And they stood still, looking sad. Daniel Bonnell, The Road to Emmaus, oil on canvas, 48”x32”. Mr. Bonnell’s work is among the most moving biblical art we here at psnt.net have ever seen. We encourage you to peruse his paintings and drawings here, and, if you have the love, to join his Community of Patrons and periodically receive digital reproductions of his latest work. Image copyright Daniel Bonnell www.DanielBonnell.com. Used by permission of the artist. Click on the image for a beautiful high-resolution version
In my previous life as an astronomy professor I spent many nights under the sky with my students, and I would often point out stars, or planets, or galaxies, or other cosmic doodads. And the students would regularly strain and squint, trying to see dim stars I could see easily. This is not because they were blind or my vision was excellent, but because there’s a trick to it. The idea is, to see a dim star you can’t look straight at it. But once you relax and look a little to the side of it, it pops clearly into view. Of course once this happens you reflexively focus on it again but when you do it promptly disappears poof! The thing is, to see a dim star clearly you must relax your eyes and use your peripheral vision. It’s counterintuitive and very frustrating to novice skygazers, but once you get the knack of it, it’s automatic.
In the Gospel of Luke, two disciples — Cleopas and an unnamed follower — meet up with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. This happens on Easter, so it’s a pretty notable meeting. But the two goofball disciples don’t see that it’s Jesus — he’s supposed to be dead, after all, right? But if a good friend of mine showed up post-death, I would probably at least recognize him, don’t you think? Not these guys. They walk the rest of the way to Emmaus with Jesus, all the while ignorant of his identity.
Irony 101, Lesson 5: As they traveled they spoke all about the events surrounding Jesus’ trial and death and tried to solve the problem posed by his missing body. Jesus even interprets his own story right there as they walk, and the whole time the disciples are trying to figure out what it all means and where Jesus could be. Figure as they might, however, they never did come up with anything that made sense, and they never recognized the very Jesus who walked the road with them, no more than a few feet away.
Then this happens:
As they came near the village to which they were going, [Jesus] walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
– Luke 24.28-31, NRSV
Once those poor goofs finally fixed their eyes directly on Jesus, he disappears. Like those dim stars my students, for all their effort and strain, could not see, but which were there all the time.
There is something about this theme — hidden in plain sight — that reminds me of some comments written in response to the Caterpillar post a few days ago. We at psnt.net had asked our Alert Readers to respond to the Caterpillar’s words to Alice, Who are you? Explain yourself! What size do you want to be?
Alert Readers Mark Taylor and Brice Harris shared a similar thought: The harder we work to explain ourselves, the more difficult the job becomes. Just as the star fades as we focus directly on it, and just as Jesus disappears at the instant of recognition, so the more elusive and skittish our selves become as we concentrate more intensely and directly on them.
I shrink in size like Alice whenever I try to explain myself; my explanations are always so much less than I am. Thus I handle these questions very evasively, aided by a generous dose of postmodern indeterminacy. I might dust my confection with a quote from Guy Davenport: “People who always know what they are doing seem to miss the vital part of any doing.” The caterpillar grows in Alice’s eyes by refusing to explain himself when asked, instead turning the question back on the inquirer. And why not? Does anyone feel like they are likely to be understood when confronted with an imperious “Explain yourself”?
And Brice takes the theme to the level of the divine, writing,
It seems like… God becomes lessened when God is discussed.
Here, Mark and Brice have hit on the very philosophy behind psnt.net: Some things become more comprehensible the more closely they are studied, but other things only become more and more incomprehensible (but that’s a good thing).
As a fantastically simple example of the former, Galileo came to understand that freely falling objects fall with constant acceleration and not constant velocity, as Aristotle had maintained. How did he do this? By constructing a set of experiment that closely analyzed the motion of balls rolling on inclined planes. Now his experiments have certainly led to deeper questions about the nature of gravity, etc., but these are not questions about the motion of freely falling objects. To understand the motion, he studied the motion. The results of his work are reproducible and easily communicable and have thus been communicated and understood with utter clarity by all physicists and astronomers, and probably even some chemists (that’s a joke that’s funny to some people — haha).
As an example of the latter, consider theology and its object: God. I think it’s obvious to all Alert Readers that theology got a pretty serious head start on modern science, yet we still have no clue “what God is.” There are different reasons why this may be so. Our atheist friends would say it’s because God shares an ontological plane with Lucky the Leprechaun. But we and our Christian and Jewish and Muslim friends say it’s because God is exactly what our traditions have always taught God to be: the infinite mystery at the utmost center of life, a mystery for which no words are adequate. And we at psnt.net would like to suggest that the more God is studied, the deeper that mystery is apprehended. That is, the end of theology is to end where one began: in ignorance.
But this is a new kind of ignorance. It is not ignorance in the I-don’t-know-what-the-capital-city-of-Ukraine-is sense, but in a much more profound and troubling and liberating sense: the sense of knowing that one does not know. It is what Nicholas of Cusa called “learned ignorance,” and what some medieval theologians called “unknowing.” Socrates was all about this kind of ignorance, too (but he would have not connected it with the divine).
As it is with God, so it is with us. We do not know ourselves, and the more we try to explain ourselves the more frustrated our efforts become. None other than that most interesting of atheists, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote in his work The Genealogy of Morals, the following.
We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves… Of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves, we understand ourselves not, in our selves we are bound to be mistaken, for each of us holds good to all eternity the motto, “Each is farthest away from himself” — as far as ourselves are concerned, we are not knowers.
So God is a mystery and the self is a mystery. This is not to say that the self is God, in an Eastern “Atman is Brahman” kind of way. It is to suggest, instead, that there is a deep connection between God and the self, and that it may be interesting to investigate it. We humbly propose that with God and the self, the more one knows, the less one knows.
Science moves forward by the application of increasingly focused vision. But, IOHO, when it comes to faith, it is by giving up trying to see that one sees, and not by direct effort; not like my students standing in the dark, heads thrown back, straining to see what is really there, and not seeing it.