“Who Do They Say I Am?”


Years ago when our children were young and bursting with that innocence of wonder that I pray will never entirely leave them, I was asked when I thought God would open the clouds and come down. “How should I know?” I’d answer. “I’m only a theologian. Go ask your mother.”

Evidently they did, since I was no longer asked the question.

“Nothing is worse,” warned Reinhold Niebuhr, “than the answer to a question no one is asking.”   The reason our children had asked the question is because it mattered terribly that there be an answer to it.  In his book The Religious Sense, Luigi Giussani insists that, “the very existence of the question presupposes an answer.” Isn’t that, after all, why questions get asked in the first place? What a wicked world it would be for human beings to be always asking questions, yet never an answer to be found!  Who, besides the absurd Sisyphus, would welcome such a world? He was, you may remember, that futile fellow whom Camus fatuously tells us was quite content to carry the freaking stone forever up the side of the hill, only to watch it fall remorselessly back down the other side. At least, he argued, it gave him something to do. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Say again? That to be driven by the cruelest finality of fate never to finish the job, never to find an answer to the questions that vex and torment the soul, but forced in endless fashion to repeat the same hopeless gesture, that is what makes for a happy life? “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn,” Camus solemnly tells us. Well, perhaps in a world where all pain will be finite, where its victims may steel themselves to endure it.  But certainly not in circumstances in which one is condemned to bear it for all eternity. That, to assume the accent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, delivered in high desperate despair, is no better than “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.”

Never was nihilism given so precise and poetic an expression. And if the whole point of putting the question is in order to get an answer, then there must be a hidden architecture of hope on which the human heart finds its most secure footing.  Giussani is surely right when he says, “one suppresses the question if one does not admit to the existence of an answer.” And the answer, especially when it brushes up against the absolute horizons of reality, “cannot be anything but unfathomable. Only the existence of the mystery suits the structure of the human person, which is mendicity, insatiable begging, and what corresponds to him is neither he himself nor something he gives to himself, measures, or possesses.”

No man, therefore, can ensure the outcome of his hope; yet he remains free to exercise it. And, yes, to receive it too. Which is another way of saying that only God can save us now. This is why when Christ turns to his disciples, having just asked about the identity others assign to him, to ask whom do they think he is, it is anything but a venture in triviality. Like any horizon-shattering question, it takes them by the throat. It is not a question concerning which they, or anyone else, can afford to remain indifferent.  That is because everything in the universe hangs on the answer.

So what possesses them to stay? Why does the encounter with Christ become an absolute game-changer? In other words, what is the answer that the event of meeting God-in-the-flesh awakens in their minds and hearts? It is, very simply, the sheer decisive difference his coming makes in a world broken in two by sin. For here is the Incarnate God himself, on the strength of whose exceptionality a doomed race has been ransomed and redeemed. Not only has God pitched his tent in our miserable midst in order to clean up the mess, but to make it possible that we stop making a mess, having been vouchsafed such grace as to renovate the entire human condition, thus enabling us to help others to clean up their mess.

And it all begins with a couple of fishermen, the brothers Andrew and Peter, who, in thrall to this man and his message, resolutely leave everything behind in order to follow him to the ends of the earth. It was not the disciples who chose Jesus, that being the practice among the rabbis and their students of the time. It was Jesus rather who, seizing the initiative to decide on whom he wishes to recruit, sets about founding a school of community, the very centerpiece of which is less a book to be read and studied than a person with whom real and lasting communion becomes possible. Jesus is the book and all must read and study him.

How can this be? In a word, why do they persist in sticking around? What is it that enables them to anneal to this man, to his mysterious person? It is because they are not like all those others who have already figured him out, who ask no questions because they’ve already cornered the market on meaning. They are thirsting for something more, something new and true. Thus their total transparence before the Mystery that has suddenly and in a wholly unforeseen way burst through the clouds in order to take possession of their lives.

Or put it this way. There lies deep within the human heart an impulse, a dynamism, an exploding eros that urges us to look for the very One whom we would not be seeking had he not already set out to find us. “You would not be looking for me,” Jesus tells Pascal, who in the anguish of his heart had long sought him out, “if you had not already found me.”

“The search for God,” writes Lorenzo Albacete, “whatever ‘God’ means, the Mystery, the Unknowable, is what defines my humanity. In that sense there are no atheists. What you do deny when you deny the existence of God is the existence of your humanity. If you just live your humanity, it will propel you on this search for God.”

He has already, of course, come into this broken world looking for me, eager to set all the crooked lines straight. And so if the answer to the question that is your life came knocking at your door, how long would you hesitate before throwing it open? There is nothing that you would not do for this man. In fact, like the apostle Andrew, the first to find the door Christ opens to the future, you’d be willing even to die for him.

Editor’s note: The image above depicting Jesus and his disciples was painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna in 1308-11.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.
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Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including, most recently, Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012). He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

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