Know yourself to know the Bible

Mosaic from San Gregorio, Rome, now in Baths of Diocletian. 1st c AD. ‘Know thyself’

I am slowly working my way through the collection of essays, The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality, ed. Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif. Right now, I am reading the chapter about Scripture in The Philokalia by Douglas Burton-Christie (who wrote a good book about Scripture and the Desert Fathers called The Word in the Desert). Of the many important and interesting things he is bringing to light from the teachings of the fathers in the The Philokalia is this:

You must know yourself to understand Scripture.

Gnothi seauton — Know thyself, said the old oracle at Delphi.

How does knowledge of myself contribute to knowledge of Scripture?

One of the important things we need to keep in mind when we consider the entire monastic, ascetic, and mystical tradition of Christianity, is that the Bible is not simply a repository of stories and facts that we can come to a full apprehension of by our application of better philological and historical methodologies. For them, it was the word of God, and understanding it was part of being transformed, part of acquiring wisdom, part of knowing God.

This tradition, that draws from Origen but, in this Philokalia, includes St Maximus the Confessor and Evagrius, is more concerned with the spiritual sense of Scripture (which includes but is not limited to allegory).

We have here two different ways of knowing Scripture, ways that Henri de Lubac, in Medieval Exegesis, sees as both important, although one had (and has) the ascendancy. The way most of moderns read Scripture is the pursuit of facts, details, surface realities. This, at a certain level, anyone can do. It does not necessarily require knowledge of myself to have an intellectual grasp of the Pauline articulation of justification, or to argue that the Philistines were so good at beating the Israelites because they entered the Iron Age first. It requires philology, history, maybe philosophy.

The other way is the pathway of wisdom. This is the pathway where the question of justification is driven into my own beating heart and cannot keep itself to my intellect. Here, in this pathway, factoids like, ‘Philistines had iron’, are interesting, but not nearly as compelling as the drive towards understanding myself, the divine, the world, and how best to live in the midst of them all.

This latter method reads the prophets and asks, ‘How shall I live?’ The former reads the prophets and asks, ‘What did this mean to the original audience?’

But to be able to use Scripture to draw oneself up to God, to be able to be deified by reading Scripture, to figure out how to live with Scripture as a light — this requires self-knowledge. And self-knowledge is not something any age, our own included, has been particularly comfortable; explaining why the ancient wisdom keeps harping on it.

This theme, ‘Know thyself’, is a favourite amongst many poets, among them Sir John Davies (1569-1626), as explicated by Malcolm Guite in Faith, Hope and Poetry (my review here). So let me break off and give you instead a selection from Sir John Davies, Nosce Teipsum:

For this the wisest of all mortal men
Said, He knew nought but that he nought did know;
And the great mocking master mocked not then,
When he said, Truth was buried deep below.
For how may we to others’ things attain,
When none of us his own soul understands?
For which the devil mocks our curious brain,
When, Know thyself, his oracle commands.
For why should we the busy soul believe,
When boldly she concludes of that and this;
When of herself she can no judgment give,
Nor how, nor whence, nor where, nor what she is?
All things without, which round about we see,
We seek to know, and how therewith to do;
But that whereby we reason, live, and be,
Within ourselves we strangers are thereto.
We seek to know the moving of each sphere,
And the strange cause of th’ebbs and floods of Nile;
But of that clock within our breasts we bear,
The subtle motions we forget the while.
We that acquaint ourselves with every zone,
And pass both tropics and behold the poles,
When we come home, are to ourselves unknown,
And unacquainted still with our own souls.
We study speech, but others we persuade;
We leech-craft learn, but others cure with it;
We interpret laws, which other men have made,
But read not those which in our hearts are writ.
Is it because the mind is like the eye,
Through which it gathers knowledge by degrees–
Whose rays reflect not, but spread outwardly–
Not seeing itself when other things it sees?
No, doubtless, for the mind can backward cast
Upon herself her understanding light;
But she is so corrupt and so defaced,
As her own image doth herself affright.
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