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Discerning the Mystical Sense of the Bible
Origen of Alexandria, one of the earliest Christian mystics, suggested that the Bible needs to be read on three levels: the literal, the moral, and the mystical.
It’s important to understand the distinctions between these three approaches to the scriptures. It’s also important not to jump to conclusions concerning what “literal” and “moral” (or, for that matter, “mystical”) mean. Origen is not saying that we should read the Bible in a fundamentalist way! Nor is he suggesting that a “moral” reading is just about placing limits on our behavior.
Here is one way to approach the different ways of reading the Bible:
- The Literal Reading of the Bible means seeking to understand it on a purely natural level. Today, we would call this a scholarly reading of the text. The literal reading is an attempt to understand what the original writer(s) meant, the social and cultural background to what they were saying, and the philosophical and theological foundation (and implications) of their words. This is the approach to reading scripture that takes into consideration a nuanced understanding of the original languages, of the literary genre the writer is employing, and the intended audience and its needs and concerns. The literal reading is just as important as the moral and mystical reading, which are more subjective and spiritual in their approach to the text. The literal/scholarly reading keeps faith grounded and centered.
- The Moral Reading of the Bible brings the meaning and purpose of the text into the life of the individual reader. Here the focus is less on an objective, scholarly understanding of the text in favor of a more subjective, inspirational understanding. What does this passage say to me? How does it offer me a sense of meaning and purpose? How does it help me to shape the choices and commitments of my life? How can it help me to form my character? How does it help me to be a better person? (That’s where the “moral” sense most obviously aligns with our 21st century understanding of what “morality” entails). The common contemplative practice of Lectio Divina is an exercise in the moral reading of the Bible — although, as we shall see, lectio divina also invites us into the mystical reading as well.
- The Mystical Reading of the Bible invites readers to consider hidden, obscure, or symbolic ways of finding meaning in the text — especially in the light of God’s desire for loving intimacy with us. Just as the moral reading of the text offers the reader a subjective, inspirational way of understanding the scriptures, the mystical reading invites us into an intersubjective and transfigurative approach to the text. How does this text reveal God’s love? How does it testify to the hidden realities that we, as Christians, accept as a matter of faith: that God loves us, that God brings us unconditional healing, that God desires intimacy with us, that God call us to union with God, and all this held together in the person of Christ, the sacrament of God-with-us. So a mystical reading of scripture looks for hidden resonances of meaning, but always centered on the Christ and Divine Love.
To summarize: the literal reading looks for what is objectively factual about the text, what can be understood in the light of the best historical and critical scholarship; the moral reading looks for how the text can be inspirational and personally meaningful to the reader, and the mystical reading looks for hidden ways in which the text can support God’s desire for union with us, both individually and collectively. The literal meaning is focused on the text itself, the moral reading is focused on the reader and their response to the text, and the mystical reading is focused on God and God’s loving action.
An Example of the Three Ways of Reading Scripture
As an example of these three complementary approaches to scripture, let’s look at Exodus 3:1-5, one of the most famous passages in the Bible.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
The literal reading asks questions like “What is going on here?” Did the bush really burn, or is this a folk-tale? Could this be a dream-sequence? A legend designed to enhance Moses’s reputation as someone who spoke with God? Perhaps there was an optical illusion, or even an actual slow-burning fire that inspired Moses to experience an imaginal encounter with God. Of course, none of these speculative theories can ever be conclusively proven, so many scholars will simply accept that this story represents a key, if mysterious, event in the life of the person who is seen as a liberator of the Hebrew people.
The moral meaning takes a more subjective approach. It asks, “What would I do if I encountered the burning bush?” It speculates that this story shows that anyone — not just heroes like Moses — might receive a theophany, or encounter with God. Maybe such a theophany might have a supernatural quality, like seeing a burning bush, but it might just as well have a more interior, imaginal quality — but does that it really matter, since either way it can transform the person in radical ways? For example, Mother Teresa of Calcutta never saw a burning bush (at least to my knowledge), but she did experience an internal sense of being called by God — which led to her living a life of service and healing that in its own way is just as dramatic as the story of Moses. So the moral meaning invites us to reflect on this idea that God could speak to us too — and if/when he does, will we be ready? Will we be able to listen? Will we be free to truly and fully respond?
Finally, the mystical reading of the text seeks to find hidden meanings, particularly from a Divine perspective. It might begin by connecting between the miracle of the burning bush and Jesus proclaiming “I am the light of the world.” God not only wants to speak with us, but God also wants to bring light into our lives: the light of truth, of clarity, of healing, of liberation. God brought light into Moses’s life, and Moses was changed forever — and that change has echoed down through the ages. God desires all of us to be the same agents for freedom and liberation that Moses was, even if for most of us it will play out in less dramatic ways. But there’s even another hidden layer, for not only did Christ say “I am the light of the world,” but he also proclaimed, “you are the light of the world” (John 8:12, Matthew 5:14). God is calling Moses to be “light” by bringing a message of freedom and liberation to his people. God makes similar calls to all of us. And by calling us to be “light” — the same light that Christ manifests — God is also calling us to be one with Christ, which is to say, one with God.
So, there you have how one passage can be read in three different ways: from the perspective of the scholar/historian, from the perspective of the individual believer, and then finally, from the perspective of God. No one perspective is more “right” than any of the others, although naturally, the literal reading involves a kind of empirical objectivity that is different from the spiritual subjectivity of the moral and mystical readings. But that doesn’t mean that the moral and mystical readings are “anything goes.” Each reading needs to be done in the light of the other approaches, and our individual/subjective readings also need to be discerned in the light of the wisdom of the tradition. We help each other to discern the meaning of the sacred text, whether historical, personal, or divine.