Being Taught by God the Father

by J.N.M. Wijngaards, The Clergy Review October 1982 vol. 67 no.10, pp. 350-355

It is a well-established fact that non-Christians, too, have perceived God. Lao Tsu, the Chinese philosopher who wrote Tao Te Ching (600 BC), recorded mystical insights that prove beyond doubt that he had a powerful perception of the Divine. In the opening words of his book he states:

“The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the etemal Name. Although we can give a name to what causes the ten thousand smaller things in this world, we cannot name that which began heaven and earth. Involved as we are, we see external manifestations; if we detach ourselves from involvement, we can see the mystery . . . ” (Gia-Fu Feng and J. English, The Tao Te Ching, Wildwood House, London 1973; ch.1 (freely adapted).

We know comparatively little about pre Christian African religions. One thing is becoming clear from present-day studies: underlying what seems to be superstitious fears, magical rites and paradoxical beliefs, there is an authentic awareness of God’s presence. The Dinkas in the Sudan sing the following invocation at their New Moon festival:

“Oh Father, Creator, God, I ask your help! I invoke you, Oh my Father! To you, Father, I turn. To you, my God, I turn. Oh Father, I turn to you. God, my Father, I pray to you. To you, in time of the new moon, I address my plea.” (J.S. Mbiti, The Prayers of African Religion, SPCK London 1975, p.l42.)

Or again, consider the following prayer by the Sufi poet, Baba Kuhi of Shiraz (Persia 1050 AD). Baba Kuhi’s highest aim in life was to love and serve God. God, he said, was present to him everywhere.

“In the market, in the cloisters-only God I saw.

In the valley and on the mountain -only God I saw.

Him I have seen beside me oft in tribulation;

In favour and in fortune-only God I saw . . .

I opened my eyes and by the light of his face around me

In all the eye discovered-only God I saw.

Like a candle I was melting in his fire:

Amidst the flames outflanking-only God I saw

Myself with my own eyes I saw most clearly,

But when I looked with God’s eyes-only God I saw.

I passed away into nothingness, I vanished,

And lo, I was the All-living,-only God I saw.” (F.C. Happold, Mysticism. A Study and Anthology, Pelican 1970, p.251)

It would be altogether too naive to imagine that the Taoists of ancient China, the Dinkas of Africa or the Sufis of Persia entertained an identical concept of God. In their interpretation of what ‘God’ stands for, they differ considerably from one another and from us. All the same, they agree in testifying to an awareness of the Divine that is truly impressive. From such evidence we can with certainty conclude that one does not need to be a Christian or to have learned the truths of Christian revelation in order to experience God. This is a very consoling thought. It also raises many questions for the Christian: Do we too share in this pre-Christian experience of God? Did the coming of Christ add something new to this experience? How does Sacred Scripture function in it? What are the implications for our dialogue with non-Christian religions?

In this article I would like to study mainly the pre-Christian experience of God, which-with good reason I believe-I will designate as’experiencing God the Father’. As always in such cases, a good starting point is provided by the gospels themselves.

Teaching at Capernaum

In John 6 we read that Jesus multiplied bread, walked on the water and gave a lengthy instruction on ‘the bread that comes from heaven’.

Although the text gives the impression that all this happened on two consecutive days, study shows that the chapter was artificially composed from traditions that were originally distinct. One of the themes the author had in mind was apparently the celebration of the Eucharist, the multiplication of the bread (Jn. 6: 1-15) and the sermon on the bread from heaven (Jn. 6:22-51) are given a deeper interpretation by Jesus’ Eucharistic promise (Jn. 6:22-51). However, there is good reason for assuming that in his sermon on the bread from heaven Jesus did not intend first and foremost to preach about the Eucharist. In this sermon Jesus seems to have been concerned mainly with belief in himself. The sermon is of particular interest to us because -if we understand it properly-it would seem that Jesus explicitly taught us about the necessity of experiencing God the Father. To appreciate the significance of Jesus’ words, we have to place them in their proper context. This in tum requires that we pay some attention to the sermon as a whole.

