Where do we look to find out about God?
The people of Israel looked to the mighty deeds that God had done on their behalf, especially freeing them from slavery in Egypt and leading them into a good land. Early Christians looked to the words and deeds of Jesus, and especially to his resurrection, another mighty act of God.
Over time, both Jews and Christians assembled stories and writings that testified to God’s actions on our behalf. Now people could find out about God through those Scriptures, the Bible.
As time passed and the Christian churches grew, they found it necessary to authorize leaders to gather in order to regulate the life of the community. Synods and councils met and part of their work was to present the heart of Christian teaching in a way that met new challenges but was also faithful to the Scriptures and to the story of God’s mighty works. They composed statements of belief (creeds) and other teachings to explain them (doctrines). Here was another source for finding out about God.
That’s where St. Augustine comes in. As bishop of the town of Hippo in North Africa, he certainly taught his own people and, through letters and other writings, taught far-away Christians as well. But one of his works, the Confessions, stands out from the rest. In it, Augustine tells his own story in the form of an extended prayer to the God who had saved him. His message seems to be: “Here is how God acted in my life. Pay attention to how God is acting in yours!”
Here was another source for learning about God—looking into our own experience! I wonder whether Augustine, in his own theological vein, was doing something similar to the early hermits and monks who had begun to separate themselves from ordinary life in order to look deep into their own hearts and find God there.
Sometimes today, Catholics are suspicious of people who talk about their religious experience, especially if they want to change something in our religion. Certainly, we always need to be careful as we try, like our forebears, to be faithful both to the tradition we have received and to new conditions that may be calling us to growth. But if God can act in the world, if the Spirit moves in our hearts, if Augustine is right, then we can never discount our experience as a source for knowing God. This way of knowing is part of our tradition, too.
One of my favorite passages from the Second Vatican Council makes the point. In Dei Verbum, the document on divine revelation, the bishops wrote: "The tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (see Lk 2: 19 and 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who, on succeeding to the office of bishop, have received the sure charism of truth. Thus, as the centuries go by, the church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in it." (Dei Verbum, #8)
Look at that quotation carefully. The bishops are saying that the growth and development of the tradition depends not only upon the official teaching of the bishops, but upon the reflection of believers and upon their sense of their own spiritual experience. One of the great unrealized challenges of the Council is this: how do we find ways to put the reflection of the faithful on our religious experience into conversation with the official teaching of the bishops?
There are a number of areas in which there is a gap between official church teachings and the practice of many Catholics. Sexuality is probably the most obvious one. What effect might it have on a Catholic understanding of sexuality if the bishops were to pay attention in a serious way to the experiences of believers in this area, whether those believers are single or married, straight or lesbian or gay? What if they were to ask, “Where, in your experience of sexuality, do you find God? What, in your experience, leads you away from God and others?” It is impossible to know what might result. But I believe that we owe it to our living tradition to try. And we owe it to St. Augustine.
© 2012 Andrew K. Bechman