In our psalm today, we hear of how intimately God knows us. At first the psalmist describes God as knowing our day-to-day activities: sitting, standing, walking, lying down, and speaking. But we then hear about a knowledge that only God can know: God knows what is inside of us, God knew us in our mothers’ wombs, knew us in our “unformed substance,” knows all our days before they happen. The first type of knowledge, the everyday stuff, might remind us of those who have known us like that. I’ve known a couple of my closest friends since kindergarten; they know me. They know what makes me laugh. They can read my body language and see when I’m exhausted, excited, hurting, or hiding something. They can finish my sentences, especially when I tell that story or joke that I’ve told countless times before. I lived with one friend who could, after a year, recount to me my daily routine: he really knew my lying down and rising up.
It is important that psalmist begins with this type of knowing, for it is the knowledge of relationship. It might be easy to consider God’s knowledge of our beginnings—the stuff that cannot normally be seen or known—to be the higher knowledge, but it is to the first knowledge that the psalmist responds, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” The psalmist is in awe of the magnitude of God’s knowledge, but certainly also to the fact that God’s attention can be so specific, so small. God cares enough to know what I do each day, what I think, and how I feel. When you think about it, being the focus of God’s attention is only comforting because we believe that God loves us, that God wants to be with us. Absent this assurance, the statement “O Lord, you have searched me and known me,” might become a statement of dread. If God truly knows me, then God knows all the stuff I don’t want anyone to know.
Perhaps this is why we are tempted to spurn ordinary knowledge in the face of God’s omniscience, God’s all-knowingness. Our inclination is to be more astounded with God’s knowing me inside my mother’s womb and knowing all my days before they exist than with the tedium of our day-to-day activities. This totalizing knowledge of God seems desirable to us, all the knowledge without any of the mess. This is what is so enticing about being let in on a secret about someone else: you have the information without having to go through all the work of getting it. It renders relationship unnecessary; you are spared the long and difficult process of being deemed trustworthy enough to hold a secret.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein insists, “We feel as if we had to see right into phenomena.”[i] We are not satisfied with accepting things the way they are presented to us. We want to get inside them or get behind them; only then will we really understand. This may not be a bad desire in-and-of-itself, but it should lead us to consider our motives: Why do we seek to know? For instance, when I visit another country, I like to learn the history of a place, experience local cultural activities, and sample local food and drink. But I much prefer to actually get to know a local. From them I learn more about a place than any guidebook could ever teach. Hopefully I do not leave simply knowing about another place but with a new relationship, perhaps the beginning of a friendship.
However, we might harbor quite different motives. Knowledge is power. Sometimes we seek knowledge for our own gain, for our protection. Knowledge can offer us stability. The literary theorist and public intellectual Edward Said describes Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of Egypt as following:
But dealings with the Muslims were only a part of Napoleon’s project to dominate Egypt. The other part was to render it completely open, to make it totally accessible to European scrutiny. From being a land of obscurity and a part of the Orient hitherto known at second hand through the exploits of earlier travelers, scholars, and conquerors, Egypt was to become a department of French learning.[ii]
Here the motivation for knowledge is domination, subjugation, and exploitation. Military strength allowed the French to pierce the heart of Egypt and find what information would be useful to them. Knowledge of the Egyptians and their land became merely the means to French ends.
To be clear, in Psalm 139 the psalmist praises God’s knowledge and declares outright that human knowledge is vastly inferior to God’s. My worry is that this psalm might lead us to turn God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus—into simply the all-seeing eye in the sky. The psalmist says that God’s knowledge is “too wonderful” and “so high.” It is easy from such descriptions to imagine God as the all-knowing yet unaffected observer. This God is distant, simply watching the world as events play out, just as God knew they would.
We are tempted to imagine God in such a way because it is a position we desire for ourselves. Last week Isaac talked about feeling short-changed by the “quiet apocalypse” that happens at Jesus’ baptism. Facing a world of pain, alienation, and injustice, we get a dove. Maybe it is this same frustration that makes us envious of an all-knowing God. We think, “God, if we could just see how all this is going to turn out—if we could just know what you know—then it would be so much easier.” Our uncertainty plagues us; we feel mired in it.
