09 February 2017

A Little Bit of Lectio (reprised)

The following thoughts were written several years ago but have clear resonances with recent posts and concerns published here. The nature of theology, the importance of it being rooted in out experience of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the notion that those who disavow the importance of the intellect are also doing some form of theology, etc. are all present here.

I was reflecting about tomorrow's first reading. It is the part of the Genesis account where Eve is seduced to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, where (perhaps at her urging and perhaps not) Adam does the same thing, and where "their eyes are opened" as a result. Of course this opening of their eyes is a form of self-consciousness which is rooted in only a partial truth about themselves, namely, that they are naked before God and each other. But it is a self-consciousness which blinds them to the greater truth of who they are with and through God, namely, persons of infinite worth with the very breath of God sustaining them at every instant --- even in their sinfulness.

From here my reflections moved in the direction of humility. I came to think that what passes too often for genuine humility is precisely the partial truth occasioned by alienation from God and the resulting self-consciousness that blinds us to the whole truth. What passes for humility is often nothing more than a self-centered view of our "nakedness" but without the broader perspective granted us by our relationship to and with God and the incredible worth that affirms. Without this other piece of the picture, we know only our own unworthiness, our own poverty and incapacity --- and we will rightly come to despise ourselves. Of course Adam and Eve fail at humility in other ways. They grasp at a knowledge they are not made for, they fail to trust a God who has given them no reason to fail in this, and they hide from him taking refuge in shrubbery and stuck-on fig leaves! But most fundamentally in all of this, I think, they only look at (or accept) part of the truth of who they are in relation to God and, for that very reason, fail in humility.

But my reflections also went in another direction (though I am pretty sure they link up at some point; it is just that my lectio has not gotten me to that point yet!). I was thinking about something Walter Brueggemann said about the hugely "over-interpreted" serpent in this narrative, namely, that he was not a symbol of Satan or evil, but a neutral character used to move the story along. This led me to think of the serpent as an externalization of what Eve comes to think in her heart --- a debate she has with herself, really: that God has somehow not told them the truth, that she knows what God is really like, that she knows what is best for her own life and is capable of determining what is good and what is not without reference to God!

Part of this sense that the serpent is the externalization of Eve's own thought processes were occasioned by something else Brueggemann said, viz, that the speech made by the serpent, indeed the whole conversation, is a matter of "theologizing" and that the serpent is the first "working theologian"!!! (I admit, I found this point really funny --- but because it was strikingly "right." It reminded me of the fear I felt regarding presuming to speak about God with any authority early in my years of studying theology. Somehow, doing "theology" seemed to be oxymoronic to me. Arrogant perhaps, probably presumptuous, and at least awfully risky. It is a fear which has never completely left me, and I mainly know it now as a kind of awe that I am a theologian.) Perhaps I need to recover some of that original "fear"! (Ah, can you sense these directions in my lectio beginning to link up?) At the same time then, it recalled the stress in Eastern Christianity on theology as an act of prayer, or at the very least, something which is never to be divorced from prayer.

But in tomorrow's reading, that is exactly what happens. As Brueggemann notes, no one is speaking to or with God in this section. They are speaking about him, and in doing so they even distort (or lie to themselves about) what they were told WHILE they were speaking with him and he them. How often this happens in our own lives! Whether we are professional or academic theologians or the armchair variety, how very often we speak about a God we really don't know or allow to know us all that well! How often our speech about God, our theologizing, has nothing whatsoever to do with prayer! It neither stems from prayer, adverts to prayer in gratitude or supplication, nor moves us to return to prayer! And how often it distorts, subtly or otherwise, the truth about God which he himself has revealed to us. Much of our religion is (or has been) built upon such distortions!!

It occurred to me that if we were speaking without reticence about science, or economics, or child-rearing, or any number of other things without first hand knowledge OF the thing being talked about, people would laugh us out of the room. And rightly so! Consider how truly stupid we would be and seem if we spoke about a person as though we knew them first hand and were instead required to confess to listeners that we had never actually met this person face to face! And yet, how often we characterize people, speak of their motives, etc without ever having met them! Why is it that with theology we don't get uneasy in attempting to speak about God and the other ultimately important dimensions of life which are tied to faith in him apart from a first-hand knowledge of God??? (Here I am thinking of suffering, death, illness, evil, and more --- and about all the really silly and even offensive things people say about them and about God when they wax on about such things.) Of course, it is true that the truly first rate theologians never lose perspective like this (or not for long!!) and that their theology is a function of their prayer lives. But for most of us, we rarely talk to or with God before we presume to talk about him, and as a result our theologizing is as blind, self-centered, and distorted as in today's first reading. . . .