Reading God’s Books

December 3, 2013 Length: 20:40

A talk Fr. John Oliver gave at a symposium titled "God's Books: Reading Scripture in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam" held at the Murfreesboro Mosque in November.





I was invited to participate in a symposium held on Sunday, the third of November 2013, at the Islamic Community Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the mosque that has generated international attention and even more local passion. The title of the symposium was “God’s Books: Reading Scripture in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” Speakers included two Islamic scholars, one Catholic, one Protestant, one Jewish scholar, and me. Here’s the full text of what I said that day.

Of history’s every yield, of all insights and awakenings from every era, of all discoveries provided through time by great minds and grand movements, of all truths harvested from all life by the race of men, it may be the conviction of the Orthodox Christian Tradition that no yield, no insight, no awakening or discovery or truth is more foundational to our sense of well-being than this: There is a God, who is a God of desire, who with love beyond measure desires us.

This is the central reality, rooted not in what man can intuit, for the created cannot penetrate the mystery of the Uncreated, but in what God has revealed. It undergirds more than history. It is always the present pulse and breath of life. Without embracing it above all other gospels, that God desires us, the human being is less than human, and his books are less than comprehensible. The creation narrative of Genesis reveals a God who creates. In the context of other creation narratives of its era, it reveals a God who creates and pursues.

The Sumerian culture, from which the biblical Abraham came, was propped up in part by belief in multiple deities who produced creation from a fit of rage. Marduk, the most powerful of gods, tears open the body of his mother, Tiamat, and her interior contents becomes the sky, the stars, the heavenly galaxies, the earth, and all its vegetation. To tend to this material mess, a task with which no god would dirty its hands, Marduk creates man, a necessary slave to manage creation and build temples to the gods. For the Sumerians, creation erupted from a violent matricide in the heavenly realm, with humanity created as a regrettable afterthought—a worldview that favored the interests of the powerful and educated elite, who occupied the same tier in the material world that the gods occupied in the spiritual world. By dividing the world between the powerful and the powerless, between the beneficiaries of slave labor and slaves themselves. This, they believed, is how the gods intended the world to be.

In sharp relief to this creation narrative of theocratic violence and the detritus of man, there is Yahweh, the biblical God, who creates the entirety of the non-human world on purpose, declaring it good. Then, in a kind of sweeping crescendo, makes man, “according to our image and likeness.” Here, the desire for us that is part of God’s own energies is imparted to the man made in his image so that, as a permanent part of his own self, man will desire God in return. This is the dance of salvation, God’s pursuit and man’s response, the created following the sometimes tender, sometimes terrifying lead of the Uncreated.

It is a play, in every moment of every act of reading sacred text. We read, not firstly to study or acquire, but to surrender. “Thou hast madest for thyself,” wrote Augustine, “and our hearts find no peace until they rest in thee.” The content of God’s desire is not manifest in the abstract, nor contained by reason, neither is it even primarily spiritual. It is more than any femoral sense discerned in sacred writ by an open heart. The Christian Bible describes God as desiring to meet his creatures in a variety of tangible media: in Scripture itself, in his temple, in the world of nature, in the poor and “least of these,” even in the trembling urgency of our own pain.

But more than all this, to his desire for us God has given a specifically incarnational contour. God is the God of desire, yes, but it is equally the conviction of the Orthodox Christian Tradition that God demonstrates his desire in and as the Christ. “But God showed his love toward us,” writes the Apostle Paul, “in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Indeed, this conviction extends to the scandalous belief that God’s desire is only manifest, only perfect, only true, only beautiful, only final, only complete, only begun, sustained, and finished in the Christ, the Theanthropos, the God-man. Because, for the Orthodox, it is only Christ in whom the created and the Uncreated meet, with his mother Mary serving as the cathedral. It is only in Christ where all hunger for knowledge and meaning feasts upon the banquet of the divine and unchanging.

