“Read Sophocles”: Poetry, Philosophy, Beauty

2-volume 19th-century Bible, The Tollkeeper’s House, Toronto

In the midst of a philosophical discussion online, a philosopher/theologian friend (who teaches the “great books” at university) stated, “Read Sophocles.” The point was that if one were to read Sophocles, the philosophical position being elucidated would become clearer.

This is a good use of the classics. I still remember my first encounter with Antigone in high school and the stichomythia between Haemon and his father Creon, preceded by Haemon’s speech, including these lines:

Whoever thinks that he alone possess intelligence,
the gift of eloquence, he and no one else,
and character too . . . such men, I tell you,
spread them open — you will find them empty.
No, it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man,
to learn many things and not to be too rigid.
You’ve seen trees by a raging winter torrent,
how many sway with the flood and salvage every twig,
but not the stubborn — they’re ripped out, roots and all.
Bend or break. The same when a man is sailing:
haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch,
you’ll capsize, and go the rest of the voyage
keel up and the rowing-benches under.

Lines 707-718, trans. Robert Fagles (English lines 791-803), pp. 95-96

As the remaining events of the play bear out, Haemon is correct. Creon, King of Thebes, (in case you still need to read the play) has decreed that his nephew Polyneices (son of Oedipus), brother of the titular Antigone, is not to be buried, but Antigone seems to have done so, or attempted to do so. And so he is going to seal Antigone alive in a tomb. This ends up with Antigone, Haemon Creon’s son, and Eurydice his wife all dead and Creon repenting — too late.

There are lots of noteworthy points made and speeches and it’s well worth a read.

And, as with any good tragedy, whether by Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, or Marlowe, you learn a lot through the human drama as it unfolds.

What I am trying to figure out is whether or not this is the chief end of tragedy. I’m not saying my friend thinks so. Maybe no one does, but sometimes, when you read the people promoting the “great books” or “classical education” or the Greek and Latin classics, when they turn on the tap of their rhetoric to convince you that this is a worthy endeavour, it often feels as though — for that moment, at least — the reason is because there are “lessons” to be gained from Sophocles, that we can learn about philosophy from reading ancient poetry, and not just the explicitly philosophical like Lucretius, and that this is the most important reason people should read the greats.

Maybe this is because they are trying to convince skeptical parents and donors that this is a worthwhile endeavour. And maybe I’m misreading everything. And hopefully what I’m about to say will resound with them all.

Whatever lessons and whatever philosophy, ethics, politics, can be gained from reading Sophocles or Homer (and it can, as I have just demonstrated), the basic philosophical utility of the classics is not necessarily the number one reason to read them.

To take up the classically Christian cause of this blog, the monks who copied the Latin classics would likely disagree. I have not read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, for over five years, but as I recall, the Benedictines and Cistercians of pre-scholastic, monastic theology, read pagan Latin verse primarily for its beauty — chiefly Virgil, but also Ovid, Horace, Statius. This latter poet, as C S Lewis discusses,* was imagined by some in the Middle Ages to have been a crypto-Christian because of his portrayal of the gods. Philosophy was the schoolbook for philosophy (and they had more and more Latin Aristotle to read as time went on, directly from Greek, alongside Plato, and Calcidius and Boethius and Cicero).

Given that, theologically, they were steeped in Sts Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great, it is also worth noting that narrative fiction, such as Virgil or Sophocles or Terence (always a school text), was considered “lies”, so they would have read it (not Sophocles, given that he’s Greek) for the language, for its beauty and subtlety. The advice from St Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana to make your teaching beautiful as well as true (but, at the very least, true) was one they took to heart. And so they read the pagan classics.

As I say, I have no doubt that people in the great books and classical education camps are not reductionistic, and they certainly see the worth in reading something for its beauty. But it’s an important thought to keep in mind.

Let me close with an anecdote on this theme, then. Malcolm Guite visited Rome when he was still an atheist. And there, he encountered John Keats’ poetry and Keats House at Piazza Spagna. And through the sublimity of Keats’ poetry, God began to break through Father Malcolm’s unbelief and soften his heart, making him at least open to the possibility of God, although not yet a Christian.