In today’s gospel reading, we get a glimpse of the two types of knowledge I’ve been describing. Philip—a new follower of Jesus himself—tells his friend Nathanael about Jesus: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Philip’s excitement is only matched by Nathanael’s skepticism: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It is not altogether clear why Nathanael treats Nazareth with such derision, but it is evident that, for Nathanael, messiahs do not come from such a place. Nathanael’s hometown of Cana was not far away from Nazareth, so perhaps he was raised not to associate with people from the wrong side of the tracks. When Philip calls his friend, he appeals to scripture, to what Moses in the law and the prophets wrote; perhaps he does so because he knows Nathanael to be a serious student of the scriptures. If this is the case, then perhaps Nathanael rightly recognizes that Nazareth is never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. Surely the Messiah would not come from such an insignificant place.
Nevertheless, Philip convinces his cynical friend to go to meet Jesus. When Jesus encounters Nathanael, he declares him to be “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael is confused. Perhaps Jesus has mistaken him for someone else. “Where did you get to know me?” he replies. Where, indeed. Nathanael does not know that he is face-to-face with the God of Psalm 139, the God who knit Nathanael together in his mother’s womb. Surely Jesus could have responded with such an answer. He could have said, “Listen here, Nathanael. I’m the God that created the heavens and the earth, and I don’t take too kindly to people badmouthing my hometown.” But Jesus, of course doesn’t say this. He simply says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
If I were Nathanael, I would want more details. I’d want to know if Jesus just happened to walk past me and remembered my face. If not, I’d want to know how his miraculous long-distance vision works. To Nathanael such questions are clearly superfluous. All that matters to him is that Jesus is “the Son of God,” “the King of Israel”; moreover, Jesus knows who he is and considers Nathanael—the very same Nathanael who complained about a Messiah from Nazareth—to be a true Israelite.
Nathanael’s knowledge of Nazareth threatened to keep him at a distance from actual Nazarenes. Jesus’ knowledge of Nathanael seeks to be part of Nathanael’s life. Jesus promises that Nathanael will see even greater sights than the fig tree vision: “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” But the gospel of John does not record such a vision; in fact, angels do not appear at all until the empty tomb. Jesus’ words seem to reference Jacob’s vision from Genesis chapter 28. Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven and angels were ascending and descending on it. When Jacob wakes up he declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” These words could also come from the mouth of Nathanael; his previous way of knowing the world might have kept him from seeing God in his midst.
In Jesus we discover that God not only knows about humanity, but also knows what it is to be human. In Jesus, God knows us as we know one another. God knows the vulnerability and risk that are inherent to our relationships. We need not say that God is limited in knowledge, but rather, in Jesus, God takes up our way of knowing and makes it God’s own. Because of this our knowledge is changed. We cannot know in the same way we did before. We can only know one another as God knows us in Jesus. This knowledge will not protect us; in fact, it will make us more vulnerable. It will not make our lives easier, but will take us into the mess that is our world. Such knowledge will force upon us information that we cannot unlearn: That 805 million people in the world do not have enough to eat while in 2012 the United States threw away 35 million tons of food; that the official schedule of Raleigh Central Prison uses the dehumanizing word “feedings” to refer to breakfast, lunch, and dinner; that less than a year after the death of his 30-year-old brother my best friend’s mother-in-law is now fighting a battle against pancreatic cancer.
These are hard, even unbearable things to know. We can disown our knowledge,[iii] but that is the path to alienation and isolation: from one another and from God. Learning to know the world as God knows it means learning the discipline of attention. Attention is difficult because we are often distracted by the neat categories we create for ourselves in order to feel safe or justified. Instead, must learn to pay attention; we must learn to know the way God knows the world in Jesus.[iv]
[i] Philosophical Investigations, §90.
[ii] Orientalism, 83.
[iii] I borrow this wording from Stanley Cavell’s book Disowning Knowledge: In Seven Plays of Shakespeare.
[iv] As I wrote this sermon I was thinking about many of the ideas from two essays. The first is “Knowing and Loving” by Rowan Williams from his book A Ray of Darkness. The second is “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” by Simone Weil from Waiting for God.