‘Through a Glass Darkly’: The Deep Theology Behind St. Paul’s Phrase

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

– 1 Corinthians 13:12

Paul’s famously poetic statement about the difficulty of knowing God in this life says a lot more than at first meets the eye.

On a first pass, the verse stands as a moving testament to our distance from God. His wording conjures up the image of searching for God through a looking glass. It is a confession of the weakness of human nature: the unaided eye cannot see Him. We need the help of a “glass.” Even then, what we see is dimly perceived. This idea is retained in most translations, even if the wording changes slightly. Instead of The King James’ “darkly” some go with “dimly” or “in obscurity.” The Douay-Rheims translation renders it as “in a dark manner” while the New American Bible goes with “indistinctly.”

Paul’s poetic language about human limitations of seeing God reflect a recurring theological theme: to see God is both to be enlightened and darkened. The cloud that Moses entered and that Ezekiel saw were dark yet they flashed with lightning. When God’s presence settled in the temple of ancient Israel, it was filled with a dark cloud (1 Kings 8:10-12). Although ultimately this must remain a mystery, there are two ways we can achieve a limited understanding of this phenomenon. Since God is an invisible spirit to truly ‘see’ Him is to be in the darkness. But, viewed from another perspective, God’s glory is so radiant that it is blinding. This is the “luminous darkness” of St. Gregory of Nyssa and the “dazzling obscurity” of Dionysius the Areopagite.

However, we have only just begun to scrape the surface of what St. Paul is talking about. When we turn to the original Greek, a whole new world of meaning opens up to us. In the original text what is translated as glass is the Greek word esoptron, which really refers to ancient mirror. Darkly is actually ainigma, from which we get our word enigma. If we were to put this more literally it would read ‘see in a mirror in an enigma.’ That’s really confusing, so it’s understandable why translators try to use something more poetic.

So what is St. Paul really talking about? It took one of the great titans of theology, St. Augustine to unravel the riddle of this verse.

He does something shocking and counterintuitive: he takes it at face value. When we look in a mirror, what do we see? An image of ourselves.

This may seem frustrating: we search for God to only be looking at ourselves in the mirror. But, as Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” And what Augustine wanted us to see in the image of ourselves in the proverbial mirror was the image of the God within.

In De Trinitate, he argued that our souls reflect the triune God. Our ability to remember, understand, and love reflect the three persons of the Trinity. Our memory is associated with God the Father, the Godhead. Our self-understanding mirrors God’s own self-understanding in His Word. And our capacity to love recalls the Holy Spirit, who is the personification of the shared love between the Father and the Son.

This claim is rooted in Genesis 1:27, which declares that we are made in the image of God. The previous verse expands this into “image and likeness.” At first this appears to be a hendiadys, a figure of speech in which a single concept is expressed by two words (such as “cold and chilly, or “talkative and chatty”). Except, Augustine sees a difference between the two. And he thinks it is the key to understanding Paul’s second word—enigma.

For Augustine, we see the image of ourselves clearly, but, as a reflection of God, the image is an imperfect way of gazing upon God. This imperfection is expressed in the word enigma, which in ancient Greek rhetoric was, according to Augustine, classified as a kind of allegory, in which “one thing is understood from another.” Today, we’d call this an analogy.

An enigma, according to Augustine, is a kind of allegory (or analogy, if you will) where the meaning is not clear. As Augustine puts it, “As far as I can see then, by the word ‘mirror’ he wanted us to understand an image, and by the word ‘enigma’ he was indicating that although it is a likeness, it is an obscure one and difficult to penetrate.” He adds, “No one therefore should be surprised that in this fashion of seeing which is allowed us in this life, namely through a mirror in an enigma, we have a struggle to see at all.”

Indeed, De Trinitate is a testament to just how difficult it is: it takes Augustine fifteen linguistically and theologically dense books to discern just how the Trinity is reflected in us.

Our reflection of the Trinity is also obscure, or “enigmatic” because of how vastly dissimilar the reflection is of the original. God is three persons, one in being. However, in us, God’s ‘threeness’ is reflected in one person. Moreover, because God is absolute simplicity, He is His own memory, He is His own understanding, and He is love. We are not these things. Instead, these are things we have and that we can lose. Because God is these things he cannot lose them.

Contemporary English translators were on to something. Truly when we look at the image of God within, we are looking through a glass darkly. Paul’s metaphor of a dim mirror might seem pessimistic, but it is also very hopeful. When we look in the mirror we are not dreaming. We do not see a figment of our imagination. We are seeing something real. It may be indirect and indistinct, but that’s pretty exciting when what you’re looking at is God.

Photo by Sergio Ibannez on Unsplash

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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