Online Edition: October 2008
Vol. XIV, No. 7
Quaerere Deum – To Seek God
The Culture of the Word and the Word of God
by Helen Hull Hitchcock
Pope Benedict XVI, during his visit to France in September, gave two addresses that were a fitting prelude to the topic of the forthcoming Synod of Bishops, “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”. Both addresses, the first to a cultural group in a former monastery in Paris, the second to priests, seminarians and others at Vespers in Notre Dame Cathedral, took place on September 12 — almost exactly ten years after the encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), issued by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, on September 14, 1998.
In both talks Pope Benedict’s words seemed to echo the main themes of Fides et Ratio that relate directly to the Word of God — with its dual meaning of God’s communication with mankind through His Word, the Bible, and through His incarnation — which is the subject of the XII General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 5-26, 2008, during this “Year of Saint Paul”.
The pope’s meeting with representatives from the world of culture — a group that included French government officials and delegates from the French Islamic community — took place precisely two years after his controversial address at Regensburg, which had stressed the rationality of faith. In this lecture, however, he focused on the continuity of history in the origins of Western theology and the roots of European culture.
This event took place, appropriately, at the Collège des Bernardins, a former monastery where, the pope observed, “the treasures of ancient culture survived, and where at the same time a new culture slowly took shape out of the old”:
But how did it happen? What motivated men to come together to these places? What did they want? How did they live?
First and foremost … it was not their intention to create a culture nor even to preserve a culture from the past. Their motivation was much more basic. Their goal was: quaerere Deum [to seek God]. Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential — to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself. They were searching for God. They wanted to go from the inessential to the essential, to the only truly important and reliable thing there is.…
Quaerere Deum: because they were Christians, this was not an expedition into a trackless wilderness, a search leading them into total darkness. God Himself had provided signposts, indeed He had marked out a path which was theirs to find and to follow. This path was His word, which had been disclosed to men in the books of the sacred Scriptures. Thus, by inner necessity, the search for God demands a culture of the word….
In seeking God, we must seek to understand His Word, Pope Benedict continued, and this requires human language:
The longing for God … includes love of the word, exploration of all its dimensions. Because in the biblical word God comes towards us and we towards Him, we must learn to penetrate the secret of language, to understand it in its construction and in the manner of its expression. Thus it is through the search for God that the secular sciences take on their importance, sciences which show us the path towards language.… The monastery serves eruditio, the formation and education of man — a formation whose ultimate aim is that man should learn how to serve God. But it also includes the formation of reason — education — through which man learns to perceive, in the midst of words, the Word itself.
“The Word which opens the path of that search [for God] is a shared word”, Pope Benedict said. “The word does not lead to a purely individual path of mystical immersion, but to the pilgrim fellowship of faith”.
In the Bible, the pope pointed out, God speaks to us “through human words”; but also “Scripture requires exegesis, and it requires the context of the community in which it came to birth and in which it is lived”. He explained that we must penetrate the “different layers of meaning” in order for Scripture to be revealed “in its full grandeur and dignity”. The word of God goes beyond the “letter of the text”, the Holy Father said. It transcends time and cultures: “The Word of God and His action in the world are revealed only in the word and history of human beings”.
Appropriately, during this “Year of Saint Paul”, the pope shows how the apostle’s writings provide insight:
[O]ne can only understand the greatness and breadth of this vision of the biblical word if one listens closely to Paul and then discovers that this liberating Spirit has a name, and hence that freedom has an inner criterion: “The Lord is the Spirit. Where the Spirit is … there is freedom” (II Cor 3:17). The liberating Spirit is not simply the exegete’s own idea, the exegete’s own vision. The Spirit is Christ, and Christ is the Lord who shows us the way.
The pope observes that “a new, higher obligation than that of the letter” is revealed, “namely, the obligation of insight and love”, and he further explains:
This tension between obligation and freedom, which extends far beyond the literary problem of scriptural exegesis … has deeply marked Western culture. This tension presents itself anew as a challenge for our own generation as we face two poles: on the one hand, subjective arbitrariness, and on the other, fundamentalist fanaticism. It would be a disaster if today’s European culture could only conceive freedom as absence of obligation, which would inevitably play into the hands of fanaticism and arbitrariness. Absence of obligation and arbitrariness do not signify freedom, but its destruction.”