And so we can find God in the beauty of the poets even without hunting for lessons in philosophy.

*C. S. Lewis, “Dante’s Statius,” Medium Aevum 25 (1956): 133–9.

Re-enchanting the world after Copernicus

Italian armillary sphere, by Joannes Paolo Ferreri, Rome, 1624. AST0634.

I have a friend who sometimes claims that “a lot of philosophers” call the Copernican Revolution “the second fall of man.” I’ve tried finding this identification and failed. I even used Yahoo! on my wife’s computer so the algorithms wouldn’t just keep giving me information about Númenor. It seems Google knows what I like.

Now, I started looking for this idea because the same fellow had shown me part of this super-long video by a flat-earther arguing that every arch built by our ancestors is actually a massive horseshoe electro-magnet. Likewise the domes. How else could our “primitive” ancestors have built these things? And why did our “primitive” ancestors put carved flowers in coffered ceilings when they seem to be purely decorative? Answer: Microwave emitters. And the baptistery beside the Duomo in Florence? Battery.

Yup.

Well.

I was a bit mentally exhausted after watching some of this video. The entire, insane journey is 5 hours long.

So I tried finding what on earth sources I could about any of this. Nothing credible. The closest to credible was a documentary called Principle — at least, if you watch the trailer. Turns out all the quotes from physicists are cherry-picked, and the quotes that are most important for the thesis presented by the film are by the filmmaker, not the famous names. All the scientists involved, as well as Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek: Voyager who read narration for the film reject the central thesis of the film, which is that Copernicus was wrong, and the cosmos is geocentric.

So, back to Copernicus and the “second fall of man.”

Until this event, I thought that flat-earthers were benign lunatics (round-earthers who are geocentric not being on my radar until now), and I was thankful for them for forcing us to rethink the evidence for the roundness of the earth and making us question our certainties. A little instability is good for us.

But now I see that not only is their science bad, not only is their logic flawed, but their theology is bad, too. I have a friend (not, to my knowledge, a believer) who likes to point out to me that belief in aliens and ghosts tends to lead to or stem from bad theology. So here.

We’ll stick to the geocentric problem.

What’s the bad theology? Simply put: If humans are God’s special creation made in His image and likeness, and if earth is the special staging ground for God’s particular interactions with the created order, this theological significance must have a parallel physical significance.

Now, I get it a little. The geocentric universe of Dante is beautiful and magnificent and glorious. It can easily point us to God and his own beauty, magnificence, and glory. The world since Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Descartes — it is disenchanted.

But to re-enchant the world does not require bad science.

Indeed, the vast conspiracies required for the world to be flat or the earth to be the centre of the universe and for all of modern science to be wrong on this point are untenable. It is much easier to believe that the geocentric universe is a view that made sense before modern instrumentation but has been discarded since then.

And as far as flat-earthers go, the flat earth has never been accepted by the majority of the educated, evidence for which is abundant (although it seems Tacitus might have thought it was — but Ovid seems not to…?). And as far as geocentrism, Ptolemy is not the only game out there; there were heliocentric views as well, even if a minority.

What the task of theologians, poets, novelists, preachers, and others involved in articulating the grand Christian vision of the universe is, is to show how this tiny, weak speck that orbits a sun orbiting the centre of a galaxy floating about in space is still deeply beloved by God.

Rather than undermining an enchanted universe, I would posit that modern science glorifies the God Who woos its inhabitants. If God were like a human, what are humans that He is mindful of us? (To paraphrase Psalm 8.) Consider the vast reaches of interstellar space! Think upon the images taken by the Hubble Telescope. God has some really cool stuff to occupy His time.

But good theology teaches us two things: a. God doesn’t exist in time. b. God made all that stuff. And of all the stuff He made, it seems that God likes humans best (although, if there are other rational beings out there, maybe He loves them just as much and has played out His own drama of love on their planet(s) as well).

