Encountering Reality: Learning to Read the Christian Tradition

Some years ago I sought a group of young people who lived almost a century ago. One intrigued me in particular, and I tracked him to the Bavarian State Archive. I read the man’s notebooks and letters as I listened to a song on repeat. The bridge runs something like this:

Oh but please
Please wake me
For my love lies patiently
Please baby please
And my love life waits for me.

This track remains embedded in my memory and linked to what I read. I read of the young man’s loneliness and his home, and of the ennui and despair of wartime service that, compounded by broken appointments, lingered on leave. And I read of Advent’s hope-sowing and of Handel’s aria, “I know that my Redeemer lives.” The man wrote the following upon experiencing the aria: “In music I encounter an endlessly multifaceted realm. In its wake many things appear completely different to me.” I listened to Handel as I recognised in the author the power of redemption amidst deep longing for intimacy—a desire to get so close to another that one can not only hear the other’s heartbeat but hear what makes her heart beat. Though the author passed away long ago, the writings had such force of reality they moved me to tears. As with music, so too for texts: I was moved to consider the world otherwise.

Such an encounter with reality, mediated by the texts of someone long dead, is available to us all, even if reading these texts is not an enticing or even plausible prospect. Memory is at issue for us. Forgetfulness characterises much of Western modernity, and herein lies our task: we must remember and remember well as we read Scripture and as we listen to those voices that speak to and after Scripture. When we do, we grapple with the world as it really is—we encounter reality. The question of memory is important because it ultimately concerns who we are. It is a question of identity. We cannot take our identity whole cloth from our host culture, for such is to abandon what defines the “Christian thing” and what defines us as recognisably Christian. We must instead draw an essential aspect of our identity from that community whose culture traverses time because it receives its life from beyond time. That is, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. This will incur not only an exercise in remembering well but an expansion of our very selves in doing so.  We moderns tend to negotiate the world from within the cramped space of our individual sovereignty, where we assiduously figure our desires and reconfigure them in moments of frustration. Faithful memory expands us. When we remember, we come to see ourselves truly as those who live from Christ’s own life, and we find ourselves stretched not only over our loved ones but many others besides, past and present. 

I want to provoke you: when we dip into the orthodox Christian tradition and sit down to read a text, we sometimes find ourselves experiencing time so full of reality it is replete. The experience is not the primary reality. It is an indication that we bear witness to the deep mystery and truth of the Christian vision as it is given in different ways, over and over, to the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is part of the theological context that locates Christian texts within the giftedness of all reality. I begin, therefore, with gift before speaking directly to the challenges of Western modernity. I close with a reflection on Joseph Ratzinger’s patient walk with Augustine and how we might grow as we read and grow in reading well. Throughout, I interweave three ways of thinking about Christian texts: as gifts, as icons, and as letters. My purpose is to encourage us to take time and read texts from the tradition, and not to whitewash problematic Christian texts. I’ll address the latter as we go.

Gift and icon

God’s glory in Jesus Christ resounds in the diverse voices of Christian tradition. The gift that is Christ gives the created world its pattern or, at least, the gift of Christ gives us to know all reality as gift. Everything created is gift, and that is to say “being is love.” We see creation in this way from the perspective granted by the gift (again!) of the Holy Spirit, who perfects the intimations of the created order and presses forward God’s definitive, redemptive work in Christ. If gift characterises the created order in one way and if God’s missions in the Son and the Spirit can be understood as gift in another way, we can appreciate the Church’s voices as cultural products that exercise the gifts of being and of grace as they announce Christ above all. That is, the voices offer paraphrases on God’s work and at best, in dependence on Scripture, they display Christ as the centre of reality—the one for whom all things exist and in whom all things hang together (Col 1:16–17). 

