Two corollaries: We will not know God until we know ourselves; we will not know ourselves until we know God.
I believe that both of these are true, even though, taken together, they seem to preclude knowledge altogether. In truth, what they preclude is doing one without the other. We can only do both, and simultaneously, at that.
St. Paul tells us that we “know in part,” and that we “will know, even as we are known.” St. John says that what we shall be does not yet appear, but that it will appear when we see Christ “as He is.” Both of these statements turn on “last things.” They are at the end of our journey, or the close of the age. In whatever manner it is that we reach our telos, it is there that we know and are known.
This could easily be misunderstood as a simple product of historical life-progression: we are working towards something that won’t be finished until the very end of things. If this were true, then our proper path would be the typical work of cause-and-effect. What do I want? What do I have to do to make it happen? Choose wisely…etc.
But this is not at all the character of the Christian life. We are not building a Christian identity. “Working out your salvation from day-to-day” is not a path of improvement. In order to build something, we have to know what we are building. However, we do not yet see what/who we shall be. How could we know “what we need to work on?” The impossibility of this approach demonstrates the chasm that separates the Christian spiritual tradition from all the many efforts of modern self-improvement.
If we do not yet see the end, and we cannot make improvements towards that goal, how do we live the Christian life?
The Christian life is apocalyptic, that is, it is a revelation. It is specifically a revelation in this time of what shall be. That is its heart and its very nature. We cannot build the Kingdom because it is already complete. We cannot make ourselves into something that is already present. What we shall be is already present within us. Indeed, it is given to us in Holy Baptism. Consider this:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2Cor. 5:17)
But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:20-24)
In these passages, St. Paul is describing that which shall be as though it were already here. The “new man,” is the self, conformed to the image of Christ. It is not a new beginning, but the whole new creation. Our life consists not in becoming what we are not, but in seeing what we are (in Christ) revealed within us as the truth of our being.
The dynamic surrounding this is quite striking, and matters greatly. St. Dionysius the Areopagite wrote that we not only learn God, but that we suffer God (ou monon mathein, alla kai pathein ta theia). “Suffer” (pathein)is a difficult word to translate. It could be rendered “experience,” but the import is that we not only learn God in an active way, but that God “happens” to us – He acts upon us. I would expand this to say that who/what we shall be, already present within us, is something that we learn to receive, to allow. The act of receiving places us in the position of a eucharistic life – we give thanks because who/what we are is coming to us as a gift. We are not our own creators or fashioners. Our true life is “traditioned” to us.
This is a fundamental shift away from a modern mindset. Modernity sets itself against tradition, against what it has received. Our givenness is treated as something to be fixed and overcome. We view ourselves as creating a new self, a new world, sometimes out of whole cloth. This nurtures the passions within us as we are dominated by a maelstrom of desires.
There is a parallel between this mode of existence and our participation in the Liturgy. There is nothing that we can do that makes the Eucharist a better Eucharist. The choir can be inadequate and off-key, the sermon miserable and beside the point. Our attention can wander and entertain the worst sort of thoughts. And yet, we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. No doubt, various aspects of the Liturgy might help us attend better to what is being given to us. But it is not at all unlikely that the most “effective” reception of the Eucharist could come in the most miserable of circumstances.
Quite striking is the fact that the New Testament really never suggests the reformation of an individual. St. Paul, who has more to say than anyone on the topic of Christian living, consistently uses the image of “putting to death” the “old man,” and the “putting on the new.” Apparently, Christianity is not about making bad people better. The solution is clearly that of being put to death and raised to new life.
All of this has the significant reality that what/who we are to become is already present. We do not have to construct it, or to reform the life that is being put to death. Living more fully into that which has been given to us consists largely in learning how to receive the gift of new life. To live as one who receives a gift is to live a life of thanksgiving. This sounds to us like a simplistic approach. It is, indeed, simple, but its depth and true complexity are not revealed until it is practiced.
It is also the case that this “new man” is largely hidden, and frequently remains that way. An aspect of the Kingdom of God, of which the “new man” is an instance, is its hiddenness. It is a theme within the parables of Christ. There is a coin that is lost, a treasure buried in a field, a pearl that one must seek. Christ speaks in parables, words that are hidden from the crowds. The Kingdom is found by those who ask, seek, and knock. In St. Paul’s language, all of this is described as the “mystery hidden from all the ages.” This reality is not hidden in order to make it scarce or impossible. Rather, it belongs to the character of God’s gift that it is revealed. The purpose of God’s hiding is that we may know by revelation. The coin that was lost is found as a surprise. A treasure buried in a field is only discovered by accident. The pearl of great price is not found in the pearl store – it must be sought.
Many years ago, I had a mentor who said, “Don’t answer questions that people are not asking.” His lesson came in the context of a preaching class. It changed how I preached. I began to ask two questions: “What are people asking?” and “How can I help them find their questions?” Over the years, the first group have needed very little. The one who asks gets an answer. It seems to come. It is the second group that has always captured my attention.
What are the questions that set us on the road towards what is hidden? The nature of modern, secular existence is its attention to that which seems most obvious. Of course, history reveals that what is most obvious is often nothing more than the shimmering delusions of an ephemeral culture. Most people do not seek what is hidden – they hide themselves from it.
Those things that are given to us in the normal course of the Orthodox Christian life – prayer, fasting, keeping the commandments, repentance, confession – are the arena where the questions are forged. Those who live in such a manner are setting themselves on a path where pearls are found, treasures revealed, coins discovered, the old crucified and the new made known. St. Paul offers this summary:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.