Introduction Part 2 | The Texts
Socrates and Uncertainty
In Meno, the main character, Socrates, understands that uncertainty is normal, and he helps his friends see it too, even though it makes them uncomfortable.
When Meno asks him whether virtue can be taught, he says, “I am so far from knowing whether virtue can be taught or not that I do not even have any knowledge of what virtue itself is…Not only that, my friend, but… I have never yet met anyone else who did know.”
Meno is shocked, because Socrates isn’t playing the normal human game. He isn’t avoiding his confusion. He’s willing to say what he doesn’t know. But soon, Meno gets swept up in Socrates’ honesty. Time after time, he tries to tell Socrates what virtue is. Time after time, Meno fails to demonstrate real knowledge.
Socrates has his work cut out for him, because he trys to do two jobs at once. He works to find the answer to his own confusion through sharp reasoning, and he also tries to persuade Meno to seek truth with him, not just play a fake intellectual game.
Meno (and, later, his friend Anytus) trys to squirm out of facing his confusion by acting smart, or insulting Socrates, or changing the subject, but Socrates stays hopeful. He knows that he’s confused, and he also knows that, nevertheless, he wants real knowledge. He’ll keep seeking the answer. And, when his best efforts fail him, he persists in hoping that someone past humanity could help him.
At the very end of the dialogue, he says, longingly, “It follows from this reasoning, Meno, that virtue appears to be present in those of us who may possess it as a gift from the gods.”
Socrates gets it: we’re all less certain than we pretend to be. And if we want to find virtue or truth, we had better look past ourselves. Because, if every human is uncertain, shadowy, then any hope for pure, certain knowledge sits outside humanity. And that’s where 1 John comes in, right where Socrates left off.
Both books have helped people think about uncertainty for thousands of years. . .
John’s Grand Hope
You see, John writes to confused Christians. They want to know how to tell if they are saved, how to deal with their sin, how to tell real Christians apart from fake Christians, how to tell the Holy Spirit apart from evil spirits, how to tell God’s condemnation apart from self-condemnation, how to tell if they love one another enough, whether believing that Jesus is God really matters and why, and what the point of prayer is. You know, normal Christian questions, just like you and I have.
In response, John neither accuses them of wickedness, nor lays out a list of justified responses to every one of their current questions. Instead, knowing that they’ll face new questions in the future, he shows them how God joins us in our uncertainty, and gives us everything we need for active, daily hope. Writing to confused Christians, his first step is to point them away from their puzzles, to consider God.
“God in light, and in him is no darkness at all,” he starts.
God does not live among shadows like we do. He is not confused. He is light. Humans are stuck in confusion and uncertainty, but God lives outside our mess. He perceives reality perfectly, and to perceive him is to perceive reality. That’s part of what it means for God to be God.
Next, John shows that while God lives outside our confusion, he doesn’t stay aloof. This God of light breaks into our darkness, and he longs to bring us into his light.
And that’s very good news. Remember how Socrates finished by saying that virtue and true knowledge must be a gift of the gods? Well, unlike the Greek gods, this God, the God of light and incarnation, offers it. He offers himself. And that changes everything.
In response to our uncertainty, John doesn’t offer a patch, a simple solution. He offers fellowship with the One who sees all things clearly and knows all things as they are. Instead of suggesting that we can escape from our limitations or construct certainty in our own heads, he calls us to abide in the One who is light, in whom is no darkness at all. We live in shadows, but by the propitiation and intercession of Christ, we can enter into fellowship with Light. You have escaped from the shadowland of human uncertainty, not because you reasoned your way out of it, but because the God who is greater than the world abides in you, and you abide in him.
Since he is beyond uncertainty, if you stick with him, you’re beyond uncertainty too.
John overcomes the uncertainty, error, confusion, and doubts of his readers, not through reasons and labors, but through union with the God of light. Questions and confusions are made complete only in relationship with God and his family. In relationship with God, we can rest and wait for his full revelation, when the world of darkness passes away. If we choose to trust him, this is a sure, grand hope.
Friends, this week, let’s make something beautiful. Let’s build communities that aren’t afraid to share uncertainty with one another. Let’s ask our honest questions boldly and hopefully. Let’s lean into the God who knows all things, and snuggle up to him like gentle children. While living among shadows, let’s anticipate the dawn. Lay aside your “good Christian behavior,” your masks and performances. Offer your real questions to the only One who might be able to answer them. This week, let’s forge real faith, and fly.