One notion of “icon” helps us think through how these voices develop our memory and expand us. While our own gaze constitutes the idol, God’s gaze constitutes the icon. In the case of the idol, we set the conditions of engagement and so languish in boredom. Bereft of any deep ability to see, hear, or speak (see Ps 135:15–18), we never get beyond our own desires and frustrations. But in the icon we are seen by God, and we are forced to engage on God’s terms and not our own. In the icon we are confronted and challenged by the sovereign God who acts in freedom and for our freedom. Each created icon refracts something of Christ’s light, the icon of icons (2 Cor 4:6), who takes up each created icon in his service, sees us, and draws us beyond ourselves into an encounter that sets us free. 

Each voice from the tradition has potential to function as an “icon” and mediate God’s saving work. Someone once said that nearly all fairy stories are tales of redemption in some way. Many fairy stories understand human beings as inadequate in themselves and therefore in need of saving. Fairy stories anticipate the Christian vision and especially those texts that faithfully render the centre of the Christian vision—that is, the Son of God crucified, risen and ascended for the sake of the world. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1). These texts, as icons, free us from the narrowness of our own vision by glimpsing us and referring us to the primal and generative reality of Christ, who is consummately rendered in Scripture. Each text is a nonidentical repetition of God’s work that extols God, and the whole tradition is a web orchestrated and held together by the Spirit of Christ, who as Gift and the conduit of God’s love, enlarges our hearts (Rom 5:5). While the Spirit’s momentum is often mysterious (Jn 3:8), it is always Christoform: as the Spirit moves, he binds the Church to Christ in a liberating work of formation. Just so, each part of Christian tradition promises the iconicity that frees us from the confines of our own ego, leading us into God and to others, expanding our imagination and hence our capacity to love—to love God and to love others. We can love only so far as we can imagine. 

Modernity and memory

Before we turn to the problem of forgetfulness in modernity, let’s begin with antiquity and with Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him” (2 Cor 2:14). We can take this to mean that, on the Damascus road, God won a victory over Paul, and Paul walks out this victory on his missionary journeys. The missionary journeys thus subvert the Roman triumph, the celebratory parade bestowed upon a victorious general. The triumph was the pinnacle of a general’s career and “a by-word for extravagant display.” The display served to degrade those conquered and to laud the conqueror. We see this in the marble panels that identify Emperor Marcus Aurelius with the triumph he celebrated in A.D. 176. Some scholars go further and argue that the Roman triumph more or less equated the conqueror with the god Jupiter.

In Paul’s case, he walks in the train of the victorious general, and so the distinction between the conquered and the conqueror remains. And yet Paul “boasts” in this, his walk, his apostolic labour (2 Cor 10:14f). He is both free and compelled. He identifies God’s work with Christ’s work, and he thanks God for God’s victory over him. Gratitude is the basic posture of the free and freed creature, and yet the victory is also strongly obliging in Paul’s case: he can’t do other than track along in God’s triumph. As he often puts it, he is a “slave” or “servant” (doulos) of Jesus Christ. Paul, free and yet trammelled, spreads the fragrance (osmē) of the knowledge of Christ across the Roman world, just as wafts of burned incense accompanied the triumphant general.

The Roman triumph defined a career, and even Rome to some extent. But if the triumph was a memorial to Roman success, Rome also exercised a condemnation that sought to erase any trace of those figures who were for one reason or another persona non grata. Take the instance of the marble panels depicting Marcus Aurelius. You’ll notice a space in front of the emperor in the chariot where the emperor’s son, Commodus, originally appeared. Commodus has been erased and the temple extended to fill the space. Commodus succeeded Marcus as emperor but was assassinated in 192, and his likeness was probably removed sometime afterwards. This erasure, which was exercised across all public records and accounts, is an instance of damnatio memoriae or the “condemnation of memory.” If the triumph and the marble relief that captures it memorialised a defining event for the emperor and for the Empire, damnatio memoriae was the flipside: an effort to shame the erased and consign him to the dustbin of history.

“Relief from honorary monument to Marcus Aurelius: triumph”,
From Rome, church of SS. Luca e Martina

Now, modernity exercises damnatio memoriae on a grand scale. Modernity is characteristically forgetful. The space in front—or rather behind—us moderns is blank, and it haunts us because we imagine ourselves as new and surpassing and therefore cut off from what came before. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has Wagner, a character in his Faust (1790), express the following:

Your pardon! ’tis delightful to transport
Oneself into the spirit of the past,
To see in times before us how a wise man thought,
And what a glorious height we have achieved at last.

