A Mirror... a Riddle
When is a window not a window? At night. At least, if it's dark outside and you've got the light on inside, you're more likely to see yourself when you look out the window than whatever is out there. In those conditions, the glass acts more like a mirror than a window.
This year I've been musing a lot about knowing and seeing. It's struck me that often we look at an issue and feel confident that we're seeing it very clearly and know exactly how to think about what we see. We are looking with the assumption that daytime conditions prevail, that our framework of perception is a transparent window on reality. But later events may suggest that we were trying to peer into darkness, seeing mainly the reflection of our own preconceptions.
With more of life, and more of my own perceptions, conclusions and decisions to look back on, it's dawning on me that more often than I like to think, my knowing really is provisional and partial.
Of course, the use of mirror imagery in connection with partial, provisional knowing is not original. I have borrowed it from Paul's great exposition on love. Arguing for the primacy of love, Paul contrasts the solid, lasting qualities of love with the partial and temporary character of prophecy and knowledge:
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.1
In Paul's day a mirror was made of polished metal, usually bronze. Already that suggests a much less distinct image than our glass mirrors are able to produce. Yet in order to highlight the degree to which we now know "only in part" Paul adds the qualifying phrase 'en ainigmati', literally 'in a riddle'. In this time between the times, suggests Paul, our knowing has the quality of seeing "in a mirror, in a riddle". In other words, we see things indistinctly and in an enigmatic, puzzling way.
In the light of this, the priority of love becomes crucial: love "does not insist on its own way".2 How many arguments have started, how much blood has been shed, because two parties have looked "in a mirror, dimly" and formed different, conflicting perceptions of the same realities?
Paul himself was no stranger to conflict. Apart from many situations addressed in his letters where he sees things very differently to his readers ("You foolish Galatians!"), we can think of his "sharp disagreement" with fellow missionary Barnabas as to whether Mark should accompany them or not.3 Each saw the implications of Mark's earlier failures for future ministry in a different light. At Antioch, there was strife between Paul and Peter over the appropriate way to relate to Gentiles in the presence of Jewish Christians.4
Church history is full of controversies which further confirm Paul's assertion that now we "know only in part". Even within the broad parameters of theological orthodoxy, many of the great identities managed to fall out with each other over matters which they considered to be of importance. The story of the Church derives much of its colour, humour and tragedy from the wrestling matches of its heavyweights. The combatants were unquestionably zealous for the truth and the glory of God, and all were deeply persuaded that they saw the truth with clarity.
Augustine and Jerome, for example, were united in their condemnation of Pelagius as a heretic, but saw a number of other issues very differently, as their letters show. One source of heat in their correspondence (ironically) concerns their differing interpretations of the conflict just noted, between Paul and Peter at Antioch. While both scholars maintain a formally self-effacing style, there is little doubt that each remains firmly persuaded that he has the correct understanding of Paul's account in Galatians.
So Augustine declares: "Far be it from me to take offence if you are willing and able to prove, by incontrovertible argument, that you have apprehended more correctly than I have the meaning of that passage in Paul's Epistle."5
While after citing many precedents for his own view, Jerome challenges Augustine: "If, therefore, you censure me as in the wrong, suffer me, I pray you, to be mistaken in company with such men; and when you perceive that I have so many companions in my error, you will require to produce at least one partisan in defence of your truth!"6
Augustine at least is mindful of Paul's words about love and knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13: "If it is not possible for either of us to point out what he may judge to demand correction in the other's writings, without being suspected of envy and regarded as wounding friendship, let us . . . leave such conference alone. Let us content ourselves with smaller attainments in that [knowledge] which puffs up, if we can thereby preserve unharmed that [charity] which edifies."7
Characteristically, Jerome's response prizes clarity above charity: "Wherein I have transgressed, lay the blame upon yourself who compelled me to write in reply, and who made me out to be as blind as Stesichorus. And do not bring the reproach of teaching the practice of lying upon me who am a follower of Christ, who said, 'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.' It is impossible for me, who am a worshipper of the Truth, to bow under the yoke of falsehood."8
Such examples could be multiplied many times over through the history of the church to our own time with our divergent views on creation, baptism, eschatology, the work of the Holy Spirit, the role of women, capital punishment, etc, etc. If Paul is right - now we "know only in part" - then this will be our experience until that day when we will all "know fully". So we need to take his words about love and forbearance deeply to heart.
The ease with which I can get it wrong, even when I am trying so desperately hard to get it right, is humbling. Issues which at first seem simple often prove to be complex.
Choices I make in good faith sometimes have unforeseen, unhappy consequences. I think of movements I've joined, beliefs I've stood for, sacrifices I've made - all with a desire to honour God. I hope and trust that God was honoured by my desire, but I accept that my seeing was limited and distorted.
This may all sound a bit pessimistic. My intention is not to paralyse myself or anyone else with fear that what we think we know today may turn out to be wrong tomorrow. We have no alternative but to tackle life with the courage of our convictions. Rather I want to affirm that the acceptance of our fallible seeing and knowing can ultimately be an experience of grace.
My Protestant evangelical matrix emphasises knowledge and correct belief, and I am glad still to embrace that heritage. In grappling with seeing "in a mirror, in a riddle", however, it has been the discovery of other traditions with a positive place for the way of 'unknowing' that has been a channel of grace.
Spanish mystic John of the Cross (who wrote Dark Night of the Soul), for example, and others in that tradition, have pointed to the grace of God which is at work when I see dimly or not at all. Like Paul, they remind me that my own efforts and ability to know the truth so easily become a source of spiritual pride and self-sufficiency.
In the darkness of unknowing, in facing my inability to get it right, false securities are stripped away. I am cast utterly on the grace and acceptance of God.
To return to the words of Paul with which we began, "Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." A claim now to know in full is a false claim that the end of the age has come.
The reality is that we live in an interim time, and we have only interim, partial knowledge. The hope of knowing in full remains a future, eschatological hope. Getting it right cannot be the ground of my assurance in the present.
When it's dark and you have the light on, it's difficult to see through a window, but you are perfectly visible to anyone outside looking in. Now I know only in part, but already I am fully known.
My security rests not in my imperfect knowing, but rather in the assurance that God sees me clearly, knows me fully - including my misperceptions, mistakes and failures - and loves me eternally. If I know this and only this, it is enough.
David Crawley is a lecturer in biblical studies and spiritual formation at the BCNZ National Campus in Henderson. He is actively involved in spiritual direction and retreats in association with Spiritual Growth Ministries (www.sgm-nz.org). David enjoys the challenge of integrating his various roles, along with spending time with his family, listening to jazz and working on a Masters of Counselling through Waikato University.