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Challenge is to hear the word of God not just read it


HONG KONG (SE): “Seeing is believing.” A slice of popular wisdom, but when it comes to faith, or believing in God, Australian theologian, Adam Cooper, is adamant that it is the ears that give us the entrée to faith, not the eyes.

“Sight only backs up hearing,” he said. “Sight can be deceived,” as there are such things as optical illusions, “but the word of God does not deceive.”

The lecturer in patristics from the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne told the more than 100 people gathered in Rosary parish church on October 24 that faith comes from hearing the word of Christ.

Invited to speak in Hong Kong by the Commission for the Liturgy as part of the Year of Faith, Cooper said, “Listening to the word of God is a physical, bodily act,” as he opened his presentation with a hymn from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, his elegant Australian accent and rich, deep voice demanding people sit up, and not just listen, but hear.

He then quoted the letter of St. Paul to the Romans as saying, “Faith comes from hearing.”

Cooper stressed that hearing is a physical, bodily function, so we must presume that coming to faith is also a bodily activity.

He quoted St. Bonaventure as saying, “Although the apostles learned many things by seeing Christ, they learned much more through hearing him, who spoke to them exteriorly…”

He pointed out that while some say that we believe with the heart and St. Thomas Aquinas argued that faith comes from the intellect, or the will, that moves the intellect, we cannot isolate faith in only part of the person.

“It is something more crucial,” he said. “It comes first from hearing. It begins with a bodily function, a physical sense—hearing.”

Cooper pointed out that Christian history places the sense of hearing above that of sight.

He points out that Aquinas also places hearing at the beginning of faith.

“Faith has a knowledge that is more like hearing than a vision… Normally sight is more certain than hearing… but much more is man certain about what he hears from God, who cannot be deceived, than about what he sees with his own reason, which can be mistaken.”

Cooper then cited the Eucharistic hymn of Aquinas, using the eloquent translation of the English Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins:


Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived;

How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed;

What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;

Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

Aquinas goes on to say, “It would seem that it is the person to whose words the assent is given who is of principal importance… while the individual truths through which one assents to that person are secondary.”

Cooper then quotes Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as saying, “Christ has put himself into his word. The person of Jesus is his teaching and in his teaching he is himself.”

He then points out that the annunciation, the message from the angel, Gabriel, to Mary that she was to become the mother of God, is verbal. “She heard it,” he stresses. “It came through the physical sense of hearing.”

“It is oral to aural, from the mouth to the ear. It is like listening to scripture. The community aspect makes it interpersonal and communal, so we can hear the word of God, not just read it,” he explains.

Cooper notes that faith is a kind of hearing, not just a spiritual thing, as it is born at a physical level and places great importance on the body, which precedes both the heart and the will.

He said that this poses an extremely important question to us in our faith lives, “Who are we listening to, as this will shape us most deeply and shape how we live.”

Cooper also points to our participation in the Eucharist, saying that the symbols of bread and wine are visual things that we see with our eyes.

“But listen to our language,” Cooper challenged. “Traditionally we say, ‘We hear Mass’ not, ‘We see Mass’.”

He then cited the Transfiguration, explaining that the bright light attracted the apostles. “But they did not understand,” he pointed out. “It was the voice from heaven they took heed of, and the voice said to them, ‘Listen’.”

Cooper quoted the words of the hymn of St. Ephraim of Syrus, Conception through hearing, pointing to the importance of who we listen to.


By means of the serpent, 

the Evil one

Poured out his poison in the 

ear of Eve;

The Good one brought low

 his mercy,

And entered through Mary’s ear;

Through the gate by which 

death entered,

Life also entered, putting death to death.


He then pointed out that that the imagery is telling us the word of God is life-giving and listening is like conception, as Ephraim depicts the seed of God entering Mary’s womb through the ear.

“The beginnings of faith are in hearing,” he stressed again. “Ephraim uses the marital image to stress the power of hearing in the journey to faith.”

Cooper draws on another gem of popular parlance, “I am all ears,” as showing the importance that culture places on hearing in the dynamic of believing.

“Hearing brings in, seeing gives out,” he said. “We are more blessed by what we receive, not what we give. But we need to give too, so others may be blessed.”

Cooper said we need to remember that our challenge is to hear the word of God, not just see it. “At Mass, it is proclaimed so we can hear. In common, it is read aloud, so we can hear. Even if we are alone, we can read out loud, so we can hear as well.”

He explained that the desert fathers of Egypt and the hermits of old had the custom of reading the scriptures out loud so they could hear the word of God, and St. Augustine was a bit scandalised when he learned that St. Ambrose read the scriptures in silence (until he discovered another reason for his silence) without hearing the words, as the tradition was to meditate aloud.

Born to a Lutheran missionary in Papua New Guinea, Cooper spent his childhood years in the Highlands and later Tanzania in Africa. Ordained a Lutheran minister in a highly sacramental tradition in Adelaide, he later studied the ancient Church fathers in England before taking up a pastoral appointment in Melbourne.

Coming to the Catholic Church through a desire to embrace the cosmic Christ more fully, his research is centred on incarnational and historical theology, with its primary focus on the theology of the body.

He calls the bible a speaking book that talks to our physical sense of hearing. “God speaks. God’s word is the human word. To listen we must learn to be silent.”

Cooper stressed that this has lessons for us today on the importance of hearing the word of God in a community, not just studying it alone. And even if alone, we can still read aloud, so, in Cooper’s words, “We can ruminate on, absorb and ponder the word of God. But,” he stresses, “it all starts with hearing.”