Wagner considers his age superior to its forerunners. He is a typical Enlightenment figure who advocates for reason (narrowly conceived) and science as the sufficient means of human fulfilment.

If Wagner glances at the past, even in condescension, much of modernity hesitates to do so—to the detriment of Christian faith and tradition. According to Cyril O’Regan:

Modernity is bedeviled by a pervasive, deep, and aggressive form of forgetfulness, which not only makes it difficult for human beings to believe in Christian symbols and obey Christian precepts, but alters in a fundamental way the persuasiveness of Christian practices and forms of life, and the imaginative landscape of what is worthy of admiration and emulation.

Among other things, forgetfulness and a narrow notion of reason contribute to the modern “progress” that has uprooted many of us. Even if the origins of this culture are opaque to us, I’m sure we’re familiar with its forms among us. I recall a question-and-answer time at the Auckland Writers’ Festival some years ago when a young man spoke and praised an author who’d just offered remarks. He noted how the author had captured his aspiration to bounce from country to country, accruing experience under the sign of adventure. The author cut him off: we need a sense of home, he said, we need roots. There is a cost to “adventure.”

Many of us lack the capacity to say where we’ve come from, and so we struggle to say who we are, let alone what this might mean for our present or future. And we find ourselves as Christians asking after the plausibility and coherence of our characteristic beliefs, practices, and forms of life. We are often unable to see the beauty of God, which irradiates Christian tradition. In the absence of beauty, we lead lives with constrained imagination and constrained opportunities and motivations to love. In the absence of beauty, goodness and truth suffer. From this point of view, our own world is recognisably hyper-modern rather than post-modern, even if Enlightenment culture is no longer hegemonic. 

But Paul offers us a way to figure the Christian vision and tradition otherwise. Paul is freely assigned to God’s triumph, and he stands as testament to God’s victory in Christ, labouring to form communities that also witness to God’s victory. He urges the Corinthians at one point to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Elsewhere, Paul speaks of the Corinthians as a “letter [of recommendation], written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (1 Cor 3:2). “You are a letter of Christ,” he goes on, “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God” (1 Cor 3:3). Paul calls upon the Corinthians to understand themselves as his credentials, the proof of God’s work through him. We have then the following pattern: from Christ to Paul “in Christ” (to use a term Paul uses elsewhere) and to the Corinthians after Paul “in Christ” as “letters of Christ.” Perhaps we can continue this pattern and consider the Church after Paul and the Corinthians, and therefore speak of the saints as a series of “letters” or embassies of the Holy Spirit. We are talking about letters written “on tablets of human hearts,” but the texts the saints leave behind are letters in a secondary sense—they are rehearsals of God’s triumph and deposits that witness to God’s work.

Handling the gift well

If the texts of the orthodox Christian tradition are in some sense icons and letters, they are gifts of a sort. But how are we to receive them well? Not without reason the German word Gift originally denoted both gift and poison. Gifts can be ambiguous, and perhaps so ambiguous that a gift is not possible at all. Because gifts invite reciprocation in some form, they can shame, manipulate, and coerce their recipients. Yet, if we consider Christ as gift (Rom 5:15–17), we cannot deny (true) gift. And if we hold God’s gift in Christ and the gift of the Spirit to be effective, we cannot deny the possibility of truth in creaturely gifts. That is, if “the Spirit of the living God” is the primary cause and orchestrator of the Christian tradition, and if the texts of the tradition are the overflow of hearts inscribed by the Spirit of Christ, the texts merit reception as gifts. Still, we cannot deny ambiguity in our gifts, for they often issue from various motives, including genuine solicitude, obligation, and strategic interest. Gifts accordingly express various attitudes and thoughts. There is also complexity in any single text, which, if it issues from one consciousness, still conveys a range of reflections.

