifying and making visible the resulting outrage should not be underestimated) But I'm going to focus on and try to correct a reason for Christian outrage that arises from being aligned with the world, instead of overly hostile or self-righteous towards it.

I'm referring to what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind and co-author of the influential article The Coddling of the American Mind) calls the "moral culture of victimhood". That post on Haidt's blog is his summary of a paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, which posits the culture of victimhood as a new "moral culture" that influences how conflicts are handled, after the cultures of honor and dignity well-known to sociologists. In a culture of victimhood, individuals or groups respond to relatively minor slights not on their own but by calling for the intervention of an influential third party (in America, collegiate or governmental authorities). This requires the collecting of evidence or campaigning to convince the third party that they are being oppressed, denied equality, "victimized", or socially marginalized, and that this party's help is needed to end the injustice. This culture carries with it an elevation of victimhood as something desirable and virtuous; the authors wrote, "Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights."

This culture, as Campbell and Manning write, is most entrenched in college campuses where it encourages people belonging to groups seen as underprivileged to be hypersensitive to "microaggressions" directed against them, but a version of it has become influential in American Christianity. It is often referred to (by non-Christians) as the "persecution complex". As they point out in a response to comments on Haidt's blog:
But we certainly see manifestations of [victimhood culture] elsewhere, and many of our readers have, in person or online, pointed to various examples of conservatives, evangelical Christians, or others complaining about minor slights, portraying themselves as oppressed, or in some other way claiming victim status. This is something we point out in our article – that if victimhood confers status, then all sorts of people will want to claim it.
In a Christian context, then, victimhood culture means calling out a perceived slight, injustice, or instance of oppression for one's faith as "religious persecution" or a step away from it and campaigning (the louder the better) for a powerful third party (often the government, or maybe sometimes the general public?) to step in and protect one's civil liberties. Feeding into this is a narrative of Christians as a socially marginalized and disadvantaged group in America, reinforced by all the ways in which our society is "rejecting God": acceptance of abortion and gay marriage, declining church attendance and increasing nonbelief, the secularization and pluralization of culture, and incidents like the ones I listed above. Every instance of "persecution" strengthens this narrative, and with it the influence of victimhood (or perhaps martyrdom) culture in American Christianity.

As you may have guessed, I do not think victimhood culture is compatible with the Christian faith. Most of the time the persecution being experienced and causing the outrage is totally imaginary, as non-Christians can usually see pretty clearly. This wolf-crying has cost Christianity a lot of credibility in the outside world's eyes. America may not be a "Christian nation", but Christianity has long been woven deeply into its moral framework, and still occupies a relatively privileged cultural position. Considering Christians a persecuted minority because of a loss of cultural clout is doubly wrong and shows callous ignorance of what real religious persecution is (as any older Russian Orthodox could remind you). But even if the persecution is real, buying into the culture of victimhood is not an authentically Christian way to respond to it.

The elevation of "victimhood" as a desirable (and yet negative) status strikes me as an inverted parody of the Lord's teaching: "But many who are first will be last, and the last first." (Matthew 19:30) In a moral culture of victimhood people compete to be seen as "last" or "least"—last in the social pecking order, least privileged, most defenseless and victimized—because "last" is the new "first". It is exactly the same worldly, self-seeking logic, only turned on its head. There is the same kind of competition, striving against one another to get yours (in this case, the power of being seen as a victim), because as Campbell and Manning explain, "while everyone can have dignity, not everyone can be a victim", just as not everyone can be the most powerful, the most influential, the richest. But this is not at all what Jesus meant. Victimhood culture encourages a show of false humility painted over deeper anger, fear, and self-centeredness, but the Lord commands true humility. "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3), not in order that you might be vindicated against them through the exercise of this-worldly justice, but to love and serve them.

St. Paul more fully defines this love in his famous chapter in 1 Corinthians: "Love suffers long [and] is kind; ... is not provoked, ... does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (13:4-7) The contrasts with the pattern of fear, outrage, and offendedness we see in victimhood culture are obvious. Being thick-skinned is a Christian virtue, not at all meaning insensitivity or callousness, but patience and resistance to being angered, able to overlook offenses except for how they harm the offender, just as God is always willing to do for our sins. Elsewhere he puts it in the form of two baffling questions: "Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?" (1 Corinthians 6:7) The Lord teaches us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), to be as patient and compassionate toward their wrongs as we are towards those of our friends and loved ones. I know from abundant experience that it is a virtue and a sign of Christlikeness not to be offended easily, and that this virtue is not developed without a godly, uphill struggle. Let us reject every human philosophy that tries to dissuade us from fighting to become more like Christ.

St. Peter writes words that speak very relevantly to Christian outrage at modern-day "persecution".
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed [are you], for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people's matters. Yet if [anyone suffers] as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.(1 Peter 4:12-16)
The caption reads "Martyrdom of the holy hieromartyr
Polycarp of Smyrna"
Remember that the pre-Constantine Church faced persecution far worse than anything faced by most American Christians even on our worst days. Yet Peter counsels the churches not to be surprised or shocked at this persecution when it comes but to "rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings". We are to rejoice when we are persecuted. Could anything be more counterintuitive? Yet it is just what we see in the early Church, for example in The Martyrdom of Polycarp. This echoes what Jesus himself taught in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed [are] those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake." (Assuming it is said falsely, and for Jesus' sake!) "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great [is] your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:10-12) St. Paul describes the Christian's response to his persecutors, namely to return love for hatred: "Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat." (1 Corinthians 4:12-13)

The modern elevation of the status of "victim" (in desirability, and yet not necessarily positivity) does seem similar to how the early Church held its martyrs in high honor and even desired to imitate them. How are they different? For one thing, the early Christians honored their martyrs without expecting or demanding that the world (or any institution within it) also do so. Why would it? The way of Christ was clearly seen as contrary, diametrically different from and opposed to the way of the world. Martyrdom does not convey "dignity", prestige, or a privileged status in some objective, universal sense that we can appeal to and expect the world to recognize, but the crown of life in the kingdom of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25, James 1:12, Revelation 2:10), which is foolishness to the world. (1 Corinthians 3:19) Martyrs look for justice not from civil authorities here and now, but from God, the true judge who is above every created power. Martyrdom is not the key to justifying your selfish demands for protection and status, but the ultimate renunciation of self as a witness to Christ. Christians buying into victimhood culture in response to real or perceived persecution are not witnessing to Christ, but to their own worldliness.

When persecution comes (and the fact that most "persecution" in America is in the eye of the beholder does not make real persecution impossible), let us face it as martyrs, not "victims".

Postscript. Fr. Stephen Freeman, who has a seriously uncanny knack for writing eloquently and insightfully on whatever I am trying to think on at the moment, has recently written two posts related to this subject. Do You Care Too Much? critiques our tendency to get pointlessly outraged via the media over situations that don't touch on us at all, for the sake of "caring". Such "caring", or having sufficiently strong sentiments about various "issues" (as a normative sentiment, apart from actually doing anything) is, he argues, one of the "passions" that try to master us and keep us from properly ordering our feelings in the Christian life. Living in the Real World focuses on the power of media to distract us from the real, particular world at hand, in which we actually engage and interact, in favor of "things in general": a passive response to vague sentiments over things that have nothing to do with us and which we can't do anything about. Both are far more worth reading than anything I could write (which is why I waited until the end to direct you to them).

Monday, November 16, 2015

Living the Mystery

This is my final post on the book Discerning the Mystery, by Andrew Louth. The first post can be found here.


In the previous five chapters Louth has attempted to trace the division between "head" and "heart", or between two different kinds of knowing truth, that characterizes much of our contemporary awareness. Now, in closing, he turns to look for a way to transcend this division and find unity.

The first possible solution he brings up is that of Baron von Hügel von Hügel traces this divide as being between reason, which is universal and sharable but merely explains and does not "move" us, and intuition, instinct, or feeling, which does "move" us but seems to be individual, evanescent, and not transferable. His answer to this dilemma is not a theory, but a life, "a life sufficiently large and alive to take up and retain, within its own experimental range, at least some of the poignant question and conflict, as well as of the peace-bringing solution and calm" (134)—or as Louth puts it, "the life of saint". As von Hügel says, not simply believing in God but feeling bound to believe as from God himself is what is important: "Not simply that I think it, but that I feel bound to think it, transforms thought about God into a religious act." (135) The saint is one for whom this religious act has become constant and basic to one's being, something made one's own, not merely thought about. Interpretation, understanding, and application are inseparable.

