Karl Barth wrote an essay in the early 20th century entitled: "The Strange New World of the Bible," reporting what could be understood as a mystical experience had by a liberal theologian in reading the Bible. Or, at least, that's how I understand it. The Reformation began in the early 1500's with Martin Luther's mystical experience while reading the Holy Scriptures, and the Protestant tradition has at its very center a cognitive/emotional experience. Barth, like Luther before him, never referred to himself as a mystic, but tried very hard to distance himself from mystics who tended to rely on direct spiritual experience but felt little need to explain such experiences in relation to either scripture or tradition. Clearly Barth was going through an intense rereading of the Reformed theologians, Luther and especially Calvin as he was reading Scripture with new eyes. For Protestants, the distancing is first of all from those whose experiences are not woven from the fabric of a genuine encounter with Scripture, and for Catholics, the distancing is first of all from those whose experiences are not woven from the fabric of a genuine encounter with tradition (the beginning of which is recorded in scripture. But, I get the idea that Luther and Barth protested a little too hard against mystics, when the essential transformative ideas of both arose out of a somewhat unanticipated being taken by surprise by the overwhelming "otherness" and "graciousness" of God's presence. Each man was probably on guard against mystical excesses because both had the gift of the mystic, to see into new meanings and to be open to new revelations from God's Spirit.
About the nature of Scripture as "holy ground," that has the potential to transform and open a person to the presence of the living God, Barth has much to say in the essay referred to above. I wish I could find my book that contained that essay. The book is called: "The Word of God and the Word of Man."
There is a certain "otherness" or "strangeness" that we experience in the Bible when we truly enter into its language, thought-forms and way of making sense of life. But, there is also a certain "otherness" that we experience in reading the Church's writings from a distant time and place that can carry that same primal tradition that we meet in the Bible. When I read what Ambrose has written 1700 years ago, I recognize some elements common to my way of seeing life, but I also meet some elements of thought which are foreign to me and awaken my interest. For example,I begin to think that if I can stay with Ambrose's writings a while, I may come to new understandings of God and human life and myself. But, there is something raw/primal about the Holy Scriptures. The Scriptures preserve for us from different periods of time a snapshot of how human beings were making sense of God's presence in the world through recollecting revelatory experiences, reflecting on them, and using the insights learned to try and make sense of human life. And, the Scriptures also bear witness to the chaos of human life that is in tension with any effort to make sense of it. The Scriptures as a whole are a many-leveled, diverse sociological and theological record of the history of two religious movements: that of the Hebrew people who became the Jewish people, and that of the Jewish followers of Jesus who grew into the multi-racial/ethnic Church of Jesus Christ.
Monday, January 3, 2011
I am not quite ready to tell these stories, but will get them in order soon. Of course, this may not make sense to anyone but me, but I write in case it might make sense to someone else. If not, I will at least have a better self-understanding before I move on in this blog. So, next time, I will recall a couple of episodes from this period.