Sunday, February 04, 2018

"Seeing is Believing"

Isaiah 64:1-9
64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--

64:2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

64:3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

64:4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.

64:5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

64:6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

64:7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

64:8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

64:9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

The sphere of intelligibility--the reasonable--in which everyday life as well as the tradition of our philosophic and scientific thought maintains itself, is characterized by vision.  The structure of a seeing having the seen for its object or theme--the so-called intentional structure--is found in all the modes of sensibility having access to things.  It is found in the intellectual accession to the state-of-things or to the relationships between things.  But apparently it is also found in the company human beings keep among themselves, between beings who speak to one another, and of whom it is said they "see one another."  This priority of knowledge is announced, where all that we call thought, intelligence, mind, or simply psychism, ties together.

--Emmanuel Levinas

We preference sight.  "To see" is to understand.  To have insight, is to have a deeper understanding.  Truth is a lamp for our feet.  Ignorance is darkness.  To gain knowledge is to bring something to light.

"Do you see this woman?"

It is dangerous to make fetishes out of phrases, but I can't escape this one.  To see is to know and to understand, so of course Simon doesn't see her.  How could he dare do so?  But that's only a part of it.  "Lord, when did we see you?," the sheep and the goats ask in Matthew's gospel.  You didn't; but you did.  And unless you see, how can you believe?  Oh, that God would come down, as in days of old!  If only we could see!

"The sphere of which everyday life...maintains itself, is characterized by vision."  "Do you see this woman?"

More and more I think that simple question is at the heart of Christianity; or it should be.  Set aside the miracles, the sermons, the prayer in Gethsemane, even the loquacious Jesus who sucks all the air out of the room at his last meal before the crucifixion in John's Gospel (John alone among the gospels has Jesus eat another "last meal" before his gospel ends).  Don't toss it aside as irrelevant, but set it aside, gently, for the moment, and listen:  "Do you see this woman?"  The question is immediately followed with a challenge to the host's hospitality:

"Do you see this woman? I walked into your house and you didn't offer me water for my feet; yet she has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You didn't offer me a kiss, but she hasn't stopped kissing my feet since I arrived. You didn't anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with myrrh. For this reason, I tell you, her sins, many as they are, have been forgiven, as this outpouring of her love shows. But the one who is forgiven little shows little love."

Jesus makes it perfectly clear:  what is important is how you treat people; what's important is your hospitality towards guests (we'll come to the issues of "hospitality" and "guests" in a moment).  In this case seeing is not understanding, seeing is accepting.  Of course, what Jesus is asking Simon to see, is Simon.  Everything she has done, he has not done.  Her actions are actually those of a lover; they are straight out of 1st century Greek erotic literature (which Luke would know if Jesus didn't, and Luke is telling this story).  Jesus sees them as hospitality, however, and contrasts that to Simon's failures to act as the perfect host.  It isn't really that she has shown love; it is that Simon has not shown hospitality.  "Do you see this woman?"  The question is not about sight, but about insight; not about vision, but about understanding.


The sheep and the goats in Matthew's parable ask a pleading question, especially those about to be sent to the place of darkness, of wailing and gnashing of teeth:  "Lord, when did we see you?"  They mean vision, not metaphor.  Had they known it was God, they'd have been on their best behavior.  But they did not see, because they did not see.  They missed the sight, because they lacked insight.  Actually, all they lacked was an understanding of the importance, and the requirements, of hospitality.  The priority of knowledge, of seeing is believing, of seeing is understanding, led them to ignore the priority of humanity:  we must love one another.

"We must love one another, or die," Auden wrote; then decades later he decided that was a damned lie, we must die anyway.  But just as "love" doesn't have to mean a carnal or even intimate relationship with another, "die" doesn't have to mean "cessation of animal life."  There are many ways to love; there are equally many ways to die.  In "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," Ilyich is dead for his entire life, until he finally dies; there, in the moment before death, screaming his death agonies and his fears until death finally stops his breath, he realizes internally that death holds no terror for him.  In that moment he is alive; in that moment, he is fully human.  And then when he dies, although to his family and friends he is gone, it is as if he hasn't died.  But it's easy to see how dead he was, for so long, before he actually died.  Auden wasn't wrong; we must love one another, or die.  But Herbert McCabe was right, too:  if you do that, they'll kill you.

Do you see this woman?

Simon doesn't want to see her, of course.  She's a prostitute, and what is almost worse, a woman.  Actually, it is because she is a woman that she is a prostitute.  She is in his house where she has no excuse to be, because she is a woman among men.  She is anathema, and brings shame on him.  Shame is death, too.  We want to shame people today, to bring the opprobrium of death on them.  We don't want to kill Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose, but we want them to suffer the living death of ostracism through shaming.  Simon the Pharisee doesn't want to be shamed. He doesn't want to see that woman.  If a stripper were to walk into our dinner party and start giving the guest of honor a lap dance, who among us would want to see that woman?

Hospitality plays such a big role in Jesus' life and teachings.  The sheep and the goats are divided based on how hospitable they were, because in caring for or ignoring others, they cared for or ignored the God of Abraham.  The father of the prodigal throws a party when the prodigal returns, but throws it at a house owned by the elder son, with the fatted calf and all the expenses paid from the son's money.  Yet the father's question to his elder son stops all complaints:  "Your brother who was dead is alive again."  Who among us wouldn't support a resurrection, and yet the younger son was never dead.  Well, not physically.....  His father's response is extravagant hospitality to which all are invited, a celebration of resurrection which challenges the elder son's understanding of status, of hierarchy, of honoring his father and his mother, of justice and restoration and even repentance.  Who among us would not want to join the feast?  Who among us would not stand at the threshold, challenged to go in, challenged to stay out?

