A couple days ago was the feast of St. Dominic, one of my favorites and the primary influence on this website. I was hoping to write something about his mission of preaching.
In every age, maybe ours more than ever, anti-intellectualism has been trendy. There are elements of truth in that idea. But it becomes an excuse not to hear the Word of God, as if it is more intellectually humble to trust in your own unexamined ideas than to let yourself be formed by divine revelation. St. Dominic believed that the Word of God, articulated through preaching, was key to conversion. I agree.
Today I’d like to approach the same point from a different angle: exegesis. In part because of events, in part by design, this page has become devoted above all to exegesis of the Sunday readings. I have benefited from that, and I want to reflect with you on why. I believe what I am about to say is the heart of Benedict XVI’s vision – though in our political age, few people notice.
Exegesis is a fancy Greek word that means “drawing out.” (Ex– means “out”.) The way to understand it is to consider its opposite, eisegesis. (Eis- is the Greek for “into”.) When you have a text before you – we are talking about Scripture, but this applies to liturgy, to Christian doctrine in general, and even to conversations with friends – eisegesis means that you impose your own ideas instead of hearing what the other person says. (When people turn Benedict XVI into a proponent of the Latin Mass, for example, they are committing eisegesis, seeing their own ideas instead of listening to his.)
There is a “conservative” or “traditional” kind of eisegesis that sometimes infects what is called the “spiritual meanings” of Scripture. Sometimes people in the tradition have been so eager to talk about Jesus, or Mary, or some other Christian topic that they don’t bother to hear what a particular Biblical text has to say. It is possible to read these spiritual meanings in Scripture in an “exegetical” attitude, but it is true that we often fail. Thomas Aquinas, for the record, warns that we need to start with the “literal” meaning of Scripture, by which he means exegesis.
A more modern example. It seems to me that someone taught many priests in my diocese a particular, not exegetical, approach to lectio divina. In this method – which is not real lectio divina – you read a Biblical text, look for a word to jump out at you, and then you put the text down and run with the word. You read about the disciples fishing – and that reminds you of fishing with your grandfather, and then you do a meditation, on your own or in your preaching, about the spiritual importance of grandfathers. And your basis for this meditation is the word “fishing.”
Now, there is a germ of truth in this approach. To understand the text, it is worth thinking about what it means that they were fishing. But Scripture has something else to say to you.
Imagine if you did this to a friend. He starts a story, “the other day I was driving in my car” – and you tune out, and start meditating on what cars mean to you. Sure, part of understanding your friend’s story is understanding what he means by driving in the car, and it’s possible that your shared experience of the car is relevant to understanding his story – but you have to listen to the story!
There are, of course, more and less “spiritual” and “traditional” ways of doing this. The point is, if you are more interested in your ideas than in the ideas being spoken to you, you are committing eisegesis.
To combat this kind of eisegesis, modern scholars have developed some methods – which often become their own kind of eisegesis. It is good, for example, to consider the original context of the text. Maybe it was written during the exile in Babylon. Okay, that’s relevant. But scholars get so carried away with their theories of Babylon – often, truth be told, based on scant evidence – that all they want to talk about is Babylon, and they can’t hear what Scripture is teaching them about our relationship with God. They are avoiding one eisegesis and falling into another.
Another danger they want to avoid is that of being so sure that we understand a text that we miss what it has to say. The Bible is a big book because it has many things to say. If you are always meditating on the same idea, I would guess you are not listening to the many things the Bible has to say. So another method of modern exegesis is to set aside your preconceptions and listen to each individual text on its own terms, as if it stood alone. The modern exegetes have a point.
But again, this can go too far. If your friend and you have shared experience, and shared loves and ideas, those things are not irrelevant to understanding what your friend is saying. Even if you are reading someone you disagree with, your background knowledge about their ideas helps you understand the thing they are saying right now – even though, yes, you need to keep an open mind and make sure you keep listening.
One of the premises of this web page – a basic premise of Catholic theology – is that theological knowledge, knowledge of the truths of the Christian faith in general, is helpful for understanding the particular teachings of Scripture. St. Matthew knew the same Jesus I have been trying to know, the same Jesus who comes to me in the sacraments, and in Scripture. St. Matthew has things to say to me, and I need to be listening – but to pretend I know nothing about Jesus is not helpful in my listening to St. Matthew, any more than it would be helpful in listening to my friend’s story if I pretended I don’t know what a car is, or don’t know my friend.
Why exegesis? Because the Bible has something to say to us. Because God’s perspective is different from ours. I listen to a lot of Catholic talk: in my opinion, people who aren’t doing exegesis tend to fall into human ways of thinking. They especially tend to forget the central reality of divine grace, of redepmtion. To keep our supernatural perspective, we need to listen to the sacred authors, who have that perspective better than we do. To think like Christians, we need to read the Bible – and if we aren’t doing exegesis, we aren’t reading the Bible.
You don’t have to be an expert to listen to the Bible. How do you let God’s Word speak into your world?