The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson – Prologue

In which the author contemplates the nature of autobiography and invites readers to join him

Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.    ~ John 8:14

For the one reading the Gospel of John for the first time, Jesus’ statement in John 8:14 will likely provoke surprise. It follows on the heels of an accusation by the Pharisees, Jesus’ religious opponents, that his testimony about himself is not true. In Jewish law, at least two witness must agree for a piece of testimony to be admissible in court. One might expect Jesus to answer the charge by reminding the Pharisees that he is not in court, but Jesus does no such thing. The other sensible alternative is to produce corroboratory witnesses, which he does in a sense, but not initially. Jesus’ first response is to claim that the law does not apply to him, because he knows where he came from and where he is going.

I suspect, based on my familiarity with the Gospel of John as a whole, that the allusion is back to Jesus’ pre-existence as the Word who was with God and was God (John 1) and forward to his return to the Father (John 14). Jesus was telling them that if they had any idea who they were dealing with, their demand for his credentials would appear absurd. Authorial intent aside, Jesus’ statement raises a question: What does it mean to give a truthful account of oneself? What would such an attempt require? Using Jesus’ words as a touchstone, it occurs to me that both knowledge of the future and the past are necessary to offer a complete description of a human life. An autobiography is always misleading, because perceptions of the past are colored by hopes (or fears) for the future. Insofar as my own future is uncertain to me, being constructed moment-by-moment, or keystroke-by-keystroke right now, every attempt at total knowledge will come up short. In five years, I may view with disdain some past actions that I now celebrate. A disease, a divorce, a battle, a baby, a conversion, a crisis—any of these could radically overturn my narrative of what is most and least important or what were the happiest and saddest days of my life. All such attempts always come up short; only God on judgment day reveals the deepest truth of the heart.

Given these obstacles, among many more that could be listed, is there any reason to press on with an autobiography? I believe so. If it is true that the future affects our perception of the past, it is equally true that our perception of our past shapes the kind of future we can imagine for ourselves. Especially in times of crisis, people express hope by telling a story of the past that seems as though it ought to have a happy ending. The effect is similar to positioning oneself midway through a Shakespearean play. One usually glimpses whether the play is a comedy or a tragedy before the final act makes the conclusion certain.

Perhaps the most significant example is the creation of the Torah (or the “Pentateuch” for Christians), the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The Torah as we know it was constructed during a period known as the exile, a time when foreign powers had captured Jerusalem (God’s city), destroyed the temple (God’s house), and deported the Hebrews (God’s people). The Hebrew people responded by fusing together ancient oral traditions and written sources to answer a question: what does it mean that we are the people of God in the light of this present God-forsakenness? In the Torah God calls Abraham, predicts slavery in Egypt, permits them to suffer in slavery for a time, raises up Moses as a deliverer, leads the Hebrews to the Promised Land, builds a house (tabernacle) for himself among them, and delivers to them his laws in the form of a covenant. That covenant promises blessing for obedience and removal from the land for disobedience. It also promises that even if the Hebrews are removed from the land, God will have pity on them and return them. In this way, the Torah gave the Hebrews in exile a reason for their present predicament (where they came from) and a hope for return (where they’re going).

Individuals are constantly engaged in a process of self-creation similar to that of the Torah. Loosely following Heidegger, we are after an existence characterized by integrity or wholeness. Our lives consist of a series of fragments, and we hope that in the end these fragments will all come together in something like a mosaic. If one were to come across an unfinished mosaic with no accompanying instructions, one could try to complete it several different ways, but not an infinite number of ways. Based on already present tiles, certain additions would result in an utter lack of discernible pattern. A wise artisan would study carefully the present configuration and intentionally add pieces that contribute to a complete, intelligible figure. Likewise, making sense of the past is an essential part of moving toward a future with integrity.

Autobiographies are valuable for another reason. They are invitations. They entreat the reader to look at life, specifically the author’s life, through the author’s eyes. However, they also invite the judgment of the reader upon the author’s life. This cannot be avoided, though the author obviously has several strategies to influence the reader’s judgment. Augustine, in his Confessions, deflates the reader’s criticism by judging  himself far more harshly than almost any reader ever would. That strategy served his purpose of emphasizing divine grace. Rousseau, in the beginning of his autobiography (also named Confessions), walks up to the throne of God with his book in hand and dares any other mortal to claim to be a better man than he. (Rousseau claims to have given a completely accurate account of his virtues and vices, a claim some of his readers have found woefully duplicitous.) Another famous autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, describes Adams’ recourse to self-education when he found that traditional educational methods failed to provide him the tools necessary to adapt in a rapidly changing world.

In closing, I would say that autobiography is evangelistic. An author wants the reader to share his view, not only of his life, but also of life in general. My readers at this point may well ask what my gospel is, what view of life I wish to impart to them. My answer is, to a large degree, that I do not know. I have not actually begun to write anything autobiographical, and I just may surprise myself by the time I finish. I can say that it will deal specifically with my religious upbringing and my personal and professional studies of Christianity, thus the allusion to Adams in my title.

Another reasonable question is whether anyone ought to read this autobiography. I freely grant that I am a person of little importance; no great deeds, great influence, or remarkable events attach to me. You would be quite justified in ignoring this writing altogether. I certainly have more to gain from this than anyone else. But perhaps some people who care about me, or who have found some profit in my other writings from time to time, or who have had a religious education similar to mine and are still reflecting on it—perhaps some of you will give me some attention and time, though I have not earned it.

Next: Born Christian

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Published in: on August 21, 2012 at 5:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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