Many of us have issues with complexity. Keep it simple, stupid! Perhaps modernity’s amnesia and its knowingness, represented by Goethe’s Wagner, hamper how we navigate complexity. We moderns tend to read the past from the perspective of an “absolute present,” which simplifies things by dividing this time from what came before and writing off what came before as irrelevant. Perhaps it appears irrelevant because we cannot see how it advances our desires or helps us negotiate frustrations. Historical texts don’t seem to perform on these terms. Historicism is another issue, and while it seems to validate texts by closely attending to them in historical context, it relativises each and every text because it indexes meaning solely to context. Each text has only the meaning that it had amongst its contemporaries. Both the “absolute present” and historicism therefore engage in performative contradiction: those who judge make determinations about the past as if they are all-knowing (and all-good) and not bound to time and subject to the very methods they deploy. Whether we assume the posture of the absolute present or adopt historicism, we denigrate the past in favour of the present. I think we often find ourselves passing quick and plenary judgment on texts where there is complexity and apparent disagreement. It is as if we stand at the mountain peak and survey the land below without obstruction: we see clearly; the premodern writer languishes in the valley without perspective. Our judgement in such cases is too swift and too one-sided (though there are exceptions).

My point is not to abandon critique, but rather to bear charity with critique and order both to what is real. If we are to treat texts as gifts, even complex gifts, we must remember that the gift exchange operates in the realm of the personal. When we read, we receive another’s consciousness. We enter into a sort of conversation. We sit in the place of one addressed, and our place requires something of us. We need “creative devotion to the real.” Here we are called to face and even surrender to what is real, though not without vigilance. We assume an element of trust or charity, as with any meaningful conversation, and when the conversation has friendship as its goal, frankness or parrhēsia is an act of charity even if it leads to disagreement. This is so when we read. We need to begin with charity and need not lay aside critique, for properly ordered to the real, critique co-habitates with charity, and as we move around the big tent that is Christian orthodoxy, we see neither a single form nor unanimity in many areas. There are pluriform icons and letters that relay the excessiveness of God’s glory in Jesus Christ.  

This language of the real is horribly abstract, but it is nothing more than a placeholder (how could it be more?) for Jesus Christ and his cosmic work. Christ is the head of the Church and the fullness of God (Eph 1:23), and the one in whom all things hold together (Col 1:17b). Only those texts faithful to Christ reflect God’s glory. Christ is what theologian Bruce D. Marshall calls the “epistemic trump.” This means that, for our purposes, only those texts (whether as parts or a whole) that are compatible and cohere with “the identifying descriptions of Jesus in the church’s canonical narrative” adequately reflect God’s glory. Critical reading therefore requires attention both to the texts at hand and Scripture’s “identifying descriptions.”

This is not merely an intellectual endeavour. Coming to know Christ truly involves walking with him and the “identifying descriptions” in various modes and on all the paths of life with others, past and present. I take Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as an example.  Benedict has walked with Christ in the company of Augustine since at least Spring 1946 when he, then-seminarian Joseph Ratzinger, read Augustine’s Confessions. Ratzinger went on to devote his doctoral thesis to Augustine’s teaching on the Church, and he would later cite the Bible and Confessions as his two “desert island” books. Benedict identifies with Augustine because he finds him a “passionate, suffering, questioning man.” In a general audience, Benedict elaborates in this way:

We …”find [Augustine] alive” in his writings. When I read St Augustine’s writings, I do not get the impression that he is a man who died more or less 1,600 years ago; I feel he is like a man of today: a friend, a contemporary who speaks to me, who speaks to us with his fresh and timely faith. In St Augustine who talks to us, talks to me in his writings, we see the everlasting timeliness of his faith; of the faith that comes from Christ, the Eternal Incarnate Word, Son of God and Son of Man. And we can see that this faith is not of the past although it was preached yesterday; it is still timely today, for Christ is truly yesterday, today and for ever. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thus, St Augustine encourages us to entrust ourselves to this ever-living Christ and in this way find the path of life.