Moreover, the theories of language and poetry and symbol and life articulated by the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Owen Barfield, or the somewhat different tack of CS Lewis, or different yet again, JRR Tolkien — and, among the living, Malcolm Guite, these theories do not require a pre-modern cosmology for symbol to operate, for the universe to be sacramental, for God to be lurking behind every corner.

It is not Copernicus’ fault that we have lost our grasp of the enchantment of the universe.

It is our own.

Pentecost and the Allegory of the Holy Grail

Enjoy my latest offering on YouTube wherein I talk about the allegorical meaning of the Quest for the Holy Grail, referencing Malcolm Guite, Pauline Matarasso’s translation of The Quest for the Holy Grail and its introduction (and thereby Etienne Gilson and Myrrha Lot-Boroodine), St Bernard, and William of St-Thierry. And the Canon of the Mass in the Use According to Sarum. It’s a good time, I promise!

St Columba: Missionary, monk, poet

Today is the feast of St Columba, or Colm Cille, about whom I’ve blogged in the past. St Columba is rightly remembered for being a missionary who brought Christianity from Ireland to Scotland. He is also remembered as the founder of the abbey at Iona, which would be an active missionary centre for Scotland, northern England, and the Western Isles. He is less well-remembered as a poet, although I’ve made sure to blog some of his verse here.

I’ve been doing some writing and thinking about the relationship between monasticism and mission lately, and it struck me today, as I read Malcolm Guite’s reflections on encountering Columba on his journey to Christianity, that the monk-missionary-poet is maybe just what we need!

Monk

If you read Adomnan’s Life of St Columba, you see that the saint — or at least the idealised version of him seen by Adomnan — was truly a monk, truly single-minded in devotion to God. Not long ago, Carey Nieuwhof wrote a post (that I failed to bookmark) talking about the things the churches that makes it through the agonising death of Christendom will have.

I am pretty sure that the top priority will be: Monomaniacs for God in the pulpit, in the boardroom/vestry/kirk session/elders, in the pews.

The one thing every variety of monk is meant to be, whether alone in caves, living in little huts near each other, living in abbeys, living on pillars, living alone on islands in the North Sea, is a monomaniac for God. Like Columba.

Missionary

St Columba was not a hermit. He lived an ascetic lifestyle and finished up his earthly life as abbot of a monastery. But he preached the Good News that God came down from heaven on a rescue mission to save us. He was ready to preach and sought out opportunities.

Studies have shown that churches that are growing these days have at least one trait in common: Congregants tell their friends about Jesus and invite them to church.

Poet

Poetry is the reenchantment of the disenchanted universe through the medium of words. As we face head-on the post-Enlightenment universe we live in, almost everyone we meet will be a materialist, whether the kind who believes that matter is all that exists or the kind who believes that matter is all that matters.

As Christianity goes forward, poetry will be the vehicle for expressing the inexpressible, the joyous meaning of the Gospel, of worshipping the incomprehensible God. The Church that goes beyond proposition and treads the ground of mystery — this is the church that will survive.

It’s also the church of our ancient and medieval ancestors in the faith…

God the Word, hidden in beauty

Chartres Cathedral

Over at Read the Fathers — where I’m now the lead admin — we recently finished reading Justin Martyr’s Apologies. My week-in-review of this/these texts was concerned with Justin’s Logos theology, principally the idea that God the Word, the Logos of John 1 (‘In the beginning was the Word…’) exists as the Logos spermatikos in the minds and hearts of humans, even of pagans.

The presence of the Logos spermatikos is the reason why Greek philosophy is capable of getting things so very right. God the Word exists in all correct reasoning, in all truth, whether a disciple of Jesus is the one who expresses it or not.

This has come into contact with something else that has been rattling about in my brain lately, namely that beauty is a vehicle for God as well.

First, two fragmentary stories. Rod Dreher, in his book The Benedict Option, tells how the beauty of Chartres cathedral was foundational for cutting through his atheism and converting him to Roman Catholicism. Only a religion that would produce architecture so beautiful was worth believing.

