One has either got to be a Jew or stop reading the Bible. The Bible cannot make sense to anyone who is not ‘spiritually a Semite.’ The spiritual sense of the Old Testament is not and cannot be a simple emptying out of its Israelite content. Quite the contrary! The New Testament is the fulfillment of that spiritual content, the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, the promise that Abraham believed in. It is never therefore a denial of Judaism, but its affirmation. Those who consider it a denial have not understood it.
Merton, CJB, 14.
Believe in order to be.
We believe, not because we want to know, but because we want to be.
Merton, CJB, 15.
Reunion begins in oneself.
If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and Latin Fathers, the Russians with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we can not do so by imposing one division upon the other or absorbing one division into the other. But if we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.
Merton, CJB, 21
The Natural is Sacred or Profane. We choose which it will be.
Whatever is done naturally may be either sacred or profane, according to our own degree of awareness; but whatever is done unnaturally is essentially and irrevocably profane.
A.K. Coomaraswamy, in CJB, 25.
If I have not love, but all the knowledge in the world, then I am a clanging gong.
Gandhi once asked: “How can he who thinks he possesses absolute truth be fraternal?”
Commenting on Gandhi, Merton writes:
Only he who loves can be sure that he is still in contact with the truth, which is in fact too absolute to be grasped by his mind. Hence, he who holds to the gospel truth is afraid that he may lose the truth by a failure of love, not by a failure of knowledge…Knowledge expands a man like a balloon, and gives him a precarious wholeness in which he thinks that he holds in himself all the dimensions of a truth the totality of which is denied to others. It then becomes his duty, he thinks, by virtue of his superior knowledge, to punish those who do not share this truth. How can he ‘love’ others, he thinks, except by imposing on them the truth which they would otherwise insult and neglect?
Merton, CJB, 44.
Christians are a minority. Now get over it.
Christians stand to gain more in the long run by accepting their minority position and looking for quality rather than quantity.
Christopher Dawson, in CJB, 55.
Frivolous News is nothing New.
Every time [President] Kennedy sneezes or blows his nose an article is read about it in the refectory.
Merton, CJB, 58.
Oil: The Sacrament of American Folk Religion. The car: the chalice that contains it.
We waste our natural resources, as well as those of undeveloped countries’ iron, oil, etc. in order to fill our cities and roads with a congestion of traffic that is in fact largely useless, and is a symptom of the meaningless and futile agitation of our own minds. The attachment of the modern American to his automobile and the symbolic role played by his car, with its aggressive and lubric design, its useless power, its otiose gadgetry, its consumption of fuel, which is advertised as having almost supernatural power…this is where the study of American mythology should begin.
The full meaning of the Biblical words was not disclosed once and for all. Every hour another aspect is unveiled. (GSM, p. 273)
The meaning of the Bible is not a given. Heschel states “Revelation is not vicarious thinking;” that is, revelation and its meaning do not come to us pre-assembled. Revelation is not a “substitute” for our thinking abilities. (GSM, p. 273) This isn’t to say that revelation can and must be reduced to that which is rational. Reason has its limits. Revelation is not inherently rational, nor is it intended to be understood with only our natural faculties. Revelation is meant to be interpreted through means that are often supernatural, namely through faith. Heschel writes that the prophets did not speak to deliver a timeless, monolithic, and conclusive message, the meaning of which is inhospitable to the changes of time and culture.
And because the Word was in the beginning, so was hermeneutics, or, interpretation. Words are just noises that we make or scribbles on a page unless we first attach meaning to them and after that interpret them as a whole. Words require interpretation. Interpretation is the art of turning words into thoughts, beliefs, and actions. That interpretation is a primal event and undertaking is the assertion that Richard Kearney puts forward throughout his own philosophical project. This also seems to be the reasoning of Abraham Heschel when he refers to the Torah, the word of God revealed through the prophets, as a “call for continuous understanding.” (GSM, 273) What I am interested in doing is looking at how Heschel’s “continuous understanding” and Kearney’s hermeneutics affect how we understand the biblical text (or any sacred text for that matter).
In a three-part CBC Ideas interview featuring Kearney discussing his book The God Who May Be, and his overall interpretation of religion, Kearney begins with the statement from which I derive the title of this post.
In the beginning is [hermeneia], interpretation in the beginning is the Word. Not a stone. Not a certitude. Not a God you can put in a bottle and bring out every so often on festive occasions to prove that you’ve got the absolute truth and nobody else has…and as we know words are dialogical and you’ve got to listen and to respond.
Interpretation is perhaps one of the most primitive human acts. Before there was written and spoken language, there were symbols. Communication was through imagery and gestures. Progressively communication could be accomplished through utterances and more specific symbols. But in each situation, meaning had to be created in order for there to be any sort of coherent communication to take place. Of course, this meaning was not perfect and thus interpretations could vary. Whatever the case, interpretation became necessary. Communication became possible only through interpretation. And it remains that way today. You will read these posts and will interpret them. You are engaging in hermeneutics.
I’ve been reading the Jewish philosopher and theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book God in Search of Man. Wonderful book. Here’s some bits from a chapter on revelation.
Incomprehensibility does not imply an illusion.
Revelation should not be rejected because of its being incomprehensible. It is not the only fact that is impervious to exploration, unverifiable by experience. That which is incomprehensible must not be considered unreal. Can we explain how being came into being? Can we describe exactly how the tense power of a spirit glides on the strings of a violin, creating a world of delicacy out of nothing? Is the cry and anguish of six million martyrs theoretically comprehensible?