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Beyond Noticing: Learning to See

In her book titled Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters (Free Press, 2007), Courtney Martin distinguishes between “being noticed” and “being seen.” Martin writes that adolescent girls and women are caught up in this desire to be noticed, especially by men, and so they spend countless hours trying to make themselves pretty. Being noticed is an affirmation of a woman’s beauty and desirability. The stare of a man from across the room, or the turn of his head as a woman walks by, or passing honk from a male driver all serve to affirm a woman’s value. As Martin puts it, “A man I have never met can instantly put a little swing in my step.”

But being noticed is fleeting, never penetrating the surface of hair and skin and nails, and ultimately, powerless to affirm a woman’s true value. By contrast, being seen is personal, intimate, transformative. To see someone is to understand who someone really is, to see her dignity. Being seen is also linked to action; seeing demands an ethical response. Martin says that “Being seen is a hand on the small of your back as you walk through a doorway, a glass of water when you are coughing in the middle of the night, his making a passing reference to something you said so long ago you barely remember it.”

Our readings for the fourth Sunday of Lent are all about being seen. In the first reading from 1 Samuel, we have Samuel, the great prophet, who has been sent by God to Jesse, one of the elders of Bethlehem, in order to find a new king of Israel. The current king, Saul, has lost God’s favor and Samuel is grieving his loss when God sends him to Jesse. God tells Samuel as he contemplates which of Jesse’s sons to anoint, “Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.” Samuel notices the height and stature of Eliab, the first of Jesse’s sons, but God sees Eliab. God sees his heart, and the heart of all of Jesse’s sons. And God sees even David, who Jesse has not called in from tending the sheep to meet with Saul. It is this son, the smallest son, David, who God chooses to make the new king of Israel.

In John’s Gospel passage, we have the man born blind from birth. The disciples notice the man. Lots of people, in fact, notice the man. After Jesus heals him, the neighbors notice him. They notice that “the one who used to sit and beg” can see now. In fact, because they have only ever merely noticed the man, they are not even sure it is the same man: Some said, “It is,” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.”

But this story is not primarily about the man born blind. After all, we do not even know his name. This story is about Jesus, and the difference between noticing Jesus and seeing Jesus. Jesus is noticed by the Pharisees, who see him only as a law-breaker. Jesus is noticed by the man born blind, who sees him only as a prophet and healer until Jesus reveals himself as otherwise. Does anyone see Jesus? Does anyone penetrate the surface to see who Jesus really is?

One possibility is that a surprising pair do see Jesus: the parents of the man born blind. When the synagogue leaders question them about the miraculous healing of their son, the parents refuse to answer:

“We know that this is our son and that he was born blind.
We do not know how he sees now,
nor do we know who opened his eyes.
Ask him, he is of age;
he can speak for himself.”
His parents said this because they were afraid
of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed
that if anyone acknowledged him as the Christ,
he would be expelled from the synagogue.
For this reason his parents said,
“He is of age; question him.”

His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews. The parents know Jesus is the Christ. They see Jesus for who he is, long before even their son does, who was healed by Jesus. Jesus has to tell the man born blind that he is the Son of Man, but the parents know already. They don’t tell out of fear.

This is the flip side of seeing and why noticing people is so much safer. To see somebody, to see their heart, often fundamentally threatens our worldview. There is a beautiful new novel which explores the dangers of “seeing” people for who they are. In Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, Miss Skeeter Phelan is a relatively-wealthy, white southern lady entering into womanhood in the 1960s in the heavily segregated Jackson, Mississippi who learns to see the black maids working in houses like her own. In having her eyes opened to the reality of what it is to be a black woman in the south, Skeeter cannot help but be transformed, and yet she has grave reason to fear. To speak for black women–or rather, to enable black women to speak for themselves–Skeeter risks losing her beau, her best friends, her inheritance, her place in society. Like the parents of the man born blind, Skeeter could pretend that she only notices the black maids, that she doesn’t see them. Unlike the parents, she stands up for who it is that she sees. In her reflections on the book, Stockett writes,

“I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don’t think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity. In The Help, there is one line that I truly prize: Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”

For Christian ethics, learning to see is fundamentally a task of learning to see the fundamental dignity every human being has in virtue of being created in the image and likeness of God. This teaching, sometimes called the imago Dei, is foundational for the way Christian ethics views the human person. Reflecting on the imago Dei, moral theologian Paul Wadell reflects Stockett’s comments on The Help:

Each one of us articulates something of God, each one of us brings something of God to life in the world. And that there are so many differences among us–physical differences, racial and ethnic differences, cultural and religious differences–means that no one of us alone can adequately express God. It is all humanity together, stretched across the generations, who image God. . . The doctrine of the imago Dei means that if we have “eyes to see,” we can find God in everyone we meet.

The blindness that keeps us from seeing our brothers and sisters is sin. We typically think of sin as an act, something that you do. But sin is also a quality of character. It is a state of being, a way of seeing. Sin is a form of spiritual blindness and hardness of heart which provides useful stereotypes for viewing people and the world. Sin is what allows us to reduce people to labels, to notice them, but not to see them.

But sin is also the fear that keeps us from speaking up when we realize how reductive and inaccurate our labels are. Part of the task of Christian ethics is to initiate a radical transformation of seeing and being in the lives of individual Christians and their communities. But a radical change in vision also requires courage because it will frequently demand that we take uncomfortable, unpopular–or possibly dangerous–positions.

Who is it then that we may be called to see in our world today? There are many possibilities here: prisoners, migrant workers, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the unborn, the elderly. But in our own lives, there are many who we fail to see because we never penetrate our labels and categories, labels like “conservative” or “liberal”, “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” “capitalist” or “socialist,” “anti-abortion” or “social justice.” The media encourages us to see the world in such a reductive and dualistic way, so that we can dismiss those who are opposite ourselves. Fear perpetuates the labels. We fear having our worldviews challenged. We fear backlash from our families and friends. We fear losing what we often see as a moral battle, particularly on issues like abortion, war, and poverty. Christian ethics calls us to transcend these labels to see the underlying person and her inherent dignity. Christian ethics demands that we not settle for a polarized church.

At the conclusion of the Gospel reading, the Pharisees wonder if they are the ones blinded by sin, unable to see Jesus for who he is. Jesus tells them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Reflecting Jesus’ warnings, The Catholic Common Ground Initiative provides a number of guidelines that might guide how we respond to those we are called to see:

*We should recognize that no single group or viewpoint in the church has a complete monopoly on the truth. While the bishops united with the Pope have been specially endowed by God with the power to preserve the true faith, they too exercise their office by taking counsel with one another and with the experience of the whole church, past and present. Solutions to the church’s problems will almost inevitably emerge from a variety of sources.

*We should not envision ourselves or any one part of the church a saving remnant. No group within the church should judge itself alone to be possessed of enlightenment or spurn the mass of Catholics, their leaders, or their institutions as unfaithful.

*We should presume that those with whom we differ are acting in good faith. They deserve civility, charity, and a good-faith effort to understand their concerns. We should not substitute labels, abstractions, or blanketing terms–”radical fem-inism,” “the hierarchy,” “the Vatican”–for living, complicated realities.

As we reflect on the readings for this week, let us pray that we have the grace to see where our own labels make us blind, and that we have the courage to see beyond the labels to see the imago Dei in a brother or a sister we once thought of as an enemy.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi, Beth –

    Thanks for this post, which I heartily echo. (And I do hope that the critical note I must sound does not overshadow that)

    I’d like to ask you to reconsider the uncritical repetition of John’s language of “the Jews,” and the received Christian association of Pharisees with blindness or legalism — surely this is another form of failing to see to which we as Christian theologians must be particularly attentive. The polemical language of the early stages of Christianity has prevented us from seeing the complexity of the Jewish tradition for generations, and is a prime example of the type of ethical impact the substitution of “labels” for “sight” can have.

  2. Bridget,
    Thanks for your comments on this and for your aid in helping me see my own area of blindness. For those reading, in John’s gospel, the phrase “the Jews” becomes the sort of dehumanizing label I am trying to caution against in this post. As for the Pharisees, it is important to realize that the Pharisaic tradition is more complex than the polemical portrayal the author of John presents us with. Pharisaic Judaism is a very diverse religious, social, and political movement which provided the basis for the development of Rabbinic Judaism after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE. Because of the portrayal of the Pharisees in the Gospels as “blind and hard-hearted,” Christianity has often had a reductionistic and overall uncharitable view of the Pharisees which I unwittingly replicated here. Whenever we read Scripture, we need to be reminded that the scriptural narrative emerged in a particular historical context with particular problems which may not reflect the realities we face in the Church today. Bridget, you have done a great service to me in bringing this to my attention.

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