The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Sanctuary

It’s the season of Lent, that time in the church year when Christians prepare for the incomparably great Easter Feast. The forty days of Lent, reflecting Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, are intended to be observed as a kind of askesis, a spiritual training and a moral challenge, undertaken in order to discipline our desires and strengthen our wills, subduing our unruly habits and showing us ‘the one thing needful’.

This Lenten boot-camp usually involves a temporary (and sometimes, for some people, even a permanent) giving up of things which are good in themselves, but not essential. By abstaining for a while from these good things, we exercise the muscles of detachment and clarify our vision.

In the two traditions I’m familiar with – Anglicanism and Catholicism, – and no doubt in other Christian traditions too, part of this preparatory activity is seen in certain small changes to the liturgy of public worship. For instance, the Gloria in excelsis Deo (‘Glory to God in the highest’), an ancient hymn of praise that Christians have sung since at least the fourth century, and which is usually recited every Sunday, is forgone during Lent. The word ‘alleluia’ is not used at the proclamation of the Gospel reading. Hymns with the word ‘alleluia’ aren’t sung. Flowers aren’t used to decorate the church.

Like Christ in the desert, we go through a barren period. We simplify our lives and forsake things that are good in themselves in order to check on our priorities, to ‘detox’ our spiritual system, to run down our batteries so they will hold the charge better when we charge them back up.

Now, all these reflections on Lent are meant by way of introducing the following account. I wish to relate something I saw recently, soon after the start of Lent, something that ranks as . . . well, you will see what I think it ranks as. It’s completely true. I haven’t changed or exaggerated it. Let me set the stage.

It occurred at the church I go to in Oxford, where I live. The church is dedicated to St Gregory and St Augustine, the ‘apostles to the English people’. It’s a church where J.R.R. Tolkien often worshipped, when he lived in north Oxford, and where his daughter, Priscilla Tolkien, still attends. It’s a small, uncluttered building, erected in 1911, a fine example of the Arts and Crafts movement in English architecture and design.

I was attending the 6.00p.m Vigil Mass for the second Sunday of Lent. (For those who aren’t familiar with Catholic-speak, ‘Vigil Mass’ means ‘Saturday evening service of Holy Communion’.) The date was 20th February 2016.

As I entered the church, I noticed a dog lying on the floor to one side of the aisle, by the back pew on the left. I was surprised. I had never seen a dog inside St Gregory’s before. In fact, I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen a dog inside any church anywhere at any time.

It was a golden Labrador Retriever (full-grown) and at first I thought it was a guide-dog for a blind person, but when I glanced at the lady who was obviously in charge of it, I could tell she wasn’t blind. For some reason, she’d just brought her dog inside the church. I’d not seen this lady before. She was short-ish and trim; about 55 years old, I supposed; quiet and unassuming, with a slightly nervous air, keeping herself to herself, – doing her best, perhaps, not to invite comments or complaints about her pet.

The dog seemed to be well-trained and well-behaved. There it was, lying down on the floor, quiet and contented. Though it had a collar round its neck, it wasn’t on a leash, indicating the extent to which the owner trusted the dog to behave itself, so there didn’t seem to be any reason for anyone to object. I did have to take a quarter step to the right to avoid stepping on the gently waving tail as I passed down the aisle; apart from that there was nothing at all about its presence that could be taken as offending against public-spirit.

I recalled how a cathedral tour-guide had once told me that, in the Middle Ages, dogs would quite often be taken to services, because they would lie across their owner’s feet, helping to keep them warm. And although this dog wasn’t serving as a feet-warmer, evidently its owner wanted or needed it there for some reason, and I assumed that she had probably got permission beforehand from the parish priest, Father John Saward. And if she hadn’t got permission, well, – it would be up to Father John to speak to her about it afterwards. So I said to myself, ‘Live and let live,’ and went and took my customary place in the front pew on the right.

