Knowledge of God & Knowledge of Self
Can we really know ourselves if we don’t know God? Can we really know God if we don’t know ourselves? John Calvin doesn’t think so. Or how about: can we be happy without God? Can we flourish in light of our nature apart from loving God? Again, Calvin doesn’t think so. I think Calvin is right.In the first sentence of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (completed in 1560), Calvin states:
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and our ourselves. (1.1.1)
Why does Calvin think this? He thinks that as we look into ourselves, we can’t help but turn our “thoughts to the contemplation of God” (1.1.1). For in looking within we notice two things: (1) the complexity and wonder of our physical and mental capacities, and (2) our fragmented, corrupting, and finite selves. Our lives hang as if on a thread, yet they are sustained; our hopes often elude us, yet they persist, our values are admirable, yet we often fail to live up to them; our minds discover incredible wonders of the universe, yet we are often foolish. As we look inward,
we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone….Accordingly, the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him. (1.1.1)
I think Calvin is insightful here: if we begin to look within, if we throw off our apathy, and consider our humanity—our minds, our bodies, our wills—we are led, like a kind of ontological argument to God as our source.
Further, in contemplating God, we learn of ourselves. If we look only to ourselves, then it is easy to think we are pretty good, pretty smart, “we’re above the hoi polloi”, the vulgar masses, for, you may say, I’m not as bad as that guy or that girl. But, when we begin to “raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power” we realize that what was earlier masquerading as righteousness will grow filthy and what was thought to be wisdom will “stink of its very foolishness” (1.1.2).
I agree here as well: if we are trying to justify ourselves by comparing our morality or wisdom to someone else, we can always find some way to feel as if we are doing ok—but when we measure our lives according to the reality of God, we see ourselves for who we really are—finite, created, needy, broken, selfish beings in need of a Savior.
Is Calvin relevant today? I think so. Modern (or postmodern) man is hollow at the core. We were meant to function in light of our nature—in relationship with God and harmony with each other—as we pursue our highest good and greatest need, Jesus. Instead, our culture finds itself full of empty-selves, middle-aged adolescence, and shallow sound-bite thinkers who masquerade as the very epitome of wisdom and virtue. We need God so that we would be fully human once again.