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Religious Language and Epistemology...

Through a Glass Darkly...

Further thoughts on Parashat Shemot

by John J. Parsons

Though it is important to guard our sincere convictions and to be passionate about what we believe, we must nevertheless be careful to walk in humility before the mystery of life... After all, much is inscrutable to us, much is beyond our understanding, and therefore, if we are honest, we should be reverent before the "sacred secrecy" of everything. Fanaticism and intolerance (whether secular or religious) is motivated by willful ignorance of the marvelous complexities that pervade existence. The fanatic invariably seeks to reduce life to a simple formula, recipe, and a generalization. The humble person, on the other hand, freely confesses that they "walk by faith, not by sight" -- by hearing the Word of God and heeding what the Spirit of God is saying to the heart... For now we "see through a glass darkly," which literally means "in a riddle" (ἐν αἰνίγματι).  A riddle is an analogy given through some resemblance to the truth, though quite often the correspondences are puzzling and obscure. Hence, "seeing through a glass darkly" means perceiving obscurely or imperfectly, looking "through" something else instead of directly apprehending reality. We see only a reflection of reality, and our knowledge in this life is indirect and imperfect. This is contrasted with the "face to face" (פָּנִים אֶל־פָּנִים) vision and clarity given in the world to come, when our knowledge will be clear and distinct, and the truth of God will be fully manifest and no longer hidden. Being "face to face" with reality means being free of the riddles, the analogies, the semblances, etc., which at best adumbrate our way.. Such reflection should make us humble whenever we share our faith. "Now we know in part, but then shall we know in whole" (1 Cor. 13:12). An honest theology must find a place for mystery, for "seeing through a glass darkly," and for the apprehension of awe and wonder.

    "A genuine faith must recognize the fact that it is through a dark glass we see; though by faith we do penetrate sufficiently to the heart of the mystery so as not to be overwhelmed by it.  A genuine faith resolves the mystery of life by the mystery of God. It recognizes that no aspect of life or existence explains itself, even after all known causes and consequences have been traced. All known existence points beyond itself. To realize that it points beyond itself to God is to assert that the mystery of life does not dissolve life into meaninglessness...." (Reinhold Niebuhr)

Since the LORD God is called the Infinite One (אֵין סוֹף) whose understanding is without limit (Psalm 147:5), we must use analogies, metaphors, symbols, allusions, parables, poetry, and other linguistic devices (as well art and music) to convey spiritual truth and meaning. We compare (συγκρίνω) spiritual things with spiritual (1 Cor. 2:13). Some of the classical "mystics" have said the way to God is through the transcendence of words altogether, though most of them use imagery and poetry to speak about "ineffable" reality. Others, like Soren Kierkegaard, use "indirect communication" to evoke the decision to believe, to find hope, and to walk by faith. The truth can be found, not by means of humanistic learning, but by special revelation and encounter with the Truth of God.

This is sometimes called "argumentum spiritus sancti," or the argument from the Holy Spirit. Kierkegaard wrote in his journals: "In 1 John 5:9 we read: 'If we receive the testimony of men' (this is all the historical proofs and considerations) 'the testimony of God is greater' -- that is, the inward testimony is greater. And then in verse 10: 'He who believes in the son of God has the testimony in himself.' Therefore genuine faith is more than a creed or "doctrine"; it is existence itself, a matter of spirit, wherein new life is expressed in relationship to God through Yeshua the Savior. Regarding the rational enterprise of theology proper, Kierkegaard wrote: "A dogmatic system ought not to be erected on the basis: to comprehend faith, but on the basis: to comprehend that faith cannot be comprehended" (Journals and Papers).

Our lives are surrounded by miracles, mysteries, and wonders... We cannot "live, move, and have our being" apart from the surpassing glory that pervades reality, and particularly that which makes our hearts come alive.

    "Bring me a fruit from that tree." "Here it is, venerable sir." "Cut it open." "It is cut open, venerable sir." "What do you see in it?" "Very small seeds, venerable sir." "Cut one of them open." "It is cut open, venerable sir." "And what do you see in it?" "Nothing, venerable sir." Then he said, "That hidden thing which you cannot see, O gentle youth, from that hidden thing has this mighty tree grown" (Upanishad)

Regarding the "indirect method" of communication, we note that Yeshua himself regularly used parables and stories to communicate deeper truths about ultimate reality. For instance, he likened the human heart to "soil" into which the Heavenly Farmer plants seed; he wanted his followers to know God as "heavenly Father," the idealization of family love, and so on. Often he was surprised at how dull his own disciples were regarding his use of spiritual analogies (Matt. 15:16, 16:9-11; Mark 8:17; John 6:22-66). Furthermore Yeshua often taught in parables because they simultaneously conceal and reveal the truth. A parable obscures the truth to those who don't really want it; just as it reveals the truth to those who do (Luke 8:9-10). Since Yeshua's whole life was a parable of sorts - a "disguise" that led to the victory of our deliverance (Phil. 2:7) - it is not surprising that he regularly used "figures of speech" to provoke people to examine their own heart attitude and faith... In this connection note that Yeshua never explained the "mysteries of the kingdom of God" directly to the crowds, nor did He ever pander to the crowd's clamor or interests. His message is always meant for the individual soul who was willing to follow Him -- to the one who had "ears to hear." Yeshua will forever be the Face of God to us, our Mediator and Savior, blessed be He (2 Cor. 3:18).

    "The majority of men in every generation, even those who, as it is described, devote themselves to thinking (dons and the like), live and die under the impression that life is simply a matter of understanding more and more, and if it were granted to them to live long longer, that life would continue to be one long continuous growth in understanding. How many of them ever experience the maturity of discovering that there comes a critical moment where everything is reversed, after which the point becomes to understand more and more that there is something which cannot be understood... It is quite literally true that the law is: increasing profundity is understanding more and more that one cannot understand. And there once again comes in 'being like a child,' but raised to the second power." - Kierkegaard (Journals)

Just as there are hundreds of Names of God given in Scripture, so there are many analogies to help us understand His heart. For instance, God is likened to a farmer, a shepherd, a caring neighbor, a tenant, a king, an impartial judge, a pottery maker, an investor, an employer, a jilted husband, a passionate lover, and so on. However, the analogy Yeshua used the most was that the LORD God is our Heavenly Father, and we are His children. As it is written in the Psalms, "Like a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear Him" (Psalm 103:13). The most intimate Name of God is simply Abba (אבּא), a term of endearment for a child uses for his father. For those who can believe, the eyes of the LORD are like those of a loving father who greatly rejoices over the presence of his child.

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