The bell rang and the service began. Things started, as normal, with the Penitential Rite, and proceeded smoothly to the Liturgy of the Word. The dog was behaving itself, as far as I could tell. I mean, it was ten rows behind me, so it wasn’t in my eye-line, but I couldn’t hear it making any noises, so I assumed it was continuing to conduct itself with all due propriety.

I was serving as lector, and when I returned to my seat after doing the readings and leading the responsorial psalm, I glanced to the back of the church and saw that the dog was still lying down, innocently enough, in the aisle adjacent to the back pew.

During the Offertory, I got a further chance to check on the dog because I was responsible for taking up the two collections. This meant that I twice went to the back of the church as I was passing round the plate. Again, I had to take a little care to avoid stepping on its tail. Again, the dog continued to be perfectly well behaved.

Then there was the Liturgy of the Eucharist. When it came to Holy Communion, I went and knelt along with the first batch of people at the sanctuary rail, as my seat was in the front pew. I returned to my seat, where I again knelt and prayed, like I always do. Sometimes I pray with my eyes open and sometimes with my eyes shut. On this occasion, I kept my eyes open.

St Gregory’s is a small church, so I was only a yard and a half from the sanctuary, and one always gets a good view of other communicants as they come and go.

The last person to come and receive Communion was the dog-owning lady. The dog, somewhat surprisingly, decided to follow her up to the front and, while the owner knelt at the rail towards the left of center, the dog walked to the right, passing behind the backs of the other kneeling communicants, sniffing their shoes and legs and sometimes, rather embarrassingly, their bottoms. As dogs will. But it was quiet and unthreatening and no one took any notice of it. If it had been a Rottweiler or Great Dane, I daresay things would have been different. But everyone likes a Labrador Retriever, even if it sniffs where it oughtn’t. The whole scene was a classic case of the English being far too polite to suggest that anything impolite was going on.

Once the last batch of communicants were returning to their seats and the rail was mostly unoccupied, the dog saw that it could actually get through the rail and into the sanctuary. The rail is wooden and the uprights are widely spaced, so it was easy enough for the dog to pass through, without any squeezing. I could see the dog making up its mind to do this. It didn’t do so quickly, but actually rather hesitantly and thoughtfully.

The owner, who had just received Communion, was still kneeling as the dog began to make its move and as soon as she saw what he was about she tried to stop him. But he was already half way through and although she tried to grab his haunches she couldn’t halt him, let alone pull him back.  Once he was fully through the rail and inside the sanctuary, – that was when the extraordinary thing happened.

The dog very deliberately and devoutly knelt. I kid you not. He put his forepaws against the altar step, lowered his front forelegs and laid his chin flat on the red carpet. His hind legs were still standing upright, but his front legs were flat on the floor. He held this position for a few seconds. An agile and experienced acolyte could not have done an act of obeisance more humbly or unself-consciously.

This was remarkable enough, but what followed was just as striking. The dog then turned towards his left. Previously, he had been facing straight towards the altar. Now he turned so that he was sideways on, with his right side close to the riser of the altar step.

At this point, he stretched his full length on the carpet, his back legs out behind him, his chin again flat on the floor. He pressed himself downwards as flat as he could manage, and squirmed to and fro and round about, – an inch forward, an inch left, an inch back, an inch right. He was hugging the carpet, trying to pull himself, or push himself, into the ground. After he’d continued this prostration for about six or seven seconds, he just rolled on his back and basked.

The priest was standing on the altar step with his back to all this and didn’t see what was going on. It was happening silently, so there was no cause for him to turn round and watch. I had an uninterrupted view from where I was kneeling in the front pew. One of the two altar boys, who was occupied with handling the sacred vessels, observed it from the side of the sanctuary. The other altar boy, who was closer to the dog, stood looking down at this curious canine behaviour, utterly transfixed, like I was, and like the owner was.