J.H. Newman wrote of a similar union between understanding and action. He seeks to free the concept or mind or intellect from its modern reduction to "mere ratiocination" (138) and to remind us of the classical concept of "mind", nous, as the faculty which enables us to know and commune with God and which is intuitive, moral, and active as well as analytical and contemplative. Faith understood in this light, Newman says, is a deeply intellectual act, but this does not manifest in a concern for proofs, arguments, and evidence. This is partly because our real reasons for believing things lie deeper and are more implicit; "The desire to make all reasoning explicit manifests 'a dislike of an evidence, varied, minute, complicated, and a desire or something producible, striking, and decisive.: such a desire is really irrational, as it fails to understand the realities of human behavior and action." (139) Faith is not merely passive engagement with the truth of the kind we see in the sciences, but active, whole-hearted engagement with it, a "reaching forward of the mind". It is more a skill than a method, a skill acquired by practice—the practice of love, humility, and trust in God. What is most important in knowing the Truth is not evidence but one's moral state.

Newman's striking doctrine of faith comes as a response to the objections raised by the Enlightenment against tradition. Against the scientific attempt to reject traditional ways of knowing, start from scratch, and build up a body of knowledge for oneself from the evidence, Newman defends tradition, the idea of the past as a bearer of the presumptions that allow us to attain to understanding. It is not a matter of applying the right method or technique, but something harder to define, a skill or insight developed by example, "something whose archetype is not the clever arguing of a debater, but the humble understanding of the saint, whose faith is tested and proven in a life." (141)

Louth next turns to a few briefer examples of attempts to transcend the Enlightenment divide. The atheist philosopher Iris Murdoch argues for something resembling traditional virtue ethics over against Kant's strong focus on ethics as a series of conscious moral choices. It is not a matter of consciously applying a rational moral law to choose the right action from a number of possibilities; rather, she says, a man acts because of the kind of person he is, and a truly good person will only see one possibility, the right one. Thus her holding-together of will and reason somewhat echoes von Hügel. Josef Pieper calls attention to the importance of wonder, "that purely receptive attitude to reality, undisturbed and unsullied by the interjection of the will" (142-143), to the contemplation of God. This wonder can be dulled, requiring the sensational rather than "everyday being" to be awakened, or reduced to doubt, a problem to overcome in the quest for knowledge. Yet wonder is not supposed to be temporary, but the lasting origin of philosophy.

The permanence of wonder, Louth says, corresponds closely to the irreducible nature of mystery. And it is a mystery that lies at the center of the Christian faith—and not just a philosophical mystery, but a mystery has been disclosed in the life of a historical person. The ultimate mystery of God is met in the particular, not merely for us to seek out but as the One who came to seek and save the lost. Here we see clearly how mystery is not just the focus of our questioning, but as that which questions us, calls us to account.

It is the centrality of mystery to human knowledge that is questioned by claims of the scientific way of knowing to be the only way to truth. For this way of knowing is blind to mysteries; it knows only solved problems and unsolved problems. But mystery is irreducible to the humanities, including theology, because they are concerned with what man has done as a free, personal being, not as constrained by rational natural laws.

In conclusion, Louth offers his thoughts on the value of theology for human understanding: "theology holds before us, and holds us before, the ultimate mystery of God, and suggests that it is because man is made by God in his image and likeness that he is ultimately mysterious and can never be understood as he really is in terms that prescind from the mystery of his personhood." (145-146) Its fundamental contribution to the pursuit of knowledge is, as Pieper puts it, "that it should hinder and resist the natural craving of the human spirit for a clear, transparent, and definite system", by keeping open access to the tradition in which we can behold the mystery of God in Christ. Theology is not only a matter of learning, though this remains important to its vitality, but is in Newman's terms "the apprehension of the believing mind combined with a right state of the heart" (147). Its fullest expression is a life, a life which testifies to the mystery of Christ and makes his light, his awe-fullness, his love manifest to others.

One more implication of Louth's description of the kind of truth present in the Christian tradition: not being able to justify or "prove" our beliefs of practices in a way that is convincing to an arbitrary, "reasonable" person (assumed not to share our convictions) need not cast doubt on them. It's a consequence of truth in theology not being purely "objective" (that is, dependent on the knower), and the role of tradition in helping us to rightly perceive truth. I was reminded of it again by Newman's point in this chapter that the real reasons (as opposed to the justifications) for what we believe and do tend to be deep and implicit, and "must be attenuated or mutilated" (139) to be turned into a logical argument. This helps explain why in discussing theology I focus not on whether a teaching is derivable from Scripture using sound hermeneutics and rational arguments, but more on its implications (does it contradict or sit in tension with what I know of the "mind of the Church", or fit with it?), or on its origin: is it received as part of the apostolic tradition, or was it added later?

Louth and the authors he draws from (Newman in particular) lay out clearly ideas I was reaching towards as I was rethinking my faith in 2013, ideas which show the radical break I was going through from the quasi-scientific way I approached the Bible and Christian truth previously. I brought up the fact that Truth is something personal, namely Christ himself, in my search for a better way of reading Scripture, but I didn't have the skill to explore the implications nearly as fully as this book does. (Itself an illustration of our interdependence in the search for truth) My dissatisfaction with the scientific definition of truth in theology and idea of a more personal, experiential dimension of truth as something you participate in rather than just perceived are echoed and greatly developed on in Discerning the Mystery. In the next post I hinted at something like Hort's idea of truth as multifaceted and beyond-"rational", Marcel's concept of mystery, and Louth's recurring statement that truth and Christian faith are not merely a matter of ideas, but of reality and our active engagement with it. Of course I saw none of these things clearly at the time, but I anticipated them in some way—much like how Newman describes faith as concerned with anticipations and presumptions, an active "reaching forward of the mind." This pattern of movement from dim apprehension (as faith is tested and built up) to clear fulfillment (as faith is rewarded) is important in the Christian tradition, and I can see something like it at work even in my journey to Orthodoxy, which is a major reason why I find it so convincing.

I decided to blog through Discerning the Mystery because I could tell the truths it witnesses to, things I had already sensed elsewhere in Orthodox teaching but nowhere as clearly, bear huge implications my faith, in particular for overcoming the head-heart divide, the "dissociation of sensibility" that I have long been aware of in myself. Yet this divide is so entrenched that even trying to get rid of it can end up perpetuating it, if I simply try to think myself out of it as I tend to do. The full answer, as Louth says, is not a theory or truth I need to understand analytically, but something I do and live. This is part of the broad and deep understanding of tradition he has been explaining throughout the book, and it is the beating heart of the Orthodox Church, inviting me to take part. Yesterday I began the 40-day fast leading up to the Nativity of Christ—which, as I have already reminded myself, is not simply the Christian version of kosher, but is meant to help us participate in the mysteries of God, to engage with the Truth of our faith, to grow in Christ-likeness. Practices like this, part of a tradition that is not just doctrines but a common life rooted in the everlasting life of Christ, offer someone like me real hope for uniting thought and feeling, belief and experience.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Rehabilitating Allegory

This is my fifth post on the book Discerning the Mystery, by Andrew Louth. The first post can be found here.


Allegorical interpretation has a poor (to say the least) reputation in modern theology. And not just a specific, distinctly modern theology, but very nearly all kinds of theology done in the present time. Louth thinks this is primarily because allegory is seen as fundamentally dishonest, or arbitrary—it seems to interpret a text to make it say something it manifestly does not say, something that you instead want it to say. It seems to not only flirt with, but embrace subjectivity in terrible excess, taking the interpreter away from the actual meaning of the text into the realm of arbitrary fancy. The author's intent in writing a text may not be easy to discern, but we are charged to seek after it, not abandon it as allegory seems to do.

