Funny things happen when you try lectio divina

By chance, a senior at WCC saw me in the office hallway yesterday and hailed me down. Would I be able to tell him anything about the book of Hosea?

Lectio DivinaA good teacher never just answers the question, but asks more questions to find out what was behind the question. As it turned out, this student was inspired by my recent lecture, by the earlier lecture by Tim Gray, and by a chance exchange with another professor—inspired, he said, to read the Bible as addressed personally to him. In other words, he had begun to practice lectio divina. Continue reading “Funny things happen when you try lectio divina”

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How Noah brought home the bacon: the riddle of Genesis 5:29

I love senior thesis time at Wyoming Catholic College. Students jump in over their heads, take on bold ideas, thrash around, and eventually ask their teachers the most wonderful, fundamental, and challenging questions. This year one of the women is writing about how the Eucharist relates to the importance of food in general—how cool is that?—and found herself dealing with the passage in Genesis 9 where Noah receives permission to eat meat. Her thesis director sent her to me for help, and….

Well, it’s time to expose myself. For years now I have read that passage in a way I have never seen in any commentary and yet in a way which seems more obvious to me with time. Never having an occasion to talk about it, I have never bothered to submit my interpretation to scrutiny and possible refutation. Maybe I have been deluded all this time? Maybe I’m off the map? Or maybe, just maybe, I’m on to something? Judge for yourself. This write-up is for Alexis. Continue reading “How Noah brought home the bacon: the riddle of Genesis 5:29”

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The Breath of Adam

[This is the second in a series of posts about the Holy Spirit. To see the first post, click here.]

My last post on the Holy Spirit had to do with how God brings things into some share in his word. Once God has already brought things to a share in his wisdom through the Spirit, we find that texts about the Holy Spirit fall under a second heading. Genesis 2 portrays God giving life to the first man by breathing into him a breath of life, suggesting that the life of the man is a share in God’s own breath. The word for “breath” there is not the same word in Hebrew as the word for “spirit” in Gen 1:2, but one could surmise a connection. Psalm 104 is more explicit: the psalmist says about created, living things, “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (Psalm 104:29-30) Here the word for breath is ruah both times, and the connection is clear: God sends forth his breath and renews the breath of life in animals and men.

When God creates us to begin with, we have no say in the matter: God brings us into being on the pattern of his Wisdom through his Spirit without any prior contribution on our part. But once we exist as a share in the life of the Son, we also have a share in the life of the Spirit. As God has a “breath” within him, so creatures have a “breath” or impulse within them through which they move and act. And so we find a second set of “Spirit texts” in which creatures are said to have something in them that resembles procession of the Holy Spirit.

Paul speaks of something like this in his first letter to the Corinthians, asking, “For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” (1Cor 2:11) Paul takes for granted a parallel between “God’s Spirit” and “the spirit of the man which is in him”. While the Spirit’s impulse brings a man into existence on the pattern of son, even on the natural level, on that same natural level a man has in him an impulse and a life that is like the Holy Spirit. In a parallel way, while reception of the grace of the Holy Spirit conforms one to the Incarnate Word, so the indwelling of the Spirit causes one to live and act as he did (see for example Roman 8, especially verses 9 through 11).

Despite the scarcity and vagueness of texts about the Holy Spirit, the conclusions I have drawn in this post and the previous one seem clear from Scripture: when we look at how God creates the world, we see him driving things toward the pattern of his Son as though by a might wind; when we look at creatures already living in the world, we see that their own interior impulse toward their fulfilment—and ultimately, toward the glory of God—is a likeness of the Holy Spirit.

Next time, I’ll take a look at what all this means about God’s own interior life, that is, the Trinity.

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The Breath of the Word

[The is the second in a series of posts about the Holy Spirit.  To see the second post, click here.]

For the Scripture project, I will eventually have to write about the Holy Spirit: Scripture = in-spired = in-spirited = from-the-Holy-Spirit. So I have to, but I’ll admit that it’s an intimidating assignment.

Compared to the Holy Spirit, revelation concerning the Son of God is pretty clear. “Son” is a word we use all the time, and its everyday use clearly illuminates its meaning in theology. The Son became a man like us, walking around and talking in plain language just so we would know him. The New Testament features lengthy and carefully written passages directly about the mystery of the Incarnation, such as the prologue to the Gospel of John or the hymn in Philippians 2. In the end, the procession of the Son is a mystery, for sure, but as mysteries go it is nicely laid out.

The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is mysterious from beginning to end. Even the word “spirit” is less than clear: what are we supposed to make of the “breath of God”? Everybody knows that a son is a person; what do we say about a hypostatic wind? What’s more, the biblical witness concerning the Spirit is scattered over innumerable books of the Old and New Testament, with no one passage simply opening the mystery in an overt way. One is left to gather the pieces together as best as one can.

