Friday, January 28, 2011

An Experiment In Knowing

The faith I have received – the faith of the only, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church – claims that it is possible to see and to know God: to see God and not merely to imagine him, to know God and not merely to believe propositions about him. This claim is boldly dichotomous: either true or false, but not both. If it is true, then materialists – and many Christians live as functional materialists – are deluded; if it is false, then I am deluded.

The claim is not that everyone will see and know God, but only that everyone can see and know God, solely because God wills to make himself seen and known. The Judeo-Christian story – which is a single, unified narrative in multiple acts – is precisely the story of God’s revelation of himself to man through redemptive history. The story reaches its climax in Jesus Christ who said, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:7, 9b, NRSV). We see and know God the Father through his self-revelation in God the Son.

To the materialist these statements of Jesus are wholly unsatisfactory. His claim to reveal the Father does not substantiate itself; it is not true simply because he said it. (Actually, it is, but to insist on that now is to put effect before cause.) Compelling evidence is required. But, what evidence will suffice? Testimony will not do – though the unified testimony of millennia of the faithful should not be dismissed out of hand – because witnesses are often biased, sometimes mistaken, and occasionally untruthful. Faith, as generally understood by those outside it, will not do because it is the antithesis of evidence – that which is offered in lieu of knowledge. (Actually, faith is evidence – cf. Heb 11.1 – but only after knowledge is firmly established.) So, what is left? What have we to offer?

Let us propose an experiment – an experiment in which life is the laboratory, praxis is the method, and the heart is the instrument. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Mt. 5:8). What experiment could verify or falsify this claim? Only a life designed to purify the heart in the way Jesus specifies will suffice. And this is, of course, the rub. To determine if the Christians’ claim to see and to know God is true, one must dedicated oneself to living as if the claim were true. This is the experiment – and the only experiment – that will substantiate or refute the claim that it is possible to see and to know God through Jesus Christ. And this requires utter commitment to the pursuit of truth – a willingness to give one’s life, literally, to determine personally and conclusively if such knowledge of God is possible. It is a most costly experiment, and few there are who actually undertake it fully. This knowledge comes not at the end of a long chain of reasoning – the mind is not the instrument for knowing God or any person – but at the end of a long life of obedience: repentance, ascesis, prayer, sacrament, worship, fellowship – precisely those practices which purify the heart. If at the end of this long life of obedience one concludes that God cannot be seen and known – precisely because God has not been seen or known – then I have no defense to offer for the faith. But, if one rejects the faith before conducting the experiment, I have no apology to offer for the faith. The kingdom of God suffers violence and violent men take it by force (cf. Mt 11:12): it is not easy to see or to know God. Purity of heart is not easily achieved.

The knowledge gained through such a life experiment is real, but not demonstrable, knowledge. It is the knowledge that one person has of another – absolutely compelling, but not transferable; hearsay is inadmissible in this or any court. Each must come to know for himself, or die trying. Of course, there are hints and suggestions that such knowledge is possible; stand in the presence of those who have truly conducted the experiment for years – the church calls them saints – and one can almost see and know God in their faces, in their words, even in their silence. I have known a few of these and I know stories of many more. Their knowledge will not replace my ignorance, but it does offer hope that such knowledge is possible. And in that hope I press on.

So, to those who truly wish to know and to see God, the church offers a path – and, we believe, the path, to do so. And, if you are interested, we will walk it with you. At its end you will find Jesus – God who wills to be seen and known.

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