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On Knowing

In western culture, what we know is a means by which we value ourselves and others. We equate intellectual understanding and its expression as markers of maturity and validity. We elevate and follow those who communicate what we label as truth most effectively. Language has a powerful hold on us. We trust the eloquent speaker. We believe the well formed sentence. As the seemingly primary means to relate ideas and belief, this makes sense right? We rely on language in any and every relationship. We pray in words. We think in words. We read the written word. We listen and internalize spoken word.

But can “knowing” be bound by the confines of language? Does a 6 month-old understand the love of a mother any less than I? I may be able to verbally explain and process love, but a newborn knows love in how she is held and looked at. She knows from the consistency of her mother’s presence. She knows in the smoothness of her mother’s skin. She knows in her mother’s provision. There is no language center yet developed, but she knows deeply. The knowledge of her mother’s love is felt.

There is a knowledge language can communicate, but never to its experiential fullness. I can write of the swirling, tiger striped sky crawling through the folded hills, or of the dancing stream leaping joyfully over the mossy falls, crashing in endless crescendo, but my words can never capture the wild and ranging beauty of actual experience. So it is with God.

If intellectual understanding is the sole means by which we actualize our relationship with God, our mental manufacturing of presence never fully calls into reality what we wish to experience. But do we have to settle for a God who is only thought of, spoken about, and written to? How do we experience the love and presence of God in the same way a newborn clings to her mother’s breast?

I enjoy the taste of wine. Never once when drinking a glass have I considered its chemical components or the minute details of its production. Furthermore, never have I poured a friend a glass and encouraged them to drink by way of oenological persuasion. I say taste because it is sweet. Enjoy because I have also. It is experiential, physical, tangible. I have no words capable of outperforming the human senses of taste and smell. Through these innate senses, I have known the taste of wine beneath and beyond the limits of my own language center. It is a visceral knowing, one that moves emotion and will, and it’s just wine. In fact, if left only to language wine would never be enjoyed as intended.

As much as language allows us to communicate and process beauty and experience, I wonder if at times language becomes a crutch acting to hinder full-bodied experiential knowledge. We become acclimated to the uses and limits of language, and begin to package knowledge, experience, and understanding to fit those bounds. Language, intended to expand us beyond ourselves and act a highway into the life of another, can also reduce actuality to academic ideas far removed from anything visceral or real. Our relationship and interaction with God should not be reduced to a mere intellectual knowing, but it is often left as such.

When Jesus came to this earth, He stepped into the public eye for perhaps the first time at a wedding. His mother asked him to “do something” when the party ran out of wine. He then turned 150 gallons of water into wine. John claims this is the first miracle of Jesus. If this is how God in the flesh first allows His power to breach his humanness, we should take note. He gives no verbal explanation, no sermon or parable. He takes what was used for formulaic religious duty, and turns it into something to be tasted and consumed. Even in the act of becoming human, God is presenting Himself tangibly, forcing man to relate to Him beyond idea and philosophical conjecture. Jesus was seen, the sound of His voice audible. As any encounter with another human, in meeting Him there is communication and relation far beyond the spoken word. There is body language and facial expression, softness of voice and physical touch. Knowing is at once both intellectual and experiential. What we know and understand is most profound when grounded in actualized experience.

Language is a means to communicate this full-bodied, visceral knowledge. But as it is with wine, we can never fully translate knowledge by way of language alone. It is as such with God, we can never know fully if He remains the product of accumulated thought and intellectual understanding. Our relationship with Him must be more than written, read, or spoken word. He would not have given sense and experience if He did not intend to relate to us through these gifts also. Yes, our intellectual knowledge of Him informs belief and behavior, but it is in stepping out into physical encounter with Him and His creation that He becomes most real.

To experience this requires us to move outside of ourselves into the spaces and relationships He is present in. The movement of Jesus is consistently out to the other. He carries with Himself the eternal offer of belonging, joy, stimulation, and relationship. To experience Him is to move likewise. He is the river flowing to fill every valley and dark place. To know Him fully is to jump into the river, letting ourselves be swept into the all encompassing rhythm of redemption. This is tangibly stepping into relationships and encounters outside of what we typically choose. This is loving another in ways uncomfortable and unnerving. It is leaving our safe places and mountaintops to go down into the shadows of the valley. As much as our flesh fears this sort of encounter, it is here in the gap that Jesus is not just thought of or spoken to but wholly and powerfully felt. This full-bodied experience of the living God is what our restless hearts shout and beat for. In pure encounter with Him all of our actuality is called into the highest and fullest being. This is knowing. This is tasting the wine. May we taste and know and never cease.

 

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Joe Danehower

Business strategy consultant living in Charleston, SC. Aggressively average rock climber. Obsessive consumer of books, music, and podcasts. I'm not as funny as I think I am.

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