Going into all the exegetical details would lead us too far afield. Instead, I suggest that we simply follow the reconstruction of the facts as tentatively put forward by Raymond Brown (R.E. Brown, The Gospel according to John, vol. 1, Anchor Bible, Doubleday, Garden City 1966, pp. 268-280.) Jesus preached the sermon in the synagogue of Capernaum (Jn 6:59) on a sabbath in passover time (compare Jn. 6:4). During the service the seder (reading from the Torah) may have been Exodus 16; the haphtharah (reading from the Prophets) may have been Is. 54:11-55:13. From ancient lists we know these were Passover readings. When Jesus was called upon to speak, he took as his main text: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’ (ext. 16:4-15: see Jn.6:31); and as a subsidiary text: ‘They will all be taught by God’ (Is. 54: 13; see Jn.6:45). In the arrangement of his material Jesus seems to have followed the pattern of preaching which was customary on those occasions.

To make us feel the impact of Jesus’ sermon all the better, I will try to reproduce it here in an abbreviated and free rendering of my own. It amounts to a paraphrase of John 6: 25-51 with an elaboration of the Old Testament references that are implied. My rendering will surely be no more than an approximation of what Jesus may have said in reality; yet I am confident that it does justice to the substance of his message.

Jesus’ sermon on the bread from heaven

‘My dear friends, in the reading from the Torah we have heard: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’ (Ex. 16:4.15). Our forefathers in the desert were hungry and God rained down manna to save them from death. This surely was a great sign and a wonderful privilege. But we should not think that this is the greatest gift which God could grant us. Rather than being concerned about earthly food that cannot last, we should try to obtain food that endures to eternal life. Doesn’t Scripture itself tell us that God gave manna to our forefathers to make them understand that ‘man must not depend on bread alone to sustain him but on everything that the Lord says’ (Dt.8:3)?

Indeed, the new food God intends to give is his living word. It is to this word he invites us when he says, ‘Come, eat my food and drink the wine that I have mixed!’ (Prov. 9:5), and again ‘Why spend money on what does not satisfy) Why spend your wages and still be hungry? Listen to me, and do what I say and you will enjoy the best food of all!’ (Is. 55:2). Well, you will say,what is this word of life? Where can we find this promise fulfilled? You are right. We have gone through a time of spiritual famine as God had foretold through the words of Amos: ‘The time is coming when I will send famine on the land. People will be hungry but not for bread; they will be thirsty but not for water. They will hunger and thirst for a message from the Lord. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken. People will wander from north to south and from east to west. They will look everywhere for a message from the Lord but they will not find it’ (Am.8:11-12).

But now God has fulfilled his promise. l am the word of Life. Now the Father has given you food from heaven, the true food, the food that gives life to the world. How has he given this, you will ask. I am the bread of life, I myself, his only son. It is I who can give you eternal life. If you come to me you will never be hungry; if you believe in me you will never thirst. I tell you most solemnly: if you believe in me you shall not die; I shall raise you up on the last day.

However, I realise that many of you are not willing to accept me as the revelation of the Father. I have heard your objections: ‘You are Jesus, the son of Joseph’, you say. ‘We know your father and mother. You are just an ordinary carpenter from Nazareth. How can you make us believe you came down from heaven?’ all will know me, from the least to the greatest’. I could point to the miracles I have performed. I could argue that Old Testament prophecy has been fulfilled in my case. But I know such arguments will never convince you. Unless you are really spiritual persons, you will never be able to perceive the Divine in me. Did you not hear in today’s reading from the Prophets :’They will all be taught by God’ (Is.54,13)? No one can accept me if the Father does not draw him ‘with the leading-strings of love’ (Hos 7,4). If a person hears the teaching of my Father, if he listens to what the Father says in his heart, then he will not find it hard to come to me and believe in me. And I repeat: God gave manna to our forefathers in the desert, but they died in spite of eating of it. I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever’.

