Positive and Negative

Lately I’ve been thinking about another mediaeval way of thinking about God, and how it helps us read the Bible: the via positiva (the positive, or affirming, path) and the via negativa (the negative, or denying, path). They’re not so well known, I suspect, as the lectio divina or “holy reading” I wrote about last month.

In the via positiva, we begin to approach God by affirming all the things we know about God from our relationship with him in the sacraments, in prayer, and in the Bible. God is our Father, we say, or God is a King or a Warrior. But as we go deeper into that relationship, we begin to see that all those labels are quite inadequate, even wrong: God isn’t really a king or a warrior. How can God be a father when God is not a man, not human at all? So we begin on the via negativa, in which we focus on what God is not: God is not knowable, God is not created, and so on. In the end, someone who perseveres with the via negativa realises that it is too is an inadequate and even wrong approach. At this point there is only silence, the silence in which we (like the prophet Elijah) begin to see God afresh. We see the God who is beyond both our affirmation and our negation, the God who simply IS.

What has this to do with our reading of the Bible? Well, in a way, it describes it. When we are first reading and learning, we seek out all that the Bible shows us about who and what God is. As we go deeper, we are prompted not just by love of the Bible and love for God, but also by our deepening relationship with God in sacrament and community. And that brings us to the insight of Isaiah, in Is 45.15: Truly you are a God who hides himself. This search for the hidden God, ‘Deus absconditus’, as Luther put it, beyond our confident assertions, leads to the via negativa. The search in the Bible for the hidden God, for the shape and form that is left behind when we take away all the things that God is not, leads us to the same place as Job’s troubles and Job’s false comforters lead him. To silence before the God who simply IS.

So we are left with the God of Exodus 3.13-15:

But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.

To read this properly, in light of our journey from affirmation to negation and beyond, we need all the context that the rest of the Bible, both First Testament and New, can provide. Perhaps most importantly, we need all the context that our experience of God in the sacraments, liturgy, and relationship can provide. This is the most important take-away, because it reminds us that we do not read the Scripture in a vacuum, or with the context of learned commentary only. We read it holistically, in light of our experience of God in the Church and in our hearts. That is what the saying that ‘the Bible is the Church’s book’ means.

I encourage us all to practice (and persevere!) in this ancient Christian path of understanding. Not just for what it shows us about God, but for what it shows us about the Bible and how to read it.

Lectio Divina

Lately I find myself thinking a lot about lectio divina (in English godly reading), a meditative way to read the Bible that was originally characteristic of mediaeval monks, especially in the Early Middle Ages. It continued to be found wherever men and women lived under a religious rule that both fostered regular daily prayer based on scripture and set aside time for private devotional reading of the Bible. When I was studying a commentary on John’s Gospel by a twelfth-century monastic writer, lectio divina was something I often considered, but less so in recent years, especially when I was still working. I know why I have been thinking about it again — our interim priest-in-charge (what a mouthful!), David, spoke about it in a sermon recently.

What is lectio divina? Well, it is a way to read the Bible in which you use reminiscence of the Bible to illuminate and give meaning to what you’re reading. What do I mean by that? The idea of reminiscence is that you can use other passages which employ similar words or phrasing to shed light on and explain the passage you are reading. It’s called reminiscence because those early monks lived in a world steeped in praying and hearing the Bible: they learned to read from the Psalms and Paul’s letters, they prayed the divine office five times a day complete with Psalms and canticles and short Bible readings. By simple repetition they learned much of the Bible by heart, so when they turned to the Bible for devotional reading, they used their recollections of other passages very naturally to help make clear the one they were reading.

Nowadays many of us need to use a concordance or other such tool (like a Bible with running marginal references) to find other verses or passages that use the same or similar words or phrasing. But whether finding such passages is done through reminiscence proper or by using such aids, the desired result is the same: that this lectio divina, this godly reading, may guide our understanding of the Scripture we are reading and make its meaning and its place in the interconnectivity of Scripture plain to us.

It is a slow and meditative process; one might turn over in the mind only a few verses a day in this way, exploring all their ramifications. And it takes place in a context of prayer. Furthermore, lectio divina is not a way of doing Bible study, although insights gained through it may illuminate study as well as devotion. It is the way the heart prays, not the way the mind understands. But both are needful in a balanced Christian life.

So even though it may seem very hard to set aside time to read the Bible in such a devotional way and to become so familiar with it that we don’t need so many tools to do so, it is worth the effort. The monks themselves described it as both reminiscent and ruminative, and they used the beautiful image of the honeybee. Just as the honeybee builds up the comb to hold the sweetness and golden goodness of the honey, so the one who practises lectio divina builds a network of interconnections in their heart and mind to hold the spiritual insights about God that lie just under the surface of Scripture.

Note: If you want to know more about lectio divina and the world out of which it came, you may want to try The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, A Study of Monastic Culture, Jean Leclercq, O.S.B., tr, C. Misrahi, (Fordham Univ. Press, NY, 1961, 1974). A translation of L’Amour des letters et le desire de Dieu: initiation aux auteurs monastiques du moyen age (Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 1957).