The modern world is a materialistic one. Many of us can only believe in what we are able to quantify, what we can measure and put into mathematical formulae. Many think that no one truly knows a thing except through scientific experiment. Thus, studies continually come out attempting to prove what we already know: eating lots of fatty foods will make one fat; not getting enough sleep will make one less productive; spouses who constantly fight are more likely to divorce; people who work hard tend to make more money…
But is all knowledge reducible to the measurement of matter? Can we know more than what science and social science tell us? Yes! Men are not merely material beings. We are more than matter, more than science can measure. For example, science cannot quantify love; it cannot tell us that a man loves his wife with 7.62 “amores.” Human experience in all its complexity is inherently unquantifiable.
Love, and romantic love in particular, is always within the context of a relationship, and one cannot measure all the various aspects of a relationship: how a couple met, when each of them first realized “this is the one,” how he proposed, what the couple’s first Christmas with children was like, etc. These things are not quantifiable, but they are nevertheless real, and the knowledge we have of them is deeper than the knowledge we have of mere matter. A husband knows his wife in ways that a doctor, even with the best medical expertise, cannot.
Such is also true of our most important relationship—our relationship with God. Now, one of the places where we encounter God on a personal level, where we grow in our relationship with Him, is in Scripture. Thus, our reading of Scripture must go beyond the merely material and the literal; we must approach the Bible as something more than an historical document that is of interest mainly to experts on ancient languages and cultures. We must approach it as what it truly is: a place to meet the living God, a place where the Author of the cosmos wishes to speak with us.
Nowhere does the need to go beyond the material and the literal present itself more clearly than in certain difficult passages of the Old Testament. For example, one line in the Psalms reads, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9). On a historical level, the psalmist is cursing Babylon, the oppressor of Jerusalem during the Exile; his outrage at what Babylon did to Israel boils over into an anguished cry for justice. But how are we to read this as Christians? We cannot literally take our enemies’ children and bash them against a rock! On the other hand, we cannot simply ignore parts of Scripture that are difficult to understand. To resolve this dilemma, we must go beyond the historical, literal meaning and discern a spiritual meaning—a meaning that is not frozen in the past, but has significance for our current, living relationship with God.
Fortunately, the saints and Fathers of the Church show us the way. St. Benedict, for example, offers a striking interpretation of this difficult passage in the Prologue of his famous Rule. There he praises the monk who “hath taken his evil thoughts whilst they were yet weak and hath dashed them against Christ.” On this reading, the “children” or “little ones” spoken of in the Psalm represent the temptations that are still “young” in one’s mind. While they are still young and not yet too strong, we are to dash them against the rock of Christ, our protector against temptation.
Just as, through their life of marital friendship and communion, a loving husband and his wife know each other more profoundly than they could by means of any medical or psychological analysis, so we encounter Christ in Scripture on a level deeper than just the literal and historical. Christ loves his Church as a bridegroom his bride, and we, the members of that Church, are called to love Him in return. That means knowing Him in a way that goes beyond mere facts or data; it means knowing Him personally and in the context of a real friendship. This requires us to transcend the materialism of our age; it requires us to search the spiritual depths—”the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God”—that are revealed to us on the Sacred Page.
Image: Joseph von Führich, Jacob Encountering Rachel with Her Father’s Herds