There is a place where human knowing runs out

“We know,” Nicodemus says to Jesus when he first comes into the room.

“You do not know,” Jesus says to Nicodemus right before he leaves.

If you interpret this as a judgment on Nicodemus, then the story is fairly straightforward. Nicodemus does not know things he ought to know. If he knew them, Jesus’s meaning would be clear to him. His unknowing is his fatal flaw, the one that prevents him from being born again, which ends his conversation with Jesus and forces him back into the night from which he came. 

But that is not what the story says. If you take the buds out of your ears (the ones playing the old tape of what this story is supposed to mean) and listen carefully to what Jesus is saying, he is saying the exact opposite.

“The wind blows where it chooses,” he says to Nicodemus, “and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” This is not a judgment. It is a statement of fact, as you can tell from the very next thing Jesus says. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Everyone. Nicodemus is not a special case. No one knows where the Spirit comes from or where it goes. No one. The only thing that sets Nicodemus apart is that he is so uncomfortable with his unknowing. His problem is that he thinks he ought to know.

This is a difficult teaching for those who want to feel secure in their relationship with God, especially if their security depends on knowing how things work. When and where is the Spirit present? Who has access to it and who does not? What does it mean to be born of the Spirit? What must one do to experience second birth? How can one be sure it has happened, and what are the consequences for those to whom it does not happen? Are they eligible for heaven or not?

“You do not know,” Jesus says. Not because you are stupid, but because you are not God. So relax if you can, because you are not doing anything wrong. This is what it means to be human. That is more or less what I told the students at their baccalaureate service. Whatever your grade point average, whatever your relationship to religion, whatever people tell you about how the sky is the limit and you can achieve anything you put your mind to, there is a place where human knowing runs out. Strong winds really do blow through people’s lives, and the Spirit does not hand out maps showing where the wind came from, where it is going, how you are supposed to handle it, and how everything will turn out in the end. Only the Weather Channel does that.

The Spirit gives you life.

She comes and goes.

She is beyond your control.

Any questions?

– from “Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others” by Barbara Brown Taylor – HarperOne

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