I remember well my first doctrine lecture at theological college. Our lecturer, who was a monk, swanned in the classroom, monastic scapular wafting in his slipstream. He loudly dropped a pile of books onto his desk and turned and eyeballed each and every one of us. “I hope you all realise” he said, “that God doesn’t exist!” After pausing for a moment to relish our discombobulated faces, he continued “…God simply is!”
For all its theatricality, it was a vital and important lesson on the nature of God. God’s being, God’s is-ness, is not of the same order as that of the computer keyboard on which I am typing this, or the mug of tea beside it. God’s being is of a different quality, of a different nature. Which begs the question of how we know things. I know my keyboard and my mug are real because I can pick them up and move them around, if I drop them on my foot, it will probably hurt a little! But I can’t know God, the divine, the numinous, in the same way, and it seems to me that this question of how we know God is at the very heart of the dilemma in our gospel reading today.
The Jews want concrete evidence from Jesus that he is the Messiah - tell us plainly, they say (though the wider context of this passage suggests that they are actually looking to trap Jesus and that itself raises the question as to whether impure motivation precludes full knowledge and understanding of an issue or indeed person). Tell us plainly, they say - they want clear cognitive, rational evidence, straight from Jesus’s mouth. Jesus says that he has told them but that they didn’t get it, and that they ought to be able to workout who he is from the works that is doing. He goes on to say:
“My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.”
This introduces into the discussion a different mode of knowing to that demanded by the Jews. It firstly suggests that what is important is that Jesus knows us and not the other way round - the initiative is always God’s. As importantly, it tells us that we know God, because we know ourselves to be known. This moves our knowing into something much more holistic - we know with more than our brains and our mental intelligence, we begin to know with our hearts, our instincts, and our intuition. This kind of knowing is very different to the cerebral, cognitive kind of knowing that Jesus’ enemies were asking of him, and it’s what we mean when we speak of knowing by faith.
Unfortunately, this mode of knowing is not widely recognised in our rationalist, scientific society, where cognitive, empirical knowledge is so highly valued….an don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking head learning, intellectual learning - God gave us brains and intelligence and weeps when we don’t us them, but God also gives us other way of knowing and weeps when we don’t use then either! It’s just that head learning, intellectual learning, cognitive understanding isn’t the whole story. Ever since the Enlightenment we’ve lived under Descartes famous dictum ‘I think therefore I am’ – a Chrisitan however might want to express it somewhat differently “I know myself to be loved, therefore I am”. This requires us to know with what the great mystic Meister Eckhart called ‘the eye of the heart’ – it’s about intuition as much as about cognitive understanding, and it is a valid as any other way of knowing!
There’s a story about St. Augustine who was out walking with a friend one day when his friend said to him’ Show me your God’. Augustine’s reply was that he couldn’t because his friend had the wrong sort of eyes – his friend wasn’t able to see through the eye of the heart.
So, what are the implications of being known and knowing in such a way? Well, I would suggest that they are transformative. Knowledge of God ceases to be a piece of interesting information to be filed away in the filing cabinet of our brains. Rather it becomes something that takes us over, that transforms our self-understanding, that liberates us to live more fully and generously. Moving to see with the eye of the heart changes the way we see the world, and our place in it. It initiates a process of reconfiguration, reorientation, or even re-pentance. This may be slow, and it may be gradual, but it is ultimately utterly transformative.
Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits thou hast given me, for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me. O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day. Amen.
- How to do know God is real?
- Does seeing with the ‘eye of the heart’ make sense to you?
- How does this kind of knowing change things?