Eventually, the boy opened the altar gates, at which point the dog’s owner, who was still on her knees, edged herself into the sanctuary, whispering ‘Come here, come out!’ But the dog was enjoying himself far too much to be going anywhere right away. He just lay there, first on his back, then on his side, till finally the owner was close enough to grab his collar and bodily drag him out. He wasn’t exactly ‘playing doggo’, but it was rather like that. She had to pull him forcibly towards her before he accepted that his time was up and he would have to get on his feet. Which he did. He followed his owner back to her seat, and that was the end of the curious incident.

What could account for her dog’s behavior? Imitation? Was the dog trying to mimic human actions? Very unlikely, I would suggest. Nobody had lain down flat on the floor and then rolled on their back as the dog had. Most people in the building, including the dog’s owner (the person whom the dog would be most likely to imitate), had simply knelt at the rail, yet the dog hadn’t copied that.

The simplest and most natural explanation, I think, is that the dog was, according to his lights, in his own doggy way, worshipping. For many Christians, not only Catholics, it is an article of faith that Jesus Christ is really, and not just metaphorically or symbolically, present in the bread and the wine (John 6:55; 1 Corinthians 10:16; etc). Catholics call the process by which this comes about transubstantiation; Lutherans call it consubstantiation; Christians of the Eastern churches, together with some Anglicans and Methodists, call it an objectively real presence but avoid technical explanations as to how it occurs; other Christians call it a presence which is there for those with the faith to perceive it, subjectively rather than objectively real. Yet in all these traditions, in different ways, the bread and the wine are not merely bread and wine. They somehow become more than themselves; they become channels of divine grace and even of divine presence. Never before had I seen evidence that animals could sense this too, but that’s what this dog’s behavior so strongly indicated. He was, after his own fashion, ‘discerning the body of the Lord’  (1 Corinthians 11:29).

Very properly, the dog didn’t stand on the altar step, let alone try to jump up on the altar in order to reach the Tabernacle, where the consecrated bread and wine are housed. He remained on the floor of the sanctuary, on a level with his owner. So he seemed to know his place, but nevertheless wanted to get as close to the Blessed Sacrament as he could and play his part in this corporate act of worship.

I spoke to the dog-owning lady after the end of the service, to praise her pet’s devoutness. She was embarrassed about the whole thing and more concerned to apologise for accidentally letting him into the sanctuary than to discuss the deeper significance of what had happened.

But to my mind we had witnessed an example of what the psalmist exhorts all creation to do: ‘Wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds . . . praise the name of the Lord!’ (Psalm 148: 10, 13); ‘Praise God in his sanctuary . . . Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!’ (Psalm 150:1, 6). It’s a theme taken up in the New Testament. Repeatedly, in the Book of Revelation we are told of the ‘living creatures’ – in Greek the word is zoon, a term that normally denotes animals rather than humans or angels, – who worship God night and day (Revelation. 4:8-9; 5:11-13, etc).

Had I caught a glimpse of that ideal, heavenly paean at a little church in north Oxford? Quite possibly so, I think. And, in an odd way, it struck me as being suitably Lenten in spirit, – an extraordinary thing that disturbed one’s normal routine. It made me forget the very good sermon that had been preached that day and pay attention instead to an ‘enacted sermon’, if I can call it that. I had been invited to hear the divine Word speaking in an unusually provocative manner, – not unlike what happened to Balaam when his donkey turned prophet (Numbers 22:21ff). It had jolted me out of conventional patterns of thought and caused me to consider the mystery of faith in a mode that was strange and challenging.

It was like something out of a medieval bestiary or like a Nativity scene where the ox and the ass reverently bow before the new-born Christ-child. The great creation hymn of St Francis of Assisi comes to mind:

Let all things their Creator bless

And worship Him in humbleness.

Alleluia, alleluia!

 Please forgive me for saying ‘Alleluia’ in Lent.


