Friday, April 10, 2009

Catholics and the Bible: some critical notes

In a previous post, I noted that Catholic art and music, liturgy, prayer, theology, ethics, and canon law have a tremendous Scriptural depth to them — everything in Catholic culture has been profoundly formed by Scripture even if this reality too often remains implicit.

At the explicit level, however, there are problems. That is, when Catholics deliberately study the Bible, they run up against difficulties. In my experience, these difficulties stem from the traditional Catholic teaching that faith is reasonable combined with the uncritical acceptance of an untraditonal notion of reason that is rationalistic and scientistic. 

Fr. Giussani expresses the traditional approach to reason succinctly: "the capacity to become aware of reality according to the totality of its factors. The term reasonableness, then, represents a mode of action that expresses and realizes reason, the capacity to become aware of reality" (The Religious Sense, 12). By contrast, reason in its novel and commonplace sense of the word refers narrowly to one or another of the roads (methods) that the human capacity of reason takes in order to come to an awareness of reality. 

To confuse this or that method with reason itself is an unreasonable position. Balthasar has written of "the limited and often mutually exclusive horizons of the particular disciplines (for example, mathematical logic, linguistic analysis, psychology, sociology, physics), each of which tends to make totalitarian claims to explain existence" (Truth is Symphonic, 56). Have you ever heard a chemist and a physicist arguing as to whose discipline is more fundamental?

A reasonable approach to Holy Scripture then is not a narrowly scientistic one. The problem I have seen in years of adult education, Catholic Bible study, and in university theology classes is the dominance of one or another of these narrow methods. In my undergrad "Christ in Scriptures" class, we studied three Gospels using the historical-critical method alone. We learned a great deal about the cultural context of the Gospels and about their philological texture, but any other way of understanding the Gospels was outside the scope of the class. We were left with a pastiche of hypotheses and opinions, and I asked my professor: "where is Christ?" As a professor, she did not want to impose faith on her students, not all of whom were Catholic. She did not seem too interested in proposing Christ to them either. This was not a reasonable approach, such as Joseph Ratzinger has called "Biblical Realism," which integrates the more established theories of historical-critical studies with a context that is more representative of the totality of human experience.

A second approach modern Catholics have in reading the Scriptures is psychological, and I have experienced this in several Catholic Bible studies. A passage is read, and then everybody goes around and reacts to it, playing a verbal game in which one builds upon "insights" that others have in order to feel one is making progress in understanding one's own psyche. This subjective approach becomes a kind of minimally therapeutic therapy. The result of this approach is to put the emphasis on the interpreter, and so Bible reading becomes a narcissistic game. 

In the curious dualism of our times, it's common enough that a person may come out of Christ in Scriptures class to a Bible study group with little awareness of a contradicton. Or they may try to negotiate the dominance of one or the other approach...

There are some signs of a renewal of reasonable approach to Holy Scriptures, as well. If you have seen some, I would like to hear of it.
Post a Comment