Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ps 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8
August is a special time of year for those involved in university life. Summer is coming to an end. Students are moving back to campus, buying books, and making plans for the upcoming year. Professors are frantically trying to get syllabi and lesson plans together, while also finishing all those projects they just didn’t get around to this summer. In a week, I will begin teaching my first full load of theology classes after finishing my degree last year, and as I have somewhat anxiously tried to put the semester together, I have been reflecting a lot on the nature of knowledge.
Knowledge is (or at least should be) the goal of the university. Students come to a university to become knowledgeable, and professors work to not only impart whatever knowledge they have gained in their field, but also to stretch the minds of their students and habituate them to become life-long learners and knowers. In classical terms, we might say that the goal of the university is to foster in students the intellectual virtues, that is, those character traits that allow people to use their minds well.
Our readings for this week touch on the theme of knowledge, but not in the way we typically think of it, at least not in the context of the university. Paul writes in Romans,
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?
Here, divine knowledge is precisely that which humans cannot know. God’s knowledge is so far beyond human knowledge that God’s ways and judgments cannot be penetrated. Nor is God’s knowledge something a professor can simply “teach.” No one, Paul says, can know the mind of the Lord.
Our Gospel for the week presents a similar idea. Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is. His disciples are like good university students who present a sort of “review of literature” in answer to the question: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus, in good professorial manner, asks them to articulate their own position. But when Peter answers correctly, Jesus doesn’t praise his intelligence. Peter, after all, did not get the right answer because he was smart. “Blessed are you,” Jesus tells Peter, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, buy my heavenly Father.”
In the theological tradition, we speak in two different ways of knowing God. First, there is natural knowledge of God. This is the knowledge of God that we get by observing the world around us, by seeing that there must be some force responsible for the motion in the universe, some force that remains constant despite the fact that all things are changing, some force that directs each thing to its end. This is the knowledge of God we obtain through diligent study and careful thought. Our natural, or rational knowledge, can tell us actually quite a lot about God and we are often tempted to think that this rational knowledge is most important. The person who can make the best theological arguments wins, or something to that effect. And there is some truth here. It is important to study theology, to reflect rationally on the faith, to think rationally about God. It is important, as we read in the first letter of Peter, to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for the reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15).
We get into trouble when we think that this rational explanation is all we need, when we think that we can use reason to penetrate the mind of God. This is a temptation I think many face, but as a new theology professor, I feel like it is a temptation I am especially vulnerable too. For in addition to natural or rational knowledge of God, there is also a supernatural, super-rational knowledge of God, a knowledge that does not come from study but is rather revealed. This is the knowledge proper to faith, and as such, is purely a gift. It is a gift that we can grow to accept more and more, but nothing we do can merit this divine knowledge. This is the knowledge that Peter confesses, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
In my experience, it is often the unlearned who seem most “schooled” in this supernatural knowledge, the people who have never opened a theology textbook or engaged in a modern theological disputation who are able to honestly proclaim with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and knowledge of God!” This is a humbling thing for a person like myself who puts so much stock into rational study about God, especially at this time of year when I am trying to cram as much as I can into my syllabi. But it is also a reminder to me not to get lost in my research or teaching as if these things could save me or my students. It is a reminder that I need to also be the student, to put myself into the presence of Jesus where I might receive the gift of the knowledge that saves—in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, in the Church and the fellowship of the communion of saints, and in Word of God found in the scriptures.
A few days ago, my husband and I went and saw the Tree of Life, a new, monumental film from Terrence Malick, who is himself a Catholic. The movie begins with a quote from Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation . . . while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” This quote sets the stage for the intense and prayerful questioning the movie explores as a couple (played by Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) goes through the grief process after losing their nineteen year old son. It is both a wildly ambitious and humble film which takes on the deepest and most overwhelming metaphysical questions, but also refuses to give too much attention to the questions themselves. The film does not attempt to give a neat answer for the problem of evil or why there is pain and suffering in the world. Instead of an answer, the film provides an experience of the sheer awesomeness of God. Supernatural knowledge—faith—is kind of like the experience of watching the film. In the ends, words fail. Lessons can be learned, but not taught, at least not by human authorities. And we are left able only to sing God’s praises, not analyze who God is.
In light of this, I would like to close with my favorite prayer at this time of year, the great teacher Thomas Aquinas’ prayer for students, which now as a full-time teacher for the first time, I see might well be called a prayer for teachers:
Creator of all things, true source of light and wisdom, origin of all being, graciously let a ray of your light penetrate the darkness of my understanding. Take from me the double darkness in which I have been born, an obscurity of sin and ignorance. Give me a keen understanding, a retentive memory, and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally. Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm. Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and help in the completion. I ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.