Living Reflectively

“What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”  (Ps. 8:4)

Anyone who takes the time to think of how much God loves him or her would be amazed by how unfathomable God’s love for him or her is.

Those who live thoughtlessly:  There are people who live thoughtlessly and, therefore, aimlessly.  For them life is a seemingly unending series of trial and errors.  Such people never realize that God is good.  Their lives consist of their making one wrong impulsive decision after another, yet they have the gall to blame God for the consequences of their mistakes.

Those who live in the past:  There are those who live in the past.  Some huge wrong decision in the past had pulled them down and has kept them down, and they never seem to lift up their heads to consider the possible solutions to their problems.

Those who live for the moment:  There are those who live for the moment, the here and now.  Esau is a very good example of this type of people.  The Bible tells us that one day Esau got back home from hunting in the forest, and he was famished.  He saw that his twin brother, Jacob, had prepared a delicious-looking red stew.  Esau asked if Jacob would be kind enough to give him some of his stew.  Jacob responded that he would give Esau the stew only if Esau would sell him his birthright.  Esau, who was focused only on his hunger at that time, would proceed to sell Jacob his birthright for some stew that would satisfy his hunger that one time alone (see Genesis 25:29-34).

Those who live for the moment do not take the time to consider the consequences of their decisions and actions.  Their motto is, “Do it if it will satisfy a need now.”  Continue reading

Is the End of the World Near?

The question, “Is the end of the world near?” would conjure up a host of reflections and emotions in people. It would, no doubt, remind people of the recent natural disasters. It was barely two weeks ago when, on April 25, 2015, an earthquake which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale hit Nepal. As of today, the death toll stands at over 8,100, thousands are still nursing their wounds, and hundreds of Nepal nationals and foreigners are still reportedly missing and presumed dead. Even as I was writing this note, it was being reported that another earthquake of magnitude 7.4 on the Richter scale had just hit Nepal, with the death toll on this one being lower but still undetermined! There is not a day when there is no war in some place on earth. Earthquakes, tornadoes, forest fires, mudslides, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc., seem to be more frequent now than ever before. NBC News reported this morning that in the last six days alone there have been 131 tornadoes from South Dakota to Texas. Unthinkable things are happening too! On March 24, 2015, the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 deliberately flew the plane into the French Alps, killing himself and 149 innocent people. The Malaysia Airlines plane MH 370 disappeared from the skies over a year ago, and there is still no trace of it, no debris of any kind. These and other events should remind us of the words of our Lord:

And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains (Matthew 24:6-8).

How people lead their lives in connection with the notion of the end of the world can be classified under four headings.

Continue reading

Forget Not All His Benefits

When we read, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (Psalm 103:2), many of us are quick to say that we are in no danger of forgetting our Lord’s blessings. Similarly, we read about how ungrateful the Israelites were to God in their wilderness wanderings and we simply cannot picture ourselves being such ingrates. It is instructive to note that the Hebrew word gemul, that is translated “benefits” in the King James Version, can also be translated “dealings” or “recompenses.” There are actually many ways in which one can forget about God’s blessings, dealings, or recompenses, and it is sobering to realize that almost every one of us is guilty of one or more of them. Here are some to ponder on.

You can forget God’s blessings:

1. When you refuse to remember any of His blessings
2. When you choose to forget all His blessings
3. When you fail to remember His blessings (by omission, just not getting around to it)
4. When you do not remember enough of His blessings
5. When you are pre-occupied with many things [in a way similar to what our Lord scolded Martha for (see Luke 10:41-42)]
6. When you focus on your circumstances, instead of focusing on the God who is bigger than, and who controls, your circumstances
7. When you focus on your job, instead of focusing on the God who gave you that job in the first place
8. When you focus on your achievement, instead of focusing on the God without whom you would have no achievement
9. When you focus on what you have not achieved, instead of focusing on the God whom you need to enable you to achieve those things
10. When you focus on what others have achieved, instead of focusing on the God who has your master plan to prosper you, not to harm you
11. When you keep on living for the next miracle, instead of thanking God for what He has already done for you (the Israelites perfected that in the wilderness!)
12. When you remember God’s blessings but refuse to be thankful
13. When you remember God’s blessings but fail to be thankful
14. When you remember God’s blessings but thank Him only a little
15. When you remember God’s blessings but thank Him only sometimes
16. When you feel that the Lord ought to have done more for you (forgetting that God does not owe you or me anything, for we are the ones who owe Him what we cannot repay)
17. When you do not realize that God recompenses you for your faithfulness.
The way to guard against stumbling in any of these and other ways is to practice what the palmist says in Psalm 34:1: “I will bless the Lord at ALL times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth” (emphases added).

Merciful Justice, Shakespeare!

I have a little homecoming ritual that I practice at the end of most weekdays. I walk in the door, and greet my three girls who are ecstatic at my arrival because they, too, have a part in the homecoming ritual. We walk together to the kitchen and the baby is already yelling, “Can-ee! Daddy!” Upon reaching the kitchen, I open a very high cupboard and measure out a few candies for each child. Should I accidentally (or not) give an additional jellybean to a younger child, my oldest daughter is sure to point out my transgression. To her demands for equal treatment under the candy law, I reply, “Life’s not fair. Have another candy.” I don’t get into a long treatise on justice with her. She’s so transparent: her cries for justice are nothing more than a ploy for more candy.

But at some point in her life, she will probably cry out for justice in a very different way. All of us do. I recently read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure with my undergraduates and was struck by the nuanced account of measuring justice. In the first Act, Duke Vicentio decides to leave Vienna in the hands of Angelo, his deputy, giving him power to enforce the laws as he sees fit. Angelo is a swift judge when presented with Claudio, who has fornicated with the now-pregnant Juliet. Angelo brings down the full weight of the law against Angelo and sentences him to death. Ostensibly, Angelo wants to reestablish the law of the land by making Claudio an example.

Claudio admits he has broken the law, but Shakespeare includes several extenuating circumstances. Most importantly, Claudio and Juliet were engaged, but could not marry for want of a dowry. While this reason may seem antiquated to the modern reader, the dowry was no small matter to the Elizabethan audience and real cause for delaying marriage. In comparison to the rampant sexual immorality displayed by comic characters like Pompey, who regularly visit brothels, Claudio’s sin is mild. He loves Juliet, is faithful to her, and plans to marry her. Continue reading

Goodwill Toward People

by Felisi Sorgwe

When the angels appeared to the shepherds who were watching their flocks on the night that our Savior was born, they sang about goodwill. “Glory to God in the highest,” they sang, “and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14, NKJV). It is interesting to note that the English Standard Version (ESV) renders this verse: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” Without quibbling about which rendering is a better translation of the Greek original here, the two renderings of the verse prompt two questions. The first question is, does God have goodwill toward all men (people)? The second is, is God’s peace only for those with whom He is pleased? The answer to each question is a resounding yes.

God has goodwill toward all people. This does not mean that God approves of anything and everything anyone does. Continue reading

“But One Thing is Needful”

As the final days of February roll past, anyone whose life is determined by the university calendar is sure to be feeling the pressure of many tasks demanding time and careful attention. At this very moment, some of my students are probably resenting the work they are struggling to do for one of my classes. While I, of course, must continue to demand that my students do their work, I do also recognize that that work is not the greatest good. In fact, it is not good to be so “troubled by many things” that we miss the “one thing” that is “needful.”

This language contrasting the many things and the one thing comes from the gospel story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), which illustrates our primary need as creatures of a loving God. Martha’s “love language” is clearly “acts of service”. All fine and good, but Jesus recognizes the one needful thing in Mary—to love her Savior as she sits at his feet. While the familiar story has theological implications, it also illustrates the philosophical truth of being before doing.