Malcolm Guite, who blogs here, during the Laing Lectures at Regent College 2019, talked about his conversion to theism when visiting Rome. He was not converted by the splendour of St Peter’s or my dearly beloved late antique mosaics, but by a visit to Keats House, where he read some Keats, and found there a beauty that his own reductionistic unbelief could not accommodate. I do not know what Keats’ own faith was, but his poetry is not explicitly Christian — mind you, this was Guite’s stepping forth into theism, not yet into the embrace of Christianity.

Beauty stalks the earth abroad, despite the darkness of so much pain. It is in cathedrals and poems and music and freshly fallen snow.

Beauty points people towards God.

A third, even more fragmentary story. My cousin’s husband Georg once started telling me a story about one of his seminary professors. This professor discovered the Rolling Stones. And he loved them. He thought this music was great. It was beautiful. But it jarred against the sort of Christian sensibilities he had at the time. How could people who so clearly do not know Christ produce such good music? This is honestly as far as the story got, before we were interrupted. I think (but am not sure) that Abraham Kuyper came up.

How I think the story would have ended was that the beauty of God does not restrict itself to those who know Him. We are all made in the image of God, after all. And He is everywhere. And so pagans like the Rolling Stones can make amazing music.

Let us come back to Justin, then. Beauty is a sign that there is a God. It is evidence, like logic and truth and good philosophy, that Christ is at work in His world, in the lives of people. Therefore, not only can it help save a soul, as with Dreher and Guite, it also produces results in human hearts, hearts restless since they do not rest in the embrace of the Most Holy Trinity.

The upshot of this, then, is fairly simple and perhaps less complicated than what I have written. Just as the Church Fathers were glad to ‘spoil the Egyptians’ by taking the truths of pagan philosophy and putting them into the service of Christ, so should we recognise beauty when we see it, regardless of its maker — whether it is the beauty of the Rolling Stones or of Buddhist art from Gandhara or of Virgilian verse. Praise God for it.

And then, let us seek beauty where we can, and pray for it to draw our loved ones into the rich warmth of God’s love.

Some living Anglicans to consider

If you find yourself wearied by yet another General synod, here are some living Anglicans worth considering. (Some days it seems like all the best Anglicans died before 1700; some died just this year: RIP Michael Green.) Some of the people below, like Rowan Williams and Sarah Coakley, have an appeal across the theological spectrum. Since the idea here is to encourage those despairing of the Communion and its traditional structures I choose not to include those worth reading who reside amongst schismatics (here, let me sneak in Hans Boersma, Mark Galli, and J I Packer through a back door), nor people who did good work as Anglicans but have subsequently converted to a different church (like Edith M. Humphrey).

What is great about the people I mention below is the fact that they are signs of vibrant life in what we might call the ‘real’ life of the Church — life beyond General Synods in areas other than arguing about sexuality.

I must say, first, that there are many faithful clergy worthy of consideration within North American mainstream Anglicanism (that is, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church), but I know the writings of few of them.

So, before the barrage of the British, here are two from the Anglican Church of Canada worth noting. I’ll probably offend some friends and family by forgetting people I actually know or should know. I purposefully exclude for the moment my siblings.

Canada

Gene Packwood, involved in Anglican Renewal Ministries, has a blog worth reading.

Ephraim Radner from Wycliffe College has written some thought-provoking pieces online not only about the hot-button issue of marriage but also about age theory and Christian leadership. Two very good pieces of his are linked to from Wycliffe’s bio page: ‘Praying with Those Who Pray‘ and ‘Anglicanism on Its Knees‘. I admit to never having read any of his books.

Steve Bell, I understand, was at some point part of the Anglican community St Benedict’s Table, but I do not know if this is still the case. Steve is a wonderful musician whose work has both musical and lyrical depth — and spiritual depth, too, of course. His concerts are always a mixture of stories and songs, and the stories carry with them added depth. He has become an advocate for indigenous rights, which is great, and recently put out a boxed set of resources for the church year called Pilgrim Year, besides also now leading retreats.

