Thursday, July 22, 2010

Spiritual Discipline includes eisegesis?

"Lectio Divina" is an ancient art of spiritual reading of the scripture at a deeper level. The formalization of the art is dated to about 1600 years ago. About 5 years ago, Pope Benedict XVI personally recommended this art to participants at the international congress, believing that this practice will bring about "a new spiritual springtime" if effectively promoted. You can read the entire papal address here.

This art was introduced to us this morning. We were led to practice the Lectio Divina as part of our learning process on the topic spiritual discipline.

This method of reading scripture was once perceived by Protestants as a risk for uncontrolled and heterodoxal mystical experience. Martin Luther was given as an example of someone who did not explicitly endorse this practice. Then we were told that though Luther was not explicit about it, his past as an Augustinian monk would have probably exposed him to this ancient art. Hence we do detect the pattern of Lectio Divina in his writings. This art is not that alien to Protestants. That's what we were told.

Anyway, there are preparations needed prior to our practicing of the art. For instance, we are told to regulate our breathing, make sure we take constant, slow, and deep breath. We were suggested to pay attention to our own breath.

The first stage was Lectio. A passage from the scripture was read by a volunteer while the rest of us had our eyes closed. We were instructed to listen attentively to discern between the voice of the world, of our selves, and that of God.

Then the second stage is known as the Meditatio. The same scriptural passage was read. This round by a different volunteer. We were asked to listened with diligence to capture a phrase that resonates with our present state of meditation.

The same passage was read by another volunteer for the third time. This marks the third stage known as Oratio. Here, we are told not to use our analytical or logical skills to understand the scriptural passage. Instead, we are directed to meditate further over the catch phrase, try to connect the phrase with our life experience.

Then came the fourth and final stage, Contemplatio. At this stage, all of us were instructed to simply rest in the presence of God. After that, we were asked to share our own catch phrase and the experiment within our group. No one should respond either positively or negatively to individual's sharing as there is no right or wrong in one's personal connection with the scriptural passage.

Each one of us came up with an understanding of the passage without reference to the context of the text. When my turn came, I passed on as I didn't have anything to share. This entire experiment is an example of a type of spiritual discipline. (Or is it?)

For more information of this ancient art, go here.

Then it occurred to me that this practice overturns all that we have learned from our other classes that emphasize heavily on exegesis. Classes on Old Testament, New Testament, Biblical Interpretation, Theology, and even Mission & Evangelism stress on the right understanding of the scripture. And a right understanding can never be detached from the text's context.

We learned that the sort of hermeneutic underlying Lectio Divina is known as 'reader-response criticism'. This method emphasizes the reader's personal experience with the text regardless of what the text really says.

If Christian spirituality cannot be detached from Christian theology, which I think it is so, and if theology cannot be separated from exegesis on the scripture, which every Christian should think so, then all Christian spirituality should involve proper exegesis on the scripture.

Anyway, this is just my thought. I can be wrong. Yet I cannot help but to wonder what does this mean after this morning's experiment with Lectio Divina?

Does it mean that we have to do eisegesis in our cultivation of spirituality? If yes, then what's the point of reading commentaries on the scripture, writing exegetical papers on scriptural passages, reading theological treatises over matters pertaining to our faith? What's the point of getting degrees on theology and biblical studies?

Anyone can simply establish any meaning on a particular scriptural passage in the name of Lectio Divina. And claim spiritual growth for that. Having a degree or not is not in anyway relevant to the proper handling of scripture.

If not, then why are we practicing this ancient art which contradicts all that we have learned? Does spirituality has to be dichotomized from exegesis? Does spiritual discipline, like Lectio Divina, necessarily irreconcilable with intellectual discipline, like proper hermeneutic? Can Christian spirituality be understood as a progress that includes proper exegesis?

I think we can. We should. How about you?


Nick Chui said...

Hi Sze Zeng
Just saw your post. Some brief thoughts of the top of my head (am studying theology too, though in Melbourne at the John Paul II Institute for marriage and family)

Many biblical scholars are trying to rediscover the ancient tradition of reading scripture i.e. that there is the literal sense of scripture as well as its spiritual sense divided into three categories, the allegorical, moral and anagogical sense. You can read more from the Catechism no.115. It seems to me that there is a growing recognition of the limitations of the historical critical method. One book which I am reading is entitled “Opening up the scriptures, Joseph Ratzinger and the Foundations of Biblical interpretation” by Jose & Carlos Granados & Luis Sanchez Navarro. Its published by Eerdmans

To my mind, the historical critical method is a legitimate though not the only method of interpreting scripture. Sometimes, by using the historical method alone, we miss the dynamic nature of the text. The text becomes "frozen" in time, unable to speak to us today. In a sense the postmoderns have it right when they note and observe the dynamic nature of the text. It is able to speak and strike people in diverse ways even without the direct intention of the author. The problem with the postmoderns is that they very often read their own agendas into the text, ideas that are completely alien to the mind of the author.

