Knowing

The word of God came to a young man, living somewhere among the flatlands north of Jerusalem: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer 1:5). It is an odd way to begin a prophetic epic. There are no specific commands, no calls to action. Rather, it is this: “I know you. I have always known you.” It is a God-breathed message in the form of an anticipatory pause. Jeremiah is about to be called to speak profound and challenging news.

When we find him, Jeremiah is poised to be launched into an active prophetic life: proclaiming a burning message he cannot hold inside, calling his people to reverse course on their path to destruction, being thrust into the middle of controversy and intrigue when confronting false prophets, and passionately weeping over a people he loved. On top of that, he is young and untested. The wisdom of years has not yet been formed in him. If there is anything he knows with certainty, it is that he is utterly unqualified to speak for God. Humility undoubtedly characterizes him, and not the type that has been cultivated in his character over decades. No, this is the kind of humility that bursts out of the raw reality that Jeremiah has no training or experience in calling a people to turn away from destruction or confronting those who fancy themselves religious leaders. He is young, underqualified, and untested—a good friend to any of us who take the first halting and uneven steps toward walking the theological life, knowing deep in our bones that we simply are not prepared for any of this.

Before the prophetic confrontations begin, however, there is a cherished moment of silence, where a simple, profound reminder establishes everything that will transpire: God knows Jeremiah. Oh, I am sure God knows about Jeremiah, too, in the sense of knowing what he likes to eat and the color of his eyes, but that is not what God is trying to relay to this young prophet-to-be. The divine voice speaks of intimate, deep, personal knowledge, the kind that has the capacity to see beyond the color of Jeremiah’s eyes into the depths of his motivations, fears, and desires. This is the kind of knowledge reserved for parents and the children who make their every need known, spousal lovers of fifty years, childhood friends who now share stories about their grandchildren, and the God who lovingly breathed life into the lungs of each person who has been created. Jeremiah, a young man who is about to take on an active and harried ministry of preaching and proclamation in the midst of a messy and complex world is, quietly, deeply, and truly, known by God.

From the beginning, I cannot resist doing a little theology here. What kind of a God is this who would begin a conversation not with a command but with a reminder of the relationship? Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. We could easily move into all kinds of theological speculation about things like divine foreknowledge and predestination at this point. We could spend a long time debating the theological merits of describing a God who could somehow know a not-yet-existent Jeremiah and who had charted a path before the young man had emerged from the womb. But the text does not ask us to go there, and if we did I fear we would be stretching it further than it asks us to. It does seem to say, however, something about the way God confronts with a call to speak a divine message. Jeremiah’s response can teach us about the theological virtue of being known by God. We could say that Jeremiah exhibits a general virtue of humility, because he proceeds not by reaching out for knowledge but by acknowledging that he is known by God. But Jeremiah exhibits a more specific theological virtue because he is known by God, and Jeremiah’s knowledge will humbly progress from that point. Even his knowledge is a response to God’s intimate act of knowing Jeremiah. From the beginning, this is a God who knows us.

Knowing like this, though, situates the theologian oddly in our world that seeks to know. We live and move and have our being in a world of –ologies, those branches of scientific exploration that have as their mission to know more about the things they study. Is theology any different? At first glance, it may seem the most natural thing in the world for a theologian to study God the way a biologist studies a plant, because of the way we have come to think about knowing in the modern world.

The world you and I inhabit is the kind that has been built on the structures of the Enlightenment. Granted, some approaches to theology are happy to adopt these structures and continue to build the project, and others are reacting against it, but whether for it or against it, the Enlightenment looms large. While I am admittedly reaching for a broad brush in the depiction of the Enlightenment I am about to offer, there is an enduring theme—even a type of modern virtue—to the Enlightenment’s ways of knowing.

The Enlightenment was itself a reaction against the perception that the ways of knowing that characterized the Middle Ages were lodged in superstition and claims about the truth of things that were not accessible to all people. But what if there was some kind of truth that all people could access? Or better yet, what if we could finally verify that there was one, single, objective truth that holds all things together under our watchful gaze? What if we were able to move beyond the enchanted and fantastic tales of some people sensing a divine presence while others were left unaffected? After all, what good is a truth if only a few people have access to it?

The proponents of Enlightenment thought came to affirm that we humans could begin to use our senses to verify the way things are in the world. In other words, we could know through our powers of observation. And power is precisely what observation afforded us. Once we had enough people who could observe the same thing, a confidence began to grow in the Enlightenment mind that at long last, we were gaining access to verified, cold, hard truth, free from the whims of subjectivity and superstition. Ways of knowing—such as the scientific method—came to be associated with objectivity, and with objectivity came the notion that we could finally eliminate the persistent and mysterious unknowns about our world. Objectivity, unaffected by personal desire or whim, was now a virtue of modernity.

Imagine a person attempting to know something about the way a bird flies. When our eye beholds a winged creature, gracefully held aloft by some invisible force, there is more than a bit of mystery involved. As we make reasoned observations, however, we might finally come to observe that the way a bird flies on a windy day may differ from a day when the winds are calm. We might look at the shape of a bird’s wing and observe how similar shapes act in the air. Step by observable step, we strip away the mysteries of a bird’s flight to know how they are able to take to the skies. At the same time, we can finally put to rest the pesky debate our pre-Enlightenment ancestors might have had about whether birds are kept in flight by, say, a magical force they each possess in their bellies, or whether an invisible angel carries each bird from place to place.

There are obviously a multitude of benefits that have come about as a result of this kind of knowing. Knowing how birds fly inspired the innovations that allowed humans to take to the skies, for example. Nearly every scientific discovery made in the past few centuries sought to know by stripping away the shroud of mystery so that we might make use of newfound knowledge. Once we understand the physical forces of pressure that form above and below a bird’s wing, for example, we have that knowledge, and now we can do something with it. The mystery of flight was finally pressed into giving up its secrets to the inquiring mind that came to know it. In this dynamic, the modern mind tends to take possession of a thing by knowing it, to assert the knower over the thing known. When we have erased the mystery, we have become the master.

Taken from Walking the Theological Life by Timothy Gaines. Copyright (c) 2024 by Timothy Raymond Gaines. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com