The Bible of Christian Orthodoxy contains almost a million words, but we believe the Father fundamentally speaks only one. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God utters forth a single incarnate Logos, he whom the great fifth-century Church Council in Chalcedon called perfect in Godhead and perfect in humanity, truly God and truly human, acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. This is, in a paradox that can only come from the arithmetic of love, the great self-emptying of God who cannot be emptied, the conception of the inconceivable, the appearance of the invisible, the revelation of what the indescribable is really like, and how far the uncircumscript will really go to save his creation. The divine becomes human so that, through an exchange of natures, the human may become divine.

Christ is the reason why a definition of God as the Transcendent is entirely true, but only half right. God is not merely the Other; he is the imminent Other, transcendent, yet, according to Orthodox teaching on the Incarnation, the perfect Archetype of the human being, and the Way to our own true humanity. Because Christ is the brightness of God’s glory and the express Image of God’s Person, an Orthodox reading of Scripture is primarily Christocentric. Every act of reading God’s books is both an encounter with his rapturous desire to reach us and the search for his singular Word, in whom, by whom, and through whom we are reached.

It is not the person of Lao Tzu that matters in Taoism, but his teachings. It is not the person of the Buddha that matters in Buddhism, but his teachings. It is not the person of Plato that matters in the philosophical system of Platonism, but his teachings. Christianity, however, and its entire structure, rests upon and derives its very life from the Person of its founder. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked in the central question of Christian Scripture.

The authentic search for the answer, also called the Christian life, unfolds in the mystery of the Church. The Christological hermeneutic is inseparable in its ecclesiological context. Comprehension of the divine is chiefly a communal privilege. Prophets, apostles, and saints mostly emerge from the community, and it is for the benefit of the community that God reveals himself to them, revelation written down, compiled, edited, and canonized by the community. Early Latin Christians would say, “Totus Christus caput et corpus—We preach the whole Christ, head and body.” The Christian Bible is a book of the Church, revealed to the Church in a spiritual vocabulary discernible by the Church. Language, asceticism, creed, tradition, sacrament, liturgy.

Today the individual Orthodox reading Scriptures checks his experience against the experience of the community and the consensus of the ages. For he understands this to be part of what it means that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.

So God desires, Christ accomplishes, the Church receives. Preach Christ alone to the exclusion of the Church, and all we have is an abstraction, a flexible culture co-opted by various groups through the centuries, a champion claimed by wildly contrasting causes, a malleable mystic who floats above the ground and grounding of history. Preach Christ alone, and he is vulnerable to the same confusions affixed to holy Scripture when one preaches text alone. The object can be twisted and interpreted to mean just about anything. Preach the Church alone, to the exclusion of Christ, and all we have is a social club or a mechanism for the preservation of culture, or worse, a mob held together by shared superstitions. Preach the Church alone, and she is sure to degenerate into a religious system of power and intimidation. She becomes what Revelation calls “the synagogue of Satan.”

The consensus of the Orthodox Tradition, though we have historically taken our turn tilting toward both errors, is that there is no Christless Church and there is no Churchless Christ. In God’s book within Christendom, Christ is identified with his Church, and the Church is identified with her Christ. Bridegroom and bride, head and body, king and people, pastor and flock, master and disciples, vine and branches, cornerstone and temple.

When reading God’s books, the text provides one part of understanding; the reader provides the other. How do we recognize God in the books we hold dear? How do we discern the divine within the potently human enterprise of writing, editing, and transmitting text? What is the foundation of a theology that does not merely tickle the mind, but transforms a life?

In The Ladder of Divine Ascent, an exalted text of the Orthodox tradition, written in the sixth century and still read aloud each day in monasteries during the penitential season of Great Lent, we read this: “A complete state of purity is the foundation of theology.” Theology may be contemporarily identified as a purely academic discipline, but the word meant something more for John Climacus, author of The Ladder. For him and the tradition in which he wrote, a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.

True theology, narrowly defined, uncommonly found, is the direct unmediated experience of God. To read a book about astronauts is not the same as suiting up and launching into space. To read a book about swimming is not the same as stripping down and jumping into the pool. Similarly, to read a book about God is not the same as theologizing or believing or even possessing a spiritual life.

