An Enigmatic Mirror: An Introduction

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:12, ESV

In describing the gifts of the Spirit, Paul tells us that in this life we see "in a glass darkly," that is, in modern English, indistinctly in a mirror. We cannot now see clearly the reality of God, but see only his distorted reflection. But at some point, Paul promises, we shall see God "face to face" and know him fully. (Paul is alluding to passages in the Hebrew Bible that describe seeing God "face to face": Gen. 32:30; Ex. 33:11; Num. 14:14; Dt. 5:4, 34:10; Jg. 6:22; Ezek. 20:35.) According to Paul, however, this must await the resurrection. Paul's overall point is that the only gift of the Spirit that we can enjoy in perfect fullness in this life is love, the greatest gift (1 Cor. 13.13). For the rest, now we can only "know in part."

In this passage, Paul originally wrote, literally, that we now only see in "a mirror in an enigma" (esoptrou en ainigmati). I have taken Paul's phrase as the title of this column: "An Enigmatic Mirror." This column's title is a reflection of my agreement with Paul's insight that we now can only "know in part." In the nearly forty years I have spent studying ancient history and religion, one of the most important truths I've discovered is this: I know fewer answers today than I "knew" when I started studying four decades ago. (If I continue at this rate, by the time I die I'm likely to know nothing about everything!) But I believe I am at last beginning to understand the right questions. My purpose in this column is to explore some of the questions about ancient religion that I believe are worth asking.

My conviction that in this life we can only know in part does not, however, make me a post-modern relativist. Ontologically, I believe there is absolute truth. But epistemologically, I believe that truth about the human past cannot be absolutely understood by humans, for a wide range of reasons. This is not because of the relative nature of truth, but because of the limited nature of the surviving evidence from the past, and the imperfect nature of human reason, knowledge, and understanding. In the tension between intellectual hubris and humility, I think most of us could use a healthy dose of the latter. Although we may seem to be cursed, as Paul says, to be "ever learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 3:7), I do not take this to mean that we should not be "ever learning." When Paul said, "we know in part," I believe he did not mean that absolute truths cannot be known at all, but rather that our knowledge of absolute truth will always be conditioned and imperfect.

This is certainly true of the study of ancient history and religion. Even if, in theory, it were possible for someone to have an absolutely correct understanding of the past, of Scripture, and of God, in practical terms what we actually find is a wide range of differing interpretations about the past, and about the meaning of those sacred texts that have survived from the past. Of all fields of historical study, sacred texts and religion have always elicited the greatest interest among contemporary readers, but also the greatest disagreements as to their significance. One reader of the Bible might see it filled with barbarous lies and insane rantings of pretended prophets. Another sees it as the inerrant revelation of the word of God. Their reactions to the texts could not be more different, yet they are reading exactly the same text. This is why I sometimes call the Bible the most misunderstood book. We see reflections of this disjunction between text and interpretation in a wide range of contemporary public discourse about religion, including here on Patheos.  

One of the problems that face us when we read ancient sacred texts is that they are far removed from us in time, space, language, and culture. L. P. Hartley once astutely observed, "the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Reading any ancient text is, in reality, a journey to a foreign land. The language, culture, customs, beliefs, and practices are all quite different from our own. Ancient texts therefore require both translation and explication. But reading scripture should be more of a pilgrimage than a mere tourist voyage. The goal of a material pilgrimage is to physically travel to sacred sites of theophany. The goal of a pilgrimage into a sacred text, however, is to mentally and spiritually travel toward the sacred as described in those texts. In this column, I plan to make some textual pilgrimages through ancient texts. You're invited to come along. My guides will be the authors of those ancient texts, and we will begin with a fellow named John.

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