Classically, spiritual interpretation arises precisely when the reader encounters something awkward in the literal sense–paradigmatically, something that is not edifying
One way of attempting to pinpoint that latter distinction is to say that ‘spiritual’ interpretation is precisely that kind of interpretation which has to find the Bible useful, or tie it into the framework of already-known truth, whereas literal interpretation is precisely that kind of interpretation which pays attention to the ways in which the Bible resists use–the ways in which it is awkward, diverse, and difficult.
By following strange strands of subterranean connection that link this awkward text to others, the spiritual interpreter discovers multiple ways in which the text can be woven back into edification. The text’s strangeness, registered by literal reading, becomes a doorway to the questioning and recovery of what is already known, but it will be a recovery which drives the already-known more deeply into the reader–or the reader more deeply into the already-known. Rather than aligning contemplation simply with spiritual reading per se–which might seem the obvious way to go–we might more properly say that contemplation arises within this whole literal–spiritual process: that it is driven by literal reading’s discovery of strangeness, and explored by spiritual reading’s determination to wait until that strangeness speaks edification.
Of course, this may be a service that the University performs despite itself, if its practitioners believe that with the disruption of settled belief, of religious use, their job is done
An instrumentalized Church, however, lives in a broken version of this economy, in which two things have changed. On the one hand the meaning of ‘edifying’ has shifted towards ‘useful’; and on the other the spiritual reading it pursues when faced by texts which do not feed this usefulness is not a form of patience, waiting on the awkwardness discovered by the literal sense, but a form of impatience: a desire to find forms of reading which will not allow this awkwardness to intrude or distract. If literal reading is that kind of reading specifically designed to register and highlight those places where the text is awkward, where it is problematic, where it stands in the way of the uses we would made of it, then we might say that the instrumentalized Church suffers most of all from a refusal of the literal sense.
The kind of literal reading that such a Church needs to learn in order to be saved from itself is one that pays serious attention to the strangeness of the text; it is that reading which ‘resist[s] the premature unities and harmonies of non-literal reading’. (3) Serious attention to textual questions, to grammar, to lexicography, to genre, to redaction, to historical context, to the various hermeneutics of suspicion–all the forms of questing attention which the University encourages–can serve precisely this purpose, and so make true spiritual reading (one which wrestles with the awkwardness uncovered until dawn) possible.
If we turn our attention first of all to study of the Bible, the ‘instrumental’ versus ‘contemplative’ distinction maps on to a better-known distinction: the distinction between ‘spiritual’ interpretation and ‘literal’ interpretation
Churchly readers need to learn also to hold on for a blessing: to learn alongside this renewed literal reading a renewed spiritual reading that is patient with the awkward text and trusts that deeper edification will come, even if this means that the instrumental hip is put out of joint. (4)
Is such a renewed spiritual reading, grounded in an openness to the awkward literal sense, possible? Well, my suspicion is that resources for such disciplined waiting are not lacking in the traditions of the Church’s reading: they have simply been neglected, temporarily forgotten. But that claim brings us to another way in which the University might this article be of use.