Monday, June 22, 2009


I thank God regularly for the number of good conversation partners with whom He has seen fit to graced me. (I saw recently and somewhere that a Spanish-speaker had translated his own reply to someone, "Muchas gracias!" as "many graces." It's a literal translation I suppose, but just look at how much more charming and eucharistic that translation is than the "thank you" he could have used.) And you see evidence of that here all the time. (If I've ever had an original thought -- for good or ill -- it likely has grown out of the convergence of talks I've had with others, in which I paste or mutilate thoughts onto one another for my own purposes.)

Well, one of those partners is Cha, whose blog, Transposzing, I link to. The other day in a wide-ranging coffee break chat, we were lamenting the absence of a good sense of The Great Tradition from much of Christianity: There is a rude arrogance in Christianity that encourages "me" to be the judge of all that is. (Leithart, in Solomon among the Postmoderns, helps to explain how this has come to be as a kind of natural response to the Enlightenment, with its consequent Modernist hard-headedness and suspicion of authority, in Postmodernism's value of plurality and suspicion of metanarrative [which is really, I think, what the Enlightenment was: an effort to write a metanarrative in which God was not a character].) And I was talking about my Matthew group and how we have had to learn how to read the Gospel properly -- about how wrong is the supposed Reformation ideal that every Christian can just pick up a Bible and read it on his/her own and achieve full revelation of God. We need guides -- and not just the historical critics, either. (Carl Braaten and I recently discussed his view that all the on-going "historical Jesus" investigation -- whether it's Jesus Seminar or N.T. Wright -- is wrong-headed because it posits that there's something behind the Bible which we have to somehow discern in order for the Bible to be true. I'm not sure I agree with him yet, but I am still mulling over his insistence that even to undertake to "prove" this or that of the Bible is to grant legitimacy to a hermeneutic of suspicion -- my term, not his -- that is at the heart of the decline of the Faith.)

I said that it reminds me of the bumper sticker (which I'd put on my car, if I had such a bumper sticker), "If you can read this/thank a teacher." In the faith, before we can read the Scriptures, we, too, need teachers. We need someone -- actually several -- to lead us in the art of Scripture reading that will allow the "meaning" to come forth. The creeds and councils, the Fathers, the great preachers through the ages, our own mentors in the faith -- these all are Spirit-placed teachers who instruct us in how to read the Bible faithfully.

Frankly, this is not limited to the life of faith: We must be taught to read in whatever discipline we probe. I had to be taught to read poetry with the help of John Ciardi's surprisingly titled "How Does a Poem Mean." (How, not "What" does a poem mean? Talk about a perspective changer.) Later I had to be taught how appropriately to read social science reports (actually, I'm not sure that most of that stuff is written in any human language, but that's for another time). Then, I had to learn how properly to read legal precedents and statutes. It is probably impossible to pick up the laws of Minnesota or a volume of Supreme Court decisions and read it without training in how to read that kind of material. (I admit that it's not rocket science; but it is different from reading the newspaper or James Joyce.)

Lamentably, the underlying issue is well-known to almost all Christians, but the greater issue is not: Christians seem to know that they need help in reading and understanding the Bible. But they look to the wrong teachers. The various "quests for the historical Jesus" (whose critics Carl is but the latest in a noble line); Bultmann, Vermes, Borg, Crossan (grr); social scientists (remember Karl Menninger's classic diatribe against preachers' recasting sin as disease, "Whatever Became of Sin?"?), critics and theorists of various sorts (ah, the glories of post-modern pluralism), The Fundamentals, and all the rest -- these become the teachers who displace those who are the Church's true teachers and in the process teach people to read improperly.

I confess, in my typical sky-is-falling over-reaction, that I am tempted to despair when I look at Seminary reading lists. Foucault, Derrida, and people whom I don't know appear, but there is no requirement that students of the Bible read Basil or Chrysostum or Augustine (well, you can go light on him, for my money) or Origen. I also confess that I am caught in the days of my youth: What I learned made sense, and I'd rather things not change. I got into battles with my daughter because she expected me to help her with her math, but I was taught to get an exact result from multiplication and she is taught to get an approximation! (OK, that's maybe simplistic, but I really didn't and don't get it!) But I think there are some things that are still true and haven't changed: There is a difference between who and whom; 4 + 3 does not equal "between 6 and 8; "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is not adequately represented in or substituted by "Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer" any more than is "Holy Trinity." How do I know? Because I was taught to read and to read properly. (I make no claims that a teacher can teach you to be bright, but she can teach you to discern. Similarly, no teacher on her own can make one believe, but she can put on in a position to hear the true Gospel and be converted.)

