An interesting book review came across my desk yesterday, The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America (2016) by Kenneth Briggs, a lifetime religion journalist. The premise of the work is the decreasing readership of the Bible in our society, or as Briggs puts it, we buy a lot of bibles but we don’t read them. On the book’s Amazon page, there is an opportunity to read select passages, and I came across a quotation in the book from the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855):
“The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
Kierkegaard was not a practicing Christian, though Christianity absorbed a good amount of his thought. It does seem that the Dane understood the power of the Bible better than most Catholics, and opponents of the Church from the beginning of the Middle Ages through the Reformation and in our present time have held to the contention that Catholicism has indeed “defended itself against the Bible” in Kierkegaard’s words by expanding a Tradition that can distract from the hard-core language of Biblical truth.
The Catechism goes to great pains to emphasize the unity of Scripture and Tradition; the difficulty, as Briggs elaborates, is that Christians are Biblically illiterate. One reason—though hardly the only—is what Briggs describes as a gulf between the Biblical academic community and the folks in the pew. In an interview with the author provided by the publisher, Eerdmans, on YouTube, Briggs describes the difficulty of congregations accepting the idea that the Book of Isaiah is three separate books with three separate authors. He depicted the typical congregant as saying, “Well, that’s not how I learned it,” and unwilling to go to the trouble of sorting out the disparity.
Briggs is on to something here, as his commentary resonates with my own experience as a catechist dating back to my college years in the 1960’s. I never had a bad classroom experience over Isaiah; my troubles started earlier with the Creation stories (yes, plural) and Noah’s Ark. Our youth and adult religious education/Catholic school curriculums are devoid of any meaningful teaching on Inspiration, or how divine Biblical authorship relates to the humans who wrote the texts. Once you introduce the human element, the typical reaction is “so the Bible is really written by men, and not by God.” Our generation’s way of circumventing Kierkegaard’s New Testament dilemma. As a teacher and as a blogger, it is very disconcerting to hear the most elementary Biblical questions from 40 and 50-year-old Catholics with post-bachelor’s professional degrees in non-religious disciplines.
The principle of para. 85 rests upon a full understanding of the Word of God “in its written form or in the form of Tradition.” In truth, Scripture and Tradition are locked together in one unity of faith. Take next Sunday’s Gospel (April 23) where Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room. He breathes upon them the Holy Spirit and tells them that God’s forgiveness—the determination of who enters eternal life—is in their hands as conveyors of this divine forgiveness. Tradition would flesh out the structure of forgiveness in terms of sacramental practice, bringing God’s original revelation to our world and our time. But it takes an astute reader of Scripture—in this case, the Gospel of John—to connect the urgency and assuredness of forgiveness to the tradition and rite of Penance as the Church celebrates this sacrament today. Briggs observes that confusion and/or denial of death and its subsequent experience is a factor that keeps readers away from the Bible in the first place.
There is one other thought to consider with para. 85. This text emphasizes the primacy of the Word of God. My experience in Catholic church life, the small groups and Bible studies (of which I belong to one) is that Catholic readers turn to Scripture not for its divine content as much as for personal comfort— “what it means to me.” This is unfortunate for many reasons; not least of which is the loss of what God intends to say to the reader. It is very much like praying to God and telling him how he should answer the prayer. Monks are taught from the beginning to adopt a “humility to the text.”
A Christian who takes the Bible to heart as a daily experience is making a major commitment along the lines of choosing a career, marrying a mate, undertaking a doctoral program. It is a decision that is life-changing and ever present to the mind. As difficult as the Bible is to understand at times, it is our choice to love God enough to learn his language—and an essential part of Catholic life to provide partners who “speak the language.” The Bible is not an hors d’oeuvres tray of pithy wisdom like Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, but a unified narrative of God’s life with us, his creation. To paraphrase John Kennedy, “Ask not what your Bible can do for you, but how you can respond to your Bible.”