All that said, I hope to offer an approach that seems to me both faithful to the biblical witness and complementary to the interpretations offered by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. The result will inevitably be a little less than satisfying, because the basis for any interpretation of the Holy Spirit is so vague and scattered to begin with, but there is no way around making the attempt.

My idea starts with the notion that the Son is the wisdom of God, the Father’s interior Word, the pattern to which God looks in creating the world. That much is clear from Scripture. From there, I think we can gather up what Scripture says about the Spirit under two headings, the first of which I’ll present in this post. Continue reading “The Breath of the Word”

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Some thoughts on goodness

One thing I hope to do for myself in my Scripture project is to take various principles that have been at play in my mind for many years and put them in order. Which ones are more fundamental? Which ones are in fact governed by others? What relationships emerge?

A strong contender for “central principle” is the notion of a “common good.” By a common good, I mean a good that can be shared among many persons without in any way being diminished or divided. Let me unpack that idea a bit.

A cookie is not a common good; it is a private good. My cookie can only be shared by breaking it into parts so that I get less cookie at the end of the deal. And when you look more closely, it turns out cookie isn’t really sharable: the part you get is a part I can’t have, and the part Choco_chip_cookieI keep is a part you will never eat. What I really do when I break my cookie up is I create a bunch of smaller things, and then I keep one of them and I give others away. So I can give cookie away, but I can’t share it.

Friendship is a common good. Not only can I share my friendship with a friend, I can’t actually have friendship without sharing it. My portion of it is not diminished when another’s is increased; instead, my portion is actually increased by sharing it more. Of course, the kind of friendship we usually have in mind when we use the word is not a perfectly common good: a person can have only a few very close friends, and even though it is perfectly shared between them there is a limit to how many people can share in it.

But this is to be expected. Goods come in different kinds, and they fall on a spectrum from purely private to most common and everywhere in between. Any time we find a common good, we’ll find that even though it is common it has its limits. It will be more or less sharable, and more or less diminished when it is shared. The common good of the United States of America, for example, even though it is a great good and much more “sharable without diminution” than my personal friendships, can only extend to its people; the good folks in Argentina are excluded.

The reason is simply that goods fall on a range from less good to most good and everywhere in between. A good that is better is, so to speak, more powerfully burningsungood. As a hotter fire not only heats a person up more but also heats up more people, so a better good is not only better for a person but is a good for more people: it is more common. So more common goods are better goods, and the better a good is the more common it will be.

The only absolutely common good is the good that is goodness itself: God. Every creature in the entire universe has God as its good; in fact, every conceivable creature in every conceivable universe would have God as its good, because his goodness is never used up, so to speak, by what he has created. God is not only the good of every person, but he is more intimately the good of each person than that person’s best friends. God can be not only the friend but even the lover of every person in creation, and it never dilutes,  the way human friendship dilutes when spread too far.

But revelation tells us there is even more. Even though reason rightly tells us that there is only one God, one being that is the source of every being and one good that is the good of every good, still revelation tells us that three persons are this one being. The word “share” explodes at this point, because the three persons are each identical with the divine being rather than sharing in it, but something happens that is more “sharing” than sharing itself. Rather than three friends who each have a share in the group’s friendship, and rather than three citizens who each have a share in the country’s peace, there are three persons who are each identical with the divine goodness without being identical to each other.

Fallen creatures that we are, this is the opposite of what we expected. We listened to the voice of the serpent, who whispered to us that God clings jealously to his divinity, that he wants no one but himself to be like God. But when the second person of the Trinity at last came to respond to the serpent, he did not think equality with God something to be grasped at, to be clutched like a merely private good: rather, he emptied himself, and took the form of a servant. The Incarnation of the Word revealed the Word’s eternal way of being, as the unimaginably best and therefore inconceivably communicable good.

Our reason cannot grasp it, and our sinful inclinations run counter to it, but the revelation of the Trinity tells us clearly: Goodness is even better than we thought.

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Good eisegesis

Yesterday, I described a “magic” that happens with writing.  Along the way, I mentioned the particular magic that seems to happen when you practice eisegesis, that is, “reading into” the text instead of just “receiving from” the text, or exegesis.

It’s a phenomenon related to what I have called the Reality Enhancement Factor.  We are built to see a dim and sketchy scene and flesh it out mentally until everything seems clear and bright.  Even though this can lead us astray if we lack self-awareness, it can also draw our attention to important facts:  what was first a guess, a creative filling of the gap, makes us pay closer attention to evidence that is actually there and verifies the guess.

The act of making up a story kicks the REF into high gear.  Consequently, the story writer who starts from a biblical text is not turning on a faculty of creation ex nihilo, but what turns out to be a faculty built for seeing things.  Eisegesis can yield exegesis.

Done in the right spirit, eisegesis can yield striking insights because it is an exercise of creativity within limits.  It begins with the text as a given set of dots and tries to connect them to make a picture; it begins with the text as a series of pictures and tries to supply the story line.  In one way or another, creativity goes places it would never have gone without the specific limits imposed by this particular text, and the eisegete actually learns from his reading.  Anyone who has done creative work knows what I mean.

