Jesus answered: “If I glorify myself, my glory is worth nothing; but it is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ You do not know him, but I know him. And if I should say that I do not know him, I would be like you a liar. But I do know him and I keep his word.”
John 8: 54-56
The demand that is made of Jesus in this gospel passage is that he acknowledge that he does not know God. He makes clear, however, that to do so would be to betray not only God but himself. Despite the fact that it is who Jesus really is that is the problem for those intent on destroying him, he will not, and probably cannot, betray his truth in order to be acceptable and accepted.
Adrian van Kaam says that one of life’s central formative dynamics is the tension between congeniality and compatibility. To live with others, to be a social animal, means that we are always in a negotiation between being true to our own unique life and call (congeniality) and being acceptable to and accepted by our social environment (compatibility). Our early life formation tends to be very strong in developing compatibility. Most of us can well remember how the great fear of our youth is that of not being accepted by the others and so not being able to successfully navigate life in our cultures and societies. Given the almost universal emphasis on conformity in our early stages of formation, we tend to spend much of the rest of our lives struggling with the tension that our emergent congeniality evokes in us. So we live out within ourselves and in the world the struggle to navigate what is negotiable in our true identity for the sake of the social values and acceptance we desire and what must not be negotiable. Often this often requires a re-appropriation of aspects of ourselves which we suppressed or repressed for the sake of acceptance.
When we over emphasize the divinity of Jesus, which is so strong an element in John’s gospel, we are apt to lose our proper sense of identification with him. So, a cursory reading of today’s passage hears his declaration of his knowledge of God, which he cannot deny, as a declaration of his divinity, as it no doubt well is. Yet, his refusal to deny his knowledge of God is also a challenge to us. For, in truth, we also know God and we are equally called, if we are to live with integrity, not to deny that knowledge before the world.
So often religion for us is a code of morality and a summons to do good to others based on the beliefs we have been taught. One of the unending mistakes of catechesis and preaching is that knowing about God and acting in accord with that knowledge is the full significance of faith. This seems to me to be the flaw in the incessant critiques of Pope Francis and the danger he purportedly is to orthodoxy. There is a fear that for “the Church” to acknowledge and appreciate the limits of its knowledge of God and God’s will somehow puts our relationship with God in peril. This perspective reflects a certain lack of faith in our true identity as spirit to know and participate in the Mystery. If our faith is based only on the rightness of our knowledge and understanding, then it is not faith at all. It is merely a form of human pride and arrogance, an illusory form of security in the face of life’s mystery.
At the level of our deepest “congeniality,” in our core as spirit, we are a capacity to know God. This knowledge, however, is a far deeper one than mere cognition. It is the ability of our whole being, manifested in our deepest and unfulfilled desires and longings, to know in ourselves what Dante terms “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Without being able to describe or explain it, we know the end and meaning of our life as “personal,” and we realize that our lives are to take form in light of our deepest desire and our ultimate end.
So, as Jesus, we know the One whom Jesus calls his and our Father. All human beings know this profound reality, although by very different names and metaphors. Yet, at least in my own experience, I am constantly, before others and even just within myself, denying my knowledge of God, and so of my own deepest reality. Because of my own desire for compatibility with the world and others, I am constantly doing what Jesus refuses to do, that is deny my knowledge of God. I do this before others every time I enter into ways of being, speaking, and acting with others for the sake of anything less than the truth, a truth that I know but that I am constantly suppressing and evading for the sake of compatibility and acceptance. Even more significantly, perhaps, I deny my knowledge of God in the form I give my own life. For example, it is in silence and stillness that I am able to know and to live the truth of my place with God, yet I structure my days in such a way that I dissipate my inner energies and diffuse my consciousness. I evade the silence and solitude which is the source of true life for me.
Mercifully, there are times when my work, my presence to others, and my leisure and solitude are truly congenial. There are moments when my self-presence is open, honest, and gently and meditatively aware, when, as Ruusbroec puts it, I am so aware of the strength of my yearning and striving for God that I compassionately experience my “falling short of God’s riches” and the “unsatisfied longing” that is my experience of my deepest desire. Much more often, however, I deny my knowledge of God by denying my awareness of my own desire for God. I structure my work, my social life, my personal time in such a way that it distracts me from that desire. And so, my life takes a form that the world demands of it, the world both outside and inside of me. I opt to dissolve the unsatisfied longing that comes from living in the tension of congeniality and compatibility by denying the truly congenial in me, by denying God.
Recently I’ve been reading once again an account of the role of Dag Hammerskjold in the crisis surrounding the Congo’s independence in 1960. As he struggles to find a role for the United Nations that will both preserve the Congo from outside influence and domination while allowing it to resolve its own internal crises, it seems as if he is in a position of pleasing no one. All the various external and internal forces see him as an impediment to their agenda. Addressing the Security Council, Hammarskjold pleads for a recognition of the truth that seeking not one’s own benefit but the good of the people means self-oblivion (as the world defines a self):
Is it too much to expect that it will be understood that a period of utter crisis and disintegration is one in which those who work for their personal benefit are acting against the interest of the people of the country, while those who work for the interest of the people of the country will find that they themselves have profited by their self-oblivion in submission to the common cause. (quoted in Roger Lipsey, Hammarskjold: A Life, p. 417)
At this moment, as so many throughout his life, Hammarskjold stood where Jesus stands in today’s gospel. It is a very solitary place. He, as Jesus, does not choose “self-oblivion,” yet standing in the truth requires it. Our early life formation forms us to take our place in the world that the world would give us. Yet, God knows us in our unique call, in our true place in the world. This is the conversion that Theodore James Ryken experiences at the age of 19. He falls in love with God because he now knows God’s love. This compels him to bring the knowledge of that love where it is not known.
Society is built on conformity. The knowledge of God, however, is living in an “unsatisfied longing” that is the source of our giving to the world the unique gift that is ours to give. To “work for the interest of the people,” however, is an act not of conformity but of “self-oblivion.” It is the refusal to deny one’s knowledge of God, and so a willingness to spend oneself irrespective of the response and acceptance of others. No less than Hammarskjold or Ryken, we constantly find ourselves in the place where Jesus does in today’s gospel. “The world” in all its forms is always summoning us to compatibility with it, to behave in what we mistakenly take to be our own self-interest as the world defines it for us. We all know, from experience, what the knowledge of God requires of us. We also know that this is the only way to love, joy, and peace for us. What is asked of us is to affirm this truth at every turn. It is to refuse to be “a liar” by pretending that anything else is more important to us.
On the other hand, God’s love is also fathomlessly generous. It reveals and offers to the soul all that it is, and it wishes to give all of this freely to the soul. For its part, the loving soul is now especially gluttonous and full of craving, opening itself in the desire to possess everything which is revealed to it. But since it is a creature, it cannot devour or grasp the immensity of God. It must therefore be filled with longing and yearning in a state of hunger and thirst which will never end. The more it yearns and strives, the more keenly does it feel itself falling short of God’s riches. This is what is meant by unsatisfied longing.
It is in this way that love both gives and takes and that love is practiced in our living life. Those who live such love are able to see and experience that all this is true.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, III,D