A question from an eleven-year-old girl triggered the mini-existential crisis that supplied the energy to write this essay. A long forgotten memory retrieved during a day-and-a-half retreat helped focus the direction of this essay. And a recently devoured book, one that requires stronger teeth than mine to chew properly, suggested the content of this essay.
The girl is Josie, my oldest granddaughter. During a late night conversation with this budding epistemologist, with little context she surprised me with this question: “Pop-Pop, if Buddhism and Hinduism are false religions, how do we know that Christianity isn’t just one more false religion?”
After responding predictably and, I fear, unconvincingly, I spent a sleepless night haunted by long and deeply buried doubts. Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:14 kept me awake: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of . . .” (NIVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ , emphasis mine). Was I convinced? C. S. Lewis’s quip-like definition of faith came to mind: faith is the dogged determination to keep on believing what you once knew was true.
What have I become convinced of? What am I so convinced of that I want Josie to be convinced of it too? I remember thinking, I want to get away for five days and see if I can discover an even more deeply felt certainty that Christianity is true. I wanted to reconnect with the vital faith that has blazed in my soul at earlier times. The energy to write this essay about retreat had arrived.
The direction I now intend to take came a week later. During a brief retreat, a laid-back, unstructured, let-happen-whatever-might-happen Friday night, all day Saturday, and Sunday morning with my wife and two close friends, a fifty-five-year-old memory returned to my consciousness with surprising force.
I remembered that as a nine-year-old kid I stared into a mirror and for maybe half an hour looked directly into the reflection of my eyes and entered into confusion. Who is that? Who am I looking at? Who’s looking back at me? Who is me? And who is the I that’s asking who is the me? I stared into that same mirror and asked those same questions dozens of times from age nine to about twelve.
If there’s something to Calvin’s idea of double knowledge—if to know God I must know myself, and if to know myself, I must know God—I was off and running on my trek toward convinced knowledge at an early age.
I had no awareness, of course, that a pioneer psychologist more than a hundred years earlier had wrestled with questions similar to the ones provoked by my image in a mirror. In 1892, in a book simply titled Psychology, William James wrote:
Whatever I may be thinking of, I am always at the same time more or less aware of myself, of my personal existence. [Shades of Descartes] At the same time it is I who am aware; so that the total self of me, being as it were duplex, partly known and partly knower, partly object and partly subject, must have two aspects discriminated in it. Of which for shortness we may call one the me and the other the I.Quoted in Stanley Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) 90.
Another line from John Calvin comes to mind. He somewhere wrote that human beings are the “brightest mirrors” in which God’s glory can be seen. Was I looking in the mirror to see God? Was I, without knowing it, hoping to see in myself the image of God?
Let me anticipate the direction that this retrieved memory and the thoughts it generated are taking me as I write this essay:
- I don’t expect to be fully and meaningfully convinced that the biblical God is the true God and that biblical Christianity is the true religion without (at the same time? before? after?) being convinced that I exist, how I exist, and why I exist. Knowledge of God and knowledge of self are somehow bound up with each other.
- I will be convinced that I am and who I am to the degree I become convinced why I am. Purpose precedes identity en route to the deepest form of self-knowledge. Destiny defines ontology.
- If Christianity is true, and if the God of Christianity really exists as a three-person community, then because I bear his image, I will never discover my identity if I live as an individual substance among other individual substances, disconnected at my center from every other person’s center. To bear God’s image means that I was created to live as a person bonded in community with a unique self, indivisibly connected with other selves created for relationship.
- The why of my existence, which when lived convinces me that I am and who I am, is to live communally in such a way that my communal existence provides an earthly representation of a heavenly reality.
The memory of the mirror flooded my mind and soul with the kind of material that could never be chewed and digested during a busy life. I wanted to retreat. I wanted to get in touch not with the idea but with the reality of my relational self that exists (I know this intuitively) with one primal longing: to relate the way God relates, to know that God relates to me in love, to love God in return, and to represent God by loving others as he does. It occurred to me that I would be most profoundly convinced of the truth of Christianity—and perhaps able to relate with Josie in a way that would convince her—if I could taste the divine reality of community and discover my purpose in participating in that reality. A direction for an essay on retreat took form.
And then there was a third thing, a book. It’s a meaty read that would require a long retreat to digest. Written by Stanley Grenz, eminent scholar now participating in the divine community as he never could while living on earth, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei provided enough big ideas for my little mind to think through as I wrote this essay. I had ample content to follow the direction I felt energized to take.
So now the essay begins. It will be more ramblingly autobiographical than tightly discursive. But let me give it some organization. I will first briefly explore my view of what a retreat might look like. That will be followed by a discussion of how someone, whether an eleven-year-old girl or a man in his sixties who wants to be convinced of Christianity in a way that increasingly shapes every part of his life, might “do” retreat. And then I’ll conclude with the why of retreat. What value could retreat have in the life of a questioning seeker or a devoted follower of Jesus?