Some Christians claim that my understanding of a bible passage is faulty because I was reading “carnally” instead of “spiritually”. “Reading spiritually” is still a mystery to me, as are the methods of doing it. Are these even terms we can apply to the process of reading?
What I suspect is meant, is that a ‘revelation’ is supposed to arrive after reading, making the meaning of the passage clear.
The fact that the meanings of these texts have been a subject of discussion amongst experts of biblical study for 100s of years (whereas the people that challenge me rarely seem to know much about the bible), and that there are so many different Christian denominations due to doctrinal differences, would suggest that this method of divining meaning, if it exists, has been ineffective.
The proponents would probably claim that only one spiritually divined interpretations is true (their one obviously). But how can a “truth” be found from a personal feeling when external means of verification have deliberately been excluded by having the meaning appear “spiritually” (i.e. internally). When I ask for spiritual interpretations of my “faulty understanding”, I never receive an answer.
A believer may think that an inner feeling has brought new light onto a text, but without the means to communicate this, they have no way to tell me why my understanding is wrong whereas their instinctive feeling of meaning is true. I suspect that the claim of reading spiritually is a phrase used to deflect criticism when faced with a difficult question.
What I have discovered is a practise called lectio divina but this translates as ‘divine reading’ and as Wikipedia makes clear:
The focus of Lectio Divina is not a theological analysis of biblical passages
As the practice of Lectio Divina shows, the intention was not to gain an analysis of the passage but to contemplate its meaning and to “promote communion with God”.
It’s pretty much what we might do with a poem or when reading philosophy – we meditate or reflect on the meaning of the text. But this presumes we already know what the meaning of the text is and want to explore its implications and applications. It is not a method of finding meaning. Another reason we may contemplate a text is because the meaning is complex and we want to use our reason to think about what it means – the very thing I’m being warned against doing (I presume what is meant as ‘carnal’ reading?).
We have already arrived at a rich understanding of the texts in the bible through literary and historical methods which have also given us insights into the minds and intentions of their authors. However, what we learn is that meanings can be multi-layered and less clear than some would wish. Some Christians cling onto the illusion of certainty – only possible by ignoring historical information about the bible and the techniques of biblical criticism.
Believing that they are being provided with the only correct methods of understanding biblical texts through reading spiritually perhaps helps these individuals feel special in this vast, impersonal universe. Have these Christians confused reading spiritually with lectio divina? Have they just made up the idea or heard it from a contemporary source?
But if true, I would ask – what meaning has been discerned by spiritual reading that cannot and has not been ascertained by the normal process?