Having lunch with friends recently, we began talking about our earliest childhood memories. Maybe you have a firmer grip on your memory than we do, but none of us could recall anything but flashbulb moments before our kindergarten years.
My friends have a young son, not yet three-years-old. He was sitting at the table with us, now throwing French fries across the room. As we talked, his mother looked over at him, turned to the rest of us at the table and said, “If something happened to me now, while he was so young, he would have no memory of me.”
This sort of threw a wet blanket on our otherwise happy lunch date, but she was right. Here was a child so devoted to and dependant upon his mother that he can never be more than a few feet from her presence, and yet should she vanish, he would have no memory of her.
That observation really got me thinking. Does a child – any young child or baby in arms – really know his mother? No, not in the least; not at all.
He doesn’t know his mother’s hometown; that she was a cheerleader in high school; that she graduated from college at the top of her class; that she has a remarkable career. He doesn’t even know the color of her eyes.
He knows nothing of her family history, her most life-shaping experiences, her favorite meal, or how she likes to spend her quiet time – when she gets any quiet time. He knows none of these things. He doesn’t know her.
And yet, he does know her, better than anyone else. He recognizes her voice, her laugh, her touch, her smell. Even as a toddler, he could pick her out of room of hundreds of other parents. He loves her, runs after, and cries for her.
At the same time, he is both in ignorance of the very one who gave him life, and clings to her with such attachment that he cannot live without her. It is a beautiful sancta ignorantia – holy ignorance.
We all live in holy ignorance, even when we are “certain” about the things we believe. Just as a mother makes herself known to her child, God has made himself known to us through his creation, his Scriptures, and supremely though Jesus Christ. We get it; at least enough of it for faith to be born and to grow. But we don’t understand it all. We can’t.
Paul recognized this when he prayed for the Ephesians, “May you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep Christ’s love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully.”
When we speak of Christ we are speaking only of our understanding about and experiences with him. He remains out of our reach. Yes, we know Jesus, but we don’t know him, and we will not know him completely this side of thekingdomofGod.
This doesn’t weaken our faith. It pushes our faith forward. We press on in pursuit of more, because the faith we hold on to is incomplete. Our conclusions about God, about Jesus, about the Bible, about our own spiritual experiences, are always unfinished.
Yes, we cling with confidence to our faith, and yet we learn to hold to our conclusions loosely. “Here we stand. We can do no other,” as Luther said, and still we know our beliefs will continue to develop over the course of our lifetimes. We confess, “This is what we believe,” and yet what we believe is in process.
Faith in Christ is not something we master in this lifetime, no more than completely knowing another person is possible in this lifetime. But our inability to grasp the totality of Jesus Christ is not reason to give up on faith.
This does not stop us from loving him, from pursuing him, or from crying after him. It intensifies our chase. For we recognize that the only way to know the unknowable God is to pursue him until he makes Christ “all and in all.”
So, the answer to the question of the tent-meeting revivalist, “Do you know Jesus?” is an absolute and positive, “Yes!” followed by an absolute and positive “No!”
Sancta ignorantia: I plead holy ignorance.