Woman and the Miracle of Creation

It is a miracle, indeed the first and greatest of all miracles, that any of us are alive, or that anything exists at all. Existence is a mysterious thing, and we only have to seriously reflect on non-existence to affirm life’s tremendous gratuity and the marvellous nature of being. Furthermore, we humans do not only exist, but are living beings, and, above other living beings, have the ability to reflect upon our existence, to consider these questions and weigh up what it might all mean – we are conscious beings, a part of existence which can consider what existence means. While living beings have a special place within creation though, and human beings a unique place amongst living beings, woman has an even more exalted place still.

In an article from The Imaginative Conservative, Peter Strzelecki Reith, writing about Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris, considers towards the end of his piece the particular marvel of femininity, and relates it to the wider miracle of creation. He also goes further than this however, and points out that in the fecundity of woman, we have a paradigmatic case of how life is brought forth from death, how the seed that falls into the ground brings forth new life:

…there is something unique about women, as the only creatures in the tapestry of known conscious life to not only be heading towards death, like the rest of mankind, but to also be incubators of the passage from non-being to being, from a kind of death to life. Within the body of a woman, the miracle of creation, of consciousness coming to be from unconscious matter, is played out…

…This phenomenon is not, however, something outside of her, it is not a phenomenon of Other-hood, or Other-liness. For the consciousness of the Other which grows within her is at once a part of her. This experience, unique to woman-as-human, is incomprehensible to man. It cannot be conveyed in words, it cannot be explained, it is totally and forever outside the realm of masculine phenomenology. It is a small secret of the universe known by woman as phenomenon. Woman is not only the being which carries mystery in her body—she is the conscious life who experiences mystery as a physical phenomenon unknowable to man. Just as Jesus passed through Death into Eternal Life via the Mystery of God, so the consciousness that arises within the woman passes through the death of non-being into the eternal life of being conscious—only here the intermediary is not God; distant, all powerful, omnipotent—the intermediary is woman. We might, returning to the above noted subject of the resurrection, adjust our initial thought, according to which the prejudice of the times held that woman—irrational women—were by nature more fit to witness the irrational resurrection of Christ on account of their lower intellect. Perhaps it is not low intellect, but rather the physical capacity to act as a conscious, experiencing incubator for the transformation of non-being into being that gives women the special sensitivity to have been the first to witness the risen God? Perhaps for woman, the Mystery is not “over there” but in them, a part of them—they themselves?

Whilst all humankind experiences the mystery of existence and conscious being to some degree, women are actually given the privilege of the very mystery of creation taking place within them – the bringing forth of conscious life from non-being; where there was previously only one life, now there is another residing within. This is a kind of microcosm, even (one could say) a living parable of God’s perennial work of creation from nothing, through various stages of existence, into fully conscious, self-reflective being. In this sense then, woman has been chosen as the crown of God’s creative work, insofar as each woman enacts over and again a miniature re-telling of His handiwork.

This is not only a confirmation of the unique place of woman within creation of course, but a confirmation of the holy treasure that she carries within her – life. God’s choosing woman to re-present His creative work in this way is an affirmation of the goodness of all life, and especially of the sanctity of human life. This of course reinforces Catholic teaching on issues like abortion and euthanasia, but it also sheds some light on the wider question of the equality of the sexes, and authentic femininity. To affirm that woman has an especial place in the world, and that this is because of her role as bringer of life, as nurturer and carer, also affirms her difference from man, and gives us pause to reflect on what is essentially different about the sexes.

God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’ reads Genesis 1:27, which tells us that men and women are equal in dignity, both created in God’s image, which means that they both share in His reason, His freedom, and His love. They are however, created as distinct from one another, and, as Genesis 2:21-25 suggests, meant to complement one another, not try to equal each other by becoming the same in every respect. The role of woman as nurturer and bringer of life is the case in point here – whilst both sexes are involved in the act of procreation, it is only the woman that bears this new life within her, from whom the new human life receives its sustenance and by whom is given the time to grow in stature.

This is not to suggest that the only difference between men and women is that women can bear children and men cannot – it is rather to highlight that this is the main difference between the sexes, and that this central distinction is in some way emblematic of all the other ways in which women are different from men. Women are given towards particular virtues that men, generally speaking, are not (and I think that speaking generally is warranted here – unless one subscribes to the view that gender is a purely social construct, then there will be certain traits that are more typical for one sex than for another; this is not to say that exceptions do not occur), and I think that these virtues have their root in that ‘special sensitivity’ which comes from woman’s role as bringer of life.