Despite my despair, I continue in my hope and confidence that the Spirit will continue to whisper, shout, sing, and chant, as She did to Augustine, "Take up and read!" But her command, invitation, and enticement is now probably, "Take up and read correctly."


Camassia said...

But we all choose our own teachers, don't we? Or at least, we choose which of our teachers to believe, and which not to believe. In the end, it all still comes down to individual discernment. If everyone had been satisfied with the education you got, the seminary reading lists would never have changed in the first place...

Dwight P. said...

No, Sister, I don't think we really do choose our own teachers. Oh, I may go off to Oxford to study under a particular don, but there are all kinds of community rules, values, etc. that urge me to learn from one versus another of all those dons. Thus, early on, I had my first-grade teacher thrust upon me; I didn't choose her. And she had the goals and curriculum of the school district thrust upon her, as her canon (or teacher/guide).

My point, poorly made, is that community derives, at least in part, from an acceptance of the authority of certain teachers (as I am calling them, but wouldn't insist on calling them) over against that of others. There was a time when the group of teachers the Church looked to was relatively certain (and circumscribed). The Enlightenment radically changed that, with its metanarrative of the self's self-justification -- rendering teachers and teaching problematic at least. As I repeatedly note, we need to recapture some of the humility of pre-Enlightenment Christianity.

Luther, for all his standing "alone" up against the Pope, looked to the Fathers, to his Augustinian forebears, and to his mentor-confessor Johann von Staupitz for instruction, guidance, correction. Admittedly, he jumped back over a whole lot of centuries to get to some of those teachers, and that may or not be a problem. (My friends in philosophy can determine whether you can understand the Gospel without Dun Scotus: I rather think I've done all right without him. But there I go again.)

At the end of Matthew, Jesus commands his disciples to go and make "disciples" (not believers) of all nations. Discipline is explictly carried by the word "disciple." Disciples are disciplined in their readings and practices -- disciplined by a canon of person or principles or whatever. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be disciplined to attend to the bearers of his Word whom he, through the Spirit and the Church, has pointed to us.

That, of course, doesn't eliminate the personal element: We are persons, not computers or mindless minions. We will each and all make our own sense of things that our teachers try to get across. I may read St. Ephrem to a very different terminus from the way you do. And it is an exciting aspect of the faith that we share, compare, and dispute each other's discernment, as you rightly term it.

But there must be boundaries, limits. And that's what I'm arguing for here. How do we know when we go too far, when we stray from truth (whatever that is)? Personal satisfaction is not quite the issue or the criterion -- as luscious and attractive as that is in our world.

A change in reading lists is a natural thing, surely: Thinking is constantly evolving and to maintain a rigidity about what can and cannot be read is sheer folly -- in a professional school as much as in the academy (yes, I do distinguish them). But when those reading lists reflect non-theological and non-Christian perspectives more than the classic expressions of the faith, there is something wrong.

No one can teach what it means to be Lutheran without the Book of Concord. So why should preaching classes be devoid of the great interpreters, such as Origen? How can courses on biblical interpretation exclude the great homilists? Instead, we see books by Barbara Brown Taylor whose eloquence led her to "leave church" (her words) -- to cite only one example.

And I don't mean to pick on the seminaries. Oh, nonsense, of course I do: To whom much is entrusted, of them is much expected. But I don't mean to hold them exclusively responsible for the problems in the Church.

Lee said...

I don't think it's sufficient to lecture people on not listening to teachers until we grapple with the real, serious moral failings of the church (and other institutions) that have led so many people to distrust it in the first place.

Also, blaming "the Englightenment" strikes me as simplistic: it's not like we can leap back into the mindset that could take everything the Fathers or the Schoolmen said as the final word. I'm all for historical study and awareness of the tradition, but, y'know, things have happened since the 3rd century.