She was unfamiliar with the way in which voices from throughout the ages were drawn into contemporary work as if they bore genuine authority. She supposed this to be related to theology’s task of understanding and transmitting a body of knowledge, making it available and meaningful to a new generation.
Although I would not frame the relationship between theology and tradition in quite this way, I can see why she drew this conclusion and can remember sitting with some similar first impressions. Writings from the past loom large in theology, and the way they are brought in can sometimes give you the feeling that theology is inherently conservative or uncritical, as if its role was simply to absorb and recontextualise a set of truths we arrived at some time ago. Amidst the undergraduate jostle, there were plenty of half-baked expressions of recourse to tradition: the very confusing way, for instance, that at any moment one or other of those voices from the past could be invoked to settle a point of argument. And, at times, figures within the tradition seemed to attract a reverence that was almost alarming. One of my German lecturers once tabled eight different biographies of Karl Barth. “These four are hagiographies,” he said. “The other four are a little bit better.”
But there are positive and deeply productive ways of letting the past speak. Theology, at its best, draws from tradition as if from a well. That is, it lets old thoughts give life to new ones. When I think of the contemporary writers whose work I find most compelling and when I think of my best teachers and the ways they approach their subject, I find a common thread: they are lovingly attentive toward writers of the past. They read with a generous and humble spirit. They are open to being changed by what they read. And it seems to me that their truest moments of insight spring somehow from their ability to listen deeply, past the point of unfamiliarity or offence. To listen to the past is difficult. The tradition is not without its problems or dead ends. And, if we listen for any length of time, we inevitably hear things we would rather not. But such attention is also nourishing and revitalising because there is something about the habit of listening beyond the point of unfamiliarity or offence that makes for growth.
Within our contemporary culture, many currents work against the friendly reception of old dead authors; the wisdom of the times may even make any deep engagement with such authors seem unwise. In his essay, “On the Reading of Old Books,” C. S. Lewis writes of how moral distaste for the attitudes and mores of past ages deterred his students from reading anything but modern works. If this was a theme in Lewis’s time, it is surely more pronounced today. But while Lewis does not reject our sense of moral distaste, he points out that the avoidance of old texts on this basis is counterproductive. The sins of past ages are less dangerous to us than our own sins, Lewis believes, precisely because the sins of the past are more obvious to us. We desperately need encounters with what is unfamiliar or even confronting. Why? Because such encounters shine a light on potentially damaging aspects of our own intellectual contexts that we tend to take for granted.
And so, as a corrective to our chronological snobbery, Lewis prescribes a reading ratio: read one old book to each new one. This practice is a step in the right direction (it is, at the very least, beautifully simple). But there is more to be said about the habits of mind and heart that we might bring to such a task. How do we cultivate and sustain our sense of openness to what we are reading whilst keeping our critical faculties in play?
The people who have modelled generosity in their reading to me relate to the tradition in a way that goes beyond the mere appropriation of it or any fanatical appreciation for figures within it. Such modes of relating risk treating the tradition as complete, impervious to critique. They also assume a flattened, chronological connection between the reader and writer: I relate to the writer through history. Generosity, where I have observed it, seems rather to flow from something like a sense of companionship—of communion even—with writers, both past and present, which is made possible by our shared friendship with God.
My most sustaining experiences of reading within the tradition continue to be those times in which I am caught off guard by a feeling of contemporaneity with the writer, which comes in when the heart of their faith is suddenly discernible in what they write. It is here that I discover I am listening in on—joining—a conversation between another believer and the subject of our mutual belief—God. There are moments, for example, when I sense the writer is grappling with the difficulty of speech about God, moments when they are—almost—lost for words. They cast around for the right metaphors, setting one and then another aside as inadequate to their task. They are saying and then unsaying. It is as if they are shifting gear from comprehension into apprehension of—or perhaps more rightly, a sense being apprehended by—whatever it is that waits at the edge of words. As a reader, these moments move me also to turn and face that presence that words cannot contain. They catch me up in an encounter with God. I am now praying. And I am now alongside the writer: both of us moved through speech into the silence of knowing and knowing that we do not know.
Such experiences suggest to me that there is a posture we can take toward writings from the past that opens us to being changed by what we encounter and, simultaneously, keeps us radically realistic about the ways in which what we read will fall short of the mark. It is something like the posture we adopt when we say “Amen” to someone else’s prayer. “Amen” is an expression not of straightforward agreement with everything that has been said but of a kind of unity we find in mutual submission to something—someone—else. When I say “Amen,” I stand alongside the one praying, and, together with them, I entrust what has been said to the judgement and care of God. When I approach reading with this posture of praying alongside, I learn to read humbly as well as critically. What is said stands under judgement: I can speak of sin. But I am not the final arbiter of truth, and my own claims to knowing are relativised by that same encounter.
And so, I invite you to pick up Lewis’s practice of reading one old book for every new one:
As you pick up the old book, give thanks for the tradition and the gift that it can be. Ask God to challenge and refresh you by what you read.
Listen as you read for the heart of the writer’s faith. Where am I invited into trust? Where am I led into praise of God?
Follow your reading with reflection and prayer. What made me uncomfortable in this text? When were my assumptions challenged? Hold these things before God.