Being the ones who bear life in their womb endows women with the virtue of humility, in that they must humble themselves before the mystery that they are capable of bringing forth within their bodies; the virtue of patience, because they must wait over a long period when this life is conceived and then grows within them; the virtue of selflessness, because the life of another requires their giving of the self in order that it may thrive; and the virtues of tenderness and receptivity, because to be able to nurture new life a caring and responsive touch, and a disposition that is open to new challenges is required. Again, this is not say that men may not display some or all of these virtues in part, but that women are particularly given to them, and this because of their unique roles in God’s work of creation.

Furthermore, these virtues, seen as weaknesses by our society, are shown to be strengths when seen in the light of the Gospel. Saint Paul writes that amongst the fruits of the Spirit are ‘peace, patience, kindness…gentleness, self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23), and humility is an absolute cornerstone of what it means to follow Christ. In this sense then, women have a vocational and missionary role to the Church and the world in recalling us to these virtues, but in the proper context of our God-given complementarity in the midst of creation. The pre-eminent example of the way in which women can enact this role is of course Our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary. She, who bore in her womb not just conscious life, but Life itself, supremely lived out the above virtues, and in doing so pointed the way to her Son, the fount of all Goodness.

Authentic femininity then, is directly contrary to the ideology of feminism, which strives to collapse the distinctions between man and woman, and to reframe what it means to be feminine in terms of power*. The latter attitude flows from our fallen nature, which always seeks to define humanity in terms of a struggle for power, and particularly in asserting the power of man over the power of God (seen particularly within feminism in the undermining of woman’s natural and God-given role as life-giver through appeal to ‘rights’ over and against the unborn); whereas the former attitude not only flows from what we can see in nature, but corresponds to the deepest impulses of Christian revelation.

Thus, to look to Our Lady, who points towards God in Christ, is to see what it is to be truly feminine – just as Our Lord is the New Adam, she is the New Eve – and to have the mystery of female fertility and its place in the miracle of creation not only confirmed but raised to a higher level; a level which can act as a powerful sign in the world and recall us to our true place in the grand scheme of things, as well as the higher virtues which the Gospel calls us to. The role of woman is a blessed one indeed, and the attempts to reinterpret it in worldly terms not only diminishes the fairer sex, but buys into a wider program where might is right, and the haughty are exalted.

*For a good discussion of the way in which feminism can be contrasted with authentic femininity, and the former’s interpretation of what it means to be female in terms of power, see this excellent interview with Dr. Alice von Hildebrand.

C. S. Lewis on Transposition: The Meeting of Earthly and Heavenly Things

As a sort of addendum to my last post, in which I explored C. S. Lewis’ thoughts on the potency of scriptural imagery, and the role symbol and metaphor play in our knowing the world more generally, I would like today to focus on another essay of his, which deals with what he referred to as ‘transposition’. This term, usually used to refer to the writing of a piece of music in a different key to the original, is used by Lewis to describe any transference between different modes of experience, and ultimately, between earthly experiences or images, and heavenly ones, and it can shed a lot of light on what he has to say about scriptural imagery and the role of symbol, and why it is that Scripture uses such ‘earthy’ imagery to communicate divine truths.

In his essay (which is entitled Transposition), Lewis begins by examining the strange fact that the same physical sensations can accompany several qualitatively different types of experience – for example, that being in love can produce sensations that we also experience during rough sea travel, and that can also be induced by an intense aesthetic experience (Lewis uses as an example Samuel Pepys’ account of seeing Dekker and Massinger’s play The Virgin Martyr, which Pepys noted made him feel nauseous, in a way indistinguishable from how he felt when first in love with his wife, and yet that he also wanted to experience this nausea again, as he found it ‘ravishing’).

Some others will have experienced a flutter in the diaphragm, or perhaps mild vertigo, but the point is that the same physical sensation accompanies very different experiences – some welcome, others not. Lewis infers from this that this is because our emotional life is ‘higher’ than our physical life, in the sense that it is more varied and more subtle, and it is because our physical faculties are less rich and complex that the same sensations are employed by the body to attend and interpret different experiences. The correspondence between the emotional and the physical is not a one-to-one relationship, but instead like translating a language with a large number of vowel sounds into one with a smaller set of vowel characters.

Lewis’ contention is that this ‘transposition’ from richer to poorer modes is, like our interpretation of experience in metaphor and symbol, a common facet of our experience, and that this explains why religious experiences (e.g.; mysticism) and revelatory language (e.g.; scriptural imagery) are also so often described in familiar, even commonplace terms. The mystic or the inspired writer does so because they are transposing a richer, subtler, more varied life into a vocabulary that is constrained by the resources available to it. Lewis provides an analogy of this by examining our depiction of three-dimensional life in two-dimensional sketches, concluding that:

…we understand pictures only because we know and inhabit the three-dimensional world. If we can imagine a creature who perceived only two dimensions and yet could somehow be aware of the lines as he crawled over them on the paper, we shall easily see how impossible it would be for him to understand…

…And soon, I think, he would say, “You keep on telling me of this other world and its unimaginable shapes which you call solid. But isn’t it very suspicious that all the shapes which you offer me as images or reflections of the solid ones turn out on inspection to be simply the old two-dimensional shapes of my own world as I have always known it? Is it not obvious that your vaunted other world, so far from being the archetype, is a dream which borrows all its elements from this one?

Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (2002), pp.271-272, Harper Collins.

            Thus, the complaint of the non-believing sceptic that all religious experience is to be discounted because it is described in earthly terms and so must surely be ‘just’ our projection of wishful thinking can be seen in a new light – the reason religious experiences and imagery (harps, gold, choirs, intensification of familiar experiences) are described in such terms is because this is the only means we have to describe anything, and we must make do with the tools at our disposal. It is not a surprise that humans do not know what angels know, and that we must describe even the most exalted of mystical experience in earthly terms:

Our problem was that in what claims to be our spiritual life all the elements of our natural life recur: and what is worse, it looks at first glance as if no other elements were present. We know see that if the spiritual is richer than the natural (as no one who believes in its existence would deny) then this is exactly what we should expect. And the sceptic’s conclusion that the so-called spiritual is really derived from the natural, that it is a mirage or projection or imaginary extension of the natural, is also exactly what we should expect; for, as we have seen, this is the mistake which an observer who knew only the lower medium would be bound to make in every case of Transposition.

ibid, p.273.

            What we do know, and what the non-believer cannot know however, is the nature of the experience itself – in this sense, it is a closed circle, and one must enter in before valid commentary can be provided. An atheist reading Saint Hildegard of Bingen or Saint Catherine of Siena, is bound to read the imagery they employ and the experiences they describe as a religious pathology, and therefore see their use of earthly images as ‘proof’ that their experiences are only projections, with no transcendent value. Similarly, the same person reading the Bible may well scoff at the plethora of mundane imagery as an indictment of how there can’t be anything more to it. But, as Lewis has pointed out in his essay, this could not be any other way, and the only way the atheist/agnostic will be able to see further, is to move past their unbelief.

So, if Lewis is correct in his assessment (and I think he makes a very good case for transposition being a core element in the human experience), then we have further good reason to trust the canonical imagery we receive in Scripture, and the writings of the saints, which also employ many such earthly depictions to describe their experiences. Moreover, we should not be worried if we, when trying to describe any experiences we may have had that transcend everyday life, can only do so in everyday terms. This does not discount or disprove the experience, but only confirm the limitations of our language and the imaginative resources available to us.

There will always be those who insist that religious experience is ‘just’ wishful thinking, and see descriptions of it as proof that this is so, and even those who see love as ‘just’ chemical processes, or thought as ‘just’ the firing of neurons, no matter how much this conflicts with their emotional or rational life. But for most of us, we realise that these higher experiences cannot be adequately described, and not because they are false, but because they burst the banks of our ability to describe. Lewis concludes his essay with some reflections on what all this might mean for life in the hereafter – that if our emotional life can sometimes be hard to accurately express, then how much more will the heavenly realms exceed our expectations of them:

Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like pencilled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape; not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun…

…It is the present life which is the diminution, the symbol, the etiolated, the (as it were) “vegetarian” substitute. If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, that is not because they are too solid, too gross, too distinct, too “illustrious with being”. They are too flimsy, too transitory, too phantasmal.

ibid, p.276.

            This idea – that our life here is, though perfectly good and real, but a shadow of the next life, and that when in Heaven we will see our life here on earth (which we see now as so solid and tangible) as the paper sketch to the heavenly three-dimensional reality – is a hallmark of much of Lewis’ work, and given its fullest outworking in The Great Divorce. It is an excellent lens through which to see much of his work, the natural conclusion to his thinking on transposition of experience, and a very appropriate place to summarise his thoughts here, as, if there exist differences in kind in our mundane life, such as Lewis has described, and this is reflected in our ability to describe spiritual experience, then the Source of those experiences must be far beyond our imagining.

And yet, though far beyond what we can imagine, Heaven must also be continuous with our earthly experiences. Our Lord used earthly images to communicate divine truths to his disciples, and the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical writers to use the imagery available to them to communicate something of the glory of Heaven. The things of the earth are hallowed, and their transcendence in the next life is also a confirmation of them, as all the mystical experiences given to us, and all the images abounding in Scripture, are geared towards preparing us for that life, where we will finally be bathed in the glorious light of the Risen Son, and all the hints and glimpses we have received will be both confirmed and fulfilled.

