So You Know Me

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So Jesus cried out in the temple area as he was teaching and said, “You know me and also know where I am from. Yet I did not come on my own, but the one who sent me, whom you do not know, is true. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me.”

John 7: 28-9

There seems to be real exasperation in Jesus as he cries out in the Temple. His exasperation is evoked by what is perhaps the ultimate human arrogance: the presumption of knowledge. “But we know where he is from.” Some of those surrounding Jesus cannot begin to truly see the one who is before them because they know he is from Nazareth, and “when the Christ comes no one will know where he is from.” They, as we, are closed to deeper insight and understanding because they, as we, already know.

One of the greatest obstacles to loving another is what we already know about them. Others have their place and their identity in our consciousness, and that knowledge we have of them leaves no space in us to learn and then understand more of who they are. It is what we know of the other that determines our behavior towards them, and yet, what we know of them does not begin to scratch the surface of who they are and where they come from. If we are honest we must admit that were we among those in the Jerusalem Temple in Jesus’ time, we, in all our sophistication and skepticism, might well have been among those who dismissed him.

The philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of how we, in our secular age, live in a world of “disenchantment.” We hear in today’s gospel how human beings are always slow to grasp the reality of mystery, but we know this is especially true in our age. Our true milieu is that of mystery, far beyond what our senses and our cognition are able to grasp. As spirit, we are able to know and to grasp reality as a whole, but to do so we must first discipline the absolute claims of our bodily reactions and our cognitive arrogance. We do this, in part, by fostering an attitude of unknowing, by developing what Nicholas of Cusa called “learned ignorance.”

As a teacher, I was of course primarily preoccupied with the management of my classes and the control of my content. Yet, perhaps far too rarely, I would at times look out at the 30 or 35 young people before me and realize how little I knew of what each of them was going through that day. Of course, it would be impossible to take the time to even scratch the surface of that with each person. The greater obstacle to presence, however, arises not from the limits of time and space but from the arrogant presumption that we do know who the other is and what he or she needs. When another acts, we interpret the meaning of that action and we take that interpretation to be the truth of things. What if, instead, we were to discipline our presumptions and to stand before the other from a stance of unknowing?

As believers, we speak often of how God is present in each person, event, and situation of life. Yet, God is mystery. To begin to be available to the presence and call of God, we need to encounter each person, event, and thing as the mystery they are. The one who knows cannot be taught. Each phenomenon is speaking to us, but we must be “obedient” to its reality, to its word if we are to hear the message and call. The first step in such an obedient and hospitable presence is the lived acknowledgment that we do not know who this truly is and where they are from.

There is a fundamental difference between scientific cognition and human knowledge. Scientific cognition is connected to the study of those phenomena that appear to the scientific method. In this way we have analyzed the components of the earth and even of living beings; we have predicted the behavior of celestial and terrestrial bodies, and so on. Scientific discoveries, however, are one particular case of “knowledge,” which I call “cognition.” When we truly know something, on the other hand, we become that something, we embrace it as part of ourselves, although we need to draw necessary distinctions, since the identification has degrees. Knowledge, properly speaking, is not the result of the activity of our reasoning mind that, after being fed some data, functions like a sophisticated computer. Nor is knowledge an activity of our mind alone; it is an act of our entire being; ultimately, it is an act of the whole Being. Knowledge is not a mere epistemological device; it has an ontological nature, and love is an intrinsic part of the act of knowing.

Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being: The Gifford Lectures, p. 370

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