In the coming weeks, we will explore a theme that goes back to St. Augustine, is referenced by Galileo and Kepler, and has been a theological interest of St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis: The relationship between the book of nature and the Book of Scripture. The importance of these “books” is that they communicate God’s Word to us and our exploration of these books help us come to know the Divine Author through creation.
To begin this exploration, we can ask a simple, yet very deep question: How did these two “books” come into existence? To use the metaphor of books in a library, we know that the written word doesn’t just magically appear. Rather, there is a first thought, an idea that so moves the heart of the author that it is expressed verbally and then is put to paper. In other words, in order to have a book, we must first have an inspiration for the creation of a book.
When it comes to our understanding of the natural world and the inspired Word of God, we can see that both point to a basic truth that in order to explore each book, the grounding for the books must first exist. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI nicely reflects upon this in his 2008 address to the participants of the Plenary of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences when he states that in order for philosophy, theology, and science to explore the dynamic change of our universe, there must first be a changing universe to explore. Therefore, the very fact that creation exists points to a first thought, a first utterance, an act of creation that brings the created world into existence.
Once we affirm that creation has happened, we find a creation that is dynamic, changing, and evolving. In the same address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reflects that the word “evolution” means “to unroll a scroll” or to read a book. To expand our metaphor of the book, we can reflect on another question: What do you look for when choosing a book to read?
Some may read a book for inspiration and meaning, trying to find purpose for their lives. Others read strictly to gain information, deepening their knowledge of a topic of interest for personal or professional reasons. Still, others might read to discover a moral compass for their lives, exploring questions of right and wrong. Yet, others may read simply for a moment of release, entering a world that is far different than the one they experience, but helps them make sense of their world in these moments of literary escape.
Amid the many motives that can be named as to why people read books, we can affirm that each motive does not always require a different book in order to satiate the reader’s heart. The truly great works of literature contain a quality that can speak to many levels of interpretation and meaning, drawing people with diverse motives to the same text to satisfy their curiosities.
Reading God’s Word
The books of nature and God’s Word contain this quality. In seminary, one of the first things you learn are the four senses of interpreting Sacred Scripture. The first sense of Scripture is the literal sense. This sense should not be confused with a “literalist” interpretation of Scripture. Rather, the literal sense of Scripture looks at things like language, genre, culture, context, history, and archeology, contributing to what scholars call the Historical Critical approach to Scripture. The literal sense of Scripture goes far beyond a superficial reading of the text, presuming that every word is to be taken literally on face value. Rather, the literal sense of Scripture explores the intent of the two authors of each book of the Bible: The human author whose pen wrote the words and the Divine Author who inspired the words.
The other three senses of Scripture are called the Spiritual Senses, which are the allegorical, the moral (tropological), and the anagogic. The allegorical sense of Scripture is to read the Bible in a way in which all events point to Jesus Christ. For example, an allegorical reading of the Old Testament text of Melchizedek offering bread and wine (Genesis 14:18) would point to Christ’s institution of the Eucharist. This approach to reading Scripture places central emphasis on the event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, seeing all things ultimately pointing to Christ.
The moral sense of Scripture is to read the Bible to instruct the way we are to live. The foundational moral concepts of this reading of Sacred Scripture are the Greatest Commandment, You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27), and the Golden Rule, Do to others whatever you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12). To quote Jesus, these commands summarize the entirety of the Law and the Prophets, calling every Christian to view their actions in light of these Commandments.
The anagogic sense of Scripture points to our final end or eternity beyond this life. It is a reading of Scripture that affirms that we are mere pilgrims on this good earth with our final destination and home being not of this world. However, our actions on and toward this good earth are intimately connected with and impacts where our final destination will be: Eternal glory or eternal judgement. Therefore, the anagogic sense points us to the twofold reality in which the glory of God has been revealed in Jesus Christ, but is still unfolding in our midst and will not be fully revealed until Christ’s final return in glory.
In a helpful summary of the senses of Scripture offered by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops for Bible Week 2015, a section of the writing of John Cassian (360-435AD) is offered to demonstrate how one image from Scripture can speak to all four senses of Scripture.
The one Jerusalem can be understood in four different ways, in the historical sense as the city of the Jews, in allegory as the Church of Christ, in anagoge as the heavenly city of God ‘which is the mother of us all’ (Gal 4:26), in the tropological sense as the human soul. (From St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor [New York: Newman Press, 1982], 19.)
Therefore, to conclude this section on the way we read the Word of God, we can see that there is not one way of reading the Bible, but that an authentic understanding of the Bible necessitates multiple approaches to Scripture that speak to and feed the inner needs and desires of the human heart.
Reading the book of nature
Just as God’s Word can be read in different ways, so, too, can the book of nature be read on multiple levels. First, we can read the book of nature through the language of science. Science is a powerful tool that has helped us understand the depths of living things, non-living things, the earth we live, our Solar System, and continues to dazzle the mind and heart with the mysteries of our Universe. One of the fascinating facts about our universe is that it can be read and understood. The creation of the language of science to help us understand the physical world points to a world that can be known and contains truth to be discovered.
When we study the mechanistic aspects of creation, we come to understand times when things work as they should and times when things do not work as they should: Order and Chaos. St. Bonaventure in his work, The Mind’s Road to God, has as his first level of spiritual ascent the measuring, weighing, and comparing of things of the natural world. When we do this, there emerges an order to a thing and things. However, we can also examine how things begin to break down and their balance and order becomes compromised. One only needs to think of someone visiting a hospital because they are sick to point to moments when the elegant order of our body becomes unstable. This dis-order in creation is what is meant by chaos or the breaking down of the order of a material thing.
Order and chaos are not only natural, but there is also something in the book of nature that points to a moral and ethical breakdown when we misuse our free will and bring about a different kind of chaos. Whether it be the atrocities of the Holocaust, the genocide in Ruanda, the terrorism of Isis, our two World Wars, or the daily chaos of hurt and distrust, there emerges an interpretation of the book of nature that is not only mechanistic, but philosophical and ethical. This inner awareness and desire for a well-ordered world is understood as the pursuit of goodness. Apart from religion, we can affirm that there is a moral and ethical disposition to the human heart that strives to “re-order” what has become “dis-ordered.” When this elegant order is discovered, both in nature’s inner mechanics and at the level of meaning and purpose, we begin to have transcendent moments of beauty.
Beauty is one of the natural bridges we can discover between the book of nature and God’s Word. Whether it be natural beauty, like gazing upon the majesty of a mountaintop sunset, or super-natural, like the peace that comes when we rest in God’s Presence, the experience of beauty in the book of nature and God’s Word helps us to find a sense of who we are, our purpose on this good earth, and how God has loved us into existence at this particular point of history for a particular purpose. Whether it be the truth we come to when studying the mechanical aspects of creation, the moral and ethical goodness we can discover through science and philosophy, or the beauty we find when this exploration transcends the physical into the metaphysical, we see that, just as God’s Word cannot be fully understood from one perspective, the book of nature needs to be approached from multiple perspectives to grasp the full sense of what this “book” is trying to communicate to us and to the world.
More to Come!
Next week, we will continue our exploration of the book of nature and God’s Word. We will explore the thought of St. Augustine, Galileo, Kepler, and our most recent Popes John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis. Below is a summary of Benedict XVI’s understanding of the book of nature.
Have a great week!