I mentioned in an earlier post that mysticism, even true mysticism, poses major problems of epistemology to most conservatives. This problem comes in two parts: conservatives have believed lies about the nature of knowledge, and simply fail to understand the nature of language and how it relates to relationships.
The first part of our problem is that we bought the Enlightenment lie about the nature of knowledge. Real knowledge — so they told us — is about what can be weighed, counted, numbered. Real knowledge can be calculated; it happens in a laboratory, or in an equation, and only there.
We brought this over into theology, too. Real theological knowledge happens when all the proof texts line up, the syllogisms are clear and sharp and valid, and so on. “If p, then q” and like that. Propositional calculus reigns.
Well. The results of a laboratory experiment, or a syllogism, can be real knowledge, true enough. But we wouldn’t have arrived at the primacy of the laboratory from Scripture.
You can’t get four chapters into Genesis without noticing this. “And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain…”
So tell me, Mr. Gradgrind, to which facts did Adam’s intellect assent, that she might conceive Cain? Did he seduce her with syllogisms, or maybe sing her that great Olivia Newton-John hit, “Let’s Get Cognitive”?
Of course not. The marriage bed is a paradigm case of real knowledge, and though it can be described propositionally to an extent — parents everywhere struggle to try, when the kids start asking questions — the knowledge itself is far more than propositions. (Otherwise, why would “virgins discussing sex” be a universally understood metaphor for not knowing what you’re talking about?)
For those of you sputtering “But ‘Adam knew Eve’ is just a euphemism!” — so what? Do you really think Moses just picked a verb at random? That “knew” is a lie, a mere place-holder because Moses was too genteel to say “f—ed”? Of course not. The word choice is appropriate, and made not just by Moses, but by the Holy Spirit who inspired him. God uses it because it’s an appropriate, a true, way of describing what happens. If we don’t find it appropriate and true, then we need to repent.
Fast-forward to Deuteronomy and Proverbs, where we learn that real knowledge happens at the pilgrim feasts. Come and feast before Me, God says, so that you may learn to fear Me. The fear of the Lord, Proverbs tells us, is the beginning of knowledge. One of the foundations of real knowledge in ancient Israel was drinking strong drink and eating roast sheep in the presence of Yahweh. Not just the concept — the actual doing of it. Put that in your propositional calculus and smoke it.
Back when I was part of a church singles ministry, we once invited the pastor, a couple of elders, and their wives to join us to play a version of the newlywed game. All these couples had been married for decades, but that only made it more fun. We separated the men and women, and asked them questions about each other, then got them together to hear the answers to the questions.
The pastor — married four decades at this point — didn’t know the color of his wife’s toothbrush. But when we asked his wife what animal her husband reminded her of, she tried in vain to suppress a grin, blushed fiercely, and said “Stallion.”
Did he know his wife? She seemed to think so.
The second part of our problem is that conservatives don’t grasp the Trinitarian nature of language.
The Trinity contains metaphor within its very nature. If you’ve seen the Son, you’ve seen the Father. The fundamental is/is not of metaphor is present there — If you’ve seen the Son, you’ve seen the Father; the Son is not the Father. The Son is a metaphor for the Father.
Language is God’s gift, and it is metaphor. “Lion” is not a lion; it’s a word. But then, of course it’s a lion; it’s not “apple” or “skyscraper” or “purse;” it’s lion. Is/is not. Metaphor.
“The lion ate the zebra” is storytelling. The language represents, but does not contain, the reality. In the right relational context, though, propositions do more than communicate; they become a conveyance through which a relationship can be created, altered or destroyed.
“With this ring I thee wed,” uttered in the context of a stage play, does not actually unite the man and the woman on the stage in marriage. A single person can stand in an empty room and say “With this ring I thee wed” all day long, and still not be married.
But in the proper context, said by the groom to his bride and vice versa, “With this ring I thee wed” both signifies, and accomplishes, the union.
What makes the difference?
Could the whole thing have been accomplished without words? No, not really. Were the couple deaf/mute, they’d have accomplished it without speaking, but not without language. The proposition is important. But it’s not a sufficient condition to accomplish the marriage. The right people have to be present in the right relationship, or it doesn’t work.
What if they mess up the words? What if they stumble over it?
“With this thee I ring…uh…with thee this ring I…oh, forget it, we’re married!” says the red-faced groom, sliding the ring on her finger. The bride, thrown off by this, just blurts out “I thee wed” and puts the ring on his finger.
“But wait,” says the pinch-headed fundamentalist, as the guests are eating at the reception a little later. “She didn’t mention the ring. Are we sure they’re really married?”
Wedding guests should be clothed with rejoicing; this bean-counter has come to the feast without his wedding garment. If he insists on making his point loudly and repeatedly, the friends of the bridegroom will quite properly cast him out.
What does this have to do with mystical union with Christ? Propositions matter, but not in the way that rationalist bean-counters would like to think. This is a reality we deal with every day; it is by no means too complicated for normal people. However, it does not reduce well to test-tube categories, and if you have a certain turn of mind, that makes you angry. “If it can’t be boiled down to essentials and tracked,” you say to yourself, “then how can I be sure?”
That’s exactly the right question, and to find the answer to it, answer this question first: If we can’t reduce Adam’s knowledge of Eve to propositions, how could she have conceived? How could we be sure she had?