Spent some good time in Atlanta last week and had a chance to meet face to face with David Park as well as eat some very good Korean food (which is almost a good enough reason to move to Atlanta). Shared with David a bit of my family history, and came from that inspired to share some of the phrases and meanings that shaped my world view. Today I tackle: “I know one thing…”
This phrase, “I know one thing” was spoken countless times in my youth and was directed usually towards one or the other of us children as a warning. We could, and often did, argue back and forth with my mother about almost anything. She was an exceptionally patient woman and tolerated far more “back talk” than most would. However when she uttered the magic phrase, “”I know one thing” all arguments were cut short. And yes, that is the extent of the phrase. She never did say what the “one thing” was, and we were too wise (and too scared) to ask. You see that statement indicated that whatever our objections and excuses, the time for argument and discussion was done and the time of obedient implementation had begun. None of us wanted to really know what would happen if we continued to argue. My mother had declared that she knew one thing, and if pressed we likely would have discovered that one thing had something to do with a switch, a bathroom, and a whole lot of crying.
What lessons have I drawn from this phrase and what has been its meaning in my life. In many ways, nothing at all. It’s just words my mother used to threaten us when she was fed up. But in other ways it is quite profound. Her statement along with countless others she and my father used over the years were in many ways nonsensical threats which we and they knew would never be carried out. Nevertheless, those words, and the featured phrase in particular delineated for us the limits of both our autonomy and of the power of our reason. It was a lesson, painfully learned at times, that there is a principle of authority present in the world to which reason and rights must bow. “I know one thing” meant that regardless of our opinion, reasoning or feelings about the matter at hand, our actions, indeed our will needed to bend to an authority higher than our own.
In light of how we think and understand or talk about authority now, this may seem arbitrary and my mother may seem to be some uncaring tyrant. Indeed this is far from the case. She was a loving, tolerant and extraordinarily patient woman. However she understood and instilled in me the essential truth that her rights and responsibility to establish the limits of my behavior and to set norms of conduct within the household did not derive ultimately from anything extrinsic to her position, whether the reasonableness of her request or the consent of the governed. Her authority was intrinsic to her status and her role as our mother. She was in fact quite reasonable, very sensitive to our needs and concerns, and altogether rather more solicitous of our requests for inclusion in the decision making process than many of her peers thought beneficial. At the end of the day though, she was in charge and held both the responsibility and the right to decide. She did not derive that right from us; it was inherent in her position as the mother.
My mother’s care and leadership in my life was a reflection, though a pale and flawed one, of God’s care and leadership of his creation. And just as my mother’s authority was inherent in her position as a mother, so too is God’s authority inherent in his divinity. Though God is good and loving and holy (and parents reflect that reality albeit imperfectly) his rights vis a vis his creation do not derive from that goodness, love or holiness. Our authority is derivative of our position in the created order and is a reflection of our being made in the image of God. His authority is inherent in his being and is a reflection of nothing. It is rather an emanation of his very self (if God can be called a self in any meaningful sense of the word). God need not appeal to anything outside himself to justify his authority. He is the author and therefore authority belongs to him.
This notion of intrinsic divine authority is not appealing. The arbitrariness of God in this respect is disconcerting in the same way that my mothers was. Some of her rules and decisions seemed to us at the time entirely arbitrary, lacking in sensitivity, immune to sound reason and flatly unfair. In hindsight I recognize the great wisdom, keen insight, and loving concern of many of her decisions, and those choices continue to guide my behavior today. Others of them remain inscrutable and indeed were only expressions of her own particular ways of doing things – which I promptly dropped when I left the authority of her roof.
At issue though is NOT the wisdom or loving nature of God’s decrees, though indeed they are perfectly wise and loving, that is not the basis upon which his authority rests. When we base our submission to God upon the loveliness or reasonableness of his commands, we set ourselves up to either mount a defense of those commands which seem unloving and unreasonable or to redefine his commands in such a way as to accommodate what we believe to be loving and reasonable. That was the original temptation of the garden; to reinterpret God’s commands in such a way that it became evident to our first parents that a reasonable and loving God would not withhold the goodness of the forbidden tree from us — surely he did not mean we would die.
I wonder how things would have turned out if when asked about the tree God had said, “I know one thing….”