"Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus."
Early last Sunday, Isobel and I, together with Iain McGilchrist, a visiting friend from Scotland, climbed up to the cross that stands tall on the central peak above Volmoed. On a clear day such as Sunday the views are spectacular. You can see the coastal road to Hangklip and beyond; the whole sweep of Walker Bay; right up the Hemel and Aarde Valley; and well into the Fernkloof Mountains. One way to capture the scene is to take a photograph that accurately records what you see. Another way is to write a poem that captures your experience in metaphors that go beyond the literal and touch the soul. The photograph records the clouds over the distant mountains as though frozen in time; the poem describes the clouds moving across the sky like sailing ships on an ocean. Literally and scientifically speaking the clouds are dense collections of water molecules, just as the rocks are made of Cape sandstone, and the flora is described as fynbos. All this is true, but none of it actually expresses the beauty and wonder of the scene that surrounds you on the mountain top. We knew that the earth turns on its axis around the sun, for that is the scientific explanation, the literal truth; but we actually spoke about the sun rising to dispel the darkness, and it we had stayed long enough we might have experienced a magnificent sunset.
Iain McGilchrist, with whom we climbed the mountain, is a world renowned neuroscientist whose book The Master and his Emissary has made a major contribution to our understanding of the way in which our brains work. He was also, at one time, a professor of English at Oxford, and is well-versed in the language of poetry and art. So he understands well both the language of science and that of the arts; the way in which the left-hand and right-hand sides of the brain function together in grasping the truth through reason and the imagination. We need both languages, that of science which gets at the literal truth; and that of art, the language of metaphor that speaks to our imagination and soul. When the two sides of our brain are in conflict with each other, or when the literal language of the one and the poetic language of the other are in conflict, then our grasp of reality is either reduced to facts and figures, which is the literal truth, or we live solely in a world of fantasy that has lost touch with reality. We need the language that tells us the clouds like our brains are comprised of busy molecules, and the language that describes their beauty as they sail across the ocean sky or process our experience of the setting sun.
The language of Christian faith takes both seriously. So, for example, we can, do and must speak at the same time about the evolution of human life and rejoice in the science that helps us understand it better, as well as the language of the mystery of being human created in the image of God. Michelangelo's painting of the creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel can be analysed in terms of the paint and pigments he used, and the techniques of which he was a master craftsman, and we might debate the proportions of Adam which are clearly not accurate or the image of the Creator as misleadingly anthropomorphic. But if this is all we do we have missed the majestic point of the scene that dazzles our eyes as we look above us.
However, since the seventeenth century it has increasingly been the case that the Bible has been read by many people, both believers and unbelievers, only through the left hand side of the brain which analyzes and organisers reality in literal terms. So the Bible it has to be "literally" true or else it is false. The creation story in which God made the world in six days is either scientifically true or the Bible has got it wrong. When the Bible says the sun stood still for a day, it is either literally the case or nonsense; Jonah either swallowed a big fish or the story is childish fantasy; the virgin birth must be literally true or it is not true at all. Pushed to an extreme, we would have to accept that Jesus is a loaf of bread, or a vine stock, that we are salt, and that God is an oversized male with eyes that see and ears that hear.
Or, to come to the passage we read today, we would have to assume that Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan was a newspaper report of something that actually happened, and not a parable that leads us into the truth through imagination and story telling. I once heard a tour guide tell a bunch of gullible tourists that he would show them the very place on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho where the man was beaten and robbed, and where the inn was located. Just as another tour guide showed me the very place where Jesus had ascended into heaven, pointing to a large rock that had markings on it that been scorched by the heat of Jesus taking off like a space craft! Early Christian commentators on the Bible certainly did not think in such literal terms. In fact, quite the opposite. They often interpreted bible in an allegorical way to get at its spiritual significance. So every detail in the parable of the Good Samaritan had some theological meaning. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, said that Samaritan was actually Jesus himself, that the donkey he rode referred to his humanity, that the Levite passing by meant that the Jewish law could not save, and the two pence paid to the innkeeper meant the law and the gospel. Jesus himself would have been surprised at St. Gregory's ingenuity, as he would be by many of the literal interpretations of the biblical stories. He used the language of the imagination to help us grasp the meaning of faith and, in this parable, the meaning of love.
The lawyer asks a very precise question, as lawyers do in court. He wants a straightforward literal answer. OK Jesus, if I must love my neighbour, who is my neighbour? The literal answer is that our neighbour is the person living next door. In my case Bernhard Turkstra. So, Jesus, are you telling me that I must love God and Bernhard in order to inherit eternal life? Well, yes, Jesus could say, if you love Bernhard you certainly will have earned eternal life! In fact, you will have earned a darn side more! But Jesus does not say that to the lawyer in the parable. He moves away from the literal truth and and in a surprising twist to the tale he concludes by asking the lawyer to answer his own question. "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" Suddenly the truth dawns on the lawyer not in the language of the court room, but in the language of faith. "The one who showed him mercy!" Yes, the lawyer has seen things differently that he did before. He himself is the neighbour, everyone's neighbour. The literal truth remains true, Bernhard is my neighbour; but on its own it is inadequate. The language of faith, hope and love, takes us beyond the literal not only in helping is to understand what it means to love my neighbour and therefore God, but in helping us to grasp the truth, beauty and goodness of God, to see the world and ourselves through different eyes. This is not the language of facts and figures, of molecules and pigments, or the language of lawyers and the courthouse, however necessary and precise that may be; it is the language of wonder and worship, of grace and forgiveness, the music of the soul without which we would lose our humanity and be incapable of expressing our gratitude and love.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 9 October 2014