The USA

Before leaving this continent, I’d like to recommend two from the USA.

Christopher A. Hall, I believe, is still Episcopalian. I have profited from Reading Scripture with the Church FathersLearning Theology with the Church Fathers, and Worshiping with the Church Fathers as well as The Mystery of God.

Rt Rev George Sumner, Bishop of Dallas, former principal of Wycliffe College, writes interesting things at Covenant (or the Living Church? I get confused by the website). Ephraim Radner also publishes there.

England 

Given that we are called ‘Anglican’ because we trace our spiritual heritage and ecclesiastical structures to the English Reformation and the Church of England, recognising the Archbishop of Canterbury as primus inter pares, one would hope to find contemporary English Anglicans worth considering. Allow me to give just a sampler based on my recent experiences — so, not Nicky Gumble (although I assume he’s still worth your time) and not Alec Ryrie (because I haven’t read his big book on Protestants yet).

Sarah Coakley is an engaging theologian in print and in person. I recommend her book God, Sexuality, and the Self to you. It deals with the doctrine of the Trinity using Scripture, the Fathers, art history, and sociological fieldwork interviewing some local Anglicans. Rather than beginning with a demonstration of the Son as God, and everything else following on, she starts with the biblical case for the full and equal divinity of the Holy Spirit, arguing that this affects how we approach God himselves. (Himselves is my own neologism.)

Malcolm Guite is a poet, theologian, and literary critic based in Cambridge. I’ve reviewed his book Faith, Hope and Poetry here as well as having reblogged some poems from his blog. His literary-critical theology plays at the edges of our awareness, seeking to travel the regions where analytical reason finds the going tough and where imagination can lead the way. His poetry does likewise, though in a different mode. My own English poetic taste runs more towards Herbert than T S Eliot or Ezra Pound, but Guite is a modern poet I heartily appreciate.

Rt Rev Rowan Williams used to be Archbishop of Canterbury. He has returned to academia and recently written a book I desperately want to read, Christ, the Heart of Creation. He is a very good stylist in the English language and thereby elegantly cuts to the heart of Gospel in his writings. I have mostly read occasional pieces of his on the Internet, plus one very good essay about the social ramifications of Easter in Sojourners magazine. The only Williams book I have read is The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ.

Scotland

I list them under ‘Scotland’ since that is their abode, but neither of these two is a Scotsman. I must very quickly hasten to say that I have no doubt that the work of Dr Sean Adams is beyond reproach, as well as that of Profs Paul Foster, Helen Bond, and Larry Hurtado. However, the only book of Hurtado’s I’ve read was not quite what this post is into, I only know Bond by sight, and most of my contact with Foster was either social or in Greek class. Sean, on the other hand, is a deep thinker, critical scholar, and nice guy who is well worth drinking a few pints with whenever the chance arises. Anyway, after hopefully covering my tracks with people I know/should know:

Oliver O’Donovan writes mostly for the academic crowd. Besides hearing him in person while a student at Edinburgh, I have read his book On the Thirty-Nine Articles, which I recommend because it is not a guide to or defence of them but, nevertheless, takes them seriously, considering itself conversations with Tudor Christianity. He is ordained in the Church of England, but has remained in Scotland since retirement (last I checked).

N T Wright, former Bishop of Durham, is, like Rowan Williams, back in academia, now up in St Andrews. I have read the methodology section of The New Testament and the People of God and one of his books written as ‘Tom’. He is an intellectually rigorous scholar who takes seriously both theology as the church lives it and historical study as the academy practices it.

Spend some time with one of these folks to encourage you that God is still afoot within the normative structures of Anglicanism.

The poets and artists leading the way

Western Christianity (Protestantism in particular, evangelical and otherwise) is in crisis in a few ways, all probably related. The bottoming out of church attendance and post-Christendom, for example, are undoubtedly related. And the bottoming out of church attendance is itself related to the fact that we have forgotten God, as Mark Galli has so succinctly diagnosed the problem in American evangelicalism.