Louth has already explained the reasons he finds this kind of reaction to allegory less than convincing. It assumes that the meaning of a text is objective or "unproblematic": whatever the author meant to say when writing it. Within Protestantism, this assumption is strongly correlated with the principle of sola scriptura, which tends to see Scripture as the objective truth of God's revelation to man, who is charged with discerning this truth from it by right interpretation. From this point of view allegory seems to be a way of avoiding this revelation and replacing it with human opinions. More recently added to this is historical criticism in some form as an apparently promising method for the extraction of this objective truth of revelation from the pages of Scripture, a way of "right interpretation" allowing us to carry out the task laid before us by sola scriptura.

Louth considers this approach to Scripture to be contrary to the one found in the Fathers and not "traditional" in any sense. The truth of Christianity is not basically biblical; "the heart of Christianity is the mystery of Christ, and the Scriptures are important as they unfold to us that mystery, not in and for themselves." (102) Likewise historical criticism's quest for the objective "original meaning" in the biblical text is based on false assumptions about what is involved in interpretation and the role of tradition in general, as well as the significance of the divine inspiration of Scripture in particular. It is a transfer into the humanities of a methodology appropriate to the sciences, which Louth considers to be invalid since "the natural order of physical objects and the moral order of intelligent beings are not at all the same. ... The moral order is transparent to us in a way that the natural order is not ... and the medium of that transparency is tradition, tradition formed by language and custom." (105-106)

With all that said, we are ready to understand how the Fathers handled Scripture. The primary modern complaint with allegory, that the text has a single "original meaning" which allegory deftly sidesteps, is undermined; they saw not one by multiple senses of Scripture, a rich depth of meaning, which is explored through the use of allegory. Interpreting is not a matter of reconstructing the original context of the author and placing ourselves in it, but of listening across a historical gulf that is not empty and in need of a bridge, but filled with the tradition which brings the text to me along with the prejudices that help me understand it. "What unites us with the writers of the Scriptures is the life of the Church from their day to ours." (107) The relationship between Church and Scripture is reciprocal; the Bible emerged from the life of the Church, was recognized as Scripture within it, and is read as life-giving Scripture within it.

As an example of how tradition "echoes" Scripture, Louth gives the example of attending a high mass in a medieval French cathedral. (A divine liturgy in an old Orthodox cathedral would arguably work as well) A lot is going on; gestures and movements of the celebrants, chanting and singing of the liturgy, the so-called "smells and bells". There is detail in our surroundings: the architecture, the art (statues in Catholic churches, icons in Orthodox churches, stained glass in both). These different ways of conveying meaning to us can interact in almost an infinity of ways, calling each other to our attention, inviting analogies between each other, interpreting each other. All of this is drawn from the mystery of the Eucharist, and draws us back to it. This, Louth believes, is a sort of image of the way Scripture is revealed to possess a bottomless depth, a miras profunditas, of richness in the Church's tradition. This richness is the unfolding of or introduction to the great mysteries at its heart. It is this richness, this depth, which makes allegory with its recognition of inexhaustibly multiple senses and meanings of Scripture appropriate.

Louth pauses to ask: does not this focus on depth or complexity make the Scripture and its message too difficult, like a puzzle, into something like the hidden knowledge of the gnostics? Drawing from George Steiner, he considers how there are different kinds of difficulty. The two most relevant ones are "contingent" difficulty arising from lack of knowledge, and "ontological" difficulty, which is not easily resolved (if at all) demands the questioning and reorientation of our priorities and assumptions. This corresponds closely with Marcel's distinction between problem and mystery.

Seen this way, allegory is not a method for obfuscation since it is not meant to solve contingent difficulties (historical criticism has plenty to offer here); rather, it is a way of holding before us the mystery which constitutes the ontological difficulty of the Scriptures—"a difficulty, a mystery, which challenges us to revise our understanding of what might be meant by meaning ... which calls on us for a response of metanoia, change of mental perspective, repentance." (111) The difficulty in Scripture arises from its depth, not from any mistake or lack of clarity, from "not being sufficiently at home in the tradition, not having an unerring instinct as to what resonates and what merely makes a noise." (112) Thus the traditional recognition of the multiple senses of scripture and the use of allegory is a response to the miras profunditas of Scripture seen as witness of the mystery of Christ. Louth denies, as others have claimed, that allegory is a way of solving contingent interpretive problems or glossing over difficult parts of the biblical text. Origen in particular was accused of doing this, but Louth believes that he was really looking for beauty and harmony behind apparently disjointed and disorderly (yet inspired) texts.

He moves on to how allegory actually operates. When we think of the doctrine that Scripture has multiple senses (often three or four: literal, moral, allegorical, and maybe anagogical), it's easy to think that the nonliteral senses are alternate ways of using Scripture that ignore the literal sense, and therefore seem arbitrary and frivolous. Against this, Louth says we should think of it not just as a list of senses, but as an order or movement, a recurring pattern: from history to allegory, old to new, shadow to reality, letter to spirit, fact to significance, promise to fulfillment in Christ. The literal sense helps us discern the mysteries at work in the text; the allegorical sense attempts to understand them. This pattern is still somewhat extant in some parts of Protestantism, though it is more commonly called typology. Ironically, typological interpretation was one of the things in the evangelical tradition that used to cause me doubt and confusion; this was probably because its ancient grounding in patristic theology clashed with the much more modern way in which I was used to reading Scripture.

To warn against the excesses of allegory (which are rightly deplored), Louth notes the distinction between allegoria facti and allegoria verbi. The latter, he argues, is concerned purely with the words of the text rather than the reality they speak of and "is only justified as a kind of embroidery of allegory of fact, not as a freely created, merely literary conceit." (119) As an example of bad allegorical wordplay he refers to the interpretation of the "two swords" in Luke 22:38 (which Jesus says are "enough") as justifying the division of ecclesiastical power wielded by the Pope and temporal power wielded by kings and rulers (or, as in Unam Sanctum, the subordination of all earthly authorities to the spiritual authority of the bishop of Rome). "This word-play", he says, "has no basis in any allegoria facti," in other words is not in any way a movement from the literal meaning of the text, and "is in no way an attempt to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of Christ." A better example of the two kinds of allegory working together positively is the parallels frequently drawn between the xylon or lignum (both words referring to wood in general, a tree, or something made out of wood) by which Adam and Eve fell and that by which Christ, the second Adam, redeemed their fall. (I wish this wordplay transferred better to English; I still don't appreciate hymns calling the cross a "tree")

This movement from fact to significance, faith to understanding, is not merely intellectual, but of realizing our participation in the mystery of Christ with our whole selves. Tradition does not merely disclose to us a normative way of interpreting Scripture; the dogmatic fruits of interpreting reveal to us the mystery of Christ, a mystery which is not merely timeless but eternally present, a mystery which draws us into itself, invites our response that it might be fulfilled in us. Thus, Louth argues, allegory is hardly arbitrary because it is "firmly related to the mystery of Christ." (121) It is a way of relating the whole of Scripture to that mystery, of glimpsing a single vision out of all the images and events in the Bible.

The allegorical way of understanding especially comes into its own in the liturgy. For it is in the liturgy first and foremost that the central mystery of Christ is celebrated and displayed. The readings from Scripture and the rhythm of the liturgical year are meant to draw out different aspects of this mystery for us to perceive. As an example, Louth describes how the liturgy celebrates the baptism of the Lord. This event is considered to be a revelation of the Trinity (the Father as a voice from heaven, the Son being baptized, and the Spirit descending from heaven as a dove). The imagery of the Spirit as a dove is expounded on, and applied to how we should be: innocent, gentle, and responding with a soaring desire to see God. As the heavens were opened at the baptism, so through Christ the heavens are opened to us. All of these themes are picked up not just at the festal liturgy for the baptism of Christ (Theophany), but also in the baptismal liturgy, in which we are considered to reenact the events of Christ's. The allegorical interpretation of the scriptural text and the liturgy both serve as "echo chambers" that help us to see the resonances of the significance of this event in the life of Christ.

In closing, Louth explains that the apparent complexity of allegorical interpretation is meant to lead us to a simple message: love. Just as "the Scriptures tell the story of God's way of leading men back into unity, and the way has to be from the fragment to the unified" (130), so allegory helps us to see Scripture as a kaleidoscope, fragmented but looking forward to the unity and simplicity of the One who restores all things. Allegory not only helps us discern this pattern, but also to restore within ourselves this lost unity and simplicity, coming once again to love. "The heart of Scripture is the end"—that is, the goal—"of Scripture: the love of God in Christ calling us to respond to that love." (131)

This chapter was a really helpful explanation of allegorical interpretation: the rationale behind it, dispelling many myths I've grown up with, and how it functions. Louth's idea of a movement from history to significance, from literal to allegorical sense, echoes the intuition I had already been developing about allegory: allegorical interpretation must grow out of the literal sense, be rooted in it, not ignore it to make some other point reflecting extraneous biases (like the "two swords" theory). Thus there is a place in Orthodox hermeneutics for Bible/historical scholarship; for all the value of the allegorical interpretation of the Fathers, there is still plenty to learn about the literal, historical meaning of the text.

Louth's reflections on sola scriptura and the need to allow Scripture to bring us to the mystery of Christ, within tradition, put a damper on the idea of simply expecting people to encounter Christ in the pages of Scripture with no context. Of course this does happen, and God can work this way, but Louth helps explain why plenty of people find nothing in the Bible except things to deride or scorn. The context in which the Bible is read is important—modern western culture, at least, is deeply at odds with the mind of the Church, and people formed by it (unless they are already influenced by Christianity somehow) will more than likely misunderstand Scripture when reading on their own. It may even do more harm than good. People may build up a deep resistance to Christian claims because of their perception that their God is a violent tyrant, or that Jesus was merely a moral teacher worthy of respect but not worship. Such misconceptions, which keep people from discerning the mystery to which the Bible witnesses, are inevitable if we claim that our faith is defined by the biblical text and that this text is clear enough that anyone can understand (it also doesn't help that some who call themselves Christians actively teach these things, and tend to get significant media exposure). It is much more accurate to say Orthodox believe that the Bible is the "book of the Church" than that they are "people of the book".

Friday, November 13, 2015

Tradition in the Church

This is my fourth post on the book Discerning the Mystery, by Andrew Louth. The first post can be found here.


In this chapter Louth goes into much more depth on what tradition is and how it works in the Church. In introduction, he first comments on the conflict over tradition that has existed between Catholics and Protestants since the Reformation. Louth argues that in this dispute both parties misunderstand the nature of tradition: namely, both seem to view it as something comparable with Scripture, either a complement or a rival to it. They are both objectified, as sources of truth we are seeking to understand. This tends to assume that what is being revealed or understood is a collection of objective, independent truths, so that tradition is seen as revealing additional truths not written down in Scripture. Of this, Louth comments, "The problem of how we know at all, what it is that is taken for granted when we seek to understand God's revelation, has not been broached with any very searching intensity." (73) This understanding of tradition as parallel to Scripture was not held by the  early Church Fathers.

The central truth or mystery of the Christian faith, he says, is not a matter of words, ideas, or concepts, but of deeds, of reality. The words of revelation, even the words of Jesus the Word, are secondary in the Christian faith to the ultimate reality of who he is and what he accomplished. "To be a Christian is not simply to believe something, to learn something, but to be something, to experience something." (74) The Church is the place in which this being, this experience, can take place. He correlates this with 1 John 1:1-3:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life-- the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us-- that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship [is] with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
What John proclaims is not only a message, but a physical (and metaphysical) reality; what he asks from his readers is not simply belief, but fellowship. "Joining a fellowship, commitment to a community, involves more than assent to its beliefs, but rather a sharing in its way of life, in its ceremonies, and customs and practices." (75) Presumably these things are not seen as simply derived from more basic beliefs. This understanding of engagement with the truth calls to mind Polanyi's idea of community and tradition as the context for our knowing, and Gadamer's idea of bildung or paideia as the initiation into the preconceptions that allow us to know rightly. Indeed the early Christians adopted the concept of paideia from Greek philosophy, seeing in it an affirmation of the nature of man as a social being and the inherent goodness of creation, over against the Gnostics with their secret, individualistic knowledge.

In his treatise On Christian Doctrine, Augustine does not limit his use of the word doctrina to simply mean "teaching", but appears to mean something similar to paideia, or even what we might think of as "culture" in the broadest sense—a deeply Christian culture learned within the community of the Church, which is seen as the Spirit-enabled fulfillment of human societies. The goal (or at least a major goal) of the Scriptures, Augustine writes, is to teach us to love God and neighbor rightly (both to truly love them, and to order these loves properly), and it teaches us this using signs, namely the words of human language. Augustine points out that since words and language are, in a sense, arbitrary (the signs are not intrinsically related to the things they signify), they depend for their efficacy on consent between human beings. So the whole enterprise of human understanding, and human society in general, is dependent on and grows outward from a shared tradition of sorts, a "common sense". This is not even a tradition of the Church, but a common human tradition. Augustine's understanding of the importance of tradition in Christian formation is visibly a Christian development of the classical Greek idea of paideia.

Other Church Fathers depict how the Church deepened and developed this idea. Clement of Rome highlights the continuity of the sending as described by Christ in John 17:18 or 20:21: "As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you." Christian tradition is not simply the continuity of the human search for truth, but of the divine sending, the divine mission, passed from Christ to the apostles to their successors and so on, the mission of the Church which she pursues in the world. This sending is in the power of the Spirit (John 20:22), who gives the Church the power to be a witness for Christ in the world. (15:26-27) In this sense, the heart of the tradition of the Church is the life of the Holy Spirit in her, her fellowship with the Trinity.

Louth turns to a well-known passage from Irenaeus next:
True knowledge is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor curtailment; and reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy; and the pre-eminent gift of love, (2 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 13) which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts. (Against Heresies IV.33.8)
Here Irenaeus describes the process of apostolic succession, by which not just doctrines or teachings but the "distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ", or what Louth calls "the whole character of the Christian community, its rites, its ceremonies, its practices, and its life." (84) This tradition manifests pre-eminently in the gift of love; it is not simply a message, but a life. Irenaeus often spoke of a "rule of truth" (called a rule of faith by others), the fundamentals of Christian belief and their significance, handed down from the apostles and received in baptism. And "the fact that it is received is almost as important as what is received—tradition is not something we make up, but something we accept." (85) Tradition is a shining example of our interdependence and commonality, of humanity in general and of the Church much more so

Basil the Great, in his work On the Holy Spirit, makes a distinction between the public proclamation of the Church and its dogmas, "which we have received from the tradition of the apostles and given to us in secret." (XXVII.66) Basil is not speaking of a secret unwritten body of teaching in parallel to the written Scriptures; this is the kind of thing whose existence Irenaeus vehemently denied against the Gnostics. From the examples he gives—the sign of the cross, prayer to the East, and other elements of the liturgy—we see that he is not speaking of teachings, but practices as the "secret tradition". These things are not publicly proclaimed or taught, but are nonetheless a subtle part of tradition, part of the 'tacit dimension' of the life of the Christian. "Christianity is not a body of doctrine that can be specified in advance, but a way of life and all that this implies." (86)

This is illustrated in Basil's "proof" of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which is based not on explicit scriptural evidence but on the Spirit's indispensable role in uniting us to God, enabling us to participate in his life—in other words, on the inward experience of Christian spirituality. This is the context in which this and other "secret" teachings of the Church can be proclaimed and understood. In other words, much of Christian tradition does not consist of "objective" truths that can be proclaimed and understood by anyone regardless of context. "They are not 'objective' truths which could be appraised and understood outside the bosom of the Church: rather, they are part of the Church's reflection on the mystery of her life with God."

So tradition is not really another source of teaching parallel to Scripture; it is the inner life of the Church, "that life in which the individual Christian is perfected in the image of God in which he was created." (88) It is not believed in itself, but received, participated in. It is not individual, but communal; not only active in the mind but in the heart, the way by which we are perfected in the image of Christ and enabled to know, to receive God more truly.

We can now see how central liturgy is for the enactment of tradition, for the liturgy is the Church's practice and tangible expression of that inner life. It is most fundamentally in the liturgy that we celebrate and share in the mysteries at the heart of the Christian tradition. "For the heart of the Christian faith is not merely something conceptual: it is a fact, or even better, an action—the action, the movement, of the Son sent into the world for our sakes to draw us back to the Father." (89) The liturgy echoes and repeats this movement; heaven and earth become intermingled, God comes down to us and we ascend to him.

