University of Sydney

(This is the final part of my essay “God (and Love) and Family”: you can find the first four parts here.)

My theological studies only lasted a year: in the years since, I’ve often regretted that false start. Now, I’m taking units in Biblical Studies as part of an Arts degree: a more modest approach, without the old vocational intensity. At the outset, my teacher made the distinction between exegesis and hermeneutics. Exegesis is the close study of a text – in this case, the Bible; hermeneutics is the attempt to interpret and apply it to one’s life. My teacher made it clear that hermeneutics had no place in Biblical Studies. It’s an apt summation of my relationship to the Bible these days: it’s an abiding interest, definitely part of my personal culture, but it no longer addresses me with the same powerful voice. I still reflect on it, but I no longer feel compelled to answer it – to conform to or defy it.

This places me in interesting contrast to most of my classmates. Most of them are young, familiar to each other from meetings of the Evangelical Union on campus; they have the energy and the freshness of response of recent converts. They wear T-shirts printed with Christian slogans; they play Hillsong music on their phones in the lulls before tutorials. Their approach to our Biblical Studies classes is very different to mine. It costs them an effort to restrain their hermeneutical instincts: they want to make meaning of everything. In a course on the Old Testament prophets, they leapt on the passages that seem to anticipate Jesus. It’s important to them that the Bible speaks with one voice, so they tend to efface contradictions within the texts. They seek to harmonise it, to make it seem more coherent than it is.

My chief interest is in teasing out the contradictions, the silences, the varied points of view. My classmates may want to harmonise the Bible; I concentrate instead on the differences between its voices, to acknowledge their polyphony. This is not from a desire to debunk or discredit it; there is something grand and very moving about the efforts of the Bible’s many authors to understand their moments in history and their relationship to the divine. I think one of the Bible’s chief virtues is the way it preserves these overlapping perspectives, the way it permits contradictions. The closer you look at it, the looser its weave becomes, and the more the individual threads seem to dangle. The Bible grapples as I do with questions of our purpose here and our relationship to reality: if I no longer find its answers authoritative, I’m still inspired by the attempts at truth it preserves.

My relationship with my father has changed in similar ways. I moved back to Sydney several years ago after living for some time interstate: I see him much more frequently now and our relationship has taken on a new dailiness. This new level of contact has robbed him of the mythic proportions he took on in his periods of absence: he’s man-sized now in my consciousness. This has led to a steady ebbing of fear: he no longer intimidates me the way he did as a giant. The surprise is that I’m less sure now of who he is; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that proximity has given me a new sense of the contradictions he embodies. Like the Bible, his diversity becomes more apparent under close observation.

Dad often sits out on the balcony of his apartment, beadily watching the children at play in the complex’s common area: he dislikes their disorderliness, their noise, and complains about them at length. Yet he adores dogs – particularly small, yappy dogs – and lobbied for months to get one until he wore his partner down. He has a slow, rather taciturn temperament (much like mine), but in social settings he adopts a hearty public manner, with a booming voice pitched from the mask of his face: I’m still amazed by the speed with which he can turn this on.

Knowing him better – in more detail – means knowing him less. I no longer expect to arrive at a stable concept of Dad; my feelings about him will never be settled entirely. But this prismatic knowledge – this knowledge in depth – is infinitely more precious than the terrified glimpses I had of him when I was younger. From those glimpses I extrapolated a figure all the more vivid for being so vague. Now, the terrifying certainty born of a lack of information has given way to a love that has room for ambivalence and doubt. This relationship has been achieved, over time, and I would not trade it for anything.

I’ve travelled a similar distance in my relationship with the Christian God. He is the passage to the divine that I am most familiar with; the passage that I will most likely always use. The older I get, though, the more important it seems to me to approach these questions with a modest sense of my limits. The more closely I read the Bible, the more apparent the limits of its authors become: it’s a collection of fellow seekers constrained by their human perceptions. Yet that does not invalidate their efforts or make a relationship with God impossible. The nature of the relationship changes: it becomes a series of enquiries, a habit of reaching out, rather than making or bowing to assertions. It goes without saying that we humans will always come up short in our efforts to comprehend the divine. The attempt is still worthwhile.