C. S. Lewis on Metaphor and the Power of Scriptural Imagery

The Bible is full of imaginative language, symbol and metaphor, and this imagery has been transferred to the central Christian statements of faith – the Apostles Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, both of which use symbolic and pictorial language in order to describe the mysteries of the Faith. One of the many tired and predictable criticisms of atheist and agnostic detractors of Christianity is to point this out (as if it had never been noticed by anyone before) and use it as ‘proof’ that Christians are irrational and backward-looking, not only holding on to ideas that are ‘out of date’, but also describing them in antiquated and supposedly infantile language.

C.S. Lewis, in an essay read to the Oxford Socratic Club entitled Is Theology Poetry? addresses this criticism, and provides a clear assessment of where such scepticism has gone wrong by examining the beliefs of the earliest Christians, and in doing so showing that the critics of scriptural imagery have made something of a category mistake. The following quote is a fairly long one, but its length is necessary in order to show the breadth of Lewis’ argument:

Theology certainly shares with poetry the use of metaphorical or symbolical language. The first Person of the Trinity is not the Father of the Second in a physical sense. The Second Person did not come “down” to earth in the same sense as a parachutist: nor re-ascend into the sky like a balloon: nor did He literally sit at the right hand of the Father. Why, then, does Christianity talk as if all these things did happen? The agnostic thinks that it does so because those who founded it were quite naively ignorant and believed all these statements literally; and we later Christians have gone on using the same language through timidity and conservatism…

…What did the early Christians believe? Did they believe that God really has a material palace in the sky and that He received His Son in a decorated state chair placed a little to the right of His own – or did they not? The answer is that the alternative we are offering them was probably never present to their minds at all. As soon as it was present, we know quite well which side of the fence they came down. As soon as the issue of Anthropomorphism was explicitly before the Church in, I think, the second century, Anthropomorphism was condemned…

…It is very probable that most (almost certainly not all) of the first generation of Christians never thought of their faith without anthropomorphic imagery: and that they were not explicitly conscious, as a modern would be, that it was mere imagery. But this does not in the least mean that the essence of their belief was concerned with details about a celestial throne room.

Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (2002), p.17, Harper Collins.

The central point Lewis makes here is that for the early Christians, the distinction between symbol and truth was not one that would have made sense. As soon as someone suggested that anthropomorphic language about God could mislead, correctives were added so that the nature and purpose of the imagery employed was made clear; but prior to this, it was taken as a given that the best way of preserving and communicating certain truths about God was precisely in this sort of language – in metaphorical, symbolic, pictorial terms. The modern contention that abstract statements of truth are not only somehow more satisfying, but actually in and of themselves more true, was not one that they would have recognised; nor would they have accepted it if presented to them.

Further on in the essay, Lewis develops this point by moving from consideration of the beliefs of early Christians to a reflection on the inseparability of our beliefs from symbol and metaphor altogether:

We are invited to restate our belief in a form free from metaphor and symbol. The reason why we don’t is that we can’t. We can, if you like, say “God entered history” instead of saying “God came down to earth”. But, of course, “entered” is just as metaphorical as “came down”. You have only substituted horizontal or undefined movement for vertical movement. We can make our language duller; we cannot make it less metaphorical. We can make the pictures more prosaic; we cannot be less pictorial. Nor are we Christians alone in this disability…

…all language about things other than physical objects is necessarily metaphorical.

ibid, p.18.

            Reflection on the last sentence in the excerpt above should lead us to see the truth of it – other than the concrete things we see about us in the world, which we can describe with accuracy and provide a definite account of, everything else we believe about the world must be described either in the abstract, or in terms of metaphor. Furthermore, as Lewis points out, using language that is more technical and less obviously pictorial is also a metaphorical way of speaking. Unless one is to deny all non-physical truths (which some do, seemingly oblivious to the inconsistency of statements such as the non-empirically verifiable declaration that ‘the only truths we can rely on are those that can be empirically tested or accounted for’) we must use metaphor.

In another essay – The Language of Religion – that Lewis had prepared to read at the Twelfth Symposium of the Colston Research Society at the University of Bristol, but was ultimately unable to attend due to ill health, he develops this point even further:

Now it seems to me a mistake to think that our experience in general can be communicated by precise and literal language and that there is a special class of experiences (say, emotions) which cannot. The truth seems to me the opposite: there is a special region of experiences which can be communicated without Poetic language, namely, its “common measurable features”, but most experience cannot. To be incommunicable by Scientific language is, so far as I can judge, the normal state of experience…

…The very essence of our life as conscious beings, all day and every day, consists of something which cannot be communicated except by hints, similes, metaphors, and the use of those emotions (themselves not very important) which are pointers to it.

ibid, pp.263, 265.