‘Unless you are really spiritual persons . . .’ The momentous import of Jesus’ words lies in the fact that he distinguishes two steps, two consecutive phases in the path of faith. A believer first has to be taught by the Father, only then can he come to Jesus. What did Jesus mean by this preliminary phase of being instructed by the Father? What precisely did he have in mind? It may be useful to recall his exact words: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I shall raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘And they shall all be taught by God’. Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me” (Jn. 6:44 – 45 Anchor Bible).

Let us first examine the phrase ‘they shall be taught by God’. Although the quotation is from Deutero-lsaiah (Is. 54:13), its meaning can best be understood when compared to a parallel promise in Jer. 31:34. There God promised that the new covenant of the future would not be one based on external obligations, but a covenant springing from interior knowledge and love. ‘I will put my law within them and write in on in their hearts… None of them will have to teach his fellow countryman to know he Lord because all will know me, from the least to the greatest’. In the messianic future there will be no need of human teachers and instructors because God himself will teach people by speaking to their hearts. They will know God by their own interior experience of him. This is how they shall be ‘taught by God’.

G. Reim points out that the phrase ‘being taught by God’ or, as it is in Aramaic, ‘to be God’s disciple’ was well known and widely used in Jesus’ day. We find it in Rabbinical texts, in the Qumran documents, in the so-called psalms of Solomon and in the letter of Barnabas (G. Reim, Studien zum alttestamentlichen Hintergrund des Johannes Evangeliums, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974,pp.17-18.) A study of this proverbial use confirms that the phrase was understood as referring to the instruction which God gives in the soul. In the letter of Barnabas (98 AD) the phrase is equivalent to ‘listening to one’s conscience’.

Again and again I admonish you: become good legislators for yourselves. Give yourselves reliable advice. Cast away all traces of evil.May God, who rules the whole universe, give you wisdom, insight, understanding, knowledge of his commandments and patience. Become then disciples of God by examining what the Lord is asking you to do, and by doing it, so that you may be found just on the day of judgment (Barnabas 21, 4-6; D. Franses, De Apostolische Vaders, Paul Brand, Hilversum 1941, p50; English transl. my own. )

We ‘learn from the Father’ (Jn. 6:45) by listening to our conscience, by responding to what God is saying to us in the depth of our hearts.

This is confirmed by the parallel expression ‘hearing the Father’ (Jn. 6:45). We become a disciple of God by listening to him day by day. ‘Each morning he wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple. The Lord Yahweh has opened my ear’ (Is. 50:5; JB). Listening to the Father comes close to being open to a real revelation as may be seen from the account of how God manifested himself to Samuel (I Sam. 31:1-21). God called out to Samuel three times. It was only after putting himself in the right disposition, ‘Speak, Yahweh, your servant is listening’, that he could hear the word of revelation. Hearing God speak means being open to God’s inner voice of revelation.

The same results from a study of the phrase ‘unless the Father draws him’ (Jn. 6:44). God ‘draws’ a person by making him feel his love. ‘I have loved with you an everlasting love, therefore l am drawing with you affection’ (Jer. 31:3; literal translation from the Hebrew). ‘I draw them with human cords, with leading-strings of love. I was like someone who lifts an infant close against his cheek’ (Hos. 7:4; literal translation trom the Hebrew).

From all these considerations we can rightly deduce that Jesus was speaking of a real experience of God the Father that should precede belief in the special revelation he himself had come to bring. Only those persons open to the inner voice of his Father, only those responsive to the feelings of love he engenders, only those willing to be taught by the Father can ultimately receive Jesus himself in faith. Not only is such an experience of the Father possible for people before they have heard about Jesus; it is a necessary condition for a genuine Christian faith.

