What Can We Know?


David G. Mitchell


More specifically, what can we know about our faith? That is a question that Mary Gordon has been asking herself about her own. Faith and religious experience are personal and of necessity, intimate and unique experiences. Despite dogma, religious scholarship and authority, and all other sources of theological guidance and dictate, I do not believe that any two people share identical concepts of God, faith or truth. That is how it always has been and always will be.

While faith is a personal experience, however, it is often blind and arrogant or at least unquestioning and passive. Regardless of religious denomination, the passive acceptance of the spiritual authority of church leaders is not faith in God but the blind faith in the authority of the church leaders. Faith in the validity of one religion over another, or unwavering atheism for that matter, is an arrogance shared by many, but rarely have I encountered a person who can articulate the foundations for his or her beliefs.

So it is that I applaud Mary Gordon for taking the time to explore the documentary underpinning of her Catholic faith in Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels. The Gospels are the four major books of the New Testament of the Christian bible and they contain oral histories of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Gospels were written more than a generation after Jesus’ death and they were not formally adopted as the only Gospels of the New Testament until fourth century AD. Along with certain letters and other writings of early church leaders, the Gospels form the underpinning of most Christian doctrine.

Gordon, an award-winning writer and member of the faculty at Barnard College, realized that after more than half a lifetime, she had never actually read the Gospels. Raised a good Catholic, she had accepted the teachings of the Church without looking behind the doctrine taught from the pulpit every Sunday, and until recently, she had done so for close to sixty years. Her epiphany came as she rode in a taxi whose driver was listening to a radio-evangelist proclaim the words of the Gospels and she realized that she “had never had the readerly experience of beginning with the first words of Matthew and continuing through the Last Words of John.” She also realized that her interpretation of the Gospels was very different from that of the fundamentalist minister on the radio and set out to find a bridge between her experience and that of the preacher. As she notes:

It seemed to me, then, that if I were going to take this project seriously, I would have to question my own reading, and examine its lacunae: I would have to ask myself, do I really know what the Gospels are about, or have I invented a Jesus to fulfill my own wishes? Can I really say what the difference is between Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as books, in the way that I can describe the difference between a novel by Trollope and a novel by Dickens?

In the majority of chapters in Reading Jesus, Gordon presents corresponding texts from each of the Gospels, at least to the extent that each of the Gospels address the same events in the life of Jesus. She then interprets, compares, analyzes, breaks down and otherwise explores their meaning, their commonality and their differences. Often as not, she acknowledges that the text leaves us asking questions more than it gives us real answers, but she also makes us consider what the answers could be. For example, after quoting the text of Matthew and Luke who described Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert, she offers:

Suppose we understand the temptations as a vision induced by starvation in the desert—Luke says the devil went on tempting him for forty days. Forty days without food, forty days of psychological torment. Suppose we think of Satan as a product of Jesus' own mind, the great mind that understood what the things were that could really get in the way of the importance of his work. I can understand the accusa­tion leveled against such an interpretation: that I am flattening the shining metaphysical mountain into a pancake of the psychological in my quest to make it my own. But to my mind, if the temptations are products of the mind of Jesus, they are all the more precious. Because what is eternal about their rightness, and recognizable in their rightness to most thoughtful humans, whatever they think of Jesus, is not the personification of evil in the form of a fallen angel, but the precise evocation of the particular flavors of darkness represented by the three tests.

The tests Jesus needs to pass before he can assume authority on his own terms, or his father's. The temptations he must banish before he can reach full understanding of who he is.

Gordon clearly sees that since present day readers can not know what really happened during the life of Jesus, absent blind faith of course, but that only makes her experience in reading the Gospels all the richer because she can interpret the words in a way that brings her closer to understanding her own faith.

Gordon explores the words by which we have come to know Jesus, whether as a historical figure, as the principal personality of Christianity or, from some perspectives, as the Son of God. Her mission is persona, and self-questioning, academic and reasoned. It is inspired both by her faith, which never seemed to waiver or even be an issue as she makes her inquiry, and by principles of academic inquiry. Whether the Gospels were written by four individual men or many people, and whether or not they are divinely inspired, Gordon wants to know how and why there can be such divergent views of their meaning and to better understand her own religious experience.

Indeed, in Reading Jesus, Gordon exposes her own faith for the rest of us to consider and never suggests any effort to sway or change the beliefs of her audience. Quite to the contrary, she disclaims any desire to influence her readers: “Above all, I have no interest in making a doctrinal point, desire to convert . . . I have no desire that reading what I have written, anyone will turn to or turn away from anything.” While that may be the case, implicit in the publication of the self-questioning that Gordon shares in Reading Jesus is the notion that everyone should question—not necessarily what they believe, but certainly why they do believe it.

And I found that in reading Gordon’s thoughts, I was for the most part drawn to my own. That is in no way a criticism. The philosopher wishes to provoke inquiry and exploration and that is exactly what Gordon achieves. Whether I agree with her analysis of the Scriptures—and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t—her biblical exegesis offers a very comfortable pathway to personal inquiry and to the exploration not just of personal belief but of the hope that I suspect creeps into even the most ardent declaration of faith.

Reading Jesus may reflect Gordon’s reading of the Scriptures but any reader who really understands Gordon will also understand that Reading Jesus is her invitation to everyone to try to understand. Such understanding is not even limited to faith, although that is how Gordon presents it. Rather, it applies to our personal understanding of all of our fundamental values and how we live our lives. Just as Gordon read the Gospels for the first time, so too might she have read the United States Constitution or The Federalist Papers or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics or any of a number of other early writings that largely define our culture today and who, as individuals, we have become.

I can only compare my personal experience in reading Reading Jesus to the experience that I had when I first read St. Augustine’s Confessions, even though Augustine and Gordon approach their works very differently. Both Augustine and Gordon were inspired by their faith to seek understanding. Gordon’s readers today may not have such faith, but she will certainly give them compelling evidence to seek such understanding, too.

Books mentioned in this column:
Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels by Mary Gordon (Anchor Books, 2010)
The Federal Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay (Penguin Classics, 1987)
The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (Oxford University Press, 1998)  2
Confessions by Augustine of Hippo (Penguin Classics, 1961)  


David G. Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports, and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributor to Renaissance magazine. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.



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