Acts of service always proceed from the heart, and so the love we have for God and one another precedes doing and right action. In the wake of modern materialism, being is often treated as an inert material state. But if God is the source of all being, i.e. Being itself, then being in creatures must be active. The perfect love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is pure act, and by analogy, the creatures of the Triune God share in the active life of the Godhead by virtue of being. In other words, being is good and desirable in itself before any other act of service.

The implications of this truth are evident in the problem of sin. When I confess my sins of commission and omission in church, I should first think of the ways in which I have failed to love God and neighbor. When I sin, I pursue ends which are opposed to the ends for which I was created. I should turn my heart to contemplating the goodness of God and creation to correct this distortion. The law of God is a schoolmaster that teaches the greatest of all commandments—to love God and neighbor.

When I teach, I always try to keep in mind that the great commandment is the proper end of all learning. If I stray from this path, then my efforts will not promote the love of goodness, truth, or beauty in my students. And when I do stray, I ask God to teach me again, for this one thing is needful.

Monkey Gone to Heaven

The first time I heard the song must have been as I was weaving in and out of traffic. I was too impatient to wait for the DJ to name to title so with one eye on the road and the other on my phone I shazam’ed it. “Monkey Gone to Heaven” by The Pixies. By far my favorite song from them. Their music is a mix of discordant sound, screaming, and catchy loops; normally not my cup of tea. But anytime someone mixes environmentalism, a great hook, and esoteric Hebrew numerology they’ve won my heart…wait, hold up–do monkeys really go to heaven?

I know, I know, it’s just a song. And from The Pixies no less. In an interview the writer boasted that after someone casually mentioned to him the numerical play that is partly what the song is based on he “didn’t go to the library and figure it out.” He took the idea, however accurate or incomplete it was, and ran with it. But still, it’s a good question: Do monkeys go to heaven?

I’ve seen documentaries of cute little monkeys grooming each other and humorous videos of them cleaning themselves by gently picking bugs off their fur and eating them. At times they act almost human. They show empathy toward animals that suffer and mothers lovingly raise their offspring. I’ve also seen them fling feces at visitors gazing at them from the other side of a plexiglass wall. But I’d be throwing poo around too if I were locked up in a zoo.

Apart from their cuteness and my sense of pity when I encounter them imprisoned, is there any reason to think that monkeys will go to heaven? This question tumbled through my mind refusing to go away to a quiet recess until I answered it.

The first thing I had to get straight was what I meant by “heaven.” We all have our own idea of what this place is. A city in the clouds that’s populated with naked babies, rows of singing saints in a blank void, or golden streets leading to a gigantic McMansion. None of these pictures are remotely close to how the Bible describes the “world to come.” Instead, it persistently presents heaven coming to earth. To be sure, there are many texts that refer to people rising up to the skies in order to enter the divine realm, or projecting their prayers upward, or the heavenly hosts coming down to earth. But these verses speak to our present reality, not the future one.

When we look at passages that address an eschatological horizon we read of heaven coming to earth. Perhaps the most prominent passage that conveys this idea is Revelation 21 in which the holy city descends from heaven and comes to rest on Jerusalem. It’s true that immediately before this the first heaven and earth are said to have passed away and that the author saw new ones in their place. This “newness” implies a qualitative difference between the world that we now experience and the one that will be in the future. But Christian tradition has maintained that there are strong continuities between them as well. Just as resurrected saints retain similarities with their former identity, so will the new heavens and earth, or better, renewed heavens and earth, retain similarities with the present ones.

The second thing that I had to understand was that animals were not created solely for human use. Animals have their own intrinsic value within God’s creation. Like rocks that cry out (Luke 19:40) and the sun, moon, and stars that praise God (Psalm 148:3), animals worship by being what they were created to be. For these reasons the Hebrew prophets envisioned humans and animals living together in the eschatological future. Here is Isaiah of Jerusalem’s description:

A day will come when the wolf will live peacefully beside the wobbly-kneed lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
The calf and yearling, newborn and slow, will rest secure with the lion;
and a little child will tend them all.

 Bears will graze with the cows they used to attack;
even their young will rest together,
and the lion will eat hay, like gentle oxen.

 Neither will a baby who plays next to a cobra’s hole
nor a toddler who sticks his hand into a nest of vipers suffer harm.
All my holy mountain will be free of anything hurtful or destructive,
for as the waters fill the sea,
The entire earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Eternal. (Isaiah 11:6-9, The Voice).

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around this. I’m comforted by the idea that I’ll see my dogs again but I don’t know what I’ll say to the hundreds of animals that I’ve eaten for dinner over the years. It doesn’t seem like a simple “sorry” will cut it.

What I do know is that this picture fundamentally changes the way I relate to animals here and now. They aren’t disposable commodities that exist merely to satisfy my perceived wants and needs. They are creatures created by God just like me. The breath of life flows through their lungs as well as mine (compare Genesis 2:7 and 7:22). As creatures that give glory to God in their own unique ways they deserve care and respect. Even though I eat meat I believe that I have a responsibility to make sure that animals have a happy and flourishing life while they are alive. That’s why I make it a point to avoid animal products derived from the horrors of factory farms. I’m going to live with these creatures for ever. It’s enough that I eat some of them; it’s beyond the pale of responsibility that I’d facilitate their torture as well.

When I first heard the song I never knew that a chorus which chanted “This monkey’s gone to heaven” would lead me into such deep ethical and theological contemplations. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Life is where theology and ethics meet.


The quote in the second paragraph is from Marlene Goldman, “Here and There and Everywhere,” Alternative Press, Vol. IV, No 22 (September 1989).

For a discussion of Revelation 21 and the new heavens and earth see Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 126-143.

For a discussion of the reasons why animals were created see Richard Bauckham, Living With Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011), 96-98.

For more on how our diet affects the lives of animals either positively or negatively see Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006).

A Theology of Reading? by Charles Halton

[This is Charles Halton’s first term of teaching for HBU; he teaches from a distance, partly online and partly by flying in from Louisville; we are excited to have him as part of the theology team and look forward to more from him.]

Our world is awash in words. They fill books and blogs, novels and noirs, mags and ads, texts and tweets. Think of how many hours a day you spend reading and writing them. It’s probably more than you think. Especially if you include all the instances of passive reading when words flash on screens or phrases leap off billboards and lodge themselves into your subconscious. But even if we only include this semester’s textbooks, reading involves a significant chunk of your life.

How does all this time and energy relate to your theology?

It doesn’t. The eye scans the page, the brain forms meaning, it’s what we do. It’s atheological, like swallowing. Or so I thought until I read Alan Jacobs’s A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love.

The title caught my eye. A theology of reading? That makes little sense. A theology for reading, that’s more like it. A theology for reading would help me understand the correct thoughts I should have as I weigh the ideas conveyed in books. Help me determine if the author is orthodox, heterodox, a heretic or somewhere in between. Enable me to see through the lies of advertising and the propaganda in politics. A theology for reading is focused on the content of what we read and if there is a need for theology when reading it’s here.

But that’s not Jacobs’s view. He taught me that theology encompasses the entire act of reading. It doesn’t merely determine the way in which we accept or reject the messages we read. Reading is a theological act–start to finish–and it’s a topic that deserves our sustained reflection.

When a scribe asked Jesus to name the greatest divine teaching he replied:

“Love the Eternal One your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is nearly as important, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The rest of the law, and all the teachings of the prophets, are but variations on these themes (The Voice).