Benedict understands the concourse with Augustine as a dialogue, and his own work features especially the Augustinian emphasis on love and the connection of truth to love.  Ratzinger also draws on Augustinian wells in emphasising beauty and memory. Perhaps Augustine’s most well-known phrase is his address to God: “Late have I loved thee, O Beauty, so ancient, so new” (Confessions, 10.27.38). For Benedict, beauty speaks eloquently of the truth of humankind and of God’s redemptive purposes. Beauty characterises Christian tradition, which is fundamentally a matter of memory grounded in God. This is the basis of tradition, or handing-over (traditio), where the past and the present come together to frame and “anticipate” the future. Tradition is a question of memory and finding ourselves as we truly are, and Benedict goes so far as to remark, “history makes humanity possible.” Memory and tradition enable humanity to understand itself and to shape the future.  Tradition is also a moral question insofar as it concerns our standing to each other, as contemporaries, and to those who are to come. Benedict speaks of tradition as “the transcendence of today in both directions.” Tradition reflects the connection of past and future on the site of the present. Tradition reveals that time is indivisible, or rather, the realisation of time’s indivisibility creates tradition.


We are fortunate to live in this day and age, even if modernity in its aggressive forms has wrought uprootedness and licensed amnesia. Perhaps more than ever before, we have access to the textual treasury of the Church’s heritage. We remember when we read Scripture, and we remember when we take to heart a text from the tradition. We come to understand ourselves as part of a long line of people through time who engage in the essential activity of memory. When we remember, we confess with the Church, just as we confess with Israel, repeating after the Deuteronomist:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Dt 26:5–9)

In Acts 7, Stephen maps the movement of the exodus onto the Easter events, a movement he embodies as he himself is put to death. Life, death, resurrection. Reading texts from the tradition is an education in this movement, which is the pattern of the gospel. When we read well and find ourselves seen, as with an icon, we find ourselves blessed with the light of God shining from the face of Jesus Christ. The author and her text is a “letter” to us—a gift. Christ is the gift given for the sake of the “freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21), and the many and various tellings of the story of Christ participate in God’s freeing power exercised in and by Christ through his Spirit. Christ lies at the heart of reality, and when we return to him in faithful reading, he frees us from that autonomous reason and self-absorption that rends society and renders it susceptible, if not consigned, to mutual unintelligibility (cf. Gen 11:1–9). He frees us from bondage to an absolute present that burdens us with its insistent demands and what C.S. Lewis described as “the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of [our] own age.” The absolute present divides time and divides us from ourselves and from each other. But we are creatures stretched across time and across others—across our own lifetimes as well as prior generations and those to come. In reading the tradition faithfully, we receive Christ and the perspective he gifts; we open out and receive an expanded imagination and enlarged opportunities to love.

But let’s push the boat out further. To receive a gift properly is both to consummate and to perpetuate the gift exchange. The giver risks herself in giving—she is vulnerable to rejection—and the recipient possesses the power of affirmation and liberation. To receive the gift well is to receive the giver and to step into the reality of personal relationship—with the dead, yes, even with the dead. God is in the business of the raising the dead, and this business conduces to his glory. In this sense, we consummate the gift exchange. And yet the exchange draws us out of ourselves and pulls us into giving ourselves. We perpetuate the gift when we receive properly. Augustine taught that the proper reception of Christian teaching consisted in passing it on. So it is with all good things: the goodness of anything requires that we do not covet it but make it available to others. Hoarding offends against goodness just as surely as forgetfulness. Both hoarding and forgetfulness betray tradition, for tradition is that “handing-over” which gives life and keeps faith rather than breaks faith. When we turn to the Christian tradition and its “letters,” we find ourselves alongside others “in Christ.” And when we handle texts well we honour the Church that is Christ’s body and the fullness of Christ who “fills all in all” (Eph 1:22–23). We free others to bear witness to Christ, which is to say, the dead are raised. And we bear witness ourselves and honour Christ. To receive well the gifts of the Church is to receive Christ anew and to make him known. To worship. Worship’s loving regard fills the moment, as I found in an archive years ago. 

(Image: “Notre Dame De Reims, Reims, France” by Numendil, CC Zero)