Monday, May 16, 2016

Reinventing the Word

A very nice woman showed up on my doorstep with a tract about mourning and then read a verse in the Book of Revelation and said, “What do you think about that?” My first thought: “I wonder what Sts. Thomas Aquinas, John Chrysostom, and Augustine thought about it.” But I had a baby on my hip, the oven was beeping at me, and she promised to come back another time (after leaving clues about where I might find “the real meaning,” i.e., her meaning).

The fact is, my interpretation of Bible verses doesn’t matter. Whatever I drum up on the spot is just that—an idea that pops into my head. Like the Rorschach Tests, where someone holds up an image and you say, “Skull! Butterfly! Pelvic bone!”

Besides, the Book of Revelation is totally straightforward anyway, right?

Deferring to the authority of the Church means I don’t need to decode the Bible (or the culture, or my path in life). I don’t need to come up with my own novel approach to Scripture, waiting on a thunderbolt moment. I know this rankles some Protestants, because it used to bother me. I remember thinking, “If the Pope told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it?”

I became Catholic, in part, because the Church claims to have the answer—it is not one opinion among many, but the lone possessor of The Truth—i.e., the whole Truth. My unwillingness to hijack Bible verses doesn’t mean I don’t read scripture, meditate on it, and value it. After all, as St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” But the truths in the Bible don’t require my personal examinations and conclusions—the Truth still exists, and will continue to, without my input.

Why do we expect that our personal “take” on Scripture is valid? If someone dismantled my computer, held up a part, and asked me, “What do you make of this?” I wouldn’t know where to begin. I trust that someone at Hewlett Packard knows precisely what it does, where it fits into my laptop, and why it is necessary. And I’m okay with not being personally responsible for its functions. I’m not a computer programmer, and I’m not an exegete, with in-depth knowledge of history, language, and theology. But I know of scholars and saints who are, and I have access to that information.

Growing up, I assumed that if you wanted to do something, say, plan for retirement, you sought an expert, asked for advice, and then followed it. But that isn’t how it works. Everyone you ask will have a different opinion about wills, trusts, life insurance, hospice care, providing for the widow, children, ex-step-children, and even the pet chihuahua. Then there’s bonds, IRAs, and precious metals to be stowed away for a rainy day.

As with so many areas of our life, there’s no clear path to follow, only information to be gathered, a multitude of opinions offered, and choices to be made after a period of discernment. And things might not play out how you thought they would. Markets crash, people get sick, there are layoffs.

The Church is the ultimate balm for this plethora of choices and interpretations. There aren’t unlimited options, constrained only be the imagination, subject to ever-changing feelings. There are Truths: marriage between baptized Christians is the sacramental union between a man and a woman. Children are the fruit of that relationship, not begotten in Petri dishes. They are always a blessing. There are clear vocations—marriage or religious life.

The Bible doesn’t mention independently deciphering our path through life, or Scripture, but audaciously claims that we “shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) “When the Spirit of truth comes,” says the Lord Jesus, “he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13). If even the Spirit “will not speak on his own authority,” why would a suburban mother and housewife making chocolate chip cookies to quell the toddler rebellion?

In addition to lack of knowledge and time, why would laymen want the responsibility of demystifying the Word of God? If your flock (or the neighborhood you’re canvassing) is called to “become like little children,” why would you claim your unique interpretation can save the souls of others? Lest we forget, “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble (Luke 17:2). What greater presumption is there than personally deciding the meaning of God’s very Word?

According to the Baltimore catechism:

Since many things in the Bible are difficult to understand, Christ has given His Church the work of explaining them. That is why we have catechisms written in language that even little children can understand. (page 241, Appendix C The Source of Our Facts)
By deferring to the Church, and her saints, one might conclude that I’m just another ignorant Catholic. But giving up amateur exegesis is actually an act of humility and thus liberating. Opinions may change, and our vision is often clouded. While a verse may resonate at different points in our lives, the intention behind it, the true meaning, remains. No cause is ever served by reinventing the Word of God—or patronizing one’s neighbors by offering them “little clues” to contradict 2,000 years of Church teaching. How much more worthily would our time be spent drawing closer to God, living the teachings of His Church, and making chocolate chip cookies with our children.


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Source: Philippe de Champaigne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons