These are the same two questions that have dogged many philosophers and theologians, including John Calvin (which may annoy you if you believe him to be the father or all things puritanical, responsible for sucking all the joy and pleasure out of living, or amuse you if you have a taste for irony). It’s not just philosophers and theologians who spend their days answering these questions. Each one of us, every day, every moment, is answering these two questions in the way we live as this particular body-spirit.
And now it’s come time for me, erstwhile theologian, human animal, earth wanderer, wonderer, woman, once again to confront these two questions. I learned long ago from Calvin, standing in a long line of Clement, Augustine, Aquinas, and unnamed others, that these two questions are inextricably related. The first arresting sentence of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which stood its opening ground through Calvin’s many revisions, is stamped on my heart: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” (1.1.1)
For the past two years, as this linkage of fundamental questions began once again to well up in my, I thought, Yes, after my sojourn as a theologian and a Christian, after so many years as a Jew and a fiction writer, in my years of opening, I will have to look again at these questions and see where I stand now.
But where to start? How to get started? This is the bane of everyone who feels the pressure to put marks on a page and begin the futile task that the writer of Ecclesiastes calls the “making of many books.” Calvin’s next sentences in Institutes describe why this is particularly difficult in this case, sounding the mystical themes of existing in the One and humility before the splendor of God:
1.1.1 But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves [Acts 17:28]. For, quite, clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves: indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself. Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God…. Accordingly the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him. (Ibid.)Knowing ourselves leads to knowing God and knowing God leads to knowing ourselves. So one should be able to start at either point. Calvin chooses to start with God, giving only this reason:
1.1.2 Again it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself….
1.1.3 Yet however the knowledge of God and of ourselves may be mutually connected, the order of right teaching requires that we discuss the former first, then proceed afterward to treat the latter.I’m not sure why, modernist that I am, I assumed for the past few years that I, too, would start with the first question, God, and let it guide me to human being. Perhaps it was my theocentrism, my anti-anthropocentrism that led me to this. Why do we persist in thinking we human beings are the center of the universe? Hasn’t there been enough scientific evidence by now to bump us out of that privileged place? Unfortunately, not. Perhaps that is what Calvin means by “the order of right teaching,” to move from the greater to the lesser, to orient ourselves properly at the beginning so we do not lose our way and overvalue the lesser, ourselves, by placing ourselves at the center of creation.
And why go the round-about way? Why not go straight to the heart of the matter, ask those hard questions about God, crack open the nut of our confusion? If not us, who? That is what I have tried to do in the last years, face the question of God in our post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment, post-post-postmodern world head on, trying to shoulder my way into that strange battlefield of the armies of fundamentalist atheists against the armies of fundamentalist religionists, their literalism and absolutism soaking the ground with blood, littering it with torn limbs and severed heads, ruining the very ground where so many wander without signposts, without comfort, looking for a way to answer these two questions—as we all must—of who we are and what, finally, confronts us.
I failed. I read. I pondered. I tried to write. Emptiness and worn out words is all I found.
But lately I’ve begun to realize that it’s the second question, who we are, that’s stirring up more trouble for me right now, and it’s there that I need to start if I want to find my way to a new understanding of God. Perhaps it’s a kind of second naiveté—once we realize human beings aren’t the center of the universe or the end for which it was created, we are able, armed with humility, to start with the question of who we are and have it lead us where we need to go.
So that is the question I will be pursuing for the time being: Why are we human beings such a strange and disturbing mix of body and spirit, and how are we to live out this amalgam?
Who knows where it will lead? Perhaps you will accompany me along the way.