To return to the original issue of Christian, and specifically scriptural, language though, the question becomes slightly different, as we are trying to describe what is the most real, and in some sense the most concrete thing in our lives in metaphorical terms; so the question then becomes, what kind of metaphor, what kind of language, is most suitable? The answer, I would submit, is that it is precisely the sort of language we find in Scripture (and which has been preserved in the Creeds) that is most suitable for this task.

The image of Christ sitting enthroned at the right hand of the Father speaks to the whole of us (intellect, imagination, emotion) automatically of the truths enshrined in the image – the complex relationship between Christ’s subordination to the Father and His sharing of the Father’s divine status; the Lordship of Christ over all creation; the raising up of humanity into the divine sphere. All the truths which we abstract from the image are already present within it, and can be accepted by the believer through the image, in a way that breaking it down into convoluted technical terms is often not able to do as powerfully, persuasively, or even as clearly.

Similarly, the terms Scripture uses to describe Heaven – harps, thrones, gold, jewels, running water, grand cities shining with light – are things that we naturally recognise as representative of splendour and glory beyond our imagining. It is almost impossible (though a select few may do this) to imagine Heaven literally being populated by such objects, and we naturally receive such images as the truth-carrying symbols they really are. Our abstract thought is composed of endless comparisons and clarifications, and often only results in obscuring the spiritual realities which are so latent in the images that we have tried to de-code. As Lewis writes in one of his book-length publications:

When the purport of the images – what they say to our fear and hope and will and affections – seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time. For our abstract thinking is itself a tissue of analogies: a continual modelling of spiritual reality in legal or chemical or mechanical terms. Are these likely to be more adequate than the sensuous, organic, and personal images of scripture – light and darkness, river and well, seed and harvest, master and servant, hen and chickens, father and child? The footprints of the Divine are more visible in that rich soil than across rocks or slag-heaps. Hence what they now call “de-mythologising” Christianity can easily be “re-mythologising” it – and substituting a poorer mythology for a richer.

Prayer: Letters to Malcolm (1979), pp.54-55, Fount Paperbacks.

            None of this is to say that theological abstractions are not useful, and do not serve a purpose – they are and they do. The statements of the second century mentioned by Lewis, which were introduced in order to prevent a slide into anthropomorphism, are of this ilk, and were very necessary; the Church has always had to preserve its treasures by a variety of means. But the rich imagery of Scripture, and also the poetic imagery used by many of the saints, who themselves often draw on the original scriptural data, has a perennial potency and vitality to it that cannot be reduced down, and which carries over to us divine truth in ways that speak to us as whole persons, not just to our intellects.

Of course, the Bible is not just any old scripture, it is Sacred Scripture, and so has a divine authority behind it. So we may be permitted to believe, quite reasonably, that the reason its images have such power, is that God chose these particular symbols as especially efficacious means of communicating His will and character. In this respect, Scripture and its imagery can be said to have a sacramental value as well – on top of the natural power of the images to communicate certain truths, for the believer they also key into a wider tapestry of Truth, which is the whole economy of salvation, and so bear upon us even more; one image speaks of another, which speaks of a bigger picture overall. The imagery in Scripture is powerful because it is used by One who wishes to draw people closer to Him, and the closer one gets, the more of that Power it conveys.

We therefore cannot get rid of those images used by God in Scripture to convey His Truth in order to get closer to that Truth. The two come from the same source, and are closely woven together for His purposes; there is no outer shell we can remove to leave behind an inner kernel of revelation, as the two come from the same place, and are one. This is why, on top of the natural power that image and metaphor have in general, and the natural use we make of them, that these images have such potency, and are as such, non-negotiable.

Saint Isaac the Syrian on Repentance and Humility

Today I would like to share a short quotation from the Ascetical Discourses (1st Series, No. 34) of Saint Isaac the Syrian, who is also known as Isaac the Assyrian or Isaac of Nineveh. Living during the seventh century, Isaac was ordained bishop of Nineveh in 660, and spent much of his life writing ascetical theology based on the writings of Origen and Evagrius of Pontus. At times he was accused of the Nestorian heresy, mostly because of his membership of the Assyrian Church of the East, but, aside from the fact that the degree to which the Church of the East was actually Nestorian has been mitigated by recent scholarship, Isaac’s writings themselves prove to be completely orthodox both in their premises and their conclusions.