Louth emphasizes that can simply "understand", much less make up; it must be participated in, with all that we are. The givenness of liturgy, the fact that we are receiving and joining in words and practices that we can't always readily make sense of ("the secret tradition" described by Basil),is important because it is in this way that the liturgy involves us in the "tacit dimension" of Christian tradition, the depths of the mysteries in which the liturgy makes us partakers. "What can be articulated, what can be understood, is only a part, if an important part. The life in which we share as we commit ourselves to the tradition of the Church goes much deeper." (90) This is why it is so dangerous to try to reduce worship to what can be understood conceptually, as is so often the case in modern liturgical reform; to do so is to cut ourselves off from this depth. The fact that liturgy goes beyond speech "impresses on us the importance of the inarticulate" (91)—this inarticulateness about what is most important, not coincidentally, is characteristic of the child we have to become like to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Vladimir Lossky puts forward the idea of tradition as silence or stillness (in Greek, hesychia), the stillness and receptiveness in which we hear the Word of the Scriptures. It is the light that reveals the content of revelation, or the breath which makes the words heard. In Ignatius, whom Lossky refers to, this stillness also connotes a sense of presence: the personal presence of Jesus (which marked out the apostles, rather than simply having heard his words); it is this sense of stillness and presence that tradition conveys. "For the truth that lies at the heart of theology is not something there to be discovered, but something, or rather someone, to whom we must surrender." (95)

Louth's discussion of Basil's "proof" of the divinity of the Holy Spirit is, I think, highly illustrative of this chapter's message. By arguing for the divinity of the Spirit from the Christian experience of life in the Spirit, Basil seems to assume that not only certain beliefs, but certain experiences, a certain way of being, can be normative or even definitive for the Christian faith. This was a striking realization for me, as I used to assume pretty strongly that Christianity was defined by and shaped around certain fundamental, deeply held beliefs (i.e. God as Trinity and creator, the Incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection...) from which everything else arises. This is implicit in the teaching of sola scriptura that the highest authority for Christian belief and practice, that which shapes and guides everything else in the Christian faith, is basically conceptual: the words of Scripture. But Louth argues that "the central truth, or mystery, of the Christian faith is primarily not a matter of words, and therefore ultimately of ideas or concepts, but a matter of fact, or reality." (74) That is, Christianity is not just a system of belief or a "religion" in the modern sense of the word; it is a way of life, a way of being, with all that that implies, a world-view in the fullest sense of the word.

In discussing the "rule of faith" as the basis of tradition, Louth stresses that the fact that this rule, this tradition is received is almost as important as what is received, for "tradition is not something we make up, but something we accept." (85) Later he adds, "we become Christians by becoming members of the Church, by trusting our forefathers in the faith. If we cannot trust the Church to have understood Jesus, then we have lost Jesus: and the resources of modern scholarship will not help us to find him." (93) This trust in our spiritual ancestors, this childlike attitude of receptiveness, is part of what it means to be part of a tradition, to live within a tradition. A baseline attitude of skepticism, of needing to have things justified or proved to us before we will believe anything, is innately contrary to this receptiveness; it does not place us within tradition but over it, as arbiters. (Expecting teachings to be shown to be objectively true goes even further, denying the particular role of tradition in shaping us to recognize and contemplate the truth.) As I realized while wrestling with the place of tradition in my faith, we cannot pick and choose the parts of tradition we follow; this goes against what tradition basically is. Of course the risk of false teaching is real, as the history of the Church shows, but we can't let this overcome our need to be receivers and participants of tradition; we do not treat everything we receive as false or only provisionally true until shown otherwise.

I can still see why not wanting worship to "make sense" or be "understandable" to a visitor seems like a terrible idea to many. Don't we want our worship to be welcoming and appealing to inquirers, rather than confusing or off-putting? This is the impetus for reforming the "peripheral" parts of worship to make it "relevant" or perhaps "seeker-sensitive", appealing to modern aesthetics while still conveying the important truth. (I have previously examined the assumptions behind this form-content division) The difference between modern and liturgical worship in the kind of understanding being sought is summed up by the distinction between problem and mystery in the previous chapter. If the alternative to worship (or Scripture, for that matter) being clear or perspicuous is its instead being confused or muddled, then of course we will want Scripture and our worship to be clear. But if liturgical worship is unclear or does not "make sense" to the layman, it is because it partakes in the hidden depths of the Christian tradition, hopefully bringing us into contact with the great mysteries which we cannot hope to "understand" as we do a simple, rational message. Again, limiting ourselves to what we (still more the inquirer) can rationally understand is contrary to the receiving attitude tradition means to teach us. Expecting the Christian faith to readily "make sense" amounts to a denial of the treasured depth therein. Any unclarity here is not a confusion in the message itself, but the result of the observer's not being "sufficiently at home in the tradition" (112), as Louth will say next time in the discussion on allegory.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Caught Up in the Mystery

This is my third post on the book Discerning the Mystery, by Andrew Louth. The first post can be found here.


After establishing that theology is much closer to the humanities than the sciences, arguing that the subjectivity this implies is not necessarily a bad thing, and introducing the elements of tradition and bildung (or paideia) in the place of a sought-after theological method (the application of which is an example of Steiner's "fallacy of imitative form"), Louth tries to describe more positively the relationship he sees between theology and the sciences. He briefly reminisces on the drift in the meaning of the word "science" that has taken place since theology was considered the "queen of the sciences" in the Middle Ages.

Scientia, in this usage, simply meant "knowledge" with few of its modern connotations. Following Aristotle, theoretical or speculative sciences (what we might think of as philosophy) was considered higher than practical sciences, since they dealt with necessary rather than incidental realities; of these, theology was considered the highest since it studied the highest reality of all, the source of all the other sciences. The humanities, ironically, were barely considered sciences at all in this scheme. Two things have conspired to remove theology from this position. First is the obvious shift in the meaning of "science" to its present meaning, brought about by the rise of the experimental sciences. Science was realigned in a new hierarchy according to "hardness", the degree to which the scientific method is strictly applicable, and theology was banished from this ordering. But besides this, Louth argues there has always been a tension between Aristotle's dualism, which sought knowledge of God through ascent in the scale of being away from temporal reality, and the Judeo-Christian belief in a God who reveals himself and acts within history, in particular ways.

However it came about, in the modern usage we see that theology is something much closer to the humanities than to science. Louth next asks: do we lose something through this distinction? Does abandoning the concept of theology as science perpetuate the "dissociation of sensibility" in our modern culture and the privileged epistemological position held by science within it? Theology and the humanities have a radically different modus operandi than the sciences, one characterized (as he explained last chapter) by tradition and the concept of bildung rather than method and technique, but simply leaving it at that would be settling for a "fundamental divide in our way of apprehending the truth" (54) He wonders if, in rehabilitating the humanities and their place in human knowing, we may be settling for a caricature of the scientific method that perpetuates the "dissociation of sensibility".

The scientific method, we remember, seeks truth by breaking with tradition and prejudice, starting from ignorance, and building up a body of objective knowledge through observation, experiment, and reason. It is "a confessedly iconoclastic method", he says; we pull down the edifice of knowledge we have received from tradition and replace it with what we have learned for ourselves. We avoid the possibility of subjectivity in this by insisting that our way of gathering knowledge is independently repeatable, independent of the one observing it; that is, that it is objective. This methodology has undeniably been successful in many areas, but it is a complete way of developing knowledge? In particular, does this success mean that "tradition" in its many forms has no place in our knowing?

New Testament scholar and church historian F.J.A. Hort would say no. Beginning from the assumption that truth is one, not two, he warns that rejecting tradition in favor of only what we can establish for ourselves is not only impossible; the attitude behind this impulse is self-defeating. "In knowledge," Hort say, "as in all else he labours in vain to be independent; he is most himself when he receives most, and most freely acknowledges that he receives." (56) Indeed, he argues that it is tradition that frees us to know in a rightly ordered way, and the rejection of tradition (which is really opening oneself to "bastard traditions" which take us captive unawares) that is confining and stultifying. The goal is not freedom from tradition, but freedom within and by way of tradition. Echoing Gadamer, he describes the increase in knowledge as a process of undeception and highlights the importance of virtuous discipline and learning, previously summarized using the concept of bildung.

