Sunday, May 25, 2008

Hermeneutic of Charity

Here's a fascinating passage on biblical interpretation from St. Augustine (354-430):

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way. Lying involves the will to speak falsely; thus we find many who wish to lie, but no one who wishes to be deceived. Since a man lies knowingly but suffers deception unwittingly, it is obvious that in a given instance a man who is deceived is better than a man who lies, because it is better to suffer iniquity than to perform it. Everyone who lies commits iniquity, and if anyone thinks a lie may sometimes be useful, he must think that iniquity is sometimes useful also. But no on who lies keeps faith concerning that about which he lies. For he wishes that the person to whom he lies should have that faith in him which he does not himself keep when he lies. But every violator of faith is iniquitous. Either iniquity is sometimes useful, which is impossible, or a lie is always useless.

But anyone who understands in the Scriptures something other than that intended by them is deceived, although they do not lie. However, as I began to explain, if he is deceived in an interpretation which builds up charity, which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads. But he is to be corrected and shown that it is more useful not to leave the road, lest the habit of deviating force him to take a crossroad or a perverse way.

On Christian Doctrine, I.xxxvi


Perpetua said...

What are you thinking?
I am thinking that I used to read into scripture what I thought was charitable. My readings were compassionate. But, the long term consequences of those readings was a permissiveness that was actually destructive. Perhaps we could say that some of us wandered off the path and walked through a lot of thorn bushes, leading others to walk through the thorn bushes, too. I wound up with a new way of understanding charity as including boundaries as well as compassion. It is more compassionate not to lead others off the path and into the thorn bushes.

bls said...

I don't know anybody who thinks there are or ought to be no boundaries.

Perhaps that was only your own point of view?

Perpetua said...


And I'm not sure what part of the country you are in but I can cite some public examples here in California.

We have boundary issues with immigration. Some people believe it is wrong to enforce the border with Mexico. They believe we should have "Open Borders". We have already had so much immigration here that the celebration of Cinco de Mayo is bigger than the 4th of July. Many people are a little embarrassed by the 4th of July but are proud to be seen as multicultural by celebrating the independence day of Mexico.

Another example here would be San Francisco in the late 1970's. We had the bath houses. People were experimenting with boundarylessness back then. The resulting health issues are well known.

In both those cases, I used to have a permissive attitude which I thought was charitable. But I have seen the results and now regret my lack of understanding about the value of boundaries.

bls said...

Well, as I said, I don't know anybody who doesn't agree that what happened in the 70s wasn't excessive.

(And it wasn't only bathhouses, BTW; lots of heterosexuals began sleeping around during those times. There were "wife-swapping" parties then also, and divorce rates shot up during that decade. It's easier, I'm sure, to imagine that this is something one can lay primarily at the feet of gay people in San Francisco; only problem is, it isn't true.)

bls said...

(Anyway, it's pretty obvious that "charity" isn't primarily or even mainly about "permissiveness." Again: 1 Corinthians 13 is the source text to work from.

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

And of course there have been many writings expanding on this, including Augustine's.

There seems to be great confusion in this area, although I'm not sure why. Love is not easy or permissive; love is difficult and hard work. It always protects and is not self-seeking.

When I talked about the absurdity of the church demanding that devoted gay couples destroy their partnership and their mutual love in order to be acceptable, somebody actually responded this way: "What about some guy who 'loves' little boys? Should we accept that, too"?

As if that qualified as "love"! I don't understand why people are so completely befuddled by this topic, but to me it shows that Christians have a long, long way to go to begin to live according to the way Christ commanded.)

Perpetua said...

Dear bls,

I wish it were obvious that charity is not about permissiveness. But even if it were, most intentions to charity degenerate into permissiveness if there is not the back stop of a rule system.

George Lakoff wrote a great book about three types of parenting and the research on the results. Have you read it? Being a truly loving and open parent gets the best results. But few people can live up to the requirements and most who try end up being permissive. Permissive gets the worst results. In the middle is the strict, sort of old fashioned type parents and they do not get as good results as the loving and open, but much better than the permissive.

bls said...

"I wish it were obvious that charity is not about permissiveness. But even if it were, most intentions to charity degenerate into permissiveness if there is not the back stop of a rule system."

I thought that's what the church was supposed to do - teach the faith.

The Christian virtues are "Faith, Hope, and Charity." And yet there isn't actually much emphasis on the meaning and practice of these virtues - and there is very, very little teaching of them.

But why not? Isn't it precisely the job of the church - and I don't mean just the Episcopal Church, BTW - to teach these things? To investigate them? To explore them and work out what they might mean in various situations?

The church really isn't doing its job, so intent is it on fighting the culture wars. And once again: I certainly don't mean only the Episcopal Church; it's a tiny fraction of the Christian population.

If people understood the virtues, perhaps they wouldn't make the errors you speak of. The Church is not doing its job.

Bryan Owen+ said...

Greetings Perpetua and bls. And thank you both for a very interesting conversation. I'm checking in kind of late on this one, but I'm hearing things from both of you that resonate for me.

In particular, I'm hearing both of you affirm the need to be faithful to our Lord's command to love one another while simultaneously affirming the need for boundaries and norms that give guidance for how to do that. The former without the latter is permissiveness. The latter without the former is harsh.

bls, I think you put it well when you said that "love is difficult and hard work." And Perpetua, you made a very important point that complements that observation in your comment about different styles of parenting.

This all makes me think of M. Scott Peck's discussion of love in his book The Road Less Traveled. If you've never read that book, I invite you to do so. He fleshes out the meaning of 'love' in a way that I find compatible with the challenging teachings of the New Testament.

Perpetua said...

Love that book. I still have the torn and yellowed note I made 20 years ago:
"Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the making of action in spite of fear, the pushing out against the resistance engendered by fear into the unknown and into the future."
And on the other side on the little piece of paper:
"The attempt to avoid legitimate suffering lies at the root of all emotional illness."
Right now I can't find the other slip of paper but as I remember, it says:
Delay gratification
Confront problems
Tell the truth

Bryan Owen+ said...

Glad to see that you've read it Perpetua! I bought my copy back in the late 80s/early 90s at a garage sale for 75 cents. Particularly in light of his discussions of discipline and love, it is without question the best 75 cents I've ever spent.