Seeing beyond symbols

Religious people of all ages have recognized that God can somehow be reached through an observation of the created world. Created realities cannot explain themselves. They point to God. ‘Stupid are all men who have not known God and who, from the good things that are seen, have not been able to discover him-who-is, or, by studying the works, have failed to recognize the artist . . . Through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures we may, by analogy, contemplate their author’ (Wis. 13:1,5; JB). ‘Ever since God created the world, his invisible qualities, both his eternal power and his divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things God has made’ (Rom. 1:20). If we look at things properly, they somehow point to God.

I don’t mean this at all in the simplistic sense in which the argument of the First Cause has sometimes been handled. If we see a desk, we know there must have been a carpenter who made it. The desk could not have made itself. In the same way, it was argued, plants, animals, fishes and human beings, and whatever objects we fmd on earth, cannot have made themselves. They need a creator. The scientist will then retort by stating that he can explain how these beings came about without a creator. Our solar system was formed by a condensation of galactic dust and gas. When the earth had cooled down to

be a planet, life began to develop on it under the benevolent radiation of the sun. From lower forms of life, mammals, vertebrates, primates and the human species gradually arose. The universe is like a vast clockwork in which each operation can be explained by pointing to another.

The scientist is right in rejecting the desk – carpenter approach, which could easily lead us to an endless procession from one finite cause to another. Reality is much more mysterious, the pointers to God much more subtle than this. As long as our study remains within the universe, we can only discover its own consistency, the connections between its various parts. But if we look at it from another point of view, if we step back and consider the universe as such or the meaning of existence, we realise that we encounter questions that cannot be answered from within the universe. Why should a universe such as ours exist at all? Why do matter and space follow the complicated, but rigorous laws that bind all we know? How can a mass of protons and electrons produce from within itself intelligent beings such as we are, people who can know and love? No reference to finite causes will ever give the answer to such existential questions.

Sensing this enigma, this riddle of life has been for many people a first step towards recognizing the presence of God. The Bible records an interesting saying by Agur, son of Jakeh, of Massa. He was an Arab, therefore a non-Jew.

“Surely I must be the most stupid of men,

bereft of human intelligence.

I have not learnt wisdom,

and I lack the knowledge of the Holy One.

Who has mounted to the heavens, then descended?

Who has gathered the wind in the clasp of his hand?

Who has wrapped the waters in his cloak?

Who has set all the ends of the earth firm?

What is his name, or the name of his son,

If you know it? (Prov. 30:14, JB).

Agur’s questions are not answered by a lecture on astronomy or meteorology. Agur was struck by the mystery of reality itself. Even if Agur possessed our present knowledge of nature, he would still be asking the same fundamental question: ‘Who is behind all this?’ Agur’s contribution consists precisely in pointing out the enigma. He cannot give an answer-‘Surely I must be the most stupid of men’-but at least he was aware of the riddle. ‘What is his name . . . if you know it?’

Seeing this riddle is what R. Guardini has called a ‘borderline experience’ ( R. Guardini, ‘Die Entfernung des Andromeda-Nebels’, in Spiegel und Gleichniss Bilder und Gedanken, Grunewald, Mainz 1932, p.176.) By reflection we become aware of the existential limit of things. We see that they are restricted, that they demand an explanation, that there is more to them than meets the eye. We understand that there must be a transcendental reality behind things even though we cannot directly perceive this reality itself. We discover the question inherent in every created thing. We are like people in a thick mist aware that we stand on a borderline, but unable to see what is beyond. Such a ‘borderline experience’ makes us realize the presence of God, the Creator. It is one way of ‘meeting’ God the Father.

