Answers beyond our knowing

From the beginning, when God first breathed life into man, two existential questions have been asked to which no satisfactory or acceptable answer has of yet been forthcoming. Each of us at some time in our life has asked or been asked these questions, “Who am I?” and “Who are you?” and I would readily wager everything I have that you have never formulated or received an answer that caused you to state emphatically and with great enthusiasm, “That’s it … exactly!

John the Baptist - Murillo

John the Baptist – Murillo

The deceptive simplicity of these questions – one asked of one’s self and the other asked of one by another – belie the depth and breadth of thought required to adequately develop a response. Philosophers, scientists, and theologians have been pondering these questions for millennia with but poor results and no small amount of controversy, for any serious response necessarily provokes further inquiry and greater understanding into the nature and origins of our existence. And, no matter what you may or may not believe, eventually all questions lead to that single source of all inquiries and answers, and that source is God.

When asked, “Who are you?” we will often offer a well-rehearsed response that includes at a minimum our name and occupation. Culturally “who we are” is defined not by name alone but must be further authenticated by what we do. Obviously we are more than a name and an occupation, but how might we more adequately respond?

You could respond by broadly stating “I am a member of the human race, a sentient being, physically composed of various particles of matter organized in a specialized manner for a specific purpose” or you could further restate the obvious by providing external statistics such as your height, weight, gender, and ethnicity. You might even feel it necessary to provide genetic information such as your age, place of birth, parentage, and so much more in ever increasing detail. Yet once again, this falls short of adequately responding to the question, and I believe I can safely say, most inquirers would consider all this TMI (Too Much Information) as well as inappropriate, unnecessary, and rather boorish drivel.

I have always been intrigued by John the Baptist’s response when asked, “Who are you?” for he did not respond as customary or expected with his name and occupation. Rather, John responded by admitting to what he was not. He was not the Messiah. He was not Elijah. He was not the Prophet. But if he defined himself only by what he was not, then who or what was he? What was he hiding? Why wouldn’t he identify himself? What was he up to? Why was he baptizing? These certainly were a few of the questions on the minds of those concerned with the appearance of this itinerant preacher who was attracting large numbers of people to the desert to be baptized.

Let me suggest that perhaps for John, his reluctance to respond as expected was due to the fact that the question had no humanly acceptable response. Consider what was written about him. “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.”[1] Note that even the Gospel writer has been relegated to describing John by what he was not: “He was not the light”.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, begins with the premise that all human knowledge is based on experience and that we only gain access to reality through our five senses. But “there are things in themselves—what Kant called the noumenon—and of them we can know nothing.  What we can know is our experience of those things, what Kant called the phenomenon. If you have a dog at home, you know what it is like to see, hear, smell, and pet it. This is your phenomenal experience of the dog. But what is it like to be a dog? We human beings will never know. The dog as a thing in itself is hermetically concealed from us. Thus from Kant we have the astounding realization that human knowledge is limited not merely by how much reality there is out there, but also by the limited sensory apparatus of perception we bring to the reality.[2]

John attempts to identify himself but falls short of satisfying his questioners when he responds “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord”’[3] The “way of the Lord” is assuredly something which human beings cannot know because God is beyond our noumenonal experience, beyond our five senses. God tell us through the prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”[4]

As human beings, we cannot phenomenally know who John was just as we cannot phenomenally know God’s thoughts or his ways. All that can be known of John is what has been written: that John was sent from God to provide testimony to the light.

We have come to know, through the words and experiences of others that the light is the Word, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. When Jesus came to John to be baptized we read that “John testified to him and cried out, saying, ‘This was he of whom I said, “The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.”’[5]

John fulfilled what God had ordained for him to do even though he did not fully understand why he had been sent from God. His knowledge was limited by his five senses. What God had in store for him was knowledge of that which he could know nothing. John gave testimony to the reality that is the light of Christ, the real presence of God among us and for that we give thanks and praise to God.


[1] Jn 1:6-8.

[2] Dinesh D’Sousa, What’s so great about Christianity.

[3] Jn 1:23.

[4] Is 55:8-9.

[5] Jn 1:15.

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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