…scholars had to learn to read the Bible again through lenses ground by faith and theology, including the theological reading of Scripture developed in the first Christian centuries and in the Middle Ages. It was necessary, in other words, to practise the ecumenism of time when reading and trying to understand the Bible.
And what is true for biblical scholars is surely true for other believers. We, too, must learn to approach the Bible with what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur once called a ‘second naivete’—not the naivete of the child, but the openness to wonder and mystery that comes from having passed through the purifying fires of modern knowledge without having one’s faith in either revelation or reason reduced to ashes and dust. — George Weigel, ‘Second Naivete: Reading the Christmas story with Benedict XVI’.
A granddad is reading stories to his young granddaughter, stories he loved as a boy. They may be the Narnia tales, or Winnie the Pooh, or Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.
Granddad loves this as much as Granddaughter. Why not, they’re sharing precious time together and creating memories. But Granddad hasn’t picked these stories up for years. As he grew up, he’d learned that bears don’t talk and that for them piglets are food not friends. Secret worlds like Narnia don’t exist. And gumnuts don’t talk.
He’d got on with life instead, building a career, mowing the lawn, having a family which this dear little child is part of.
Now, he’s not just enjoying being with his granddaughter, though that would be enjoyment enough; he is connecting with these children’s stories in a new way, a way that awakens him to something within, something he can’t quite put his finger on.
He knows the wardrobe is just a wardrobe. He knows there’s no point going off to find the Hundred-Acre Wood. He knows it’s all imagination, yet—at the same time—it does seem bigger and vaster than him.
Granddaughter just loves the stories. And snuggling with Granddad.
She is perfectly happy to accept that Winnie the Pooh is real—and now, when she sees an open wardrobe door she feels something… Is it a thrill or a chill? She doesn’t always know.
They’re both happy to have read the story, and they go to bed contented, but for different reasons.
You know, the same kind of thing might happen if granddad had read a story from the Bible, perhaps the story of the Garden of Eden.
Granddad has long since given up believing that this story is literal history. Trying to look for the Garden of Eden would be as useful as setting out for the Hundred-Acre Wood, or trying to find Lothlórien. Granddad knows snakes don’t talk, the universe is about 13.8 billion years old, and that life evolved over unimaginable stretches of time.
Granddaughter just laps the story up. If Winnie the Pooh can talk, why not a snake? Where’s the problem?
Yet reading it together brings a strange, unexpected warmth to granddad’s heart. He’s appreciating Granddaughter’s enjoyment of it. He wonders if it might be saying something deeply true to him about life, even though he knows it’s not a work of history.
One day, Granddaughter is going to be older. She’ll be faced with doing well at school, and learning dance, violin, football, or cricket.
She’ll learn for herself that there are no talking snakes, and a wardrobe is a wardrobe is a wardrobe. She’ll put Winnie the Pooh to one side, and see it as something only children read. She’ll be too grown up.
Perhaps she may put the Bible to one side along with poor old Winnie. In doing that, she’ll be putting a bit of distance between herself and the stories of the Bible. She may judge them as irrelevant, inadequate to explain life in the world she now lives in.
You know, people read the bible in different ways.
The philosopher Paul Ricoeur called the stage in which people read the Bible at face value a time of ‘first naivete’. That’s how children naturally read it, and anything else. I think it may be clearer if we use the term first simplicity.
People who say The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it also read the Bible this way.
Some people comfortably read the Bible that way until the day they die.
Others find it impossible to keep on reading the Bible like this. They enter a critical stage. Snakes don’t speak! The story of the Garden of Eden is false. There’s no evidence of a worldwide flood; what’s the point in reading about Noah? The scientific account is all we need to understand the world.
People in this critical stage can start to feel very alone. They can feel like a voice crying out in the darkness, crying out for a lost faith. A faith discarded in the shadows, with no way they know to find it again. A faith that may eventually ebb away.
People who still read the bible with the eyes of the first simplicity don’t get it. But once you’ve crossed over to the other side, once you have distanced yourself from the texts and stories of the bible, you can’t go back.
You have to go forward. Or stay stuck. Or lose your faith.
To go forward, we have to enter a second naivete, or second simplicity. We become like little children again. But how do we go forward? How can that cry in the wilderness for a lost faith become a cry that prepares the way of the Lord?