Imagine a wall with two windows, the glass in one covered with dirt in grime, obscuring the radiance of the sun and failing to do what a window is designed to do; the glass in the other, clean and clear, revealing the radiance of the sun and succeeding to do what a window is designed to do. “A complete state of purity is the foundation of theology” suggests that in order to experience God in all his glorious light, the mind of a person, or, to use the biblical term, the nous of a person, which is not the reasoning faculty but the intuitive sense for perceiving the divine, like a radio antenna that picks up signals from the spiritual world, must be clean and clear.

The first window may have nice curtains and decorative trim but not be a channel for the sun. We may generate interesting ideas about God, even performing deeds in his name, but still have no experience with God himself. The second window may be simpler, but also be a clear channel for the sun. We may not have impressive accomplishments or worldly sophistication, yet do stand as clear channels who know God and make him known.

Reading God’s books rightly, therefore, depends on the purity of our nous, the eye of the soul, the spiritual pilot light, either bright or dim. What illumines or darkens the nous is the grace of the Holy Spirit in response to the kind of life we lead, the thoughts we entertain, the choices we make, the time we spend, the content of what we allow to pass through our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

In this complete state of purity, we’ll also determine how to rightly apply the very forms of textual criticism, literary, for example, or historical, that we associate with a more rigorous study of God’s books. New data, discovered academically, will have to resonate with unchanging realities discerned noetically or spiritually. The Orthodox reading of the Bible, such as St. Basil’s fourth century On the Holy Spirit, which devotes almost one-third of its length to the role of prepositions in Scripture, accepts the critical tools of each era, but critically. In time, all reformations need reform; all new insights need renewal, for is this not the nature of learning?

Intellect and reason are exceedingly sacred faculties, as organic to the image of God within us as is the desire for him, but useful primarily as tools for organizing and expressing knowledge of God previously discerned through noetic experience. The apostles, symbolic here of all Christified humanity, could identify the single incarnate Logos hidden in the law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms because he opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.

A life of humility and repentance, therefore, of self-emptying love remains a more trustworthy way to read God’s books than any intent to imagine or conceptualize or systematize or even to understand God, all of which lies at the root of so much theological malevolence. Heresy is what happens when bright minds are seduced by their own glow. The subtle craving for originality or a claim enters like a splinter in the mind, indiscernible at first, but gradually warping whole thought processes until what comes out is unrecognizable to the Scriptures or the saints or the Savior himself. Gregory of Nyssa put the whole matter succinctly: “Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.”

You step into the afternoon light and feel the warmth of the sun on your face. Inspired, you write a poem about your experience, a lovely perception in precise wording, measured meter, perhaps with rhyming couplets. The poem is iconographic, something real that by some mystery points to something more real. But while it serves as the best ordering and articulation of that experience, it is not the same as the experience. There is no substitute for reading or for some purposeful taking-in of God’s books.

St. Isaac the Syrian, one of the most-quoted Fathers of the Orthodox Tradition, studied the Bible so intensely that he literally went blind in the process, but he could not read about the wooing lover in the Song of Solomon without being wooed. He could not read about the dazzling darkness of Mount Sinai without being dazzled. He could not read about the transfiguring light of Mount Tabor without at least the yearning to be transfigured. It is this yearning that is captured in the prayer read by the priest just prior to the public proclamation of holy Scripture in the Divine Liturgy, the weekly and highest celebration of the Word of God in the Orthodox Tradition. Indeed, it is also an ideal summary:

Illumine our hearts, O Master who lovest mankind, with the pure light of thy divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of thy Gospel teachings; implant in us also the fear of thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things are well-pleasing unto thee. For thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto thee we ascribe glory, together with thy Father who is from everlasting and thy all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

God desires, Christ accomplishes, the Church receives, the readers respond, purify, participate, think, doubt, struggle, and by the grace of God, change. This process of illumination, though admittedly not always foundation to Orthodox practice, is foundational to Orthodox life. So the question of how we understand Scripture is inseparable from the question of how we understand anything. What the great books tell us, at least, is that with love beyond measure the Uncreated has lifted the veil and the creation is no longer in darkness. What else can creation do but dance?