Many today, even those otherwise sympathetic to Christianity, find the Bible simply unbelievable. Foremost among the reasons are that its beginning seems so “mythological” and its end so bizarre. In other words they find the opening of Genesis – with its Biblical protology, that is, narration of origins: of the universe, of man, of sin and salvation – to be nothing more than a particularly tenacious version of Antiquity’s fictional mythologies. And turning to the Good Book’s end, they see the Apocalypse, along with the discourses of Christ about the world’s end – accounts of the “last things,” that is, Biblical eschatology – to be merely the incoherent phantasmagoria of a hallucinating shaman, or the psychedelic trip of a hippy avant la lettre.
However, even in our modest individual lives, there exist three profundities not less “unbelievable” than those of Scripture. They too lie (adopting a phrase of Thomas Aquinas) procul a cognitione, that is, far from our knowledge. We should take a good look at them before we question the wisdom of a book that has survived millennia of doubts and enquiries. The depths I refer to are 1) our own individual origin; 2) the abysses present, here and now, in each of our souls; and 3) our own imminent end, inching nearer every day.
We conduct our everyday lives in this world with nary a recollection of the most founding event of our own existence: our conception. Nonetheless, it was crucial for the whole course of our life, to say the very least. Similarly veiled are the nine months we floated in our mother’s womb, along with that traumatic happening that expelled us from our temporary paradise: birth. Of all this, our memory carries at best a few subconscious echoes.
Most of our certitude regarding these events was provided by the oral tradition of our parents. Even then, the events were too mysterious to be simply narrated in biological terms. Instead of being told of processes involving sex and cells, we heard stories of storks carrying infants through the air, or of a God who handed out babies like Christmas gifts. Nonetheless, it was enough. In this way we began to understand the meaning of our origin, without biological details. And even when, as adults, we finally learned about the birds and the bees, the matter grew not less but even more mysterious!
So it is that the Bible too informs us of the origin of all things: something procul a cognitione. The narrative in Genesis 1-3 communicates perfectly well the meaning of the creation of the world, of human beings and of the inception of the grand drama that is our history. In contrast, today, in our so sophisticated scientific age, we hear physicists referring to a Big Bang that began the cosmos, and biologists presenting us with a hypothetical “Mitochondrial Eve” that began us (among other novelties of cosmogenesis and human origins). However, this narrative rarely discloses anything that touches on the meaning of our universe, or of our life, its value and its purpose.
Turning now to the other extreme – our death and posthumous destiny – we also stand before a unique and mysterious experience (see my – yet untranslated – essay on Paisagens e períodos póstumos, “Posthumous Places and Periods”). Although from the outside we witness the deaths of others, we can never fully anticipate what that transformation will be like when it becomes our own. Being also procul a cognitione, we use images and symbols to remotely sketch a presentiment of something that is approaching us, with measured steps, every day.
The Bible treats of these events in the same way. It uses symbols, but also at times imminent historical events which play the role of symbols for an analogous event on the global scale. For example, some of the more important prophecies of Jesus refer, first and foremost, not to the end of the world, but rather to the end, or destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and also of the small Jewish nation (AD 70 and 135). This was equivalent to an “end of the world” for many Jews. But such consummations were also prefigurations, whether of each of our individual ends, or ultimately of the fate of all creation.
There are so many mysteries that await us at the moment – or in the moments – of our “passage.” The depths of death and of the multiple porticos of the afterlife, all lying in an indiscernible future – which, even if chronologically near, remains experientially distant – are not less deep than the inaugural mysteries of our origin. But both of these deep seas, whether of the distant past or the inscrutable future, find their most yawning trenches in our own breasts, right here and right now.
This third depth – that which gapes in our own interior regions from the moment of our creation – is the world both immanent and transcendent of our spiritual soul. It too is little known, difficult to fathom and more than a little daunting; it is not less procul a cognitione than our conception so many years ago and our death (sometime “soon”).
St. Augustine came to understand why the words of Sacred Scripture lack indeed the eloquence he so loved in Cicero and Virgil. They open a door unparalleled in its ability to give access to those very depths referred to above. However, the entrance to Scripture was not high and elegant, such as would appeal to our pride. Strange to say, its portals possessed a very low lintel – simple, direct language, with a message intelligible to all – forcing whomever dared to enter to bend low. Still, once inside, the interior that opened up within revealed a towering ceiling above it.
The price of entrance? Only humility and genuine love, or at least the germs thereof. It is in this way that we can overcome the hesitations of those who find the beginning and the conclusion of Scripture impenetrable or weird. We finally see that our own beginning and our own end are not less resistant to simple explanation; conception and death are equally open to unsettling narratives and undreamt-of expectations. All this because our own interior is, for most of us, as much a terra incognita as were the Americas to the first Europeans. With the exception of the Gospels, perhaps no other part of the Bible is able to make us feel the reality of our own depths. We begin to catch a glimpse of just how mysterious we ourselves are when we open the first chapters of Genesis, and then dare to consult the oracular text of the Apocalypse.