Study as a Spiritual Exercise in Judaism and Protestantism—but not Catholicism?

One of the biggest differences between Catholicism as it is actually practiced and the parallel spiritual traditions of Jews and Protestants is the almost total absence of study as a spiritual exercise.

The Jewish Tradition of Torah Study

For Jews from ancient times to now, the way to express devotion to God was to study the Torah. All other intellectual labor is forbidden on Sabbath, but Torah study is upheld as a worthy goal, a shining ideal especially on Sabbath. This study, however, is not carried out in isolation, but in vigorous conversation and even argument with fellow Jews. The place to grow closer to God is not just at synagogue prayers, but in the Beit Midrash, the House of Study—a room full of books: Torah, Talmud and other Jewish sources.


What happens during Torah study is not an idle, passive, quiet reading, but a lively interpersonal exchange of opinions, a comparison of interpretations, an open-ended dialogue in which participants take positions and defend them, pose questions and pursue their answers. Even the rabbinic sources themselves unfold in a dialogic pattern, where they offer up a multitude of contrasting opinions about the interpretation of various biblical passages. This study, this argumentation, this exchange of opinions is one of the highest spiritual exercises of the Jewish faith, upheld as the ideal to be sought.

The Protestant Practice of Bible Study
In Protestantism, we find a similar focus on the Word. While it is true that the Protestant world is dynamically fracturing before our eyes, one of the basic concepts of Protestant piety is a serious attention to the Bible. The way one gets closer to God is not merely through silent prayer or singing worship songs or hymns, but through detailed and intellectual engagement with the Sacred Page. For Protestant practice writ large (with obviously unending diversity in how it is actually done), one studies the Bible in order to spiritually grow. You bring your Bible to Church with you. The sermon is exegetical in focus, a deep Bible study by an expert interpreter (your pastor), and hopefully long enough to feel like a satisfying lesson (maybe an hour). If you want to go to the next level of commitment, the choice is clear: join a Bible study. There, while yes you might share about your life and hear about others, the ostensible goal is a deep and intellectual engagement with Scripture in the context of a community.  If you attend a well-run Protestant Bible study, you won’t find a sleepy, tired reading, but an active conversation, a communal wrestling with the meaning of the text. While the Talmud will not be consulted, participants might be looking at Study Bible footnotes, commentaries and other works to help them understand as they read, converse and engage with both the text and one another.

Catholic Apathy Toward Bible Study

Catholics, however, suffer from a certain intellectual apathy about such things. Our tradition (again, as it is typically practiced) prizes doctrinal conformity, silent prayer and receptivity. These are hugely important values in our spiritual practice, yes. They lead to receiving Scripture, Tradition and the Church itself as gifts from God, but these tendencies can lead us into a false passivity. While some Catholic Bible studies have followed the Protestant model and become engaging intellectual communities, the general trend in Catholic practice is less intellectuall vigorous. That is, a diversity of views, a robust exchange of opinions over the meaning of the sacred text is not regarded as a spiritual exercise, but as an educational one. Bible study groups and other types of small groups might be accepted, but they are viewed as community events, educational opportunities, while the “real prayer” happens at Mass, in adoration or at the retreat house. Homilies tend to be very short and typically shy away from serious exegesis of Scripture—a serious departure from the example of the Church Fathers.

This situation that has developed in the Catholic realm has produced a prejudice against an intellectual engagement with the faith. I view it as a latent anti-intellectualism we American Catholics inherited from an early twentieth century social location of poorly-educated Catholic immigrant communities that prized conformity and eschewed intellectual distinctions in order to maintain their minority identity over-against the prevailing Protestant world. But in an era where more and more people are attaining high degrees of education, it is hard to maintain a merely sentimental engagement with Catholicism. The deep things of faith, which only are considered in the context of study, questioning, argument and dialogue, are often left on the table, or the bookshelf. Few parishes have theological libraries for parishoners. Few homilists offer serious and lengthy exegesis. Few Catholics own a Study Bible.

My Proposal

What I am proposing is that we learn a few things from our Jewish and Protestant friends, that we pick up our Bibles and read them, that we view study as a spiritual exercise, that we talk with one another, share opinions and swap ideas—that we truly become “Catholic Bible Students.”

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