Wonder, marvel, knowledge: a Holy Week meditation
Inspired by contemplation of Isaiah 52–53; Mosiah 13–15; Alma 7; John 17; Mosiah 5; Matthew 7; 2 Nephi 2, 4; and ritual in sacred places.
I puzzle over the favored Christian interpretation of Isaiah’s suffering servant, paying attention to subjects and objects, nouns and pronouns, names and identities. I scratch my head at the Latter-day Saint identification of Jesus and Jehovah. I perceive a change in voice — from the plural chorus of the wayward and then grateful community of prophets or believers or citizens of Zion, to the singular responding intonation — actually, in a mirror image of more perfected unity, the plural intensive — of the Lord himself.
At times I have wondered at — more honestly, I have been prone to wonder about — the reality of an afterlife (or “after-life”) and a “before-life;” the existence of God; and what to pursue in the “present-life.”
But in this moment I marvel at how closely the puzzle of (a Latter-day Saint gloss on a traditional Christian appropriation of) Isaianic identities maps onto Abinadi’s perplexing discussion of the Father and the Son, “God himself.” (And, as a suffering servant himself, how Abinadi typifies the Type.) Sure, Joseph Smith was drenched in a 19th-century Bible culture and heard a lot of preaching; but without something beyond himself, could a farm boy of rudimentary education in his early twenties really have understood, internalized, synthesized, and articulated such a subtle and compelling weave of the disparate threads of Isaiah 52–53, and couched it in compelling narrative drama, in a single extemporaneous verbal take — even if he pondered it for a few hours beforehand while skipping rocks?
However. According to modern ideals of rigorously ascertaining propositional truth, the above example of my wondering about is not disproof, and the subsequent example of my marveling at is not proof.
On the other hand, pretensions to “rigorously ascertaining propositional truth” are only applicable to mathematical worlds — and in fact not even those, really. Our path in the real world is much more slippery, heuristic, phenomenological.
More important than that, however: if there is one thing that has sunk into my bones in the last few years, it is that propositional knowledge is almost beside the point.
Well, that might be a little strong. Propositional knowledge is not completely irrelevant. The concrete and practical particulars of our present existence will be transformed into the substance of a glorious hereafter. The universe is one (by definition), and eventually we will need to fully understand it in all its detailed workings. Furthermore, without the perspective afforded by basic awareness and acceptance of a before-life and after-life, we will almost certainly fall prey to compelling deceptions in our present-life — particularly in this day and age, in which worship of “individual fulfillment” clouds judgment, and decisions about paths to reject or pursue are rife with mistakes about time scale and eternal fruitfulness.
But detailed propositional knowledge is far less important to the primary purposes of our present phase of existence than we often think. It is subsidiary, and ought to be utilitarian — taken up in the service of worthy and meaningful ends, and — like monetary wealth — not regarded as worth or meaning or end in itself. Hand-wringing and dithering over apparent incongruities, and rejection of the eternally good and true and fruitful in vain and fetishistic pursuit of the precise and accurate and correct according to scientific or historical or political paradigms of the moment, are catastrophic errors.
The knowledge that matters most is not propositional, but “knowledge in the Biblical sense” — knowledge of other persons, acquired by direct experience and intimate acquaintance in the common sorrows and joys of joint enterprise and creation. It is not found in sophisticated book learning. It is not found in wonder or awe in the face of a beautiful but indifferent terrestrial environment or cosmic universe. It is only found in the selfless making and keeping of sacred covenants with other persons.
This knowledge is not the omniscience of a distant immaterial God without body, parts, or passions. It is not the grandeur of the impersonal totality of Nature, teeming with both sprawling possibility and cruel indifference. It is the Messianic bowels of mercy, obtained by a Person, a Christ, God Himself, who descended below all things to suffer and comprehend — “under-stand,” and encompass — for and in Himself every and all temptation, pain, and infirmity of every and all of His people.
To know the Son, and thereby the Father, is life eternal, to walk in the light. To fail to know Him to some degree is, to that degree, to walk in darkness and suffer eternal death in separation from Him.
Such knowledge is possible. I believe it is expected. I dare say it is required.
How, then, do we come to know the Lord? As we come to know any other person: by talking and walking with Him. Prayer is the alpha and omega of a journey marked by covenantal signposts. Prayer, and the journey itself, begin with submission and end with embrace. We relinquish our carnal desires and allow the hardness of our hearts to be broken; our softened heart then expands and overflows with His love unto the consuming of our flesh, and we are encircled about eternally in His arms. At times we are given specific words. In the miraculous alchemy of redemption, dross melts away, our nature is changed — and we obtain knowledge.
Of such experiences — their spiritual and physical reality, epistemic implications, and eternal significance — I bear humble witness.