This is important because the right perception of truth, nowhere more than in theology, does not simply depend on the application of the right method, but on the state of the perceiver. "The more we know of truth, the more we come to see how manifold is the operation by which we come to take hold of it," says Hort. (57) We do not perceive rightly if one of our faculties dominates and shuts out others (as can happen when we try to do theology "scientifically"), or if we are disordered on the whole by moral corruption. For "the stedfast [sic] and prescient pursuit of truth is therefore a moral and spiritual discipline." In tradition there is no method to lead one to the truth that makes no demands or claims on the one being led.

Thus in Hort we see a positive attitude towards the sciences, as engaged in the same pursuit of truth as the humanities, albeit by different means that are appropriate in its field, but should not be applied universally. Building on this, Louth next brings up Michael Polanyi, who has a similarly positive outlook on science but again opposes attempts to make the scientific method a "privileged way of knowing, utterly different from and more reliable than other human ways of understanding." (59)

Louth focuses on an element of Polanyi's thought that he calls the "tacit dimension". This refers to the fact that much of how we perceive the external world, though it seems clear and not mysterious to us, is "often unspecifiable in detail". For example we easily recognize one anothers' faces, yet are often unable to specify exact what it is in the face that we are recognizing. (We are even worse at describing smells, yet have little trouble perceiving them, sometimes strongly) All of our perception happens within one interpretive framework or another, and most of the time this framework is tacit, not consciously though of or experienced. Generalizing, Polanyi believes all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge; "it is not simply objective, but knowledge which has been grasped and understood by a person." (62) This acknowledges man's ability to gain knowledge without necessarily being able to specify the grounds of his knowing; this knowing is exercised within a received framework which is usually unspecifiable. Knowledge, Polanyi argues, must become tacit to be truly fruitful; the goal is not simply an objective description of reality but a "personal orientation towards reality", toward which objective knowledge is merely a means to an end.

Polanyi's understanding of knowledge allows us to see how all knowledge and truth can be one, as Hort assumed. Tacit knowledge can also be thought of as the "indwelling" that Dilthey described, as both internalizing the object of knowing and making ourselves dwell in it, in some capacity. The kind of knowing we see in the sciences is only different from that of the humanities in degree, not in kind; the indwelling is less deep when studying social phenomena than when seeking to understand particular people or works of art; shallower still when studying a star. If this understanding is accurate, then we see that it is needless for theology to look to the methodology of the sciences for inspiration; they both use the same kind of understanding, theology arguably more deeply even if the sciences have had more overt success in recent centuries.

Louth also observes, strikingly, that this pattern of knowing is the one we find at work in the theological writings of classical Christianity, in the period of the ecumenical councils and Church Fathers. "For the Fathers knowledge of God, and of his love for us in Jesus Christ, could only be found within the Tradition of the Church." (64) Participation in the Church and Holy Tradition came hand-in-hand with the "rule of faith", the framework of presuppositions (or worldview) within which Scripture and one's own Christian experience could be rightly interpreted. This tradition is "non-specifiable" as a series of doctrines, only only as a bond of love and unity that must be partaken in to be understood. "The Patristic doctrine of tradition might well be paraphrased in the language of Polanyi by saying that all knowledge of God in Christ is either the tacit knowledge of tradition"—meaning something like the "mind of the Church"—"or rooted in such tacit knowledge." (65) The Fathers understood clearly the importance of what we have been calling bildung or paideia in shaping us into people capable of knowing God rightly, in making us properly receptive to him.

Finally, Louth turns to the namesake of the book: the role of mystery in theology. The progress of science is marked by the isolation and solving of problems that are reachable with current knowledge, in order to advance that knowledge and tackle more problems. Once a problem has been solved, it is of no further interest except perhaps for inspiration in solving future problems. But the humanities (including theology) are not like that, at all, as shown by the fact that there is little to no notion of "progress" there. It is much rarer to "solve" a author or work and be able to "move on" from it (as shown by how we still seem to be stuck on Plato, among others), and while there is a place for systematic problem-solving, this is not the real challenge but more a work of ground-clearing preceding it. The real work of the humanities is not a restless march around or through numerous obstacles, but more like a conversation, an engagement with past minds. Understanding is more elusive and less decisive; what is understood, precisely, is sometimes hard to define. "It is not a matter of facts, but a matter of reality: the reality of human life, its engagement with others, its engagement with God." (68)

Louth summarizes the approach of the humanities and its differences from that of the sciences using Gabriel Marcel's distinction between mystery and problem. This can be stated in a variety of ways. A problem is like an obstacle before me, barring my passage which I must try to remove or get around; a mystery is something I am caught up in, which is not just before me but in me; with a mystery the difference between the two begins to lose its meaning. A mystery is not a temporary barrier, but a more of less permanent focus of attention. Problems can be solved in a detached way, by applying the proper technique; a mystery, by definition, transcends every technique and demands our personal engagement. A problem can conceal or lead us into a mystery, and it is possible to short-circuit our engagement with a mystery by degrading it into a problem, which Marcel calls a "fundamentally vicious proceeding" and which Louth equates with  Steiner's "fallacy of imitative form". Because science is primarily concerned with problems and the humanities with mysteries, we should not be surprised or made jealous by the humanities' lack of visible progress compared to the sciences.

Louth names a few twentieth-century theologians who have sought to relocate mystery at the heart of Christian theology. Karl Barth wrote of a God who "reveals himself as mystery, who makes himself known as the One who is Unknowable" (70), yet unveils himself to us by veiling himself in flesh in the Incarnation. Karl Rahner stated that "Theology is not concerned with the elucidation of mysteries which will eventually be revealed in the beatific vision—mysteries reduced to what one might call eschatological problems", but with three more fundamental mysteries: the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the divinization of man in grace and glory. Louth agrees that Christian theology should concern itself with the mystery of God, not least in these three forms, and supposes that its purpose is not so much to explain anything as it is to prevent us from dissolving the mystery at its heart or missing it altogether, as historical heresies both ancient and modern have been seen to do. "The heart of the matter is sharing in the mystery of love which God is." (71)

There is a lot that is really good and interesting in this chapter. Louth's distinction between problem and mystery is one of the most helpful parts of the book for me so far; it seems intuitively obvious that theology should concern itself with mystery, and as Louth will later write, one role of theology is to hold before us (or hold us before) the mysteries at the center of the faith. Polanyi's understanding of the "tacit dimension" is also enlightening, both for closing the gap between head and heart and for relating the spoken and unspoken parts of faith.

The discussion of the awkward fit between Aristotelian dualism in the sciences and Christian theology reminds me of myself, especially when Louth writes, "Certainly this challenge to the Aristotelian idea of theology as the highest science could be disguised by those who saw revelation in history as the revelation of absolutely certain propositions, which are gathered together in the Scriptures and provide the axiomatic basis for the science of Christian theology, the study of the Christian revelation." This describes my old default attitude towards Christian belief; when I was fighting against doubt, it was a system of truth, explanations, and answers that I was trying to preserve. I had little comprehension of the concept of "mystery"; all these apparent contradictions in the Bible and theology were nothing but problems to be overcome via a suitable explanation. Giving up my expectation of being able to rationally understand everything I believed (as we expect in the sciences) was essential both for dealing with my doubt and for opening me up to the kind of theology Louth describes.

