Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.
René Descartes, heralded as the first modern philosopher, is one of my favourite historical figures. He gave a justification for knowledge that has engaged philosophers for hundreds of years.
Knowledge: justified true belief.
Without knowledge, we cannot send rockets to the moon, cure diseases, build bridges, form democratic societies. Without knowledge, we are back in the Stone Age. The history of the world can be seen as a series of events in which humankind has engaged in a desperate search for knowledge. This growth in knowledge has transformed the world.
It is light in the darkness.
Most important, however, is our yearning for knowledge of God.
As a student of apologetics, I could get lost in a library, reading St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, drinking in their thoughts and ideas. Perhaps you’ve done the same. I found, however, that it didn’t matter how hard I tried to seal up the argument for Christian belief, there was always a leak. I didn’t accept the leak – I thought the arguments for it were weak – but leaks formed where counter-arguments battered at my foundations.
I wanted to know more, so I read more. But the more I grew in knowledge, the more I became aware of how little I knew. This struggle with knowledge has stayed with me my whole life. So, here is a list of things I don’t understand, and may never understand.
Why a single act of rebellion has led to a curse on the entire human family.
Why God chose to redeem us by creating a nation and setting that nation in conflict with other nations, a reality still played out on our TV screens.
Why touching the Ark of the Covenant results in the death of one poor individual.
Why the law requires blood.
Why God chose Jacob and not Esau.
Why Judas Iscariot seems destined for destruction.
Why Ananias and Sapphira paid with their lives for their sin.
Here’s the thing. I know how God has arranged things. I know that my sin has cut me off from God, but as for why one single act of rebellion leads to the guilt of all humankind, that is not clear to me. Why does Adam’s guilt transfer to me? Because the Bible teaches that it does (1 Cor. 15.22). Asking why, when you think about it, is a request for wisdom which God alone possesses, and it quickly becomes, “give me an answer that satisfies me.” (Think Genesis 3.)
Because of my sin, because I am human, I will never truly understand why a man who touches the Ark must die. Nor why the entire human race – bar one family – was wiped out because of the severity of its sin. Just telling me that it’s because of sin may give me the right theological answer, but I still don’t possess the ability to understand it fully. Not really. It’s just too big.
So I accept it, and I do so because I accept the authority of Scripture. I submit before my God, who knows vastly more than I, and who tells me that I will never have answers to all my questions. (Read Job.)
Why does God require a blood sacrifice for sin? Oh, I know how the symbolism works, I’ve preached on it. But that just answers the “how” question. It doesn’t tell me why. So in the end, the answer is simply this:
Because God chose to do it this way. He chose to reveal himself in this way.
When my children ask, “why are we going this way?” I will sometimes reply, “Because this is the route I’ve chosen.” My four year-old son doesn’t need to know about the road works on the bypass or the B roads. In fact, that will just confuse him. He needs to be secure that his father is taking him on the route which I have settled upon, because he trusts his father. And that’s it.
That’s why faith supersedes knowledge every time.
And faith comes through revelation.
Faith and knowledge aren’t like countries – where one ends, the other starts, like a border. Not at all. Instead, faith is informed and rooted in our knowledge of God. That knowledge comes by revelation through God’s Word. As Paul writes to the Ephesians,
With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure.
Eph. 1. 8b-9a
According to St. Augustine, it is once we believe that the skies clear.
Credo ut intelligam - I believe so that I may understand. St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354 – 430 A.D.)
Once revelation has come, we understand, but since it is God who reveals, he does so within his own purposes. We may wish to understand why, but so often we are only given how. Knowledge may explain how, but the why, well that resides deep in the mind of God. So, no I don’t know why that man steadying the Ark died. I just don’t. I can probably give you an answer, but I myself am not very happy with it. Perhaps that’s why we are ever struggling along with St. Anselm, who wrote,
Fides quaerens intellectum – Faith seeking understanding. St. Anselm (1033/4 – 1109 A.D.)
We seek it, yes, but it comes through revelation. It is a gift.
We receive it.
Revelation becomes clear when we understand that God’s revealed word, the Bible, is his revelation to us. Most of the current debates aren’t actually about . . . abortion, homosexuality, gender . . . but about the authority of Scripture.
God’s revelation to us. The story that we’re in. His story.
It’s a story dripping with revelation.
Abraham – called to go by God. Jacob in a wrestling match with God. Moses – called by God from a burning bush. Samuel – awakened by God’s voice. Elijah outside a cave hearing the still small voice of God. Mary visited by Gabriel. Pentecost, the outpouring of God’s Spirit, and of course, God’s supreme revelation, the Lord Jesus Christ.
God reveals himself in his story and we’re in that story.
Have I given up my search for knowledge? Not at all. I read and enquire and wrestle with big questions the same as I’ve always done. But when I become anxious, I submit. I accept my own limitations. The other day, I came upon this section from Catherine of Genoa. It brought me to a place of peace.
No more is given to us than is necessary in his plan to lead us to perfection . . . therefore I will not weary myself with seeking beyond what God wants me to know. Instead I will abide in peace with the understanding God has given me, and I will let this occupy my mind. If we are to see properly, we must pluck out of our eyes our own presumption. If we gaze too long at the sun, we go blind; in this manner, I think, does pride blind many of us who want to know too much.
Catherine of Genoa (1447 – 1510)
A couple more thoughts. Why is it important to understand the place of revelation in our lives? Because life can deal out some very hard lessons.
The big one – babies die, terrorists kill, death and injustice runs through the world. Not why, but why so much?
Why does God not answer my prayers the way I want?
Why am I not healed?
Why can’t I hear God’s voice?
Why do Christians hurt me so much?
Why do I have to wait so long?
What will God do with all those who don’t believe?
Every one of these questions is bashing on the knowledge door. When they do, we can despair or we can remind ourselves of Catherine of Genoa’s words.
No more is given to us than is necessary in his plan to lead us to perfection . . . therefore I will not weary myself with seeking beyond what God wants me to know. Instead I will abide in peace with the understanding God has given me, and I will let this occupy my mind.
Catherine of Genoa
This is when a proper view of knowledge helps. God, by his grace, grants us revelation, which leads to knowledge. Not knowledge about – though that helps – but knowledge of. Knowledge of God is all about relationship. Hear the apostle John’s words.
And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
Eternal life is to know God. Not knowing about God, but knowing him. As we are known by him. Intimacy with our God. That’s the very purpose of his revelation to us.
That we would know our Creator, and in knowing him, we would love and serve him.
As you face questions that dwarf, frighten and frustrate you today, may you know that you are loved by your God, who has revealed himself to you through the Lord Jesus. He has all the answers, but he won’t give them all to you. Accept it. Submit to him, and give thanks for the revelation that he does give. It comes from his grace that pours out towards you in a constant steady stream.
May you reach for him, enjoy him and know him today.