I remember in high school when I would have those moments where I thought nothing I was learning would ever be relevant to anything (But Ms. Glassssss, I’m never gonna need to know derivatives!). This week has not been one of those times. On the contrary, I keep finding that the things I’m learning in different classes keep building one on top of the other and keep proving to be relevant right here and now.
For example, I recently read a chapter from Gordon Kaufman’s In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology. The chapter we read focused on the question of God and the difficulties involved in searching for an answer to that question, as God is a symbol/construct which is shaped by our own understanding (this is way over-simplifying it, go read the book). As I read, I kept hearing a verse from Paul in the back of my mind. Specifically, I was thinking of 1 Corinthians 13.12, when Paul describes us as seeing now as though we were looking through a mirror dimly, but later we would see face to face. I had always understood this as the opportunity to know God more fully by and by (whatever one means by that) but I hadn’t thought as much about the mirror and the symbolic possibilities of the mirror until I read this chapter by Kaufman.
My new reading of this verse from 1 Corinthians was also fueled by some work I’ve been doing in another class, particularly on the comparison of practices in devotio moderna as opposed to meditative practices of the Enlightenment. This can be represented by two different images of women looking into mirrors. In the Penitent Magdalen, we see a woman peering into a mirror, but instead of her own reflection, she sees a candle burning. This is symbolic of the inner light, a prominent motif in devotio moderna which symbolizes the presence of God within us.
In contrast, Julie Le Brun with Mirror shows a young girl peering into a mirror, and seeing her own reflection. This is representative of the Enlightenment shift toward observational rationality, relying on sight. Kant would say that when one looks into a mirror, the reflection is of the self, we just confuse that with God. That’s what I’d like to focus on.
When we look for God, however that unfolds, we can’t really hope to see God. For Kaufman, God is merely a symbol of that which is beyond our own understanding. To even accept the concept of God we must have first accepted our own finitude and lack of knowledge. We worship many smaller “gods,” idols, but the God we worship and place at the head is no less a construction, shaped by our own biases.
We see now as though in a mirror dimly. That mirror reflects our selves, our biases, our relativities. We confuse that self with God. What we see is the construct we make. It’s a start, but it’s never the full picture. We look into a mirror, a product of human hands. That mirror is representative of the tools we have for attaining higher knowledge of God: the works of great theologians, the Bible, etc., which are themselves shaped by their respective contexts. Therefore, what we see in the mirror is a reflection of us. Each person who walks in front of that mirror sees a unique reflection looking back at them dimly, because each of us brings our own particularities. We think we are coming to an understanding of God, but most often, we’re coming to an understanding of a God constructed in our own image and shaped by what we bring to the table.
We’re just doing the best we can with what we have available to us. We are human, of course we’ll have limitations, and I think Paul gets that. We would do well to approach the task of theology with the recognition of these limitations and biases, coupled with an appreciation for our own inability to comprehend the incomprehensible.
We shouldn’t give up in our search for knowledge, not by any means. Maybe, someday, we’ll see face to face, whatever that means for you, but, in the meantime we should be willing to embrace the mystery intrinsic in something inherently beyond human understanding.