Have you ever been blinded by your own knowledge of something? I have been, and I still can be.
With a PhD in art history and thirty years in museums, I have certain skills. I can recognize signs of wear, damage and/or restoration in Old Master paintings. I usually can identify the story, the characters, and some of the symbols in religious paintings. And I’m able to place a work in an historic, cultural framework. All of that served me well when I was a curator: buying art for the museum, teaching from the collections, and advising private collectors.
The downside of my training is I can focus too much on what I “know” about such parts—condition, iconography, historical context. Then I miss the magic of the whole. Ironically, what I physically “see” can narrow my vision to what I can “understand”, blinding me to the full power of the art itself and to the presence of the Spirit in the moment. A work of art transcends the sum of its parts. Truly to appreciate art is a spiritual adventure, an act of surrender.
John Drury taught me this in his wonderful book: Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and Their Meanings. It’s a series of essays on paintings in the National Gallery, London. Ever since reading it, I try to leave art history aside and approach art more freshly. It’s easier in fields haven’t studied formally, like contemporary art or the arts of Asia or Africa. But in my own–the European/American tradition–my learning, the knowledge in my mind, still can override the Spirit.
Nicodemus had a similar problem, it seems. A Pharisee, steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, Nicodemus had vast storehouse of knowledge. When he met Jesus for the first time, that learning got in his way–blocked his surrender to the mystery of God in flesh before him.
Nicodemus was a leader of “the Jews”, whom this gospel author regularly casts as Jesus’ enemies. Their opposition to Jesus has already begun: “the Jews” have criticized Jesus for driving the money lenders and vendors out of the Temple.
So it’s a little surprising when, right afterward, Nicodemus comes to see Jesus. He does so in the dark of night. There are many metaphorical dimensions to darkness, of course. In this gospel it’s a recurring symbol of doubt, misunderstanding or ignorance–all of which could apply to Nicodemus. It’s also associated with fear and secrecy; Nicodemus might have feared being seen by colleagues. On the other hand, night was the traditional time for studying the Torah and for theological dialogue.
I think Nicodemus’ visit shows he was a man of curiosity, courage and openness. When Nicodemus approached Jesus he left aside his status, his privilege, his power. His questions make it clear that this man of knowledge and authority is humbly trying to understand, somehow to reconcile what he knows of God with what he is seeing in Jesus. He’s following his intuition that in Jesus, God is doing a new thing.
Nicodemus’ humility and vulnerability in seeking Jesus out reminds me of the early pivotal scene in the current sci-fi movie, Arrival. The heroine is a brilliant linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams.
(By the way, the movie proves that the humanities WILL save the world!)
The Arrival: twelve enormous alien spacecraft have come simultaneously to hover over different places on earth. At first, governments and scientists around the globe pool resources trying to discover the aliens’ intent. Louise and a physicist are enlisted to help US forces communicate with the creatures on the alien ship in Montana. Every day the aliens open the craft for a period of time. The Americans come into a space where a large transparent barrier separates them from the their hosts: two gigantic heptapods, who resemble tall, skinny octopi, standing on their tentacles.
In the beginning Louise, her colleague Ian, and the soldiers with them don forbidding Hazmat suits and helmets to shield them from toxins that might be on board. They aren’t making any progress in communication when suddenly—to the horror of her companions—Louise strips off the hazmat suit and helmet, comes up to the glass barrier and simply places her hand on it. She then writes her name, “Louise,” on the board she is carrying and points to herself. One of the heptapods responds in kind, using the end of a tentacle to make a design on the barrier. From that breakthrough, Louise begins the complex process of decoding their language and revealing the mystery that has brought them to earth.
In contrast to that cooperation, Jesus doesn’t make any concessions when Nicodemus comes. On the contrary. It’s unclear whether Jesus has no time for him, or is testing him, or whether Jesus lives in a reality so different from Nicodemus that he can’t bridge the gap. Language doesn’t help. Nicodemus takes it literally when Jesus insists that he be born “anew” or born “from above” (the Greek is ambiguous.) They’re two people “divided by a common language” to borrow Mark Twain’s famous quote about the British and the Americans.
Nicodemus teaches the letter of the Mosaic Law. He can’t go with the metaphor: being born anew, born from above, is about spiritual transformation.
Jesus’ language challenges Nicodemus to move from the literal to the mystical, from the mind to embodied spiritual truth, from his knowledge, his intellectual mastery to the adventure of the spiritual life. Jesus invites him—and all of us–to surrender to transcendent experiences of the Spirit: by trusting in the love of God incarnate in Jesus.
Nicodemus apparently leaves in confusion. He is the patron saint of folks like me, who come late to faith–and even then move very slowly. He has the humility and the curiosity to seek Jesus out. But he doesn’t yet have the trust, the daring to surrender to the Spirit, to the mystery of faith.
We meet Nicodemus again twice in this gospel. First, when Jesus is brought before the Council on charges, Nicodemus challenges his fellow Council members about the fairness of the process. His personal feeling about Jesus is not clear then–maybe not even to himself. But at the very end, Nicodemus commitment is clear. After the Crucifixion, Nicodemus goes with Joseph of Arimathea, another one of Jesus’ secret disciples. Together they honor the broken body of their Lord, taking it down from the cross, anointing it, and placing it in the tomb.
As the movie Arrival unfolds, Dr. Louise Banks’ decoding of the aliens’ language first brings spectacular results in communication and knowledge about the universe. Then—as language can—it leads to a nearly-cataclysmic misunderstanding. In the end, the salvation of the story (and the planet) comes down not to the “knowledge” of the mind, but to that of the heart–to leaps of faith grounded in relationships of trust.
Anne Lamott wrote “God loves you just the way you are. But God loves you too much to leave you just the way you are.” God in Christ beckons us to move beyond what we can intellectually understand, beyond what we can name, tame or control. Our “comfort zone” is a pretty boring place. God in Christ invites us to the adventure of faith, to surrender to the mystery of love incarnate, and the uncertainty that is part of the package.
God loves you and me just the way we are. And God loves us too much to leave us just the way we are.