A while back, I attended a performance of Rebirth of a Nation, a film created by Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) that seeks to deconstruct and remix the 1915, W.D. Griffith film, Birth of a Nation, a highly acclaimed cinematic venture and one of the most controversial films in American history.
The film led off with a clip of two gentlemen sitting down, each smoking a cigarette and talking about the original 1915 film. On the right was Griffith, the director of the original film. The gentleman on the left looked at him and asked, “do you believe Birth of a Nation to be truth?” In response, Griffith quoted Pontius Pilate’s words to Jesus before allowing him to be crucified, “What is truth?” (John 18:38).
Just as in 1915, this question is the central question of our time.
What is tragically ironic about Pilate’s statement was that he was looking at Truth. One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is that Truth is not a set of principles, or morals, or facts to be ascertained; Truth is a person: Jesus Christ.
That is not something that can just filed away–that is a thought that begs for contemplation. It a thought that should haunt those of us seminary. We are so prone to hold knowledge as supreme, and yet we constantly mistake knowledge in the heart with mental propositions.
Our American culture has a habit of ridiculing the French, but I think their language (among others) has more to offer in terms of expression, especially when it comes to types of knowledge.
In the English language, we are limited to the phrase “I know this/that,” but in French (and Spanish and other non-English languages), there are distinctive meanings to “knowledge” — savoir and connaitre. Savoir refers to knowing “something,” some fact, or how to do something. Connaitre is used when someone knows another person.
I never took French, but ever since hearing about this distinction, I have found it immensely helpful to keep in mind during my seminary classes—especially the Systematic Theology ones. It is a distinction that many of us—me being the worst—fail to understand in the way we approach our faith and theological education.
Knowing God is about connaitre, not savoir. But in our Western “enlightened” culture, we continually think of our faith by way of savoir, as if knowing enough scripture or reading numerous “Christian” texts gives eternal life. What we need is to know (connaitre) a person, or rather Three Persons in One, the Holy Trinity. Jesus explains the difference to the Jews around him at the time [John 5:39-40]:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.
Study without prayer (a common pattern in the hustle and bustle of seminary) becomes a shallow intellectual pursuit. Jesus shows the futility in pursuit for that kind of knowledge. How often have we reduced our “relationship” with Christ to some combination lock of scripture and pedantic intellectualism? In seminary, this is a constant danger.
As we move forward in our education, I pray that we would have a conviction that the Scriptures are worth our devotion and study, precisely because they testify to Christ. At times it might not seem like this is the case, but seminary really isn’t about more book knowledge to file away somewhere, it’s about knowing Christ intimately, and ourselves in Him.
By Paul Burkhart – Paul Burkhart lives in Philadelphia, PA. He is a deacon at Liberti Church and is currently working on his M.Div. through the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He works in social work, mainly in the areas of mental health and street homelessness. He blogs at The Long Way Home.