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Center for Action and Contemplation

Our Tricycle for Forward Movement

Monday, January 9, 2017


Our Tricycle for Forward Movement
Monday, January 9, 2017

This meditation is longer than usual, but I think it will give us a solid foundation to build on in the year ahead. I want to state at the beginning the way I have formed my own pattern of interpreting Scripture. Then we can build “from the bottom up” (which is our theme for the year).

Hermeneutics is the technical word for a method of interpreting sacred texts. If someone does not have a consistent and declared hermeneutic, their understanding of Scripture is whimsical and subjective. A good and solid biblical teacher must come clean about their manner of interpretation early on, or you have no foundation for trusting what they say. Just saying, “It is in Scripture,” as most do, is largely meaningless, because anyone can find a workable “proof text” for whatever they want to believe somewhere in the Bible. This is why many have so little trust in Christians today.

We will move forward on our “tricycle” of faith only with three good wheels:  Tradition, Scripture, and Experience. [1] (This week we will discuss Scripture; the following two weeks we will explore Tradition and Experience.) If we leave off any of these three wheels, our interpretations of Scripture and reality will be unstable and biased according to our egoic need of the moment.

Christians who say “only Scripture” end up being unconsciously dishonest and inconsistent, because they are relying on their own “tradition” of interpreting those Scriptures (without acknowledging it). Even more importantly, we must recognize that we cannot not rely upon our own experience. There is no such thing as a completely unbiased opinion! Since we all use tradition and experience anyway, why not admit it and thereby hold ourselves accountable?

Let’s all start being honest, or we end up saying, in effect: “We have a tradition of not believing in tradition!” Catholics loved to say we relied upon the Great Tradition, but this usually meant “the way we have done it the last hundred years here in Italy (or England or Germany, etc.).” What we consider “sin” changes every century or so. Most of our operative images of God come primarily from our early experiences of authority in family and culture. Then we find the Scriptures to validate them!

If we try to use “only Scripture” as our methodology, we will get stuck early on, because many passages give very conflicting and even opposite images of God. I believe that Jesus only quoted those Scriptures that he could validate by his own experience. At the same time, if we humans trust only our own experiences, we will be trapped in subjective moods and personal preferences. But if we can verify that at least some holy people and orthodox teachers (Tradition), and some solid Scripture also validates our own experiences, we can be more confident that we are in the force field of the Holy Spirit and participating in God’s sacred work in this world. This is how we know inside “the communion of saints,” as the Apostles’ Creed calls it.

Jesus and Paul clearly use and build on their own Jewish Scriptures and Tradition, yet they both courageously interpret them through the lens of their own unique personal experience of God. This is undeniable! We would do well to follow their examples.

I’ve often said the Bible is the best book in the world and the worst book in the world. It is the worst when it is used for bullying and self-justification; it is the best when it is used for the healing of the world and for transformation of the self. Obviously, God intended the latter.

My methodology and hermeneutic is almost too simple: I will try to read Scripture and Tradition the way that Jesus did. This is precisely what Christians should mean when we speak of understanding the Hebrew Scriptures “in the light of Christ.” This is not “supersessionism” (the belief that Christianity supersedes Judaism); it is just healthy developmental thinking. In this way, there is no such thing as an “Old Testament” because now it can always be fresh and timely! If Jesus (who of course was Jewish) is our interpretive key, it demands that we take Jewish texts and history more seriously than ever before, which will allow us to appreciate the actual context and culture inside of which Jesus taught, but to also recognize the trajectory that they—and the Christian Scriptures—create forward!

To take the Scriptures seriously is not to take them literally. Literalism is invariably the lowest and least level of meaning. Most biblical authors understood this, which is why they were free to take so many liberties with what Westerners would call “facts.” In many ways, we have moved backward in our ability to read spiritual and transformative texts. I am afraid we have for too long used the Bible merely to prove various church positions, which narrows its range and depth. Instead of transforming people, the Bible has become merely utilitarian and handy ammunition against others.

Serious reading of Scripture will allow you to find an ever-new spiritual meaning for the liberation of history and your own soul. You discover that the text holds truth on many levels, instead of trying to prove it is true on mere factual or historical levels. Sacred texts will always maximize your possibilities for life, love, and inclusion, which is precisely why we call them sacred.

Gateway to Silence:
Your word is a light for my path. —Psalms 119:105

[1] I am grateful to Carolyn Metzler for this helpful analogy, a dynamic improvement upon the traditional three-legged stool model for Scripture, Tradition, and Experience (or Reason, as most commonly used).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Yes, And . . . : Daily Meditations (Franciscan Media: 2013), ix-x; and
Scripture as Liberation, disc 1 (CAC: 2002), MP3 download.

Image credit: Antico triciclo per bambino (detail), May 2005.
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