Thursday, July 5, 2018

Devotionalism: On Limiting the Divine

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At the behest of a good friend of mine I have started a read-through of the entire Bible. Despite my Protestant roots, there are still some books of Holy Writ I have never completed, mainly due to the repetition and bookkeeping style of some of the sacred texts. Audiobooks are a great way to push through even the monotony of the Mosaic law and the literal numbering of the book of Numbers. I have not read the early books of the Bible since my conversion. It is a return to a landscape I used to know quite well, but has become strange and new from the distance of neglect.

In spite of my many concerns and skepticism about the historical-critical reading so popular among Bible scholars of the last two centuries, occasionally I can see their point. The two accounts of Abimelech king of Gerara nearly having his way with another man’s wife because her husband was hiding the marriage could be harmonized more easily if both accounts were about the same married couple, but the first is about Abraham and Sara, and the second about Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis chapters 20 and 26, respectively). The thought that the same trick was played twice on the same man is not impossible, but it is so darkly humorous that one cannot blame the scholars too much for attempting to retain a modicum of seriousness.

The genealogies between Eden and Abraham are treated with the same apparent level of historical veracity, which makes the harmonization of Scripture and paleoanthropology difficult. While I am not opposed to a more spiritual or allegorical reading of the Old Testament like St. Augustine’s, I also do not know that the authorial intent is anywhere along those lines. A scholar of ancient Hebrew texts I do not pretend to be, but unlike many other restless minds I do not care to worry myself to death or fabricate conspiracies over every difficulty.

But what comes through more strongly than I had remembered is the personality of God. The “God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob” is no deistic Prime Mover. He is not even an interloper in the stories of the Patriarchs. Rather, he is the protagonist throughout, with occasional digressions into the lives of his creatures. Even with the acknowledgement that the inspired writers used anthropomorphic language to describe the wishes and actions of the Divine, they were still inspired to do so by God himself.

He creates the universe apparently only to have made something good. He takes pity on Adam and gives him a mate. He is greatly disappointed in their trespass. He is disgusted by the self-destruction of mankind. He lets Abraham speak to him almost as if to an equal. He wrestles with Jacob and lets him gain the upper hand. He pours out judgment not only on Pharaoh but on his devil-gods, using the opportunity to show his wonders to his chosen people. He wishes to speak intimately with his people in the wilderness and is offended when they tell Moses to do it for them. He slays whomever makes a graven image of himself, since they were all too afraid to see him as he is. He tells Israel that he would not chasten them if he did not love them so much.

The interpretation of the Canticle of Canticles as the untamed love of God for his people did not appear in a vacuum. It is a reasonable extrapolation from the earlier books of Hebrew Scripture.

Likewise, the popular and theological characterizations of Our Lord in the Christian era take many cues from the “God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” St. Paul witnessed the risen Christ already glorified in the celestial realms, but the evangelists wrote from the perspective of those who knew Jesus, as it were, before he was cool. The Christ of the Gospels vacillates between aristocratic aloofness, angry table-turning, and tender compassion. One might say that the Catholic devotional instinct has become a method of focusing on that third aspect of the Divine Countenance in the hopes that the first might be ignored and the second avoided.

This is why devotions like the Sacred Heart, Divine Mercy, and many of those centered on Mary are so often narrowly tender and ignorant of the more difficult aspects of God’s interaction with man. The Novus Ordo practice of canonizing the deceased at his funeral is an outgrowth of this blind focus on love and compassion. Perhaps no one can bear the fulness of what has been revealed of the Divine Personality without a special outpouring of grace, but one suspects that few are even very willing to try.

We cannot force God to shine only his kindly countenance upon us simply because we desire it. He is the lover, we are the beloved. Sometimes he is aloof, sometimes angry, sometimes tender, and sometimes even absent. “In my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, and found him not.” How do we find God when he is distant, when his tender compassion seems very far from us?

We go on a pilgrimage. (Next up: Pilgrimages as devotion.)

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