Nick Chui said...

However, when we approach the canonical scriptures, it is very different. If we believe that the Holy Spirit is the inspired author of the text, then he may well have inspired the human author to write things down which are not only relevant to the historical circumstances of the time but which also possess a prophetic/allegorical dimension not known yet to the author but certainly known to the Holy Spirit.

As such, the Church can read passages in the Old Testament as pointing to Jesus Christ. One would not be able to do so using the strict historical-critical method.

As such, the practice of Lectio Divina presupposes that the Holy Spirit is the inspired author of the entire canon of scripture and He is able to speak to our life situation today. There are perimeters though, Pope Benedict mentions some of them, which includes reading the scriptures in the heart of the Church, i.e. in the light of Christian faith and morals. If we keep to these perimeters, we can be reasonably sure that the text is speaking to us.

The best way to get the most out of Lectio Divina is to my mind in the sacred liturgy.

For example in our Catholic liturgy yesterday, we celebrated the feast of St Mary Magdalene. We had a reading from the third chapter of the Song of Songs as well as extracts from John chapter 20. One might ask, if one uses the historical critical method alone. “what on earth has the song of songs to do with Mary Magdalene”. The Song of Songs are wedding songs. However, if one is to read the scriptures in the spiritual sense, i.e in this case the allegorical sense where events are given full significance in Christ, then the passage in the third chapter of the Song of Songs makes perfect sense for the liturgy.

It reads “I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not. The watchmen found me, as they went about in the city. “have you seen him whom my soul loves” Scarely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me (Song 3:1-3)

One can see when paired with the Gospel of John which narrates how Mary Magdalene sought the Lord’s body and it could not be found and she wept thinking that somebody has taken away his body. The sadness in the bride’s soul in the Song of Song’s seems a fitting portrait into the soul of Mary Magdalene. And yet what joy to finally discover the bridegroom. Indeed Mary Magdalene clung to the feet of Jesus, she “found him whom my soul loves, and held him and would not let him go…”

And the text helps me today to note my own soul’s thirst for God and my desire to hold on to him.

Just some thoughts =)

God Bless
Nick Chui
Melbourne Australia

SHWong said...

Eugene Peterson mentioned this in Eat This Book. I think done properly, there shouldn't be eisegesis.

clement said...


Nick has provided a good explanation, but I thought I will just like to add a few more secondary points:-

Lectio Divina relies on tapping into the Sensus Fidei, also known as the Collective Moral Sense of the Church, or - to use the technical term - Corporate Faith.

The Sensus Fidei is voice of the Spirit that lives on in Christians, the God-in-Us. In Catholicism, the Magisterium Coordinates, recognizes and expresses the Sensus Fidei.

Lectio involves finding the voice of the Sensus Fidei while exploring a scriptural passage using meditative or sensous modes. "Lectio Divina" literally means "Divine Liturgy".

However, the Sensus Fidei is only recognized properly if the proper exegesis has been done in the first place.

So instead of contradicting the principle of exegesis - which the current Pope is very focused on - or running in parallel to it Lectio actually complements and builds upon it.

But Nick's point about the text being "alive" still stands.

Incidentally, the gay theologians you like defending happen to be great eisogesists as well, so if you support exegesis ...

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Nick,

Nice meeting you here; thank you for sharing from the tradition you belong to. :-)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi SHWong,

Thank you for highlighting Eugene Peterson's work. :-)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Clement,

Thank you for sharing more on Lectio Divina. :-)

reasonable said...

From another perspective, Lectio Divina is a kind of feel-good exercise which people (whether Christian or not) can do it using different types of text (e.g. some story books of C. S. Lewis, or the Qur'an, or the prayers of St Francis or Mother Teresa, and so on).

The purpose of Lectio Divina is not understanding theology or worldview or biblical text, but to make one feel-good (crafted in spiritual terms though). It is based on a set of pre-supposed worldview and theology, of course.

God of course can make use of a biblical text to speak to someone a message that is different from the particular biblical text. But God can also make use of a newspaper, the Tipitaka Buddhist text, and so on, to speak to someone a message too.

I suppose a Christian should be able to practise Lectio Divina using a newspaper, a magazine, Eugene Peterson's books, Mother Teresa's books and so on, since the meaning/feeling/inspiration one gets from Lectio Divina is not constrained much by the original intended meaning in a text.

I am not saying Lectio Divina is bad or useless. It has its value of course to some people. It helps people feel good. It helps them in their perceived spiritual growth (all that we know are perceived and hence "perceived" is not a negative word). It is just another optional tool that is suitable for some though may not be suitable for all (recall: different personalities suit different types of spiritual disciplines).

As long as one can different between meanings derived from Lectio Divina and meanings (be it meaning of life or meaning of the world or meaning of a particular text) derived from careful exegesis and hermeneutics, then there is no harm in doing Lectio Divina.

(all these paragraphs above are not intended to address any of the points written in the main blog and the comments before this)