Or: Why The 'Dim Vision' Of 1 Corinthians 13 Could Just Be A Side-Effect Of Seeing Two Layers Of Human Existence
1 Corinthians 13:11-13
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known. But now faith, hope, and love remain – these three. The greatest of these is love.
World English Bible (WEB)*
I have always treasured these words from Paul's letters to the Corinthians, although probably more so because of his use of the mirror metaphor – the mysterious idea of seeing things dimly at present or as a fragmented reflection of reality – and not so much because of his stress on the process of 'manly' maturation, allegedly required for personal spiritual development.
I am not sure where and when I first learnt about this Bible passage, but the most common interpretation conveyed to me as a young person was that our view of the world and reality – whatever 'real' may mean in this case – is bound to be partial or even obstructed, like looking through the glass of a fogged window. And, I was told, it will remain this way until Christ returns to reveal all things to us, thus giving us full knowledge in eternity. The logic behind this interpretation, I think, was something like this: for us to be able to enter into the perfect union with God promised to us in the New Testament, both we as individuals and we as the Church must go through a maturation process, as a result of which we give up our childish understandings of the world and the transcendent and develop full knowledge of the way things really are – Reality with a capital R or ultimate/absolute reality, I suppose.
Put Away All Childish Things Or Become Like A Child - Which One Is It?
Now there is a lot to be said, and even more to be questioned, about this take on 1 Corinthians 13 and the mirror metaphor, in particular. I, for one, must admit I am rather uncomfortable using the concept of reality with such certainty today, regardless of whether we are talking about phenomenal reality (reality as experienced by us humans in a variety of ways) or noumenal reality (Reality as it is), to use Kant's type distinction. But let's postpone this complex (and rather abstract) philosophical discussion to another day and focus only on the idea of 'manly' maturation as a requirement for clear vision, implied in verse 11, for now. Gender-issues aside (Paul was, in fact, a man, after all!), is (manly) maturation in the sense of a linear developmental process really such a useful ideal to aspire to on our journeys of faith and doubt?
Don't get me wrong! Of course, I agree that maturing and growing in faith, while constantly deconstructing and reconstructing what we believe and stand for in life, is an important part and purpose of our spiritual existence, but why should this require complete abandonment of all 'childish things'? Was it not Jesus himself who said in Matthew 18: 'Most certainly I tell you, unless you turn and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven' (Matthew 18:3, WEB)? In some ways, it therefore appears to me, children are much better prepared to get a glimpse of God's presence among us and to see 'face to face' what remains hidden from most of us so-called 'grown-ups' behind the fogged mirror, most of the time.
Being Childish Versus Being Child-Like In Faith, Two Greek Terms Considered
To be fair, comparing these two verses makes little sense without a brief look at the Greek terms for 'child'/'children' used in these contexts. In Paul's 'mirror verse' of 1 Corinthians 13, we find the word nepios which means infant or youngest of children (literally: without the power of speech) and is also used metaphorically, i.e. throughout the Epistles, to describe those who are unskilled, untaught, but also spiritually immature in their ways. So, in this particular example, Paul's teaching is often taken to reflect the view that, at some point in our faith journey, we should grow out of our spiritual infancy by leaving behind all childish ways that hinder our spiritual development.
In Matthew 18, by contrast, we find the term paidions, sometimes associated with slightly older or more mature children who are not quite as helpless and unaware as infants would be in the nepios sense. Some people seem to believe this passage means we should somehow develop (or return to?) the same kind of child-like (as opposed to childish) faith that the children drawn to Jesus in this famous Biblical scene must have had, but this might also be a bit too simplistic. If we take into account the complex meanings of the two Greek terms considered, we could conclude that it is much more the dependence of children (perhaps, on parental love and guidance), than it is the faith of children that is being compared to those of (adult) believers in these Bible verses. This is also evident in Jesus' subsequent statement in Matthew 18: 'Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'
Towards (Or Back to?) A Child-Like Dependence On Divine Grace
In other words, the humility of a child is that of her conscious dependence on and/or smallness before God, and it is this aspect of child-like existence to which we might wish to return on our faith journeys as much as we can. (This also explains why paidion has a slightly more positive connotation than nepios in these two Biblical interpretations. I guess one needs to be mature enough to become aware of one's own dependence on divine grace to be able to humble oneself before God as a result…?)
Returning to the idea of temporary 'dim vision', I am now wondering, though, is it not part of the very process of spiritual maturation to become aware of our own child-like dependence on God to be able to see his kingdom in us, precisely while we are here on this earth, a bit more clearly at times? What I mean by this is: if we are somehow, mysteriously, placed in the Here and There (that is 'here' in this time and place where our vision and understanding are limited, but with the potential of seeing a new world to come or a 'there' already present in this dimension), then there can sometimes be moments where these two layers of human existence will merge before our eyes so that we may struggle to focus on both of them at the same time.
I think of it as an overlay image where two pictures or more are placed over one another, with the one(s) on top being somewhat transparent thus letting the other, deeper layers shine through. Or like a 'thin place' (for example, in nature) where the distance between the secular and the sacred somehow collapses, where another dimension seems nearer than usual or where we can sense things we normally don't. But again, I would like to suggest that it can be helpful to 'feel as a child' and to 'think as a child' in such a situation and perhaps, to even give up some of our adult ways on the way. Although it should probably not be so as to be able to lose the dim vision involved in trying to see the Here and There, but to embrace it as part of the transformational experience itself.
Can We Re-Learn To See The Here And There Through The Wise Eyes of A Child?
This is a difficult question, and I would be curious to hear what others may think about it. My own answer is based on pure intuition. If all things are possible with God – a promise I would love to trust in my life – then certainly, there must be a way to recover or rediscover, perhaps in and through our own 'inner' child, those precious qualities we must have once had in our early years: our child-like curiosity and inquisitiveness to learn something new every day; our love of adventure; our openness to new ways of seeing the world. But is this something we can re-learn somehow? Maybe to some extent. In the end, however, I suppose this, too, will be much more a matter of divine grace received in child-like dependence and awe, than it is something we ourselves can achieve, let alone actively train ourselves in. For now, all we can do is try to keep our eyes open in our daily lives; focus our attention on Love (with a capital L); become aware of God's tender presence in and around us and hope to be lucky enough to be able to see, once in a while, the Here and There through the wise eyes of a child.
'But now faith, hope, and love remain – these three. The greatest of these is love.'
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*Disclaimer: For copyright reasons, this website uses a Bible translation, the World English Bible (WEB), that is in the public domain. More suitable, progressive translations would be the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the Common English Bible (CEB).