Writing is produced by people–your neighbors. This sounds elementary and it is. But the implications that Jacobs draws from this connection are profound. Writing is the extension of a person. It’s a vehicle that, albeit imperfectly, connects two minds over the distance of time and space. Whenever you read you are in some sense encountering a neighbor. This, in turn, means that avoidance of error in understanding the author is not the main goal of reading, even when it’s a textbook. It means that reading should be pleasurable, even when it’s a dull and dry syllabus. It means that you should love the piece and expect the best for it, even when you disagree with it. Reading with love exposes you to risk but it’s a risk that a theological reader must embrace.

Some of this may sound controversial and in a way it is. You probably approach reading as if it weren’t theological, like I once did. After I came to understand that a theology of reading–one that is centered upon love–is essential to reading Christianly, I found Jacobs’s ideas quite orthodox. You’ll have to read Jacobs’s book to see how he unpacks all this but if you do I bet you’ll never read in the same way again. It looks like I may have added another book to your already long list this semester. But, alas, that’s one of the risks of reading.

A Right Approach to Theology

At SBL’s Annual Conference (the Society of Biblical Literature) in November I always pick up another edition or two of the Popular Patristics Series published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.  This year I picked up St Gregory of Nazianzus’ On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, which date from the late 4th century.  The first of the five orations is where Gregory sets out the methodology of approaching “theology” (the doctrines of the Holy Trinity) as opposed to “economy” (the study of the world).  He writes the following:

Discussion of theology is not for everyone, I tell you, not for everyone–it is no such inexpensive or effortless pursuit.  Nor, I would add, is it for every occasion, or every audience; neither are all its aspects open to inquiry.  It must be reserved for certain occasions, for certain audiences, and certain limits must be observed.  It is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul.  For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is or weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness. . . . We need actually ‘to be still’ in order to know God, and we when we receive the opportunity, ‘to judge rightly’ in theology. (Oration 27.3)

Several moves in history have taken the contemporary church far away from this view of theology.  In ancient times some aspects of  the teaching of the church were reserved only for those willing to commit themselves to the church–those pursuing catechism or those already baptized.  That changed when Christianity became the official religion of the empire, which is roughly the context in which Gregory’s comment above is situated.  Later with the rise of the university, theology became (just) another topic of study, which unseated its centrality, but it also began to frame the way people can approach the topic.  The Reformation with all it’s benefits also in way watered down the study of theology.  No longer was theology limited to the clerical ranks (which was a good thing), but the democratized handling and interpreting the text meant that people at their own will and frame of mind (i.e., sole competency) will interpret the text without the need for a proper approach or interpretive community.  Some may approach it with Spirit-inspired eyes, but others may approach it with carnality.

With the Enlightenment this approach was further democratized and secularized.  We can “read the Bible like any other book.”  That means that the Bible is not to be given preference as a holy word from God, and the methods we use are the same ones we would use for Homer or Plato or Augustine.  To understand these texts in their historical context (to go behind the text), we don’t have to be holy or come with eyes of faith.  We just have to have the right methods.  Now, I’m not saying these methods were inherently wrong, any more than the idea of sole competency was a bad thing.  However, when the baby is thrown out with the bath water, or the pendulum swings from one direction to the other–resolving a perceived problem but thus creating another–then we recognize the problems it creates.

Paul, when speaking to the Corinthians, speaks of a knowledge only that the “Spiritual” have–those empowered by the cross of Christ and transformed by the Spirit (1 Cor 2-3).  There is knowledge that only comes to those who are in line with the Spirit, who are praying and reading with eyes of faith.  So, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that we have understood a text when we are living in disobedience to its commands.  Or as Gregory commends, be cautious even before you approach theology–to think and speak about God.  A couple of days after I read this text in Gregory, I was about to read further in his discussion of the Holy Trinity, but because of the actions I had done earlier and the frame of mind I was in, I heeded Gregory’s advice and put off the reading.  I didn’t want my thinking framed by unfaithfulness to lead me to form unholy views of God.  There is a time for God to speak to us in our brokenness, but there are other times when we need to be purified before reaching into the deeper things of God. “For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous.”

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