Any person who has the custom of withdrawing in silence and reflecting on his own existence will sometimes be gripped by an awareness of mystery. We feel bewildered, confused. We admit that we are not sure of ourselves. We know we are small and insignificant, overwhelmed by whatever it is that rules our destiny. Our mind is full of doubts and questions. ‘If there is no other, there is no I. If there is no 1, there is no one to perceive. This is close to the truth, but we do not know why. There must be some primal force, but we cannot discover any proof. I believe it acts, but I cannot see it. I can feel it but it has no form . . . It may be that there is indeed a true master. Whether I really feel his existence or not has something to do with the way it is . . .’ (Chuang Tsu, Inner Chapters, transl. Gia-Fu Feng and J. English, Random House, New York 1974, p.25. ) Rather than feeling upset by such confusion we should treasure it and deepen it by further reflection. It may be the beginning of the Father drawing us to an experience of himself.

Windows to ultimate reality

If in humility and silence we become ever more observant of reality, if we allow ourselves to be guided by the Father, we may even proceed a step further and discover that the world around us is ‘numinous’, that is: that it radiates the presence of divinity (numen). All created things reveal to us some truth about the God who made them. The violence of a volcano reminds us of God’s omnipotence. God’s love smiles at us in the tenderness and beauty of nature. Every aspect of creation becomes a window through which we can have a glimmer of what God is like. Reflecting on the nature of things, we begin to suspect how good, how powerful and how lovable God must be.

Although everything is full of numinosity, there is a subjective element in the situations that are most transparent for us. Some may get a glimpse of God’s power by witnessing a storm at sea.

“God, the waters raise, the waters raise their voices, the waters raise their thunder! Greater than the voice of the ocean transcending the waves of the sea, God reigns transcendent in the heights” (Ps. 93:34 JB adapted).

Others again meet God’s presence in the majesty and calm of a panoramic view. ‘O Lord, our Lord, your greatness is seen in all the world!’ (Ps. 8:1). Some will find him most easily when studying plants and animals. ‘All creatures depend on you to give them food when they need it. You give it to them and they eat it; you provide food and they are satisfied’ (Ps. 104:27-28). ‘Look how the wild flowers grow: they do not work or make clothes for themselves. But I tell you that not even King Solomon with all his wealth had clothes as beautiful as one of these flowers!’ (Mt. 6:29). Others need an earthquake to be brought to their senses:

“Get among the rocks, hide in the dust, at the sight of the terror of God, at the brilliance of his majesty, when he arises to make the earth quake!” (Is. 2:9-10 JB).

Does all this not come close to what we read in Baba Kuhi’s poem?

“I opened my eyes and by the light of his face around me

In all the eyes discovered-only God I saw.”

Summing up

We experience God the Father if we become aware of God’s presence in the created things around us. It is important for us to note that this experience can be had outside Christianity, that no special supernatural revelation is required for it. In fact, we have seen that non-Christians such as Agur, son of Jakeh, Lao Tsu, Chuang Tsu and Baba Kuhi were genuine mystics who teach us valuable insights about God. We can be sure that every religion incorporates some genuine religious experience. Vatican II recognized that many religions possess ‘awareness of a hidden power . . a supreme being . . . or still more, a father’. All religions ‘reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men’.

Those who announce the Gospel message in mission lands or evangelize at home, should not overlook the existence and validity of this fundamental religious experience. Belief in Christ does not replace the experience of God the Father, but builds on it. Our new attitude of dialogue with non-Christian religions or with Western humanism starts with an acknowledgement that we have much in common because God the Father has already drawn our partners to himself in a variety of ways. Rather than rejecting the religious experiences of the other, we should respect them and take them as a starting point for our own testimony on the fullness of revelation in Christ.

There is also a very important conclusion regarding our own faith. When we analysed Jesus’ sermon on the bread of heaven, we saw that he demanded submission to his Father as a prerequisite for belief in himself. Could it not be that our own faith in Jesus is so shallow because we lack the firm foundation of a more basic experience of God? How could we claim to possess the ‘fullness’ of revelation if our awareness of God does not even measure up to the awareness accessible to those who have not had the beneflt of a special revelation?