If we look back to the Fathers, and the tradition, for inspiration as to the nature of theology, there is one thing we meet which must be paused over and discussed in some detail: and that is their use of allegory in interpreting the Scriptures. We can see already that for them it was not a superfluous, stylistic habit, something we can fairly easily lop off from the trunk of Patristic theology. Rather it is bound up with their whole understanding of tradition as the tacit dimension of the Christian life: allegory is a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the Scriptures, it is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of the Scriptures. Of course the question of allegory in the Fathers is complex (and often rendered unduly complicated by our own embarrassment about allegory): but whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures.
I have quoted Louth at some length to make a point. His characterization of a search for a “deeper meaning” is a hallmark of Patristic thought about Scripture. They do not all call it “allegory,” indeed, it was and is called by many names (theoria, etc.). But all shared a common sense that there was something behind or beyond the text that confronted them.
I have written about this topic previously primarily under the heading of iconicity – a word I use to connote the referential character of not just the text we read, but the world we inhabit. The world as pure object, as a collection of self-contained and self-explaining things (of which people are but examples) is a world that is foreign to the perception of Classical Christianity. But it is this world-as-object that dominates our modern understanding. For the use of allegory and related manners of searching for the depth in things, is more than a mental exercise. At its heart, the fathers see that these deeper meanings may be discerned, because they are actually there! In the same manner, the things in the world have a relatedness and referential character, because this is truly and really so, and not just through mental inference.
This is a radical claim about the nature of reality and, in many ways, lies at the very heart of the distinction between the classical world and the modern. It is an understanding that lies beneath every classical teaching of the sacraments and even touches upon the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation. Is the world as it exists capable of depth? Is there any true relation between one thing and another? Is there a mystical aspect of truth or is mysticism mere sophistry?
An answer to this question comes within the Christian teaching of the Triune God. For the God-who-has-made-Himself-known in Jesus Christ is revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And more, as Father of the Son, the Father from whom the Spirit proceeds, and Son of the Father, the only-begotten, and Spirit of the Son who proceeds from the Father. None of the names by which God has been made known to us is a self-contained, non-referential name. And we have not been given a revelation of a God behind Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is not a matter of human perception or mental inference – God-as-Trinity is the very ground of all existence.
Thus at its most primary level, the Christian revelation proclaims a related and referential character of all that exists. Creation is no mere collection of things but are that-which-is-brought-into-existence-out-of-nothing by the Father, through the Son. This belongs to the creation as part of its “goodness.” What God creates is not only brought into being (a mere collection of things) but is said by God to be “good.” The word also carries the meaning of “beautiful.” What exists has an order and a meaning and a relatedness to God, who alone is good. To declare creation as “good,” is to declare its referential character to the God-who-alone-is-good.
To see the beauty of creation and its goodness is more than recognizing its existence: it necessarily includes discerning its mystery, that-within-which-its-beauty-lies.
The so-called “literal” reading of Scripture is thus never truly “literal.” Meaning is never a thing-in-itself. Meaning is relationship, connection, participation and commonality. No event described in Scripture is interesting in and of itself. These things hold interest only because of their meaning (relationship, connection, participation and commonality). St. Paul asserts that Christ is our Passover (1 Cor. 5:7). Such a statement (and so many others – “Lamb of God,” etc.) not only provide commentary on Christ but on Christ as the beauty and goodness of Passover itself.
There is a fear within many that any adumbration of the importance of the literal is an assault on the integrity of Scripture itself. The “meaning” is, for them, located within history. I have countered that history, particularly most of Biblical history, is a thing that cannot be known. I cannot “know” or be sure of the details of the parting of the Red Sea. I can know what I read in the text, but assertions about the character of the text is secondary. I am here asserting that the character of the text is much like the character of the world itself. The Scriptures are good and beautiful, something that must be discerned (so Christ gave his apostles to understand the Scriptures after the resurrection). Were the beauty and goodness of Scripture a matter of mere surface, literal apprehension, discernment would not be necessary: the unaided reason of man would be sufficient.
But as it is, this is not so. Nor is the world rightly understood in a “literal” manner. The Christian perception of the world is of the good and the beautiful. The Modern Project has drawn our eyes away from the depths of creation and promised a new age birthed through reason alone. The manipulation of phenomena by which we may control the world will give rise to unprecedented freedom and wealth. Technology (the manipulation of phenomena) is indeed a generous Lord, but not if the cost is the emptying of the world of goodness and beauty. Our substitute for such a world has been our imagination of good and beauty (always in the eye of the beholder). We thus know nothing but our own ideas!
But our crisis as believers nurtured in the modern world is revealed as we stare blankly at what appear to be empty, inert, unrelated things around us. Those who see more seem superstitious or new-age. My mother’s whispers from childhood haunt my adult struggle of faith: “There’s no such thing as ghosts.” But her reasons for saying this could just have easily been applied to a wider range of concerns. “There’s no such thing as sacraments.” “There’s no such thing as miracles.” Even, “There’s no such thing as God.” For the God who remains after we rid ourselves of “no such thing,” is nothing more than idea.
I am a modern believer. I am not a product of a classically Orthodox world. I speak the words of a classical faith as I stand at the altar, my modern soul judged, even crushed by their discernment.
I cannot offer solutions to others. But I share what I have. I step back from the emptiness of my heart and consider the matter of being and existence. For though my modern mind often refuses to discern anything more than what it literally perceives, I must at least grant that what I see exists and that what exists came from nothing. The universe, this side of the Big Bang, is itself the most eloquent argument for the existence of God. He-Who-Caused-All-Things-To-Be ( יְהוָ֔ה) has all things as His witness. And the Christian teaching that all things were created through Christ reveals Christ as Beauty and Goodness incarnate. It is His goodness and beauty that are reflected and revealed in the cosmos.
But our temptation is to think that beauty and goodness are properties only of the mind. And this finally exposes the true emptiness of the Modern Project. Having emptied the world of God, Goodness and Beauty, it admires only its mind. But as the subject turns upon itself and the mind beholds the mind, everything disappears in a sea of post-modern doubt. And the darkness of the night whispers, “There is no such thing as beauty…”
And I remain amidst the things that exist and wonder at the Goodness and Beauty which may there be discerned.
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