Isaac, who has the distinction of being the last saint to be recognised as such by all the apostolic churches, only stayed in his episcopal see for five months, preferring the contemplative life of a hermit, and ended his life in the monastery of Rabban Shabur in Iraq, where he could dedicate himself to purifying his soul and writing of the way others may find God in their own lives. Much of his writing, although maintaining a strict asceticism in order to draw people away from the world and closer to the work of the Holy Spirit within them, also focuses on the mercy and forgiveness of God, and it is in this spirit that the following quotation should be read.

The very reason we must humble ourselves and repent of our sins is because we have a loving Father who is always ready to forgive us, and all our ascetical practices are geared towards helping us to recognise this fact more clearly. Thus it is imperative that we are honest with ourselves, and see the depth of our rebellion against God, so that we may receive the graces that are waiting to be poured out into our souls and be led into a new and more blessed way of living (c.f.; Matthew 23:12). Here is the quotation, which though short in length, is deep in wisdom, and requires no further commentary, as its insight is as simple as it is profound:

Anyone who acknowledges his own sins is greater than one who raises the dead by his prayer. Anyone who mourns over the state of his soul for an hour is greater than one who embraces the world in contemplation. Anyone to whom it has been given to see the truth about himself is greater than one to whom it has been given to see angels.

Courtesy of Daily Gospel.

More Wisdom from Pope Benedict XVI: On Freedom, Autonomy, and Love

Following on from yesterday’s post, in which I quoted from another of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s interviews with Peter Seewald, I would like to share another extract from those discussions. This time it is a much more extended reflection, but worth quoting (almost) in full, as Pope Benedict analyses with great precision one of the central problems of our age – rejection of authority and the assertion of abstract individual ‘rights’ and liberty over and against the claims of the other. By uncovering the depth of this problem, he is then able to relate it to the Christian ideal of renunciation and self-giving love, and thereby highlights just how perfect a cure for our selfishness this ideal is:

In today’s world view, the ideas of autonomy and of anti-authoritarianism, if we can put it like that, have become extremely dominant. As dominant as what we were talking about, namely, the concept of power. The two terms become the only category that really counts in our social life. The consequences, however, are evident: if the autonomous subject has the last word, then its desires are simply unlimited. It then wants to snatch as much from life as it can get out of it. This is, I think, really a very major problem of life today. People say: Life is basically complicated and short; I want to get as much out of it as possible, and no one has the right to stand in my way. Before all else I have to be able to seize my piece of life, to fulfil myself, and no one has the right to interfere with me. Anyone who would stand in my way is an enemy of my very self…

…This claim to be the ultimate and sole authority over oneself, and the claim to have the right to appropriate as much of life as possible, while no one has the right to stand in his way, is part and parcel of the sense of life on offer to man today. In this sense, the “Thou shalt not” – there are normative criteria to which we must submit – is an encroachment, indeed, an outright attack against which people defend themselves. Ultimately, what is once more at issue is the basic question of questions: How does man find happiness? How does he live rightly? Is it true that man can be happy only if he himself is his own norm?

Not long ago I mentioned in a conversation with friends that here in the area around Frascati they are preparing to prune the grapevines and that they bear fruit only if they are pruned once a year, that pruning is a condition of fruitfulness. In the light of the Gospel, of John 15, that’s immediately clear to us as a parable of human existence and of the communion of the Church. If the courage to prune is lacking, only leaves still grow. Applied to the Church: there is only paper, whereas no more life is brought forth. But let’s say it with the words of Christ, who tells us: At the very moment when you think you have to possess yourself and defend yourself, precisely then you ruin yourself. Because you are not built as an island whose only foundation is itself. Rather, you are built for love, and therefore for giving, for renunciation, for the pruning of yourself. Only if you give yourself, if you lose yourself, as Christ puts it, will you be able to live.

This basic option has to stand out in all its starkness. It is offered to man’s freedom. But it should still really be made plain that to live by making one’s own claims is a false recipe for life. The refusal of suffering and the refusal of creatureliness, hence, of being held to a standard, is ultimately the refusal of love itself, and that ruins man. For it is precisely his submitting to a claim and allowing himself to be pruned that enables him to mature and bear fruit…

…Somewhere deep down man knows: I have to be challenged, and I have to learn to form myself according to a higher standard and to give myself and lose myself.

Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millenium (1997), pp.167-168, Ignatius Press.

Pope Benedict XVI: The Strange Consensus of Modern Existence

In the series of interviews that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI conducted with Peter Seewald that I discussed earlier here, our Pope Emeritus (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) pointed out to Seewald that Christian culture had been through periods of disruption and decline before, but was restored by a small remnant of faithful people who were unknown at the time, but would later be remembered for the foundations they laid which enabled the ‘mustard seed’ of the Church to sprout forth new branches again. He characterised such people (Saint Benedict of Nursia being a good example) as those who attempt new forms of life in response to cultural change, and compared them to those today who might also seek to revitalise the Faith.

