Hugo of St. Victor once expressed an entire hermeneutics with a single line – love is the eye.
Part of us that knows exactly what he means by that and has no difficulty believing that he is right. We see straight and our eyesight is most clear when we are not selfish and sinful, but loving and moral. Lack of love is an impediment to proper sight, just as the prism of love affords the most accurate insight.
But part of us, too, has its doubts here. That part of us understands what Genesis means when it says that, after they had sinned, Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened. Their minds may have been darkened, as our catechisms taught us, but their eyes were opened and they knew some things after sin that they did not know before. The breaking of taboos, Scripture tells us, brings its own knowledge, a knowledge beyond chastity.
Experience, all experience, teaches and sometimes, it seems, that experience which stretches the limits of love and morality produces a certain knowledge that innocence and purity do not. Great artists have always known this and, for this reason, they are generally less renowned for their innocence and chastity than they are for how they have stretched the limits of experience. Generally too they are known more for their extraordinary creativity than for any exceptional love and generosity. We never doubt the intelligence of our artists, nor the range of their experience, but we are considerably less generous in our praise of their innocence © which often is exactly what was sacrificed in the pursuit of that high creativity. Doris Lessing, commenting on George Eliot, once suggested that Eliot would have been a far better writer had she been less moral. Part of us of knows exactly what that means.
Many people, I suspect, will protest at this and argue that what artists so often reject, and what Lessing challenges Eliot on, is not true morality but a certain restrictive concept of it. There is some truth in this too, but, de facto, the wisdom of art is often more a wisdom of aesthetics than it is a wisdom of love. Aesthetics of course has its own intrinsic value and, in a higher synthesis, merges with love. The problem is that rarely do we get that higher synthesis. Consequently, art and the gospel fight a lot and we are often left with some pretty schizophrenic sympathies.
What ultimately makes us wise? What in the end reveals life to us? Innocence or eating the apple? Chastity or breaking the taboos? Self-abnegation or self-development? Does what opens our eyes also darken our minds? Who is right, the artists or the ascetics? What are the false dichotomies here?
There is wisdom in Hugo of St. Victor, in his advice: love is the eye. Love sorts things out; it makes for the higher synthesis. It was this insight that also prompted St. Augustine to write: Love and do as you like. But the last word on this should go to Jesus. He also taught a class on hermeneutics, the Beatitudes. Among other things, he said this: Happy are the pure of heart; they shall see God. For him, purity of heart and poverty of spirit are what clear the eyesight and enable us to see straight. Conversely, all sin, selfishness, and greed weaken our eyesight because, through that prism, we see a world that is as self-centered, cynical, untrustworthy, and hardened as we are. Through chastity and innocence, on the other hand, we see a world that is fresh, childlike, and capable of firing more enthusiasm than cynicism.
For Jesus, purity of heart is the real basis for revelation. And he taught this in more than words. He knew the deep truths he taught not, first of all, because he was divine, but because he was moral. He was able to reveal perfectly because he did not sin. Purity of heart, childlike innocence, self-abnegation, and the fruits of the Holy Spirit; not intellectual brilliance, chance, luck, correct cult, or gnostic insight © are the conduits to the deep secrets of God and the world. In Jesus’ view, one does not need a spiritual guru to break open the seal the binds the deep secrets, one needs a good moral life and a childlike innocence.
It is interesting to view, against this background, our late 20th century philosophical discussions about objectivity. As we know, after the insights of Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Planck, science is telling us that, while objective reality exists, reality can never be known completely in any objective manner. All knowledge, even the most empirical data of mathematics and physics, is to some degree subjective. All research is, ultimately, partly me-search. Freud, Jung, and Durkheim would agree. There is no such a thing as not having a bias. The task is to have the correct one.
Jesus challenges us to have the correct bias, the bias of love, and he goes further to tell us that this bias is predicated on charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, faith, modesty, fidelity, and chastity. These are the ultimate corrective lens we need in order to see straight.