I listened to a Tim Keller sermon about John 1 in which he focused on the revelation that “the Word was in the beginning; the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. You can follow the link in the last sentence to read a summary of the beginning of the message.
In the sermon, Keller made the following statement that is the subject of this piece:
“Jesus is the supreme revelation. If we are to know God, neither rationalism nor mysticism will suffice. For God chose to make Himself known finally and ultimately in a real historical human being.”
Keller doesn’t break that statement down, but he provides an illustration of how both rationalism and mysticism are insufficient to know God. I will summarize Keller’s illustrations and provide my own take on the subject of knowing God. Neither rationalism nor mysticism are sufficient, alone, to enable us to know God, and the reason why is that God revealed Himself in the person of Jesus.
A person might say that he would believe in God if we can prove that God exists. Such a person would be looking for evidence, reasons, rationality. There is a wealth of evidence, reasons, and rational bases for believing that God exists and Christianity is true, but that “proof” is not irrefutable, unquestionable, or mathematical in nature.
This is the “wrong path”, says Keller. Any philosophy professor worth his salt will explain in an introduction to philosophy course that there are no philosophical proofs in any absolute sense. Absolute proof doesn’t exist outside of mathematics and logic.
For example, there is no way for me to prove that I am not a butterfly dreaming that I am writer. If I say that I know who I am, and I know what I am doing, I am using my cognitive faculties. I am assuming that my cognitive faculties are working accurately, but you might not be willing to assume they are working correctly. If you demand that I prove that my cognitive faculties are working correctly, I can’t do that.
I can’t prove that my cognitive faculties are working properly without using my cognitive faculties that I am trying to prove are working properly. I can’t provide the “proof” without begging the question and assuming the very thing I am trying to prove.
All of our philosophical proofs break down at the point of the tautological premises we assume. (See Faith, Reason, Leaping & Falling) The ultimate futility of a finite mind in knowing truth for an absolute certainty is unavoidable.
If I accept the challenge to prove Christianity in a rational sense to a skeptic, and if the skeptic is honest, the skeptic himself would have to admit that he is assuming certain beliefs. Those beliefs he assumes are premises that themselves are not provable in the way he asks for proof of Christianity.
For these reasons, rationality is not the right path for weighing the validity of Christianity, according to Keller. I agree with him. The premises we begin with determine our conclusions. If we begin with skeptical premises, we have begged the inevitable conclusion. (And vice versa.)
While Keller doesn’t get into why mysticism is not the right path, I will take a stab at it. Mysticism is grounded in personal religious experience. If I rely on nothing other than my religious experiences, I am using nothing but my own sense of direction (my inner compass) in determining what is truth.
Consider being lost in the woods with a compass that, instead of pointing at true North, always pointed back at you. How would you ever get out of the woods? How would you know the direction you are going? This is pure mysticism in a nutshell.
Mysticism, personal religious experience, may be something meaningful for you and suggest the existence of spiritual things that are sensed in the experience, but it can’t be the anchor of truth because of its subjective nature. It suggest corresponding reality, but it can’t guide you beyond where you are standing at any given moment.
In this context, let’s reconsider the initial text referenced by Keller (John 1:1):
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The Greek word that is translated “Word” in this passage is lógos. Logos is the Greek word from which we get our English word, logic. To the Greek, this is saying, basically, that Jesus is the logic (or the reasoning) of God.
John, though, isn’t saying here that God gave us abstract logic. He is saying that the “logic” God gave us is a Person – the logos God gave us is God Himself!
God has not given us abstract proof. God hasn’t given us an inner compass (though we do have consciences). We don’t find ultimate truth within us. We are not the source of truth. God has given us proof in the Person of Jesus – God who became man and came to us in person.
The person of Jesus is the compelling proof. The Christian “proof” starts with Jesus. We have to look at his life. We have to consider his claims and his teaching. We have to compare those things to the way he conducted himself. We have to consider the accounts about his resurrection.
We can (and should) use our minds, our rationality, to consider the person of Jesus. If we approach Jesus with an open mind, we find that Jesus is compelling proof (but not in a mathematical sense). We may find that Jesus makes sense of our moral compass, or that he challenges it.
God’s offer of the “proof” of Jesus is rational, but it isn’t reduced to reason. God doesn’t discount personal experience either. If we test belief in Jesus with an open and willing mind, we find that we are not disappointed. We experience communion and intimacy with God. As Paul says, the Spirit of God testifies with our spirit.
Craig Hazen says that we should start with Jesus in our spiritual quest because he is “the universal religious figure”. Every religion tries to coopt and claim Jesus as its own, from Buddhism to Islam to B’hai. Because all religious traditions claim Jesus, we should start with Jesus.
Jesus is the initial proof of God. Reason and experience follow and support the claim, but the proof is in Jesus. We know God by looking at Jesus. This is exactly what we see reflected in what Jesus said and the testimony of his followers:
- Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)
- Jesus is “exact representation of [God’s] being….” (Hebrews 1:3 NIV)
- “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form….” (Colossians 2:9)
- “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
 Lógos comes from légō, which means “speaking to a conclusion”. It means a word; the expression of a thought; a saying. Broadly, it means “reasoning expressed by words”. Lógos (“word”) is preeminently applied to Christ in John 1:1, the eternally pre-existent Word who expresses the thoughts of the Father through the Spirit.
 Romans 8:16