Marcel's concept of mystery is very reminiscent of the Patristic tradition of apophatic theology, the "way of negation" which radically acknowledges the incomprehensibility of God in his essence, denying the sufficiency of all our attempts to describe him in order to guard against overconfidence in our positive statements of theology. Yet there is a positive purpose to this denial: the freedom to know God as deeply as is possible for created beings, in a way that transcends anything we can say or conceptualize about him. As Vladimir Lossky writes in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, sounding very much like Louth:
As we have seen, the negations which draw attention to the divine incomprehensibility are not prohibitions upon knowledge: apophaticism, so far from being a limitation, enables us to transcend all concepts, every sphere of philosophical speculation. It is a tendency towards an ever-greater plenitude, in which knowledge is transformed into ignorance, the theology of concepts into contemplation, dogmas into experience of ineffable mysteries. It is, moreover, an existential theology involving man's entire being, which sets him upon the way of union, to transform his nature that he may attain to the true gnosis which is the contemplation of the Holy Trinity. Now, this 'change of heart', this metanoia, means repentance. The apophatic way of Eastern theology is the repentance of the human person before the face of the living God. (238)
The apophatic way is the way of contemplation of the mysteries which Louth has described in this chapter. The highest purpose of theology is to guide us on this way as much as is possible, to lead us to the mysteries and to shape us to see in them the God whose face cannot be seen.

This idea of mystery is very helpful in light of the ways in which others (myself included) can misunderstand it. I used to think "mystery" denoted some kind of unresolvable tension in Scripture, or more crudely, an apparently contradictory or impossible teaching you must accept as true anyway—the three-in-oneness of the Trinity, Christ's full humanity and divinity, the coexistence of human free will and divine sovereignty (these correspond to the three central mysteries listed by Rahner), or perhaps more recently God's immanence and transcendence. The problem with defining mystery in such a way is that, at least for me, it made immensely tempting to try to do what Marcel says you absolutely must not do: try and "solve" (or dissolve) the mystery, reconcile the conflicting polarities. I attempted this repeatedly, even earlier in this blog's existence, thinking I was promoting the "unity of the church" in doing so. Such a definition of mystery makes mysteries look dangerously like problems, unfinished theological quests, standing to be improved if we can figure out a way to reconcile these two seemingly conflicting sets of passages.

But it isn't like this at all. Yes, theological mysteries can manifest in apparent biblical tensions, but this is not what they really are. Marcel gives a far better definition, making clear that mysteries are realities we cannot comprehend not because they are simply obscure and logically contradictory on their face, but because they are simply too big, too far beyond our capacity to comprehend—so big that, like four-dimensional objects, they show up in strange ways in our scope of perception. The point, as Louth argues, is not to "explain" or "solve" the mystery, but to participate in it, contemplate it, be confronted by it. A bad analogy from physics: if the "EmDrive" is eventually shown to work beyond reasonable doubt, this would not do away with the conservation of momentum altogether but relativize it, contextualize it within a larger, seemingly contradictory reality—a scientific mystery of sorts (albeit a finite one, which might eventually dissolve into a problem). The apparent contradiction is only the outward effects of a reality too big to see, at least right now. Much the same thing has already happened with Newtonian mechanics, once seen as the very thoughts of God governing the cosmos, with the advent of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Louth's idea (following Polanyi) that the tradition of the early Church was "essentially non-specifiable", or if specifiable only as "the bond of unity, the bond of love, which established the Church as the body of Christ" (64-65) is also insightful. I think it is why evangelism in Orthodoxy never takes place outside of or alongside the Church, but within it. The best way to understand is to follow Philip's invitation: "come and see" (Jhn 1:46). As they say, no one is argued into believing; our knowing is not merely a matter of discerning "objective truth", but personal engagement with that truth, into which tradition (not least the tradition of the Church) is meant to initiate and form us. If, as Hort says, the perception of truth depends as much on the (moral) state of the perceiver as much as the object of perception, then very little in the truth of the Christian faith is truly "objective", i.e. equally true for all observers, equally visible from everywhere. Tradition, rather, is meant to lead us to the place from which our knowledge of truth comes alive.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Objective Truth

This is my second post on the book Discerning the Mystery, by Andrew Louth. The first post can be found here.


In his second chapter Louth investigates further the difference between science and the humanities, and how the Enlightenment has affected relations between them. This difference can be observed, among other ways, by the fact that there is a clear sense of progress in the sciences, while progress much harder to  define in the humanities. This perceived lack of progress has come to be seen as a failure, a challenge for the humanities to somehow achieve successes similar to those of the sciences by becoming more like them—the "fallacy of imitative form" mentioned in the last chapter. However, there has long been another current of thought that has resisted any assimilation of the humanities to the sciences, and it is to several representative voices of this resistance that Louth turns.

The first such voice he describes is that of Giambattista Vico, who highlighted the difference to protest the attempts of Enlightenment thinkers to make the character of the sciences paradigmatic for all knowledge—the sentiment that in order to be true, knowledge must be "scientific". He brings in the idea that one can only understand fully what one has made. In his view, mathematics is not something discovered so much as invented, hence why we are able to understand it so clearly and precisely. Yet nature is not manmade, and so mathematics is not always a good fit to it; the spectrum of "hardness" in the sciences can be seen as a scale of how well different fields of study can be described by mathematics. Yet human history, human deeds are obviously also manmade; they can be known from within, not simply as external objects of study like the natural world. How strange it is, then, to try to apply the methods of science to understand human history! Instead Vico points to the importance of metaphor and imagination in helping us to understand history; metaphors are seen as windows to the thought world or "common sense" of not just individuals but past communities.

Wilhelm Dilthey later elaborated on this distinction between science and the humanities. He calls attention to their difference in subject matter: the natural sciences study physical objects which can be analyzed and experimented on in detail, while the humanities are concerned with human minds which do not submit to this kind of study. Yet they are accessible to us in a more fundamental way, because they are not other but "connatural" to us. Dilthey describes the understanding of minds (ours or others') as the sympathetic understanding of their "expressions" of experiences. Our capacity to in some sense share in the experiences of others is what gives us access to other minds, guided by our shared understanding of human nature. Interpretation, according to Dilthey, is an attempt to reflect in the mind the experiences of another, which he calls "indwelling" (23). It is a movement back and forth between text and context, from parts to whole; "This circle is logically unbreakable, but we break it in practice every time we understand." (24) This way of interpretation is not purely or even primarily a logical process; it is more guided by sympathy and intuition; it is an attempt to (in Schleiermacher's words, "[understand] the author better than he understands himself."

Similarities between Vico and Dilthey readily become apparent. Both emphasize our ability to understand other minds "from the inside" via sympathetic imagining, made possible by our common human nature, as opposed to the purely external, more logical study of the natural world. Yet this difference in the kinds of knowledge dealt with by the sciences and humanities still seems to concede "truth" to science, and claims something else for the humanities. Is this an inevitable side-effect of seeking to understand the humanities as radically different than science? Louth thinks not. He points to some presuppositions: the very notion of "objective" and "subjective" kinds of truth, and the attitude of the sciences toward the present.

As regards objective and subjective truth, the common definition is that objective truth is detached from the subjectivity of the observer (i.e. equally true for everyone, in all contexts), while subjective truth cannot be detached from the observer, and is "true for me", but a particular subject in a particular situation; it cannot be expressed in such a way that it is true for everyone. Expressed this way, Louth argues, it seems obvious that objective truth is "real" truth and subjective truth is somehow lesser. Against this, he describes objectivity and subjectivity as a spectrum, not a dichotomy. On one side is purely objective truth, but between it and purely subjective truth (which would simply be a collection of personal impressions lacking any engagement with the external world) lies truth that is objective in that it engages with truths that are "real", but does not do so in a detached, purely observational way. As Kierkegaard put it, "real" truth is that which a man would lay down his life for; purely objective truth is mere information that concerns "everyone and no one." (27) "What is important is engagement with reality, not simply the discerning of reality: and if it is reality, then it has a certain objectivity, it cannot simply be a reflection of my subjective apprehensions." Louth here introduces an idea which will continue to bear fruit for the rest of the book.

He also questions the "canonization of the present" as a way to measure the past. This approach tends to treat the understanding of the present (or rather, the recent past) as unproblematic, as a way to understand the (more distant) past, yet this seems hard to believe. By ignoring the problem of the present, which contains the subject seeking to understand, it becomes easier to imagine that our knowledge of the past can be "objective". What can we make of the past if that subjectivity is not removable?