Ron Rolheiser writes,
We do this by making a deliberate and conscious effort at assuming the posture of a child before reality. We must work at regaining the primal spirit, a sense of wonder, the sense that reality is rich and full of mystery, that we do not yet understand and that we must read chastely, carefully, and discriminately, respecting reality’s contours and taboos. Concomitant with this effort comes the deliberate and conscious attempt at purging ourselves of all traces of cynicism, contempt, and all attitudes which identify mystery with ignorance, taboo with superstition, and romance and ideals with naivete.
Let’s take a closer look at this.
We do this by making a deliberate and conscious effort at assuming the posture of a child before reality.
We assume the posture of a child before reality. After all, there’s so much to wonder about! We open ourselves once more to the vastness of the night sky, to the miracles of love, of birth, to the quirkiness of creation at a quantum level.
It’s no accident that I started by talking about a granddad reading to his granddaughter. When we connect with something of the joy and awe of a small child, we may be able to connect to it within ourselves.
We must work at regaining the primal spirit, a sense of wonder, the sense that reality is rich and full of mystery, that we do not yet understand…
The experience of maturing seems to have common threads. One is that we have the feeling that we know less as we get older. We were so sure of things when we were younger! But now, you find it’s true: the more you know, the more there is to know.
Rolheiser gives us this warning:
…we must read chastely, carefully, and discriminately, respecting reality’s contours and taboos.
Once we have gone into the critical stage, we don’t and can’t go back to believing that snakes talk. The ‘second simplicity’ is not about that.
This is what it’s about. It’s
the deliberate and conscious attempt at purging ourselves of all traces of cynicism, contempt, and all attitudes which identify mystery with ignorance, taboo with superstition, and romance and ideals with naivete.
Once cynicism takes root in a life, it can be hard to uproot it. We can be proud of our cynicism. But you don’t enter the ‘second simplicity’ being a cynic. You can’t embrace mystery with cynicism. You can’t deepen in faith while you hold others in contempt.
So, how does this work at Christmas? Let’s try something really easy, something like oh, I don’t know, what about the Virgin Birth?
Granddad is reading the Christmas story to granddaughter, and she accepts it at face value. There are angels all over the place, and Mary is a virgin. Granddaughter believes all this, though right now she’s unsure what a virgin is. And Granddad is oddly silent when she asks him about it.
Of course, Granddad has been round the block a few more times than Granddaughter. He knows about X and Y chromosomes. He knows that in 2018, virgins don’t become pregnant. For years, he dismissed the story as simply unbelievable in this day and age.
But Granddad’s eyes are being opened to wonder and mystery. As he reads the story and sees his granddaughter engage wth it, the Virgin Birth is speaking to him again; it seems to be telling him that God was fully present to us in this tiny baby named Jesus. His spirit is stirred by this, and his heart swells with gratitude.
He still knows that virgins don’t conceive, but somehow he is believing the story again. He is open to the truths expressed by the story, without letting go of his knowledge of how things work.
He doesn’t want to change the way his granddaughter understands the story; it’s totally appropriate for her.
Can it be appropriate though for grown ups to understand the story in the same way as the granddaughter? Yes, of course. Someone who comes into their adult years without going through that ‘critical stage’ may well believe the stories as a child does. And that’s ok. Though they should not criticise those who read the scriptures differently, just as they should not be criticised for reading as they do.
Sadly, some people who do enter the critical stage get stuck there. They keep that distance from the stories of the Bible for good, they may become cynical, they may only trust what they can see and hear.
And they lose a certain sense of mystery. Rediscovering the truth of the Bible stories goes along with a heightened appreciation of the mystery of things. Karl Rahner once said
The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all. (Theological Investigations 20:149)
When we enter the second simplicity, we begin to approach biblical stories as mystics. We learn to allow their truths to come into our hearts, we become more alive to the voice of the Spirit. Perhaps we recover something of the wonder we had as a child.
We don’t need to get hung up on what ‘really’ happened—what really happened is that people encountered Jesus Christ. What more can we ask?
So this Advent, when you read the Christmas stories—however you read them—seek that answering inner voice which brings them to life for you. Allow Jesus to come alive in you. Amen.