The hermeneutic of heaven

My beads came with me to the abbey.

And, yes, that would be the abbey we feared being thrown out of for being too noisy.  The same abbey where I chewed repeatedly over the ethic of climbing out after Compline to go to the pub.

I didn’t have to.  Climb out, that is.  And, despite the hilarity of one of our party getting locked out of her room during the Great Silence whilst we tried to rectify the situation in stage whispers punctuated by smothered giggles, we also didn’t get thrown out.  Instead, we read and wrote.  Cooked and ate and drank more than one bottle of wine.

And I prayed.  In the shimmering heat of these days, I sat and I waited.  Morning by the stream.  Afternoon in the prayer cabin.  Round and round my beads I went, rosary truly repurposed.  Yes, still me saying little and him saying less but, even so, this my repeated upward glance.

The prayer continued in service station too, when signs told me that junctions 5 to 8 were going to take more than two hours and I decided to wait with a book.  Pray the ‘Be still and know‘, the book told me.  And so I did, just as it said.  First, the full phrase: Be still and know that I am God.  Then in four progressive reductions until at the last all I was left with was Be.

And as I prayed, I realised the progression.  It begins with me-as-agent knowing something about someone: whilst being still, I know that he is God.  Then, as I moved to Be still and know that I am, it was still me-as agent knowing but this time what I knew was simply that he IS.  The third iteration, Be still and know, continued with me-as-agent, my activity being the knowing, but less caught up in the content of my knowing.  From there, the progression was to being still, all knowing now hidden as my agency becomes subsumed by receptivity’s waiting.  And then, finally, the invitation to BE.  To be, of course, even as he IS.

A simple prayer perhaps but one that caught me unawares.  For it resonated with something I have been wrestling with in recent years, a recognition that though my rational-cognitive faculty is God-given there is yet another way of knowing by it than I have owned.  I call this way of knowing the ‘hermeneutic of heaven’ and it’s been there in my journals for the last two and a half years.  It’s a knowing which is given, which comes in the context of reality as encountered.

Theologians talk about the typical Western way of knowing in terms of a subject-object relationship: I think that I am the subject and that reality is an object the existence of which is always relative to the subject.  I am the agent and the reality which I come to know can be named by me as something outside of which I stand.  In simple terms, reality is what I name it, how I catalogue it.

This way of knowing, of employing rational cognition, is mine by default: as a hyper-rationalist, I seek to know reality by standing outside of it and I would prefer to package it up nicely in a box of my own specifications.  An alternative way of thinking about knowing, though, is to perceive it as flowing from encounter.  I participate in reality, encountering it, and thus I can never know a thing from outside but only from inside.  That means I cannot stand apart from God and hope to make complete sense alone of a world that he created.

Now reason, or my rational-cognitive faculty, is created by God and thus is the faculty by which I come to know.  Admittedly, I’ve had to make peace with that in recent years.  I wanted to excise this faculty for being a hindrance, as I thought it was, to the knowing which is heaven’s hermeneutic.  For when this faculty has been surrendered at the altar of a kind of hyper-rationalism – that determination to believe that I can stand outside of truth, unaffected by it and able to pass judgment on it – then its knowing is incomplete.  And so, honestly, I wanted to excise this faculty of mine which had become so twisted on that altar because I was impatient about how it held me back from the other kind of knowing.

I wanted to excise it.  God, it turns out, wants to transform it.

For though it is only in participation in the divine life through Christ, only in participation in Truth himself, that I can ever know anything as it truly is, such knowing is not thereby counter-rational.  It is instead rational cognition submitted, very deliberately, to what I call the hermeneutic of heaven, a hermeneutic which is the acceptance that my knowing depends on me living out of my participation in Christ and into the world around me.

Perhaps more memorably, for me at least, a knowing shaped by the hermeneutic of heaven depends on me living from heaven to earth.

Heaven’s hermeneutic means that my basis for making sense of reality as God has made it, the fundamental arbiter of truth, is his Word made present to me by his Spirit and received by me in faith.  And so my rational-cognitive faculty appropriately directed takes his Word as my interpretative starting point.  It doesn’t ignore other sources by which I might make sense of the world around me – tradition, reason and experience, according to Wesley – for the Word does not necessarily nullify these, but this faculty is yet robustly evangelical in affirming that his Word is my ‘norming norm’ for knowing reality as God has created it.  If God says it, then it’s true.

And so back, finally, to that prayer I prayed today…

In all of its iterations, what caught me was the reminder of my role in the knowing.  I am agent and God does not efface that.  Personal being is not lost in the depths of contemplative intimacy with God in Christ.  The rational-cognitive faculty has its place.  He will not let me excise it like a troublesome appendix.

No, this part of me is no appendix.  But there is also weightiness in this Scripture’s invitation to the kind of knowing which neither seeks to catalogue what I know (in this verse that he is God) nor even eventually, in its stilled receptivity, depends on much personal agency at all.  For his Word by his Spirit comes always as gift.

His Word by his Spirit comes always as gift.  And mine is to allow him to transform my rational-cognitive capacity in order that its knowing might sometimes be an active rationality and yet, always, might flow first out of a deep and silent, even contemplative, receptivity to the most complete rationality of all: Word given by Spirit received in faith.

Simply?  I am to live from heaven to earth.

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2 thoughts on “The hermeneutic of heaven

  1. Dear Chloe, Unsure if you will have received my reply so here goes again. Thank you for your insights which always ring bells with me.
    I feel that a really wonderful thing occurs when the two “poles” reinforce one another, viz when we realise that the truth revealed through personal encounter and that obtained through the rational-cognitive approach (to the Scriptures) are one and the same. This coincidence, when it occurs, is truly a case of being “surprised by joy”.

    Perhaps in this connection or perhaps not I’m been struck by the difficulties of reading the Scriptures which are eastern in language and concepts as a western person who cannot stand aside from the rational/cognitive approach. Thus we have written and preached our three point sermons and deduced our dogmatics from them. Does this is a way do violence to them, to put it rather strongly.? Ought we to seek to become more eastern in our approach if we are to grasp their full import. This would be asking a lot! Where would we be without the Holy Spirit’s inspiration

    Again many thanks, and best wishes,

    Michael.

    • Apologies for the delay in response but I have been on summer leave! Yes, it is a good challenge to learn to read the text differently than our Western minds and training would indicate. I wonder whether our preaching should be indicated at least occasionally by genre, so that a preach on Proverbs takes on a wisdom form, a preach on a Psalm has a poetic texture and a preach on a parable has the same kind of playfulness as characterised by Jesus’ own use of parables? Too often, though, I tend to default to what is easiest – a historico-critical reading of the text which perhaps plays too little!

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