The human quest for self-knowledge is constant. Why else would people spend time playing whimsical games on social media for the slight chance they might understand themselves better? Do we really need to know which character of Downton Abbey we are like, what color our personalities are, or whether we recognize southern colloquialisms? Just this past week I learned that my Myer-Briggs type was the same as St. Benedict’s; I am sure he took the test along the way, also.
|St. Benedict writing the rules. Painting (1926) by Hermann Nigg (1849–1928).|
The self is not a fixed entity. Often our self-descriptions lock us into a particular epoch of our lives and fail to recognize how fluid certain aspects of human identity are. We all carry mysteries around inside of us, as my friend Clyde Crews wrote in Ultimate Questions. St. Augustine was frustrated in his quest for self-knowledge: “I have become a question to myself” (Confessions, Book 10). And he tried to recount his whole life to come to a measure of understanding.
Helpfully, John Calvin linked knowledge of God and knowledge of self. He perceived that we cannot understand ourselves without a theological lens, which is the inquiry about the role of God in human lives. Also, theological insight is always grounded in concrete human existence. He put it starkly at the beginning of his magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.”
There is a long tradition in Christian theology that speaks of God’s “prevenient grace.” It is the idea that grace comes before any human response to God. That is, God knows our human frailty, and our condition draws forth God’s unconditional love. The ancient monastics likened this disposition to that of a mother who has tender love for the little one who cannot reciprocate
Lectionary preachers will wrestle this coming Sunday with such knowing. The prophet Jeremiah begins his witness by recognizing God’s encompassing knowledge of him. God’s word to him was breathtaking in its sweep: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:4b). His task was to meld in his life God’s call with faithful choice.
Likewise the reading from the Psalter speaks of the intimacy of knowing and being known. “For you, O LORD, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb” (Psalm 71:5-6).God’s knowing of humanity—as a whole and individually—suffuses the biblical tradition. God’s capacity to be interior to us, closer to us than we are to ourselves, as Augustine writes, grants insight about our dignity and God’s perduring love. Learning verities like these is transformative, and this is what we think about in seminary. Come and join us!
Molly T. Marshall