3. Knowing the Unknown
Krista Tippett recently interviewed Dr. Jill Tarter for her On Being podcast and radio broadcast. Tarter, according to the show notes “is the co-founder and chair emeritus for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. She currently serves on the management board for the Allen Telescope Array. She has been awarded two Exceptional Public Service medals from NASA and the Women in Aerospace Lifetime Achievement Award. In April of 2021, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.”
She was also the model for the astrophysicist, Dr. Ellie Arroway, the lead character in Contact, the movie adaptation of Carl Sagan’s book by the same name. It’s a great interview, and I’d recommend it for your edification and entertainment.
Tarter talks about the factors that have motivated and informed the systematic search for extra-terrestrial intelligence – especially the “game-changers” that have opened new avenues for that project.
Among those was the discovery of “extremophiles,” forms of terrestrial life that exist and flourish in incredibly “hostile” environments such as the cooling water of nuclear reactors, the boiling battery acid of volcanic eruptions, and the neighborhood of thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean.
If life can evolve there, might it also evolve in unexpected places on other planets? The possibility opened up new pathways forward in the SETI journey. “So, I think that part of the lesson there is, we need to stop projecting what we think onto what we don’t yet know,” she suggested at the end of this description. “So we were totally wrong,” she notes, “and now extremophiles and exoplanets suggest there’s just a huge amount of potentially habitable environments out there.”
Stop projecting what we think we know on what we don’t know – that’s a good admonition for Nicodemus, and for us. Nic projects what he thinks he knows on what he doesn’t know. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher coming from God,” he states with such confidence, “for no one is able to do these signs which you are doing unless God is with that person” (John 3:2, my translation).
Nicodemus uses the Greek word for “knowing” that is less relational and more arm’s-length (oida). When Jesus gets around to “knowing” again in verse 10, he uses the Greek word for knowing that is relational and interpersonal (ginosko). That’s a detail that matters in our understanding of the text (and of the work of the Trinity in the cosmos).
Part of Nic’s problem, therefore, is his epistemology, his commitment to a particular way of knowing. He projects what he thinks he knows about how God works on to what he doesn’t know about Jesus. He can’t – is not able – to access the Abundant, Eternal Life Jesus offers from his current point of view. He must be born “from above” in order to have the appropriate point of view.
“From above” is about one’s worldview, one’s perspective on reality – not about one’s physical location or momentary experience. “We can’t solve problems,” Albert Einstein wrote, “by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Nic could have used some of Einstein’s insight and openness during his night visit to Jesus.
People believe that Einstein also famously coined a definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The phrase was around a hundred years before Einstein was writing. It is so wise that it became associated with the famous physicist in the 1980’s. In any case, Nicodemus could have used that good counsel as well in his dialogue with Jesus.
What Nicodemus thought he knew for sure was an obstacle to gaining the real knowing that Jesus offered. This is John’s version of Jesus’ words to Peter in Mark 8. Nicodemus had his mind set on human things rather than on Divine things and was reluctant to budge from that position.
We can have some sympathy for good, old, Nic in this regard. How do we respond when we discover that what we thought we knew for sure is wrong? We tend to respond more often with violence than with new vision. Such a discovery typically terrifies people. And terrified people are always potential terrorists. The path to Abundant, Eternal Life requires a vision of something authentically new.
Therefore, Jesus’ metaphor is precise. The vision of something authentically new is just like being reborn, being made new, starting over from scratch. This requires dismantling much of what we thought we knew for sure. I think of Thomas Kuhn and his reflections in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. What we think we know for sure is often the chief obstacle to new knowing. That’s why new knowing more often comes through revolution than through evolution.
Nicodemus certainly serves as a type for the “established” Church of our time. I don’t mean a legally established Church, of course. I mean the Christian cultural reality which has created and undergirded western, imperial, and colonial politics and culture for the last 500 years.
That model has worked incredibly well for the small number of white, male, wealthy, property owners who designed and maintained the system. Within that system, it was possible to “know” things for sure. “White” and “male” and “powerful” were the categories that defined truth, beauty, and goodness and served as the centers of cultural and political reality. Lots of information could be generated within that system – some of it good, but much of it bad for those who didn’t fit the centered categories.
Now, that system is being recognized for what it is. That system of knowing is threatened with deconstruction, decolonizing and de-centering. The response is predictably violent. How do we respond when we discover that what we thought we knew for sure is wrong? A casual perusal of the headlines on any given day provides numerous illustrations of the responses.
The Divine Spirit of Life and Love is not captured by or contained in any human construction. That Spirit blows where the Spirit wants, refuses to color inside the lines, is no respecter of hierarchies or hegemonies. That Divine Spirit breathes new life into us if we’re able to accept the gift. We don’t decide where the Spirit blows or what gets blown around.
In fact, the Spirit rarely blows from the center outward to the margins. The reverse is almost always the case. That’s why it’s important to keep in mind the diptych approach that structures the Gospel of John. Many commentators have noted that the gospel writer sets up intentional parallels between characters. The one important for our purposes is the contrast between Nicodemus in chapter 3 and the Samaritan woman in chapter 4.
Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman show us that the established center is the last place where we will find new ways of seeing, thinking, and knowing. Nic doesn’t get it because he is committed to a privileged system. He meets Jesus in the dark and has trouble getting out of the shadows. The Samaritan woman labors under no such limitations. She meets Jesus in the glare of noonday and gets it almost immediately.
“Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability,” Howard Thurman writes in Jesus and the Disinherited, “is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak” (pages 11-12). We have spent far too much time with Nicodemus, projecting what we think we know on to realities about which we know very little. Will congregations be willing to venture out to the village well and learn from the Samaritan women in our communities?
So far, the reviews are mixed. In our predominantly wealthy and white and male (in terms of leadership and values) congregations, the response too often has been that issues of race and class, gender and ethnicity, power and privilege – these are problems of other people, far from us. Why should we be concerned? After all, things are just fine for us in our location and from our perspective. We already know what we know, and it works for us.
If that is our perspective, then the gospel reading for this Trinity Sunday may be and should be an uncomforting and discomfiting text. At least, that should be the case if we even hear what’s going on.
Transforming vision comes mostly from the margins and rarely from the center. Like Nicodemus, we must be born from above, anew, and again. That birth is and will be painful and traumatic. What birthing is not? Moreover, that new birth is a daily experience and not merely a one-off event.
This is, after all, how we Lutherans understand our baptismal covenant – our entry into the “born from above” life. Luther asks in his Small Catechism, “What does baptism signify?” He answers, “It signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (page 44).
This Christian business is not about what we think we know. It’s about how we are known, and loved, into new life every day. That newness is both personal and institutional, both relational and systemic. That newness is the main business of the life of the Trinity within us, among us, and through us.
References and Resources
Clark-Soles, Jaime. “Characters who count: the case of Nicodemus,” Chapter 7 in Engaging with C. H. Dodd on the Gospel of John: Sixty Years of Tradition and Interpretation. Edited by Tom Thatcher and Catrin Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2013. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bridwell/detail.action?docID=1303715.
Koester, Craig R., “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John” (1989). Faculty Publications. 22. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/22.
Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.
Wengert, Timothy J. (translator). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.
Wengert, Timothy J. Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.