The human need for embodied virtue

“As humans, we have to see the ways of God through others. We can’t really comprehend virtues like forgiveness or love or compassion in the abstract; we have to have experienced them through other human beings.”

from “St. Benedict’s Rule: An Inclusive Translation and Daily Commentary” by Judith Sutera

The quote above may well remind you of

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

St Theresa Avila (Attributed)

But I want to make a different couple of points, the second following from the first.

Firstly the fact is that at its core language has analogy. When we say that something is a dog we mean that in some sense it is like other being that we know to be dogs. So the meaning comes to language from the use we put it too and that we learn it from the use other people put it to. It also means with abstract ideas such as virtues we understand them as we see them performed. If someone says “they love you” then the way they treat you alters your understanding of love. It is one of the big problems of talking about God in language at all. The analogies are far more tenuous than when applied to other creatures either human or animals. God in this sense does not exist within human parameters and to talk of God is to mislead as much as it is to make clear. However, we need some manner of talking about God, so we use human words. As Christians we are therefore faced with a duty that when we want people to know about God’s attributes that we should share, e.g. loving, forgiving, wise then we need to try to bring our human attribute in line with God’s. To seek to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect, is not to get everything right but to seek to reflect out to the world the characteristics of God. That is to make them flesh.

The second is that we need to take seriously the fact that the Bible is a material book. There is no language that is not human language. We thus see in the Bible is not a pure output of the divine brain but the struggle of the divine to communicate through human experience. It is not that through reading the Bible we can get a perfect transplant of the knowledge God intend to leave to humans. There is if you like a treble embodiement of the Word in the Bible. The first is the embodiement that comes through the experience of the divine. There is the the second embodiement which is that of those who are inspired by the divine to record the priors engagement. They are not necessarily the same people. The third is the fact that the person reading the Bible is a body and part of human society. In all situation we have to take seriously the humanity of all three groups of people engaged. Divine inspiration is therefore not simply a matter of divine dictation but a matter of living in contact with the divine. We therefore need to struggle with those texts where others have found the divine until they yield their light. That light will take time and effort.

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