The search for God today is as crucial as ever in former times, Pope Benedict told the ministers of culture in Paris. Confining God to the “subjective realm” would renounce the possibility of reason with “very grave consequences” for humanity, he concluded:
Quaerere Deum — to seek God and to let oneself be found by Him, that is today no less necessary than in former times. A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe’s culture its foundation — the search for God and the readiness to listen to Him — remains today the basis of any genuine culture.
That very same evening, addressing clergy and seminarians at Vespers in Notre Dame Cathedral, Pope Benedict returned to the Word — in both meanings; this time emphasizing the mission of the Church to bring the Word to the world.
He mentioned that “Your cathedral is a living hymn of stone and light in praise of that act, unique in the annals of human history”, and stressed the importance of the liturgy and the priestly ministry to bring the word of God to the world.
“Even now the word of God is given to us as the soul of our apostolate, the soul of our priestly life”, he said. “Always cultivate a thirst for the word of God!… In the Church everyone has a place, everyone! Every person can and must find a place in her”.
(Pope Benedict’s addresses in France are accessible on the Vatican web site under “Travels”.)
Faith and Reason
Almost exactly ten years before these addresses by Pope Benedict in France, the encyclical Fides et Ratio had similarly stated the mission of the Church to bring the Word of God to the world:
Underlying all the Church’s thinking is the awareness that she is the bearer of a message which has its origin in God Himself (cf. II Cor 4:1-2). The knowledge which the Church offers to man has its origin not in any speculation of her own, however sublime, but in the word of God which she has received in faith (cf. I Th 2:13). (FR 7)
Fides et Ratio also recalled the continuity with history, noting that this understanding of God’s Word restates “almost to the letter the teaching of the First Vatican Council’s Constitution Dei Filius, and taking into account the principles set out by the Council of Trent, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution Dei Verbum [that] pursued the age-old journey of understanding faith, reflecting on Revelation in the light of the teaching of Scripture and of the entire Patristic tradition….” (FR 8)
In chapter VII of Fides et Ratio, we read of “The indispensable requirements of the word of God”:
In Sacred Scripture are found elements, both implicit and explicit, which allow a vision of the human being and the world which has exceptional philosophical density. Christians have come to an ever deeper awareness of the wealth to be found in the sacred text. It is there that we learn that what we experience is not absolute: it is neither uncreated nor self-generating. God alone is the Absolute. From the Bible there emerges also a vision of man as imago Dei. This vision offers indications regarding man’s life, his freedom and the immortality of the human spirit. Since the created world is not self-sufficient, every illusion of autonomy which would deny the essential dependence on God of every creature —the human being included — leads to dramatic situations which subvert the rational search for the harmony and the meaning of human life.
The problem of moral evil — the most tragic of evil’s forms — is also addressed in the Bible, which tells us that such evil stems not from any material deficiency, but is a wound inflicted by the disordered exercise of human freedom. In the end, the word of God poses the problem of the meaning of life and proffers its response in directing the human being to Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, who is the perfect realization of human existence. A reading of the sacred text would reveal other aspects of this problem; but what emerges clearly is the rejection of all forms of relativism, materialism and pantheism. (FR 80)
The meaning in the Bible, the encyclical states, “presents itself as the truth about God which God Himself communicates through the sacred text”, and this truth is conveyed by the use of human language, which “thus embodies the language of God”. And it is unlimited by its historical context:
Beyond simple historical occurrence, the truth of the events which these texts relate lies rather in the meaning they have in and for the history of salvation. This truth is elaborated fully in the Church’s constant reading of these texts over the centuries, a reading which preserves intact their original meaning (FR 94).
Human language may be conditioned by history and constricted in other ways, but the human being can still express truths which surpass the phenomenon of language. Truth can never be confined to time and culture; in history it is known, but it also reaches beyond history (FR 95).
Thus, the encyclical concludes, “the Church promotes both the defense of human dignity and the proclamation of the Gospel message”:
There is today no more urgent preparation for the performance of these tasks than this: to lead people to discover both their capacity to know the truth and their yearning for the ultimate and definitive meaning of life. In the light of these profound needs, inscribed by God in human nature, the human and humanizing meaning of God’s word also emerges more clearly. (FR 102)
A decade after these words were written we can see that this yearning, this need for truth, is no less profound.