There is the greatest difference between wanting to control the world and seeking to understand it. The love of learning which we talked about last week is about seeking to understand rather than presuming to control. Epiphany is the making known of things but that can only happen in part because of the desire to learn on our part. It has very much to do with a respect for learning and for the quest to know. Only so is it transformative.
This week the readings were the story of the “beginning of signs” at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, and the “conversion” of Paul on the proverbial road to Damascus. Both are Epiphanies, as it were, and both challenge us about what we claim to know and seek to know. We might like the idea of having a kind of control over nature that allows us to change water into wine. Such is one of the illusions and fantasies of our technocratic world. But the point of the story is not about human manipulation of nature for so-called human ends but about what God seeks for our humanity in all of the ‘miracles’. He seeks the ultimate good for our humanity which is, perhaps not surprisingly, found in social joys. Most of the miracle stories are about healings but what are we healed for? For what end? Our good as found in God, in our delight in the goodness, the beauty and the truth of God which does not negate our humanity by turning us into machines, into automatons and bots, but perfects our humanity.
The story reveals at once the human predicament as named by Mary, “they have no wine.” We lack the means of our own sufficiency and joy. Jesus’ response is intriguing. “What is that to thee and to me? Mine hour has not yet come.” This may puzzle us, but Mary gets it. “Whatever he tells you to do, do it,” she says, an echo of her own fiat mihi, “be it unto me according to thy word.” God seeks what is good for us according to his word and will, not according to human dictates and desires in all of their confusion and incompleteness. His hour refers to his passion, death and resurrection; in short, to the purpose of his Incarnation, his coming in the flesh of our humanity to recall us to our truth in God. There is perhaps no greater lesson than learning how to take delight in one another rather than using and manipulating one another in the illusions of control.
We might like to turn water into wine, to change the world into something of our imagining. Such are the fatal illusions of our technocratic idolatry. But we always discover the limitations of ourselves; the algorithms that reveal and magnify human biases that benefit the few at the expense of the many, for instance. “O if we but knew what we do/ When we delve or hew”, Gerard Manley Hopkins notes about our claims to improve upon nature in his poem, “Binsey Poplars felled 1879.” “To mend her we end her,/ When we hew or delve”. If we but knew.
So often we think we know what in fact we do not know. That is the point, too, of Paul’s conversion, as it is called. Saul of Tarsus, as he was first named, identifies himself as a Pharisee, as a devoted follower of the Law and as a student of the famed Gamaliel. He persecuted the followers of the Way, meaning the followers of Jesus. Christianity did not yet exist so his conversion cannot be about a shift in political and religious identities and loyalties. Paradoxically, as Paul, his new name after the event on the Road to Damascus, he would become the second founder of Christianity. But Saul thought he knew what he was doing and was convinced that it was right to persecute the followers of Jesus. The vision on the Road to Damascus brings him into collision with himself through the encounter with Christ - a blinding light above the brightness of the sun and a voice from heaven.
He is, we might say, like Oedipus, blinded into sight, yet, like Oedipus, it happens because of his desire or quest to know and to act upon what thought he knew. It brings him, like Oedipus, to the awareness of the incompleteness of his knowing. His conversion is really an Epiphany, a break-through of the understanding. He could not reconcile the idea of the glory of the Messiah expressed in the political images of power and domination with the image of the Crucified Christ. The break-through moment, his conversion, is his realization that the glory is in the suffering. That changes everything and sets him upon a new path, no longer the persecutor but the apostle to the Gentiles in the recognition of the universality of God’s will for our common humanity and not just for a privileged few. But this could only happen in part because of his intellectual character and his passion for understanding.
The transformation means the fuller realization of the truth of himself, like Oedipus, and like Oedipus, ultimately through the encounter with what is greater than himself, the truth of God. Education is about conversion in this sense, the constant turning of our minds towards the truth which by definition is greater than ourselves. It is not there for us to manipulate and use but for us to honour and respect. Only so can we act with true compassion and care towards one another out of a sense of the joy and delight that is found in God. The blinding light is above the light of the sun, an echo of the image of the sun in Plato’s Republic. In being turned towards the light of truth, we are no longer conformed to the flickering images that we mistake for reality but neither are we in flight from the world. With both Plato and Paul, we are compelled to service and to engage that world; literally, to go back down into the cave of human confusion to teach and to care for one another. To share the delight of learning that brings light to all our darkness. It is about living with and for and in one another; a constant transformation “by the renewing of our minds.”
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy