Questions of Faith: What We Can and Cannot Know

by | Dec 1, 2022

Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Mathew 24:36

For the last several weeks, I’ve been living with questions of faith that people across the Diocese of Washington have sent to me. All have been deep and thought provoking, a testimony to those who have sent them.

One question has particular resonance with the early themes of Advent, the season of the Christian calendar we’ve just begun:

If it were possible, would you want to know the date of your death?

Those in church last Sunday heard Jesus warning about the end of time and of life on earth as we know it. Likening that day to a thief breaking into someone’s house, he exhorts us to be ready, for we never know when the end will come. But what if we did know when life will end, and specifically our life?

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I read a novel entitled The Measure by Nikki Erlick, in which every adult on the planet received a personalized box with a string inside, the length of which predicted with astonishing accuracy the number of years that person had left to live. Plausibility aside, The Measure explores the many ways such knowledge can disrupt and inform a life, and indeed, an entire society. While one of the main characters refused to open her box, preferring not to know the length of her string, the rest chose to know or had that knowledge forced upon them. With global upheaval as a backdrop, the novel poignantly traces the interconnected lives of eight people with strings of different lengths.

They learned, as we all must, that what gives life meaning isn’t its length, but how we spend the time we are given.

I’m pretty sure that I would have been among those to open my box, for if it were possible, I would want to know the date of my death. As it was for Eve in the Garden, the lure of knowledge is strong for me. But the reality for most of us, as Jesus said, is that we simply don’t know. Nor do we know for certain when other significant life events will happen, those we long for and those we dread. And so wait, making our peace, as best we can, with not knowing the day or the hour.

There is something to be gained in maintaining a “short-string” perspective, that is, living with a healthy awareness that our time on this earth is precious, meant to be lived well, not wasted on trivial things. “Teach us to number our days,” writes the Psalmist, “so that we might set our hearts to wisdom.”1

I’m reminded of a story the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister tells of a young disciple who asked a Holy One if there was life after death. The Holy One replied, “The great spiritual question of life is not ‘Is there life after death? The great spiritual question is ‘Is there life before death?’”2

Advent helps us honor the times in life when we find ourselves waiting for something that lies beyond our sight. The Scripture passages read in church are a juxtaposition of both foreboding and hope, and no doubt both are true. Yet the overriding Advent message leans toward hope, because of God’s promise to be with us, no matter what the future holds. And that good news of great joy awaits us all, someday.

From a prison cell in Nazi Germany, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to his parents, “Our whole life is an Advent season . . . for the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait.” He encouraged them to keep their holiday traditions amid the harshness of war: “I think of you as you now sit together with the children and with all the Advent decorations, as in earlier years you did with us.” he wrote. “We must all do this, even more intensively because we do not know much longer we have.”3

May this Advent be a time of holy waiting for you, whatever the future holds. May you be given peace in the not-knowing, and grace to live fully in your waiting time.

1Psalm 90:12
2Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad Press, 1992), 24.
3Quoted in Kate Bowler’s Advent Devotional