Reading the Bible “ascetically”

Sermon on the Mount stained glass windowTo return to Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality (see previous posts 1 | 2), in an early chapter Thornton discusses the role of Bible reading in personal devotion. He begins by observing the difficulties that many laypeople now have concerning how to engage with the Bible:

The critical upheaval of the last century has convinced the layman that the Bible is a subtle and difficult book, put together piecemeal, out of all chronological order, repetitive, contradictory, and translated through two or three languages at least. Yet he is still glibly exhorted “to read it”, just like that. […] But if the Bible is an immensely complex record of God’s revelation of himself to mankind, then just “reading” is surely inadequate. How is it to be read, studied, approached, or used, for lay devotion? (p.31)

“Just reading” is therefore insufficient, and so (Thornton continues) is a form of Bible study that amounts to “no more than a watered down version of biblical scholarship, which, without long training in the disciplines of the craft, is not going to get the laity very far.”

One answer is to suggest that laypeople should focus on “imaginative meditation” rather than seeking “propositional truths” in their reading of Scripture. However, Thornton concludes that this is also inadequate: the English school of spirituality’s “speculative-affective synthesis” means that the question “What does the Bible mean?” should never be abandoned altogether. He continues:

The modern Christian is no fool. He knows that the Bible is a subtle volume which demands a modicum of care if it is to be used constructively, but he has a reasonable case when he accuses the scholar of turning it into an insoluble puzzle. If the English Bible is to remain “open”, the layman must be able to retain a certain confidence in it. (p.32)

What we need, in short, is “some simple key, some clear approach, which ordinary Christians can use with confidence”. Thornton suggests two ways in which ascetical theology – that is, the application of doctrine to prayer, rather than “being an ascetic” – can help with this.

The first is “affective meditation”, especially in relation to the words of Christ – which “can always safely be regarded as ‘irony'”:

[Our Lord’s sayings] must mean far more than is immediately apparent, not because scholars have played games with the text but because they are spoken by the Son of God. In other words we reject the search for direct tenets in favour of an empathetic union with Christ himself. “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” is either an exhortation to suicide or it is “irony”. This approach, within meditation, encourages rather than detracts from intellectual endeavour: it brings in the speculative side. (p.33)

The second approach to an “ascetical” reading of Scripture is to relate it to prayer – or, more subtly, to our whole Christian life as shaped by our prayer; in Lutheran terms, both devotion and vocation. As Thornton puts it:

More generally, we can look at the Bible ascetically: confronted with a saying or passage, we can ask the ascetical rather than the propositional or moral question. Not “What does this mean?”, or “How does it teach me to behave?”, but “How does it impinge on my total Christian life which is grounded on my prayer?”. (p.33)

He gives a brief example of this, in relation to Jesus’ instruction to “take no thought for the morrow”:

As a divine proposition, “take no thought for the morrow” suggests a reasonable possibility that this world is not going to last much longer. As a moral exhortation, we must be obliged to burn all our insurance policies. As ascetic, it leads to common-sense teaching on “surrender”, “abandonment to divine Providence”, habitual recollection, the sinfulness of anxiety, temporal-eternal relations in the sacraments of the threefold Church, and so on.

At the end of the chapter, Thornton sketches out further examples based on the Sermon on the Mount: for example, observing that while the Beatitudes “make something of a jumble as an ethical system”, considered in ascetical terms they lay out “the way to the Vision of God”: “detachment, penitence, intercession, humility, progress, union, mercy, fortitude, simplicity, harmony, cross-bearing”.

Similarly, the apparently paradoxical metaphors of being “salt” and “light” can, Thornton suggests, be read ascetically as describing different ways which are both right according to circumstances: the “salt of the earth” being a Benedictine spirituality, “the light of the world” Franciscan.

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