Saturday 8 June 2013

Teaching the language of faith: 2

So what is mystagogy? (For much more on this see All Things Made New.) In mystagogy we are trying to understand and interpret the meaning of the Bible and Liturgy, the Sacraments and the world itself in the light of Revelation. It therefore affects the way we regard even the “secular” subjects of the school curriculum.

This approach corresponds in the field of biblical exegesis to the doctrine of the “four senses of Scripture” (Catechism 115-118). There it means in order to attain a broader understanding of Scripture, we need to look not only for historical (literal) and doctrinal (allegorical) meanings, but also for moral (tropological) and mystical (anagogical) meanings. According to a medieval rule: “The letter teaches what took place, the allegory what to believe, the moral what to do, the anagogy what goal to strive for.”

That was the understanding of the early monks and desert hermits. St John Cassian (d. 435) writes of the four meanings as follows: “History embraces the knowledge of things which are past and which are perceptible…. What follows is allegorical, because the things which actually happened are said to have prefigured another mystery…. Anagoge climbs up from spiritual
mysteries to the higher and more august secrets of heaven…. Tropology is moral teaching designed for the amendment of life and for instruction in asceticism.” So, for example, “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 mother to us all’ (Gal. 4:26), in the tropological sense as the human soul which, under this name, is frequently criticized or blamed by the Lord.”

None of this undermines the rational or familiar approaches we have become used to. It just provides a fuller, more rounded view. We still start with the literal or historical meaning (the plain sense of the words, as they were evidently intended to be understood, taking into account the genre and context in which they were written). We then develop an understanding of biblical “typology” by connecting the words and events in the Old Testament to Christ, who is the fulfillment to which Scripture points, even if the human authors were unaware of it at the time. We then draw moral conclusions that follow from this reading, as they are relevant to our own conversion and behaviour. Finally we raise our eyes above this life to catch a glimpse of the end of all things, the goal of our striving, the very life of God to which we are called.

This tradition of the four senses is found in Jewish mysticism too (peshat, remez, derash, and sod). In fact, if we look as classical Greek philosophy, we find a similar division applies to the quest for understanding in general. There are four main types of explanation that we can give for things, called final, formal, efficient, and material causes. The final cause is what the thing is for or why it exists. The formal cause is the idea or definition that makes it the sort of thing it is. The efficient cause is what brings it about, or makes it do what it does or be what it is. The material cause is simply what it is made of. These four types of explanation correspond to the four senses of Scripture (final–mystical; formal–moral; efficient–allegorical; material–literal).

These four pillars may also be seen as corresponding to the four elements of the Liberal Arts tradition known as the Quadrivium. Arithmetic corresponds to the Literal, Geometry to the Allegorical, Music to the Tropological, and Astronomy to the Anagogical.

The narrowing of reason in the modern world means we no longer look for the underlying idea or purpose of things, but only for the rules that determine how they behave (the laws of nature), and the things into which we can break them down (particles, energy). This affects the way we read the “text” of nature, and something very similar happened as we tried to read the Bible: modern biblical critics have often been more interested in what the text was made of and how it worked than in what it meant.

Thus the recovery of the four senses is needed to achieve a deeper understanding not only of Scripture, but also of liturgy and the sacraments. There too we must look for historical, doctrinal, moral, and mystical meanings. Just as there are four Gospels, which need to be read together to gain a complete picture of Christ, so tradition itself must be approached from these four directions if it is to be seen aright, according to the “analogy of faith”, meaning as an integral whole, coherent and consistent within itself.

Material---Literal---Historical----What events are described, instructions given?
Efficient---Allegorical---Doctrinal---Meaning, according to the analogy of faith?
Formal---Tropological---Moral---How should we change, set our course?
Final---Anagogical---Mystical---What does it tell us about God, our End?

Icon from Sancti Angeli Benedictine Skete.

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