Wednesday, February 7, 2024

The limits of understanding. . .

The majority of men in every generation, even those who, as it is described, devote themselves to thinking, live and die under the impression that life is simply a matter of understanding more and more, and that if it were granted to them to live longer, that life would continue to be one long continuous growth in understanding. How many of them ever experience the maturity of discovering that there comes a critical moment when everything is reversed, after which the point becomes to understand more and more that there is something which cannot be understood.  —Kierkegaard, Journals

A conversation with someone left me recently perplexed.  The individual has little use for much of anything but conversation and catechesis.  The person is looking for understanding.  All of this is well and good but understanding and comprehension are not the promise of the Gospel.  We are not reasoned into the faith by logical argument or convincing evidence.  Faith is the fruit of the Spirit's work in us -- not against reason always but not because of it either.  Faith comes by hearing the Word of God.  Trust is not the end result of well argued debate but the Spirit's work which begins with the end of reason and understanding and comprehension.

If you have read this blog before, you know that I have some apprehension about the way we often study the Bible.  We tend to be driven by the quest for knowledge, fueled by the desire to understand God, and preoccupied by things not central to the faith.  Everyone in the world would rather go to a Bible study on Revelation than slog it through Hebrews.  It is not because portions of the Word are of more or less value but that we want to know what we want to know.  In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old through the prophets but now He has spoken with finality through His Son.  When the disciples were being led out to the place where our Lord would ascend, He had to do a remedial catechetical lesson opening the Scriptures to them so that they would see Him in them.  I wonder if we are less interested in seeing Jesus than in understanding and comprehending and therefore predicting God's works and ways.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and that fear begins with the realization of where our knowledge and understanding end.  The wisest man of all knows that he does not know everything and knows where the limits of his understanding begin.  It is the fool who presumes that with enough effort you will comprehend everything.  Christianity is not a scholastic faith but a child-like one.  That is surely no justification for remaining an infant in the faith but neither is it the presumption that knowing the Scriptures or getting God is a substitute or an equivalent for faith.

Mystery is just as important as understanding.  The mystery of God coming to us through the means of grace and accomplishing in us what He says and signs in this Word and Sacraments is not to be trifled with.  Yes, we proclaim Lord, I believe but we also add help Thou my unbelief.  We are not evidenced to the conclusion of faith but the assured that the facts are not in conflict with the mystery but lead us there to the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb.  Reason led to the tower of Babel but the voice of God speaking through His Word kept for Him a people to be His own possession. 

I must admit that Lutheranism is not much of an organized religion -- especially in the sense of providing a neatly packaged and thoroughly understandable systematics.  I would venture to say that all Christianity that is orthodox and catholic is the same.  That is not to say that there is no place for the tomes of some of the great thinkers but this is not what we are all called to be.  We are called to faith.  To believe in spite of what our eyes see, our minds think, and the science we postulate.  In the end there is nothing reasonable about a God who gives up His only-begotten for a people still His enemies and who wish to have nothing to do with Him.  There is nothing understandable about a suffering which pays for sin and a righteousness to be gifted to those who have none of their own.  Faith is trust precisely when we hit the limitations of our reason, understanding, and comprehension.  That is not something we admit with regret but with relief.  God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

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