February 14, 2010

Understanding God

SJF • Last Epiphany 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.+

Paul the Apostle, in that beautiful passage we heard today, acknowledges the incompleteness of our knowledge about God. “We know only in part,” he assures us, and even what we do know is like a reflection in a dusty mirror, a dim vision of the heart of reality that is too much for our eyes to take in.

The simple fact is that, as the old hymn said, the full truth of God’s love — for God is Love — “is broader than the measure of man’s mind” — beyond our full comprehension.

Have you ever tried to get a good look at the Empire State Building from 34th street? Well, if you have, you know you can’t see much. Standing at its base, you are too close to take it in — it is so overwhelming. Even from across the street you are still too close, and if you get further away other buildings will obstruct your view. The only place really to get an idea of how tall the Empire State Building is is to go blocks and blocks away, or even to Brooklyn or New Jersey — where you can then see it rising far above all of its neighbors.

Well, if this is true of a human construction, how much more of the creator of the world and all that is in it? We know from our reading of Scripture that Moses talked with God face to face — though even then we also know that God must have toned down his glory so that Moses would be able to converse with him. The one time Moses asked to see God in all his glory, just prior to the passage from Exodus that we read this morning, God told Moses he could not bear it and live, and so God made Moses stand in a cleft of the rock, with God’s own hand upon him until the fullness of God’s glory passed by, and only then did God take his hand away and let Moses see God’s back — the back of God’s glory — and that was enough to cause Moses’ face to shine with the reflection of that divine light. And ever after Moses had to wear a veil over his face, so that even this reflection of the back of God’s glory would not be too much for the people to bear.

And in our Gospel today, three of the apostles witness the revelation of God’s glory manifest in Jesus on the mountain-top; but even then the cloud of God’s presence mutes and filters and overshadows the dazzling scene — so that they might not be struck dead at the sight of God’s full glory revealed.

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So how can we come to any understanding of God? Well, first of all, as the doctor said, “Take two tablets and call me in the morning!” Moses comes down from his meeting with God, his face glowing from the encounter, but also bearing those two tablets of the covenant in his hand, God’s word, written by God’s own hand, ready to be delivered to the people. In this we may understand all of Scripture to be meant — all of the Word of God delivered to us in the Law and Prophets and Writings, in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, and their letters, and the visions old and new.

And yet, just as the people couldn’t bear to look at Moses’ face, so too people then as now find even the second-hand glory of God’s Word in Scripture hard to understand — it will come as no news to you that there are as many different interpretations of Scripture as there are believers. There is an old Jewish saying that if you don’t like how your rabbi interprets the Scripture, you can always find another rabbi; and that in a room with five rabbis you’ll find at least six different interpretations. The same is surely true of Christians as well.

In fact, Christians can’t even on the whole agree on what the Bible is, let alone what it means, as Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, and Protestants disagree about which books of the Old Testament are to be included in the Bible — books accepted by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as a part of their Bible are considered Apocrypha (suitable for reading but not for doctrine) by Anglicans and Lutherans, and not even included at all by Protestants. That’s why you’ll find different editions of the Bible with different books in different places, and sometimes going by different names.

Beyond these differences in the content of Scripture, in what the Bible is, we come to the various interpretations of Scripture. And here too, there is wide difference of opinion both between churches and within them. Every church will have a different understanding, or many different understandings, different shades of interpretation.

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So, how do we know which we should follow? Ultimately that question is rhetorical, as surely people will follow the interpretation that makes sense to them, that seems to speak to them, or else, as in the saying I quoted before, they’ll go off to find another rabbi — or priest or minister or church.

But I think there is some guidance to be found in what Saint Paul says in that passage from First Corinthians, about the need for love as the standard by which we judge whether our understanding and interpretation is in accord with God’s will. For as Paul says, even if he could speak as eloquently as an angel, or in miraculous tongues, or with powerful prophecy, or with an understanding of all mysteries and all knowledge — if his understanding and speaking and teaching were not based on love, it would all be for nothing. If his teaching or preaching or his prophecy did not ring the note of love, it would be like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And what kind of teaching would that be?

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Saint Augustine of Hippo was one of the early great expounders of Scripture. He had been a young man-about-town, living the high life, but he experienced a conversion and became a Christian towards the end of the fourth century. (He credited his conversion to the prayers of his mother, Saint Monica, and you can see them conversing in our stained-glass window in the corner.)

Augustine had a fundamental rule when it came to interpreting Scripture, and it was based on Saint Paul’s advice, under the governance of the love commanded by God — the love of God and neighbor. Augustine wrote: “If it seems to you that you have understood the Scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up the twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them... If on the other hand you have made judgments about [Scripture] that are helpful for building up this love, but for all that have not said what the author you have been reading actually meant ..., then your mistake is not serious, and you certainly cannot be accused of lying.” (On Christian Doctrine 1.36.40.)

This was Augustine’s standard, and it was wisdom then as now. Does how you read the Scripture, understand the Scripture, and teach the Scripture build up — or to use the old word, does it edify? Is your understanding set upon the firm foundation of the love of God and neighbor? That is a sound foundation, and Augustine makes clear that even if your interpretation of the Scripture might depart from what Moses or Isaiah or Saint Paul himself may originally have intended, you will not go far wrong if that interpretation leads to a greater love of God and neighbor. Love is the key that unlocks the Scripture, and that is true all the time, not just on Valentine’s Day!

For ultimately, love is God’s message, what God has been trying to get across to us from the very beginning — from the very first time God wrote with God’s own hand anything down to instruct the people, on those two tablets of stone, which I hope you will notice in the first tablet, the first four commandments how we are to love God (honoring God alone, not having idols, respecting God’s name, and keeping the Sabbath) and in the final six telling us how we are to love our neighbors (by honoring our parents, not killing, cheating, stealing, lying, or coveting).

And if we needed any further instruction, after all of that, Jesus himself provides us with a summary of the law of the two tablets as the very instruction that Augustine would later take as his key to interpreting the Scripture: to love God with your whole self, and to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two, as he said, hang all the law and the prophets — that is, all the rest of Scripture.

As another old hymn puts it, “What more can he say than to you he hath said?” Do you want to understand the Scripture? Do you? Let me repeat to you what God himself says in today’s Gospel in reference to Jesus, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”+


Doorman-Priest said...

Thank you Tobias. I have read and reread this and have found it very helpful.

Fr. John said...

This is a lovely homily, Tobias, bringing us right to the heart of the matter. Even when we've grasped love, or been grasped by it, we discover but the traces of God.

I'm reminded of St. John of the Cross' "Spiritual Canticle" -

Pouring out a thousand graces,
he passed these groves in haste;
and having looked at them,
with his image alone,
clothed them in beauty.

We see in a mirror darkly, but, oh, what we see reflected back! Yet even that is but a foretaste!