“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’”
“When a dog has nothing to do, it goes to sleep. When a man has nothing to do, he may ask a question.” Insight, Bernard Lonergan
The Bible is the most important book ever written, but it isn’t so much a book as it is a library of books collected and compiled by priests, poets, liturgists, lawyers, kings of Israel, and in the case of the New Testament Apostles, Prophets and other eye witnesses of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. At any rate, the Christian Bible is a compilation of the most important texts ever written and there is nothing more important for you to understand and to appropriate in your life than that book. Now that being said, there is something I want you to understand about understanding the Bible: If you are unwilling to sympathetically enter the story world of the text you will never understanding what is going on with the text.
I am thinking specifically of Genesis and Romans since these are the writings that we are trying to understand at this time. Here is an example of what I am talking about: if you insist that what Genesis 1:30 asserts is unbelievable, that there was a time when lions and tigers lived and thrived on leafy green plants, and that since it is unbelievable you cannot take Genesis seriously, then you will never understand the theology of Genesis and you may miss out on God’s will for the life of the world, and for your life as well. What I am saying is that a minimum good will entry into the narrative world of the text is necessary for you to understand what is going on in the text. I am not insisting that you have to accept that it historical fact that there was a time when lions and tigers lived on green grass, but I am saying that if you dismiss the narrative because in your opinion it is purely mythic and therefore meaningless then you lose. You lose big time.
I am tempted to say that it is specifically a Christian performance when a reader brackets himself or herself, transcends himself or herself and enters a narrative world that is alien to one’s experience, but that kind of reading or for that matter that kind of living is not limited to Christians, though we ought to be the best at it. But here there is neither, Jew nor Greek, male or female, but rather there is being human. This power that we possess that enables us to pass over one’s self and cross into a strange and unfamiliar narrative is how human beings live when we are in top form as free men and women. I said last week, that God has shaped you in such a way that deep inside of yourself, within your interior life, you have a drive not only to experience things, not only to know things, but more profoundly to understand things. Moreover you have a drive to understand things not merely as they come to bear upon yourself and your world, but rather to understand things as they really are, as they are in themselves – which is the way God knows everything that is or ever has existed. The point that I am making is that this interior, God-given drive that enables you to bracket your personal opinions, your personal fears, and your personal experience so that you may enter an alien narrative is the instrument by which you may know the truth that will set you free. Another point that I am making is that our drive to understand things as they are in themselves is the “the image of God,” the distinguishing sign, the indelible mark of what it means to be a human being. This capacity for self-transcendence is possibly the chief characteristic of Christ and it is certainly his self-transcendence that moved him to say to his Father, “Not my will, but thine be done.” Because this is so clearly a Christological pattern, self-transcendence ought to be second nature for Christians and as we can see self-transcendence comes in many forms.
Now I cannot prove this, but I very much doubt that my dog Duke has ever had the desire to know anything as it is in itself. For Duke something is important if he can eat it, chase it, sleep on it, snuggle with it, or if he has to drive it off by showing off his teeth and his fierce growl. But I don’t think he has ever wondered what a soup bone is in itself. He entirely lacks such curiosity. However we human beings cannot help but be curious, to wonder about things and to try to understand them from the inside out as they are in themselves and not merely as they are to us. It is above all this quality of being human that reflects the image of God, that separates us from all other creatures and that makes us God’s proper coadjutor over creation.
But let us get back to my original point which is that you must appropriate this power that God has given you in order to understand anything and that includes the Bible. You already have what it takes; you already have the capacity for the willing suspension of unbelief and entering sympathetically into the narrative world where you will apply the canons of understanding to the text from within its own world. But as I have been in the habit of saying, this is not easy, you will not succeed effortlessly, but it is possible and it is attainable and the upshot as Paul puts it, is that the “eyes of your understanding” will be enlightened. But if you insist that Genesis is a creation myth about how snakes lost their wings or that it is the propaganda of dominate males meant to keep the women subordinate then you will never understand Genesis or Romans.
I have been speaking about those of a more skeptical bent, but there are those who have the opposite point-of-view and insist for example that Genesis be taken as a literal, historical, and geographic record that proves the world is only 7,000 years. They are naive literalists. Now I am certainly a literalist, but I am a critical literalist, not a naive literalist. The naive literalist will accuse me of picking and choosing what I want to believe: “If I can’t trust that the creation narrative is historically true how can I trust that the narrative about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is equally unbelievable to some people, is historically true? Or don’t you believe that either?”
On one purely human level it seems to me that most people can tell the difference between the two narratives and really don’t need to have it spelled out. But when I read some of the truly dumb things that the so-called new atheists say (and the new atheists only attack naïve literalists and pretend that only they represent the Church) I realize that it is best to spell this out. First of all, mythic narratives point beyond themselves to higher narratives and the Genesis narrative is just such a narrative. But the resurrection of Christ is not a mythic narrative pointing to a higher narrative because the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the higher narrative. Of course one may again say that I am cherry-picking what I think is important or what I want to believe and choosing to let what I think it less important have a different meaning. OK. But in all honesty the person who says that does not know my many motivations because no one has a window into my soul. That happens to be completely private and even I am not always aware of the layers of stimuli that move me to this or that way of thinking and behaving and neither is anyone else. Objectivity is hard work. It does not fall into your hand like a ripe tomato.
So where does that leave us? Well let me tell you where this leaves me: I believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and I believe in mysteries of the Faith that are expressed in the Nicene Creed. The mysteries of the Faith, the dogmas of the Church are infallible truths and though they are not discovered through unassisted human reason, they are nonetheless reasonable, logical, and they correspond to reality. The last thing on earth any Christian should fear is truth, any truth, because all truth is always God’s truth. And we have a responsibility as God’s coadjutors to understand God’s mysteries and to live accordingly. I believe therefore what the Church has always taught, that as a matter of historical fact, under Pontus Pilate, Jesus was crucified, dead and buried and that he rose from the dead – body and all. And we have been preparing to enter that narrative world together, corporately and liturgically next week with Palm Sunday. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was not something his disciples were anticipating and it turned their world upside down. None of them recognized him right off after his resurrection for obvious reasons – if one is attentive to the whole narrative. His first post-resurrection appearance scared his disciples to death because they thought he was a malicious spirit probably come back to punish them for being such cowards. The point is that the resurrection came as an overwhelming surprise to his disciples. The upshot is that belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is an infallible doctrine of the Catholic Church that goes back to her formative days as the Church in Jerusalem.
In the Book of Genesis theology is communicated through a narrative of God’s intentional creation of the universe and all living creatures on this planet. In the story-world of Genesis God waited till after he had created everything else that exists, and then on the 6th day he create man and woman in his own image and he gave them a blessing and a commandment: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it…” I pointed out a few weeks back that we should remember that at this point in the narrative world of Genesis man and woman had not yet fallen. There were no enemies to subdue in the peaceable Kingdom in which Adam and Eve enjoyed a singular relationship with God and the rest of creation that no other human being, with the exception of our incarnate Lord, has come close to enjoying. At this point in the narrative creation was not a wild and furious enemy that needed to be conquered. But my main point is that if one dismisses the detail that all creatures of Eden fed upon green leafy plants because one thinks the narrative is unbelievable or because one thinks it is most importantly a description of a historic fact – you lose. You will not understand why Paul wrote Romans 8 and you will not understand the depth, the complexity, and the wisdom of the finality that God intends for his creation. The point is that the Genesis narrative presents creation at peace with itself and with its Creator, which image provides us with a hint of creation’s finality. It is a world of perfect peace where no blood had been shed till man disobeyed God. Last week I said that it is a mistake to think that God created the earth and all that is in it for man. In fact, from within the narrative world of Genesis 1-3, it appears to have been exactly the other way around: God created man for the earth and his job as viceroy was to bring it all to fruition, to enable every creature to grow into it full potential. He was only to avoid the fruit of one, single tree in the garden. The fruit of every other tree, the dappled flower, green leaf, root and branch, grain and seed were all his. Now what happened next in the narrative was the fall of man into sin and bondage to death, decay and disorder that he brought upon creation. Recall that after the man and his wife had eaten fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil they tried to cover their disobedience with fig leaves. Man is always attempting to pass off his sin and failure as costing only a few fig leaves, but then we have the first shedding of blood in the Bible. God makes it perfectly clear that the disorder man has brought into the world does not change God’s will, but it destroys life and so God covered their nakedness with the skins of animals and he expelled them from the garden. And then Cain, their first born, attempts the same thing as his parents when he tries to offer vegetables up to God as though sin had not really changed anything, as though sin was really not so ruinous. It is only by sympathetically entering the strange and unfamiliar narrative world of Genesis 1-3 that we may understand how the peaceable kingdom of creation turned lethal by the fruit of a single tree and one man’s disobedience and failure to love, but also how death was defeated by another tree, the Tree of the Cross and another man’s obedience and love.
“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, ’Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it…’”Genesis 1:28