As we have been slowly failing to get accustomed to this situation, many wonder who (or where) our guides in the Wasteland are. In the Introduction to A New Kind of Christian, McLaren writes, ‘Is there no Saint Francis or Søren Kierkegaard or C. S. Lewis in the house with some fresh ideas and energy?’ (p. xiv) Probably until 2010, many believed McLaren was that Kierkegaard or Lewis.

I’d like to imagine that the thinkers of my own direction, the ancient-future, are the guides in the Wasteland — D. H. Williams and the evangelical ressourcement, or Robert E. Webber with ancient-future faith, or Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall with palaeo-orthodoxy — but I fear these writers are largely un- or under-read (except Ancient-Future Worship by Webber, which seemed to do well amongst Michael Spencer’s iMonk set a decade ago).

Or maybe the theologians can lead the way? Sarah Coakley, perhaps? Hans Boersma (he’s almost the ancient-future set, though)? Miroslav Volf? Is Oliver O’Donovan too old to count? T F Torrance is dead, alas. What about non-Protestant guides? Frs John Behr, Andrew Louth, Kallistos Ware in the East?

But if we stick to our own set of Protestants with a bent towards historic orthodoxy and a desire to drive faith forward into the future, a desire to grab the living God and pull ourselves up into Him, a desire to set fire to the Enlightenment and show the world a real Persons at last, a desire to grab other people and show them the glory of God in its fulness —

The ancient-future set and the theologians will certainly help those who read them. (All, what, five of us?)

But I think Steve Bell and Malcolm Guite and (to toss in a Roman Catholic) John Michael Talbot are proving more helpful in this wasteland. Poets and musicians all, committed to the ancient paths but also to the shifting sand under their feet and bringing the power of the transcendent God of grace into our lives in a time when many within western Christianity feel uncertain or are walking away.

I say this as someone more likely to be like Christopher A. Hall (a patristics scholar who writes books about the Fathers for evangelicals) than Bell, Guite, or Talbot.

Their poetry and music — as well as Bell’s stories and his new Pilgrim Year resources, as well as Guite’s theological lit crit, as well as Talbot’s writings on the mystical and ascetic tradition — make truths immediate that are not always apprehensible in other forms. A Guite sonnet can carry freight that no theological article I have ever read can. Poetry and music grasp our souls in a different way from discursive analysis, much as I think the latter important.

I think on the rapture I have experienced at choral eucharists and evensongs. Or the hold that John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’ has on me. We need what the Romantics called the sublime. The sublime helps us rise up from the prosaic, mundane materialist world foisted falsely upon us by the Enlightenment. And as we rise, the transcendent God makes Himself immanent and enters our hearts and we can meet Him.

I may be amiss, but I think this is the case, and I think it make sense.

Regardless of the accuracy of the term ‘postmodern’, and regardless of how many of McLaren’s 2001 imaginings have come true, it is the case that the ‘postmodern’ is thought to be more interested in story than proposition, in the evocative than the precise, in connection than precise rationalisation.

Poets and singers, painters and architects, playwrights and novelists, can help bring us to God in such a culture.

May God raise up more to be the prophets to our generation.

(I’d list my musician friends, but I’m not sure they’d welcome the publicity…? And one has gone off to be a ‘normal’ person.)

Steve Bell’s website is here.

Malcolm Guite’s is here.

John Michael Talbot’s is here.

The Agony by George Herbert

I first met this poem in Malcolm Guite’s book Faith, Hope and Poetry (my review here), and I encountered it again last week in his lecture ‘Christ and the Poetic Imagination’ at Regent College’s Laing Lectures. A blessed Good Friday to you.

The Agony

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of the seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach, then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God

One of my other great, favourite prayers is the holy sonnet by John Donne, ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God.’ It is not dissimilar to the Anselm prayer in theme, but instead we get Donne’s sonorous English poetry to give our prayers wings. And if you want more John Donne, check out “Annunciation” over at Malcolm Guite’s blog.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

I am especially fond of the paradoxes of the life of faith in the final two lines.

John Donne by Isaac Oliver

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.