As a result, the text itself ends up expressing itself through the eisegete’s work.  Good reading into the text does not dominate in the end but serves it.

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A Tribute to John the Theologian

Today’s martyrology speaks of John the Apostle in a way unlike all the other apostles:  “In his Gospel and other writings he shows himself to be a theologian….”  Tradition holds all the apostles to be the foundation of theology, and the evangelists to be the model of the theologian, but even among the evangelists the Fathers single out John as the “eagle,” the one who soars high into the realm of mystery.

In the earliest days of the Church, Matthew’s Gospel was the most popular gospel, but from the days of scholasticism onward theologians of all stripes and denominations have preferred John’s Gospel together with the letters of Paul.  Theologians like arguments more than stories, and John has long, wonderful discourses in which Jesus gives theological arguments.  If you look for example of St. Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on John, you’ll see that his exposition of the story parts is OK while his unpacking of the discourses is marvelous.  He is just more comfortable with argument.

But of course John’s Gospel blends story and argument, and both elements earn him the title “theologian”.  That’s one reason I have a special devotion to him at this season:  in the coming year, I hope to write stories and I hope to write arguments, and some of the arguments I hope to write are arguments about stories.  As a tribute to St. John, I’d like to share with you an outline of John’s Gospel that I developed over a few years of teaching sophomores at Wyoming Catholic College.  On my account, if you take time and place as dividers of the text, you end up with a liturgically themed chiastic structure–maybe a bit bold, but a lot more fun than what you’ll find in standard commentaries!  Click here for a .pdf file; the outline is on the first page and some explanatory notes on the second.

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How St. Matthew Actually Read Isaiah 7

Our reading at Mass today is taken from the seventh chapter of Isaiah, that wonderful prophecy about the child Emmanuel, born of a virgin.  It is one of those passages where the traditional interpretation, based on Matthew’s Gospel, conflicts terribly with modern interpretations, leaving one seemingly to choose between tradition and scholarship.  Some years ago, a friend wrote to me during Advent with a heartfelt question about this chapter, and I offered him my own approach to solving the age-old debate.  This year, I have decided to share that reply with you.


Your whole family, you say, has been wondering about Isaiah 7:14-15:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

What a joy to hear that your whole family grows anxious over Scripture, when most of the world is anxious over shopping lists, tax deductibles, and gaining weight on holiday goodies!  When most of us hesitate over which Christmas chocolates and cookies and meats to serve, your mind hovers over a more puzzling menu:  what can it mean that Jesus will eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good?

Unfortunately, my answer can be neither short nor simple.  Isaiah 7:14 is one of the most controverted passages in all of Scripture, and I do not know any other scholar who holds exactly my position, but I am happy to share my reflections, and your family can take or leave them.  In essence, I hold that we must depart from the traditional interpretation in order to return to it more forcefully; so I am estranged from traditional interpreters on the one hand and from modern exegetes on the other.  Let me explain. Continue reading “How St. Matthew Actually Read Isaiah 7”

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Metaphor and Analogy

As I rev up for my writing projects in the spring, I have been reading Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s helpful book, Is There a Meaning in This Text?  In the first stage of my academic life, I worked at carving a niche for myself through the combination of biblical studies and St. Thomas Aquinas; then I worked at founding a college in the middle of nowhere; at no stage of my progress did I find the leisure to read contemporary philosophy of language.  Vanhoozer offers a very nice summary of Derrida, Fish, Ricoeur, and others.
As one would expect, everyone he mentions seems to have a finger on some truth or other.  But last night I came across this quotation from Derrida:  “A noun is proper when it has but a single sense. … No philosophy, as such, has ever renounced this Aristotelian ideal.  This ideal is philosophy.”
Misleading at best.  It is true that a word taken in its literal sense has only one literal meaning, but then again the same thing is true, mutatis mutandis, of metaphors:  if I say “God is a rock,” then I’m only saying that God is a rock, not that God is a fish or that God is a cloud.  The fact that you can always translate a single metaphor into multiple literal statements does not prove that one word always conveys multiple metaphors.  I can do the same trick with a word taken literally:  it might take several pages amounting to several dozen literal statements to unpack the single word potency in a sentence by Aristotle.
But at worst, Derrida’s claim may be the opposite of what Aristotle meant.  If we look at how a word is used over the course of a page of literal prose, Aristotle will look for constantly shifting meanings.  This is guy who delineated eleven separate meanings of the word “in,” for crying out loud.  One of the most powerful ideas in his philosophy is that every word in every language has multiple non-metaphorical meanings.  In fact, the realization that the word “being” has multiple literal meanings may be his most important contribution to philosophy.
Just thinking out loud here.  I’m no expert on Derrida, of course:  I’m reading about him rather than reading him.  But it has been my year-in and year-out experience as a teacher that people have a hard time separating metaphor from analogy, and the problem leads to endless confusion.
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