Pope Benedict also described people in our age that may be laying the groundwork for the future as those who ‘drop out of this strange consensus of modern existence’ (Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millenium (1997), p.128, Ignatius Press). Seewald then asked him to elaborate on what this ‘strange consensus’ is, and in his answer Pope Benedict provides one of the best descriptions I have read of our contemporary cultural situation, and the roots of its ills. Here he captures in just a few sentences the very essence of modernity – godlessness, indifference to truth coupled with selective and highly judgemental moralising according to arbitrary goals and principles, the cooling of charity for one’s neighbour, a decrease in motivation to attend to problem’s outside of one’s personal milieu, and an ordering of priorities according to self-oriented ends.

When laid out like this, it certainly is a ‘strange consensus’ indeed, and all the more strange that it is so seldom that our godlessness and rejection of authority are connected to the societal breakdown we see around us in the West. Our secular culture seems to have developed very few tools for self-awareness, let alone self-criticism, and thus it is all the more important that we have voices like that of our Pope Emeritus to bring these things to our attention:

It consists in what I was just alluding to: God doesn’t count in man’s ethos. Even if he exists, he doesn’t have anything to do with us. That is virtually the universal maxim. He doesn’t concern himself with us; we don’t concern ourselves with him. Consequently, the question of eternal life doesn’t count either. Responsibility before God and his judgement is replaced with responsibility before history, before humanity. This gives rise to criteria that are definitely moral and that can be set forth even with considerable fanaticism, for example, the struggle against overpopulation, which is coupled with the general battle to conserve the biological equilibrium. But at the same time this means that everything is allowed that doesn’t compete with these. Because there is no authority to answer to apart from public opinion and its tribunals (which can be cruel), the motivational power of these ideals in individual lives is often negligible. The thrust of these ideals tends to benefit those who are far away rather than those who are nearby. Near at hand, it is frequently egotism that tends to thrive.


On Biblical Inspiration and Human Freedom

It is very difficult to talk or write about the inspiration of Scripture – how it is that God speaks to us through the canonical texts of the Bible – as, for one thing, inspiration is in and of itself a process that is unavoidably mysterious to us; and for another, it is one of those areas in which many people have constructed theories and set criteria of their own, and cling tightly to them. Therefore, before I begin to examine the question of how Scripture is divinely inspired, and attempt to provide an answer of my own, I shall provide some criteria which, hopefully, should not be too controversial:

Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. (1) In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him (2) they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, (3) they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. (4)

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation.

Dei Verbum, 11.

            The above statement emphasises both the divine authorship of the canonical books, and the use made by God of genuinely free human beings to do so. These are boundary conditions that, I hope, anyone who takes seriously the divine inspiration of Scripture would recognise, and that can therefore act as a good starting point for discussing the mode of that inspiration. God, as Dei Verbum makes clear, is the primary author of all that is in the canonical books of the Bible (which books one recognises as such does not matter for the present discussion), and used men to write what He wanted known, though they remained themselves ‘true authors’.

This of course does not cover how it was that the Holy Spirit inspired men to write what God wanted to reveal to us whilst maintaining them in their true freedom – i.e.; not compromising their role as genuine cooperators. It cannot be possible that the human writers of Scripture were slaves of the Spirit, dictated to, and not engaging the full range of their critical and creative faculties, as this would compromise the incarnational aspect of scriptural inspiration – God chose to work with men in this work, and that requires allowing them to be fully themselves in the process.

Essentially, as Dei Verbum continues, ‘God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion’ (12), and ‘the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men’ (13). There is a real analogy here between the condescension of God that we see in the Incarnation, and His condescension to speak to us in and through human modes of expression; and, just as doing justice to the human and divine elements in the Hypostatic Union requires a fine balancing act, so does any assessment of the mode of biblical inspiration.

One of the most difficult things to get around when trying to discern the relationship between human forms of speech and the divinely revealed message within them is the heterogeneity of the Bible – it contains numerous different types of literature, and therefore care must be taken to understand what precisely is being said through the genre of writing we have before us. Truth is communicated differently in poetry (e.g.; the Psalms) than in history (e.g.; 1 Samuel – 2 Kings), the way the Prophets express themselves is different to the way the Evangelists describe the events of Our Lord’s earthly life, and there are many stylistic changes within particular books that need to be appreciated before we can satisfactorily uncover their meaning.

