Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pilgrims on the Way of Truth

The metaphor of pilgrimage is one that has been used in Scripture (Psalm 84:5 and Hebrews 11:9) and in the history of Christianity to describe the call to a Spiritual life. The early Church taught that life is like a journey, that this world is not our ultimate destination, and that we are all on our way back to God who is our truest home (see Hebrews 11:13). Michael and Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda (2004) in their book "The Journey: A Guide for the Modern Pilgrim" describe a pilgrimage as, "the journey of those who, deliberately seek answers to the questions of meaning, purpose, and eternity. Instead of seeking fulfillment in things that will never satisfy, the sacred pilgrim sets out to find that which the heart truly desires: God's very presence." This erudite description of a "sacred pilgrim" could easily be used to consider the mission of Christian scholars as those who intend to seek diligently "answers to the questions of meaning, purpose, and eternity" in their respective field of inquiry. If Christian scholars are then indeed pilgrims on the way of truth, what are the tools they carry with them on this adventure of discovery?

There is a story told (Arnold & Fry, 1988) about the twentieth-century pilgrim William McElwee Miller that might help us to think clearly about the travel necessities required in our journey of truth-seeking: "While travelling along the border of Iran and Afghanistan, Dr. Miller had encountered a Muslim sage. Together the missionary and the mullah rode along the narrow path. In the course of their conversion the Persian asked the Presbyterian, 'What is Christianity?' Dr. Miller said, 'It is like a journey. For that trip I need four things – bread, for nourishment; water, for refreshment; a book, for direction; and opportunity, for service. These are my pilgrim fare. Jesus provided me with these things. I trust Him on my way. That is Christianity." This book that we have been given on our journey for direction is a collection of sacred Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the Bible; through which we are invited to respond to the reality of our Creator and omnipresent God with a love and devotion that includes not only our body and heart, but also our critical faculties (see Jesus' use of the great "Shema" of Deuteronomy 6:5 in Matthew 22:37).

Exegesis is the interpretative process of finding, seeing and hearing God in the Sacred Scriptures (Deist, 1992), the collective history of those faithful pilgrims that have come before us in the journey. Christian Scholars bring their own expertise and the academic disciplines particular to their field to the reading of these Scriptures, and thus to the academic discipline of Biblical exegesis. M.D. Chenu (Holmberg, 1990), a sociologist, comments how the critical thinking skills of the academe assist us in discovering the "revealing" of God in our history and thus by application in the contemporary world: "When God reveals Himself to humans, He does not reveal Himself according to His own knowledge, but according to the human spirit, beginning with the simple rules of grammar and language. When this Divine communication is realized in a community that calls itself the Church, it follows in its humanization the laws and rules of collective knowledge, that any sociologist [or linguist, or for that matter any literate person] can observe in human societies." The literacy of each academic discipline can become a window through which we can once again observe this "Divine communication" in our world.

Richard Foster (2008), in his recent book on reading the Bible for spiritual formation, proposes four steps in reading the Scriptures that are helpful for the Christian scholar's quest for Biblical integration in the various fields of the academe:

  • Read the Scriptures literally: The Christian scholar uses all the tools of linguistic, rhetorical and communication analyses to enter into the words of the sacred texts.
  • Read the Scriptures in its historic and social contexts: The Christian scholar avoids anachronistic and ethnocentric readings of the sacred texts by utilizing the disciplines of history, sociology and anthropology to enter into the world of the people of the Bible.
  • Read the Scriptures in conversation with itself: The Christian scholar allows Scripture to interpret Scripture and forms conclusions and interpretations based on rigorous synthesis so as to enter the larger message of the sacred texts.
  • Read the Scriptures in conversation with the historic witness of the People of God: The Christian scholar joins the theological and philosophical discussions of two thousand years in a continued quest to enter into the truths of the sacred texts and its implications for our world.

We are a pilgrim people on a sacred journey in a quest to "incarnate" God's truths in our world. We do not walk blindly. We have been given a book for our journey, a sacred book that is God-breathed and "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16); a book that provides direction for pilgrims on the way of truth.

"Christians feed on Scripture. Holy Scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don't simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such ways that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus' name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son."
– Eugene Peterson (2006)

Arnold, D. W., & Fry, C. G. (1988). Francis: A Call to Conversion. Grand Rapids: Cantilever Books.
Deist, F. (1992). A Concise Dictionary of Theological and Related Terms. Pretoria: J. L. Van Schaik.
Foster, R. (2008). Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation. New York: HarperCollins.
Holmberg, B. (1990). Sociology and the New Testament: An Appraisal. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Peterson, E. (2006). Eat This Book. Rand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Scaperlanda, M., & Scaperlanda, M. R. (2004). The Journey: A Guide for the Modern Pilgrim. Chicago: Loyola Press.