Do you see the problem?  More importantly, do you see a solution?

Seeing, as Levinas points out, involves something being seen.  That seems painfully elementary, but as Orwell said, it takes all the effort we can muster to see what is right in front of us.  So let's start with that observation:  to see is to relate to something, to that which is seen.  "Do you see this woman?" is a very pointed question, because Simon's first mental response is undoubtedly:  "No, I see a whore."  When you see, you establish a relationship with what is seen.  How you do that is, of course, the question.

So in the matter of hospitality, do you see a threat, or a guest?  A danger, or a stranger? (sorry, some rhymes are irresistible).  We don't just see when we look, we interpret; we decide; we define.  The "priority of knowledge" is the a priori-ty (sorry!) of interpretation.  So, look again:

Do you see this woman?

Once again, when Levinas writes that the "sphere of intelligibility--of characterized by vision," he doesn't mean it must be characterized that way, or it's a philosophical premise that this is how reason is characterized.  He means that's how we understand (!) it:  we are the ones who give reason the character of vision.  Reason, of course, is our primary tool of interpretation.  Pick up a stone, and reason tells you it is a stone; it may even tell you what kind of stone, and provide some history of the landscape where you found it (travel with a geologist sometime).  Pick up a stone as a child, for the first time, you don't even know to call it "stone."  You see it, but not the way you will see it later, when you have learned to reason about it.  To see is to interpret, to interpret is to understand.  You may see Greek letters, for example; but you do not understand, unless you can read them, which is to say, you can interpret them.  French is easier; it's the same alphabet.  You may not know French, but you can make a stab at the words.  But Greek?  Two levels of interpretation are called on; and without reason, without knowledge and how to apply it, you cannot interpret.  You see; but you don't see.

Do you see this woman?

The importance of sight is drawn in the distinction between the language of the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and the gospel of John.  Semeia the synoptics call the "miracles" of Jesus (in quotes because it's how the word is traditionally translated into English).  It actually doesn't translate as "miracle" in English, but "sign."  The miracles of Jesus are signs; they are signifiers.  They point to something else, the way all signs do (and here be glad I don't go into a discourse on semiotics.  I'm the Francophile here, not you).  Dunamis is what John's gospel calls them; acts of power.  John doesn't want us to see; so doubting Thomas must see in order to believe in the risen Christ.  John even includes the sight of Jesus on the shore of the lake, cooking and eating fish, so the readers of the gospel see, literally not metaphorically or figuratively, that Jesus of Nazareth is returned to life, not living a mere ghostly existence.  The synoptics want you to see the sign that is a signifier, to understand what it points to but is not, in itself.  There is Biblical warrant for this:

And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: 12And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.  1 Kings 19:11-12, KJV
The presence of God to Elijah is not seen, but it is signified.  God is present in signs.  John doesn't want us to believe because we see, or to look for signs.  John wants us to experience God, as acts of power must be experienced.  Acts of power are not seen as acts of power; they are experienced, in order to be acts of power.  They work on you; they are not passive, they are active.  There is no power without resistance, but the resistance of not seeing is the absence of the experience.  Isaiah is about that, in the quote at the beginning.  Isaiah is less interested in God being seen, than the presence of God being experienced as an act of power.  That, too, is because of a story about Elijah:

 And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first; for ye are many; and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under. 26And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made. 27And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked. 28And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. 29And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.

30And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that was broken down. 31And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the LORD came, saying, Israel shall be thy name: 32And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD: and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed. 33And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood. 34And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time. 35And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water.

36And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. 37Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the LORD God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again. 38Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God. 40And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.--1 Kings 18:25-40, KJV

Oh, that you would come down, indeed.

We have come to treasure sight because we have not had an overwhelming experience.  The healings of Jesus in the synoptics are today analyzed as acts misreported, or cures that are metaphorical rather than actual; because history doesn't record such things as possible, and because the gospel record as reliable history is so unreliable.  It doesn't mean they didn't happen, but:  who can prove it?  They do not enter the sphere of intelligibility of our everyday life.  That's why they are miracles!, the faithful proclaim.  Yes, and that's why they are not part one everyday life, of the tradition of our philosophical and scientific thought.  History is part of that, thanks to the Greeks; tales of miracles, violations of natural law, are not.  The dunamis of John's gospel are less amenable to this analysis:  Lazarus rises from the dead, water is turned to wine; these are acts that show the power of Jesus as the incarnate God of Abraham (Luke gets closest with Jesus walking on the water, but still it is a sign, a witness, a thing to be seen and understood afterward).  So we see, but what do we see?  And what is the power of our sight against the power of experience?  When Jesus says "Father, glorify your name," John's gospel reports that a voice answers "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it."  And the gospel further tells us that some standing there heard an angel speak; and some heard nothing.  All we are certain of, is that there was nothing to see.

Do you see this woman?

Do you have to see the fire burn to know God?  Do you have to hear the voice, drink the wine that was water?  Do you have to have the experience of power, or read the signs?  Do you see this woman?

Do you even know what it is, to see?  "This priority of knowledge is announced, where all that we call thought, intelligence, mind, or simply psychism, ties together."  Is that what it means?  And what if we untie all those things?  What then?


  1. Do you see this woman.

    I was thinking of giving Lectio Divina another try and was wondering what passage to try first. Thank you for finding it for me.

    Great post, as always.

  2. Thank you for reminding me to take up lectio again. Lent is coming, a good time to acquire discipline.