This week’s gospel readings from John (in the Catholic lectionary) spotlight two good people who knew Jesus personally, but whose understanding of him was limited. In Nicodemus, the pious Pharisee, we find a man who doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about. Jesus asks him, “You are a teacher of Israel, and you do not know these things?” But he truly is left scratching his head. And today we encounter Philip, who asks Jesus to show him the Father. Jesus responds, “You have been with me all this time, Philip, and you do not know me?” One feels for these guys.
Both represent human beings who have a burning desire for God, a yearning to know more, yet who, as human beings, are limited in their capacity to comprehend. And they are not alone. We are all in the same place. It takes a lifetime to gain any wisdom in these things at all, and even then it is at best paltry. As Karl Rahner reminds us, any knowledge gained now is only asymptotic, and that means that there remains an infinite gap between what we say we know, and the incomprehensible reality of God. That is a gap that will only be closed beyond death—closed not in comprehension, but in love. We cannot close it now, even with the most sublime theology or art.
In addition, we have many distractions that divert us from a deeper understanding of the things of God. So much of life is frittered away in what my late friend John Carmody once described as “botched time.” As a result, God remains to some degree distant: inaccessible, ineffable, enigmatic, and even foreign to our sensibilities. God doesn’t always fall within our radar, and if we think that’s happening on a regular basis, it is not unlikely that we are deluding ourselves. God does reach across the infinite gap in the grace of his self-communication, in so many ways, and that contact is real. (Just as the person of Jesus was real to Nicodemus and Philip). Still, the “cloud of unknowing” surrounds us.
Yet, the desire to know God is also real. And it increases, especially as death becomes a more certain reality, not a distant possibility. The looming of that horizon, which grows ever nearer as the gateway to God, leads to a gradual winnowing, a separating of the wheat from the chaff, an increasing focus on what finally matters. God is already communicating from that horizon, and moving toward us. In the end, it doesn’t matter that we do not fully comprehend, for we never could; and, if God be God, we never will. It is enough that we move toward God, and that God moves toward us. In that motion of love, hearts are burning.