Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Lent

Ezechiel 36:23-28 / John 9:1-38

We often find a dichotomy posed between those who would prioritize the experiential in matters of faith and those who would privilege the faith's objective, public presentation. For the former, nothing outside ourselves is ever meaningful to us except insofar as we are able to and have successfully received it. Thus, no creedal formulation, however precise, can ever provide the motive for our belief, the impact of that belief on our lives, nor even the horizon into which our belief leads us; only our experience of the truth which the formulation is meant to embody can do that. For the latter, experience is noted to be a radically unreliable guide. We can be woefully self-deceived, even about what is most dear to us. It is, on this view, only the gracious coming of the public revelation in Christ that allows us to make right use of our experience, to discern what is of the spirit and what of the flesh and the world.

On the face of it, Jesus' healing of the man born blind, and his subsequent engagements with his neighbors and with the Pharisees seem to imply that the experientialists have it right. After all, the man blind from birth seems always to root his claims in his direct experience of Jesus, making no claim greater than his experience would allow. When the question arises among his neighbors about his identity, whether he was indeed the man blind from birth, he can answer I am he, but when describing how he was healed, he is more cautious. He speaks of That man called Jesus, for as yet he only knows him as the one who healed him, and he freely admits ignorance about Jesus' comings and goings: And they said to him: Where is he? He saith: I know not. Of course, he is not shy about making a proposal as to Jesus' identity — They say therefore to the blind man again: What sayest thou of Him that hath opened thine eyes? And he said: He is a prophet. Even so, he balances his lack of assurance the identity and moral character of Jesus as to him less certain against the certainty of his own experience of healing: If He be a sinner, I know not: one thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see. Indeed, his reply to the Pharisees' repeated request to hear how it was that he was healed suggests that he presumes that the Pharisees themselves might wish to have a direct experience of Jesus: I have told you already, and you have heard: why would you hear it again? Will you also become His disciples?

In contrast, the Pharisees seem to present to us the ills of placing doctrinal certainty ahead of experience. Even granting that there was a division among them in the parsing out of two seemingly irreconcilable claims, viz. This man is not of God, who keepeth not the sabbath and How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles?, in light of the direct reporting of the man who had experienced the miraculous cure, they resolve their division only be denying his experience: The Jews then did not believe him, that he had been blind and had received his sight. Indeed, their further questioning of him, despite being ostensibly a seeking after the events of his cure, turn out only to be an attempt to have him deny his experience of regaining sight at the hands of Jesus: Give glory to God, We know that this man is a sinner. Their assurance, from the principle that violators of the Law cannot work wonders by the power of God, forces them to deny experience to uphold doctrine, and they are the worse for it.

However, this is not the whole story. After all, the man born blind does not simply rely on the experience of his miraculous healing. Despite his own protestations to know nothing of Jesus, whether he is a sinner or not, he actually has himself applied the judgment of doctrine to interpret his new-found sight. In fact, he does so with a syllogism that might well serve as a model in a logic class: [N]ow we know that God doth not hear sinners: but if a man be a server of God and doth His will, him He heareth. From the beginning of the world it hath not been heard, that any man hath opened the eyes of one born blind. Unless this man were of God, he could not do anything. In other words, even for the man born blind, who experienced the healing directly, it not only the undeniable character of his personal experience, but it is also a consideration of that experience as judged by the faith revealed to Israel that sustains him and keeps him from yielding to the Pharisees.

Moreover, neither his experience nor his faith in the Law in the end move him to saving faith in Jesus Christ. For this, it is not what he does, what resources he has available that are of any avail. Rather, it is only on Christ's initiative that his nature is made known — Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and when He had found him, He said to Him: Dost thou believe in the Son of God? He answered and said: Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him? And Jesus said to him: Thou hast both seen Him, and it is He that talketh with thee. And he said: I believe, Lord! And falling down, he adored Him. It was on Jesus' hearing that he came to the man, it was Jesus who found him out, who was not in fact looking for him, even as it had been on Jesus' initiative that the original healing had taken place that the works of God should be manifest in Him. It is Jesus alone who can both pose the crucial question — Dost thou believe in the Son of God? — and Jesus alone who can answer it with, at one and the same time, the revelation that elicits faith and the very faith with which we can respond.

In the end, we do ourselves and the credibility of the faith no favors by arguing in public or in private about the priorities of private experience or public revelation. Whatever experience we have that makes the public revelation credible to us is always already something prepared from before all time that the works of God should be manifest in us. So, likewise, the very point of the public revelation in God's providence is that not we alone and on our own, but that the whole community of faith, indeed the whole world, might see and know what great love God has shown, and thus might see rightly how that love has been communicated to each and all who believe. Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of our faith. It is by him that we have come to believe, in him that we believe, and through him that we will be brought to the joys we have not even thought to seek. 

Let the ears of Thy mercy, O Lord, be open to the prayers of Thy suppliant people: and that Thou mayest grant the desires of those who pray, make them ask such things as please Thee.

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