Louth next turns to the approach of Hans-Georg Gadamer toward the difference between the sciences and the humanities, a self-confessing effort to show "how little the traditions in which we stand are weakened by modern historical consciousness". Gadamer calls out the influence of Steiner's "fallacy of imitative form" on the humanities, considering it mistaken for two reasons. First is the search for a single, objective, "original meaning" to a text by seeking to situate ourselves in the author's context until we understand him, maybe even better than he understands himself. Gadamer considers this an unrealistic expectation because it ignores the context of the interpreter; it is an impossible quest to understand not just what is written but the author himself. Even were it possible, such an understanding would be a "dead meaning" (30) for the reasons just raised by Kierkegaard; real meaning emerges in the engagement between author and reader, and so is not limited by either.

The second error Gadamer points out is the corresponding attempt to eliminate the subjectivity of the interpreter, the ideal of "presuppositionless understanding" which removes the reader from the equation to allow the "original meaning" of the author to shine through. As in science the ideal is "objectivity", the elimination of "prejudice". In response Gadamer asks: does being situated in various traditions limit one's freedom and make one subject to prejudices? Or is such limitation simply a part of being human, the particular space in which we find our freedom? A truer theory of interpretation sets the interpreter himself and his engagement with the past within tradition. The hermeneutical circle does not vanish when we attain to perfect understanding it is itself understanding. The discovery of the "true meaning" of a text is never finished; "it is rather an infinite process whereby tradition is handed on." (33) This does not mean that understanding is impossible, but rather than it is never exhausted or completed.

Thus Gadamer rejects any antithesis between tradition and reason or knowledge. Tradition is not what keeps us from true understanding, but (at least in the humanities) that by which, through which, and within which we can truly understand. "Tradition is the context in which one can be free, it is not something that constrains us and prevents us from being free." (35) Growth and understanding within tradition is likened to a process of "undeception", in which we do not grow in knowledge so much as we are freed from that which keeps us from being open to new experience, to understanding. We do not simply question such-and-such text; we understand the questions it is answering and allow them to question us.

Gadamer draws an analogy between ways of engagement with an author and forms of conversation. The first kind of engagement does not really allow a conversation to develop at all; it is simply the observation of an object, and the "conversation" is the context within which we observe him and try to draw conclusions; this is analogous to trying to apply a rigorously scientific methodology to the humanities which treats people as objects of study, subject to laws to be discovered. Another kind is a real conversation, but one in which I am not interested in what someone is saying as in how he "really" thinks and feels—trying to peer beneath the surface understand him better than he understands himself. This is similar to the relationship between a psychiatrist and a client, but without the therapeutic motive. Finally, I can engage in a conversation where I not only recognize the other's personhood, but also his "claim over me" and what he has to say to me. I am not trying to gain an "objective" understanding of him, but only of what he has to say; I am open to learning from him, not merely about him.

Finally Gadamer proposes, as an alternative to the Enlightenment goal of seeking a method which will lead to truth if applied properly, the German concept of bildung, or the Greek word paideia—which roughly translates to "childhood", "formation", or "growing up" (reminiscent of James K.A. Smith's proposal in Desiring the Kingdom). In his understanding, initiation into the humanities is not initiation into any technique so much as it is an initiation into the tradition with which we are concerned. The goal is not objectivity, but the right kind of subjectivity, a "sensitivity to our historical situation and all that has contributed to it," the experience and wisdom that allows us to benefit as fully as possible from our situation instead of transcending it. Rather than denying our prejudices, bildung initiates us into them—or more sympathetically, into a perspective by which we can truly know the moral world.

This chapter is where Louth really starts to unpack the big ideas of the book. His critique of the simple dichotomy between "objective" and "subjective", and suggestion of a spectrum from detached, universal truth to purely subjective impression immediately struck me as insightful, a way of thinking I hadn't encountered before that makes a lot of sense and explains much. I expressed something remotely like this in my own search for answers.
I believe truth is intrinsically bound up in reality itself, not something separate and neutral we use to describe it. If truth is a body of rational statements, we have privileged access to it as rational beings. But it truth is tied into reality, then we have access to it inasmuch as we are 'native'/at home in the world. (2013-7-12)
What I was missing when I wrote this is that the ultimate truth we seek to know is the Word himself, and we know him not just through the quasi-abstraction of "reality" but through the particularity of tradition, as Louth explains. I was also using the newer, more narrow meaning of "rational" as meaning something like "propositional and logic-based", when in its original meaning it denoted the human ability and calling to know God, as Fr. Stephen Freeman explains. But I was dead-on right that authentically knowing truth is not a detached affair of "objective" perception, but active engagement with the object of our knowing. There is no distance between our knowing and its object.

Thus the goal of theology is not to seek "objective" truth or knowledge. The word "objective", as it is commonly used, denotes not so much a positive quality as the lack of something: personal, subjective engagement with the reality known (pure subjectivity also denotes a lack of something: an external reality to know and engage with). In the sciences this lack of subjectivity denotes repeatability and universality and is arguably a good thing; not so in the humanities, Louth argues, least of all theology.

In lay-level Bible study, it is common to designate interpretation and application as the two major steps in biblical interpretation. This division of labor assumes that interpretation is separable, both logically and chronologically, from application, from engagement with the truth glimpsed through interpretation. We first figure out "what it meant then", then turn to "what it means now". We expect to somehow interpret in detachment, as objectively as possible, and then reattach ourselves to apply what we have learned to our own lives. Gadamer would disagree; he instead wrote that such "objective" detachment is unrealistic and undesirable.

Louth argues that interpretation and engagement are inseparable, cyclically linked in the "hermeneutical circle", from text to context and back in perpetuity. I still feel a residual tinge of unease over the suggestion that interpretation could be a never-ending process insofar as it seems to set the meaning of Scripture outside our grasp. Louth is not claiming this, but that we can never exhaust the meaning of Spirit-breathed Scripture, to the point where we have nothing left to learn from it, no further way to grow in it. In this never-completed cycle of interpretation, we find that tradition is not a barrier to true understanding, but the medium in which we are able to come by it. What we need to interpret rightly is not subjectless objectivity, the freedom from presuppositions and traditions, but the right tradition. This is what I always try to emphasize to Christians who claim to have found (or at least to be seeking) the "objective" or "original" meaning of Scripture, apart from "human tradition". As Louth will argue in the next chapter, tradition is inescapable, a part of our human condition; if you think that you are free from tradition and prejudices, it simply means you are unaware of their influence on you.

A common argument I hear fielded in support of the need to read (or at least attempt to read) a text like the Bible "objectively" is to imagine that you wrote something that someone else is reading (a letter, book, blog post, or whatever). Wouldn't you want them to read it in search of what you actually meant in your act of communication, and not to simply subjectively insert their own meaning, making your writing say whatever they want? Should we not extend this same respect, of actually caring what people mean when they communicate, to others? Yet this argument assumes the false dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity Louth points out, where anything other than seeking the original meaning is thought to be pure invention on our part. I would argue we also do a text a disservice if we approach it with the detachment of a scientist in the laboratory, if we simply treat it like a puzzle to be solved where the only solution is to figure out exactly what the writer was thinking and meaning, with everything else extraneous. Imagine if you wrote a letter to someone else and they read it in this way, seeking to ground it in a reconstruction of your socio-historical background, worldview, cultural assumptions, etc., instead of simply reading it in the shared context of your friendship and knowledge of each other! In biblical interpretation, tradition occupies the role of that friendship; it is our living link with the individuals and the community from whom we have received the very text we are trying to interpret. And, as Christian tradition lives within the body of Christ indwelt by the Spirit, it makes possible something more important: subjective engagement with the ultimate objective, personal reality witnessed to by the text—not the Bible itself, but its Author.

From time to time I read pieces about the kind of legacy we are leaving behind as a civilization—what future generations will think when examining our artifacts, reading our writings, looking at our consumer goods and technology. This kind of thinking has always struck me as strange because for some reason it always assumes these these future humans remember absolutely nothing of our time, not even in a distorted fashion, so that they are only able to know our culture through archaeological guesswork, not simply as our descendants. This seems hard to believe when we think about all the ways, both obvious and invisible, that classical Greek culture continues to influence modern western society more than two millennia later. Such imaginings seem to bleakly assume that civilization will have collapsed and been forgotten in the interim, with no living memory passed on. By taking a scientific, "objective" approach to theology or the humanities in general, by seeking to escape from the traditions that have been passed down and then reconstruct them using historical criticism, we are being similarly forgetful.