I Don't Know
I Corinthians 13:1-13
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope -- Oklahoma City
31 January 2010
The truth is that I often do not know what to do. Study, reflection, deep thinking, prayer, and meditation often help and usually get me to a decision that I feel somewhat confident about. But, even then, I'm still skeptical enough to remember that I might have gotten it all wrong.
It might be risky for the pastor to admit that he doesn't know. That he is uncertain. That he second guesses when he does make a decision.
But I suspect it's a pretty common experience. In your jobs, your relationships, with your families and friendships, in the community groups you volunteer and lead, I bet you experience this. Sometimes you just aren't sure what is the right thing to say or do.
We don't usually like to admit that we don't know -- admit our own ignorance, our uncertainty, our limitations.
Yet that is precisely what Paul does in I Corinthians 13. We might have missed that point because we are so used to this as the love chapter, read at weddings. Yet, this chapter does not come during Paul's discussion of marriage. It comes during his discussion of the church and its unity and how each person's spiritual gifts are to work together in the Body of Christ. In its context in this letter, this chapter is more about the relationship between church members than it is about the relationship between spouses.
In the Willis Barnstone translation, we read:
We know only in part, we prophesy
Only in part, yet when perfection comes,
Then what is but a part will disappear.
When I was a child I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child and reasoned like a child.
When I became a man I put an end
To childish things. For now we look into
An enigmatic mirror. One day we will gaze
Face to face. Now I know in part, but then
I will know in full even as I am fully
We are more familiar with the beautiful translation of the King James "see in a glass, darkly." The New Revised Standard Version, which was read tonight, has the rather tepid, "in a mirror, dimly." Barnstone admits that the King James is the lovelier poetry, but the more accurate translation is "we look into an enigmatic mirror."
This is an evocative image. First thing to remember is that ancient mirrors were not glass. They were polished metal, usually bronze. No mirrors gave the perfect, sharp images that we are used to seeing when we look into a mirror. Ancient mirrors were blurry and obscured. The images were somewhat mysterious and affected by the lighting and how they were moved. In another word, enigmatic.
This image which St. Paul uses is also a subtle reference to the Exodus and to the tabernacle in which the children of Israel first worshipped Yahweh. Maybe you remember last year when we were studying the tabernacle, we encountered this verse in Exodus 38:8:
He made the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.
When all the Israelites brought their belongings to the craftsmen to construct the tabernacle and its various implements, the women brought their mirrors and those were used to create the wash basin which sat at the entrance to the tabernacle. Rabbinical tradition says that the reflective surfaces of the wash basin obscurely reflected what the priest was doing inside. The people gathered outside the tent could catch vague glimpses of what was going on inside by watching the reflection. Seeing through an enigmatic mirror.
In this way Paul uses the mirrors of the tabernacle to suggest that we only now have vague glimpses of God and that in the future we will know God face-to-face. No one has seen the face of God, not even the great Moses, who was only permitted to see God's backside. Yet, even that moment of ecstasy caused his face to radiate with glorious light. Paul promises that we will know God face-to-face.
Great poetry, which I Corinthians 13 is, has various shades of meaning. So, the mirror image is not just a reference to the tabernacle in Exodus. Mirrors have often been used as images of our knowledge and its limits. When we look into a mirror, we see ourselves. If our knowledge is like a mirror, then think what that means. It means that everything we think we know and see is affected by what we bring to it to begin with. We see ourselves in the mirror of knowledge. Our prejudices, beliefs, and opinions affect everything we know.
Paul wants us to be humble about our claims to knowledge. Even when we think we know something to be right or true, it might just be our own prejudices, our own pre-conceived ideas, reflecting themselves back at us.
Frederick Ferre, the American philosopher, uses the image of the mirror to explore what human technology and craft reveal about who we really are as human beings:
We see reflected, there in our technologies, inhumane, foolish, self-destructive, tragic aspects of the human creature. Our knowledge, lofty and admirable though it is, is yet imperfect. Our values, sometimes noble, are often-short-sighted or worse. In our technology we see reflected the heights and the depths of what we are.
A mirror, our technology, can reveal our values, our true nature, and thus become an instrument for social change.
Lately Michael and I have been watching the television show Battlestar Gallatica. Not the campy show from our childhood, but the critically-acclaimed remake from this decade. We don't have cable, so we had never seen the show when it was on. Instead, we've been watching on DVD's loaned to us by Scott Spencer. And we absolutely love it.
The basic plot is that humanity had created robots, called Cylons, to provide labor and service to humanity. The Cylons eventually rebelled and there was a war. There was a truce, and during the decades that followed the truce, the Cylons evolved and prepared for the next war. When it came they destroyed in a quick and sudden surprise attack the entire human race save about 50,000 people who escaped in spaceships and are being hunted.
The major advance over the 1970's version of this story, is that now the Cylons look like humans. They have fleshy bodies, they bleed and hurt, they feel and can be psychologically traumatized. And because you never know if that friend is really human or a Cylon agent, the potential for fear and panic is quite high. Clearly this is a post-9/11 science fiction story.
But one thing I love about this show is that it deals with this very issue of how our technology reflects our values. The Cylons were created by the humans, so anything they do, including deception, murder, even attempted genocide, is something that they learned from their human creators. In fact, the Cylons contend that they are on a mission from God to destroy the human race because humans do not deserve to survive.
The wiser humans on the show realize that their own values and natures are being reflected back at them, as in a mirror enigmatically. These wise ones realize the sins of humanity and struggle with how issues of survival might conflict with their values. Is it enough to survive, or do we have to deserve to survive? Should we create a new type of human society that doesn't deserve destruction? And can we really generate the will to make that happen?
The entire show is a lesson in humility. We know only in part.
Paul's point is that we must remain skeptical and humble because we humans are severely limited – in our knowledge, in our capacities, in our strength of will, in our values. This passage should be, to quote author Bruce Epperly, "the primary antidote to religious idolatry, intolerance, and fanaticism."
If our knowledge, capacities, will, and values are limited, then what are we to do? How are we to get along? What is good, and true, and right?
St. Paul's answer is that we are to love one another.
When we don't know what is the right decision to make? Love one another.
When we are uncertain of what to do in our relationships? Love one another.
When it seems that we can't agree? Love one another.
Because while our prophecies cease and our tongues turn dumb and our knowledge vanishes, love never fails.
Love doesn't claim to know, isn't certain, cannot boast and has no pride.
In fact, if you think you are speaking like an angel, that you have the word and will of God, then you really only sound like a clanging cymbal.
Love isn't easy; it's maybe the most difficult thing we can do. Because it bears all things and believes all things and endures all things. It suffers long . . . and is still kind.
When you are fighting with your partner or spouse and don't know what you should say or do, remember that both of you only know in part. Remember humility is the best place to start. And mostly remember to love. Maybe you don't know what to say, but continue to act in love.
Or when you are working with a group of people and there is disagreement that leads to or could lead to conflict. Don't rush too quickly to a conclusion. Be patient. And in the time created by the patience, spend it loving one another, allowing the path forward to emerge out of your actions of love, rather than our limited understanding.
I Corinthians 13 is not a warm, sentimental passage. It is a stark reminder of our limitations and a daring challenge to a different way of living. One rooted not in being right, but in admitting our ignorance, and out of that ignorance having the faith and the hope that the path forward is to love one another.