Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On Knowing God: The Contemporary Crisis

One hot night in the early years of the Christian era a sophisticated and highly educated man named Nicodemus came to see a young rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. The man wanted to discuss reality. So he began the conversation with a statement of where his own personal search for truth had taken him. He said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him” (Jn. 3:2). 

With the exception of the word Rabbi, which was merely a polite form of address, the first words were a claim to considerable knowledge. Nicodemus ‘said, “We know.” Then he began to rehearse the things he knew (or thought he knew) and with which he wanted to begin the discussion: (1) that Jesus was continuing to do many miracles; (2) that these miracles were intended to authenticate him as a teacher sent from God; and that, therefore, (3) Jesus was one to whom he should listen. Unfortunately for Nicodemus, Jesus replied that such an approach to knowledge was wrong and that Nicodemus could therefore know nothing until he had first experienced an inward, spiritual transformation. “You must be born anew,” Jesus told him (Jn. 3:7). Nicodemus’s subsequent remarks showed at least an implicit recognition of his lack of knowledge in important things. For he began to ask questions: “How can a man be born when he is old? How can this be?” (vv. 4, 9). Jesus taught him that true knowledge begins with spiritual knowledge, knowledge of God, and that this is to be found in God’s revelation of himself in the Bible and in Jesus’ own life and work, the work of the Savior. 

This ancient conversation is relevant to our day. For the problems and frustrations that Nicodemus faced nearly two thousand years ago are with us in our time also. Nicodemus possessed knowledge, but he lacked the key to that knowledge, the element that would put it all together. He knew certain things, but his search for truth had brought him to the point of personal crisis. In the same way, much is also known in our time. In the sense of information or technical knowledge, more is known today than at any previous time in history. Yet the kind of knowledge that integrates information and thereby gives meaning to life is strangely absent. 

The nature of the problem can be seen by examining the two almost exclusive approaches to knowledge today. On the one hand there is the idea that reality can be known by reason alone. That approach is not new, of course. It is the approach developed by Plato and therefore assumed by much of the Greek and Roman thought after him. In Plato’s philosophy, true knowledge is knowledge of the eternal and unalterable essence of things, not merely knowledge of changeable phenomena. That is, it is a knowledge of forms, ideas or ideals. Our nearest equivalent would be the so-called laws of science. 

On the surface, this approach to knowledge through the exercise of supposedly impartial reason seems desirable, for it is productive—as the technical advances of our day often indicate. But it is not without problems. For one thing, it is highly impersonal knowledge and, as some would say, highly depersonalizing. In this approach reality becomes a thing (an equation, law or, worse yet, mere data), and men and women become things also, with the inevitable result that they may therefore be manipulated like any other raw material for whatever ends. 

An example is the manipulation of poorer nations by rich nations for the sake of the rich nations’ expanding economy, that is, the injustice analyzed and rightly condemned by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto, Capital and other writings. Another example is that of communism itself which, in spite of its desire to better the lot of the masses, actually manipulates them for ideological ends. On the personal level there is the science of behavioral technology and the frightening teaching of a man like B. F. Skinner of Harvard University who claims that individuals must be conditioned scientifically for the good of society. 

There is also another problem with the attempt to know reality through reason alone. The approach does not give an adequate basis for ethics. It can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be. Consequently, the extraordinary technical advances of our time are accompanied by an extreme and debilitating moral permissiveness which promises in time to break down even the values and system that made both the advances and the permissiveness possible. Interestingly, the same thing was also true of the Greek philosophers, who, although they were men of great intellect, on occasion led depraved lives. 

In recent years the failures of the rationalistic system have impressed themselves on a new generation with the result that many in the Western world have abandoned reason in order to seek reality through emotional experience. In the ancient world, in reaction to the impersonality of Greek philosophy, this was done through intense participation in the rites of the mystery religions. These promised an emotional union with some god, induced by lighting, music, incense or perhaps by drugs. In our time the same approach has surfaced through the drug cult, rediscovery of the Eastern religions, Transcendental Meditation, the human potential movement and other supposedly “mind-expanding” practices. 

This modern approach also has several problems. First, the experience does not last. It is transient. Each attempt to achieve reality through emotional experience promises some sort of “high.” But the “high” is inevitably followed by a “low,” with the additional problem that increasingly intense stimuli seem to be necessary to repeat the experience. Eventually this ends either in self-destruction or acute disillusionment. A second problem is that the approach to reality through emotion does not satisfy the mind. Promoters of these experiences, particularly drug experiences, speak of a more intense perception of reality that results from them. But their experience has no rational content. The part of the human being that wants to think about such things and understand them is unsatisfied. 

The result of this situation is a crisis in the area of knowledge today, as in ancient times. Many thinking people quite honestly do not know where to turn. The rationalistic approach is impersonal and amoral. The emotionalistic approach is without content, transient and also often immoral. “Is this the end?” many are asking. “Are there no other possibilities? Is there not a third way?”

At this point Christianity comes forward with the claim that there is a third way and that this way is strong at precisely those points where the other approaches are lacking. The basis of this third approach is that there is a God who has created all things and who himself gives his creation meaning. Further, we can know him. This is an exciting and satisfying possibility. It is exciting because it involves the possibility of contact between the individual and God, however insignificant the individual may appear in his or her own eyes or in the eyes of others. It is satisfying because it is knowledge not of an idea or thing but of a supremely personal Being, and because it issues in a profound change of conduct. We'll consider more about this tomorrow.