On top of this though, which is something any responsible interpretation of the Bible must take into consideration, many of the biblical writings are beset by apparent contradictions (the Gospels are a case in point here, as they provide us with four different perspectives on one life), some are quite frankly rather dull and (in superficial terms) uninspiring, and many are decidedly unsystematic – the epistles of Saint Paul are the best example of this, in which a great deal of theological treasure is transmitted to us in language that veers between the sublime and the intractable. The disorderliness of much of the Bible’s texts seems therefore a very good place from which to examine the relationship between God’s infallible word and the human means He uses to deliver them.

The messiness and occasionally prosaic nature of many passages, as well as, in the case of Saint Paul particularly, the rapid changes of pace, style and subject matter that can make for rather difficult reading, are evidence of how much God values the personality of each biblical writer – their temperament, learning, life experience, background; everything that makes a person who they are – and so how much He values their free cooperation in the process of writing Scripture. In other words, it is clear from the wide variety of writings we have in the Bible that God wanted to speak to us in very human terms, and did not wish to compromise the human contribution to His speaking by dictating to the writers or in any way compromising their personalities.

Moreover, if we appreciate that this is the way God wanted to reveal Himself in the Bible, then it may shed some light on how He ensured that His word was delivered through those very distinct, very human, personalities. For, if God wanted to use Saint Paul, Saint Peter, Moses, Isaiah, etc, to deliver His word, knowing that the full range of their personalities would go into the content of their writings, it follows that He chose these people precisely because of their personalities – i.e.; He elected Saint Paul because he was exactly the sort of person who would write the sort of letters that God wanted written; He elected Isaiah because his personality rendered him more open to the prophetic message than others.

If this is the case, we cannot then write off certain passages in Scripture because they were ‘just’ part of the cultural influences or personal preferences that shaped the writers view of the world, as it is precisely that complex matrix of influences that went into the writer’s view of the world that God wanted, so that His word might ‘flow’ through their character and perspective. We must, in interpreting Scripture, take cultural influences into account, so that we might better understand what the writers’ intentions were, but we must only do this to deepen and enrich our understanding of what God is thereby saying to us; we cannot use those cultural differences as excuses to ignore difficult teachings.

Nature and grace are not at odds; rather, grace perfects nature, building on what is already there – this is just as much the case with biblical inspiration as with anything else in God’s work of salvation. We can say that the biblical writers had their faculties augmented in some way, made more open to Truth and the working of Providence around them, their vision clarified and their will purified, but it is still very much their faculties being elevated, their thought that God chose to express His word. Grace never destroys what is there already in nature – instead it converts, redeems, transfigures; and most importantly of all, it never acts in opposition to the free will of the subject.

Thus, the writing of Scripture can actually be seen as part of the larger work of God’s bringing together a People for His own purposes, of the Holy Spirit drawing together a wide range of people with different and complementary talents in order to perpetuate that great work started in the Incarnation; in essence, the writing of Scripture is but one part of the work of building and growing the Church. The biblical writers are not performing isolated acts, inspired in a context separate from the rest of the Christian phenomenon, but are men chosen by God for their particular personalities and gifts, and consciously writing to build up an already existent Body of Christ.

When we see it in these corporate, ecclesial terms, the process of biblical inspiration becomes something much more understandable (albeit as unexpected as the rest of the New Covenant) – it is part of an organic process wherein God uses the people He has brought together in Christ to become co-workers in the act of communicating His word and bringing redemption to the world. It is because the biblical writers are genuine partners in God’s work that the writings we have are so very human; but it is also seeing them in this context that gives us confidence that it is really God speaking to us through these writers, as this is the way God works and has done in all His dealings with the world – He is a God that is always willing to come down to our level, and also always keen that we work with Him.

One final though on the manner in which Scripture is written, and how God’s word reaches us through it is that having so much of the Bible be messy, dull, hurried, etc is actually of great benefit to us. If we instead had been given a Bible that was basically a book of systematic theology and elegantly written histories, how much would we then really dig into it? The very fact that there are surface contradictions between different authors forces us to look more closely at what they are saying in order to find the resolution that we know exists, as they are both speaking God’s Truth; the fact that Saint Paul sometimes writes in a dense, obscure way, requires us to really wrestle with the essence of what he is trying to communicate, and thereby gain a richer understanding of it.

As all Scripture is divinely inspired, there is bound to be layer after layer of meaning which we, the reader, can uncover in it. If we had been given a neat, ordered series of texts, the chances are that many of us would read through it once or twice, and then treat it as a reference book to occasionally consult, but not really engage with. With the text we actually have though, we are forced to get stuck into it and struggle with the differences and the obscurity; to look past the occasional dullness and discover a deeper meaning to the passage. Thus it seems that God’s commitment to working with the messiness of human nature is not just humility on His part, but a great kindness and benefit to us – He speaks to us on our terms not just so that our freedom can be respected, but because this is the best way for us to draw close to Him.