Sunday, October 12, 2008

Know Thyself

The first time I encountered the phrase "Know Thyself" was in The Matrix. At one point in the scene where Neo meets the Oracle, she points up to an inscription above the doorway (that reads, "Temet Nosce") and says, "You know what that means? It's Latin. Means 'know thyself.'" She tells Neo that if he looks deep within himself he will find out whether he is the salvation of humanity....

Strangely, a similar notion of self-knowledge has been coming up in some of my reading recently. Early on in Christianity, especially in the east, it seems that there was a concept that self-knowledge could lead to salvation. Although it's a bit foreign to me, I find it very intriguing. 

Essentially, it all boils down to being created in the image of God.  Because we were created in God's image, there is something inside of us that connects us to God.  If we truly develop self-knowledge, we will come to know the image of God inside of us—and that means we will know God.  Such intimate self-knowledge is deeply connected with purity of the soul and spiritual maturity.  It takes purity and maturity to know ourselves (and God), but it is through knowing God that we develop purity and maturity.  They seem to work in a profound spiral leading inward toward ever-increasing knowledge of God.

This knowledge of ourselves and of God is our salvation.  If we truly know ourselves, we will know God, and if we truly know God, we will love God.  That true knowledge of and love of God transforms our every action (we are able to see God in others and love them accordingly), making us more and more like God.  And that is what salvation is—being wrapped up, in knowledge and in action, totally in communion with God.

My reaction to this vision of salvation is both enthusiastic and skeptical.  The wonderful thing about this vision is that being created in the image of God takes on substantial meaning.  It goes beyond just giving me a basis for my self-esteem.  Instead, just by virtue of being human, I have a direct and profound connection with God—I have a part of God within me.  Being created in the image of God is something that can be acted upon and forms the basis for how I should live my life.

On the other hand, though, this is so drastically different than the pessimistic picture of human nature that I learned growing up Protestant.  If humans are as horrendously depraved and incurably evil as Luther and Calvin would suggest, how could we possibly find the image of God within us?  Has sin distorted the image of God within us beyond the point of recognizability?  

I have to wonder whether it is possible to know myself so deeply that I could find God inside.  How optomistic am I about human nature?  Do I really believe that humans still bear any recognizable image of God?  Or are we so corrupt that the image has been warped completely out of shape?

What would I find if I looked deep inside and truly heeded the words, "Know thyself"?


  1. Hey Matt,

    I agree with you that getting to know ourselves more deeply and truthfully will lead us to knowing God better. You used the phrase "image of God" and how it would relate to being in us. What are some of the other ways that we could gain accurate knowledge of ourselves apart from simply looking within (as valuable as that may be if taken seriously)? Are there viable resources external to ourselves that we can put our trust in (along with our trust in God and our desire to be as honest with ourselves as we know how in the present moment) so as to gain this deeper knowing of self? If so, what might they be?

  2. That's an interesting question—I've never really thought about it before. I guess I would have to answer, "sort of." When it comes to knowing myself as an individual, it seems to me that that knowledge would have to be primarily existential (in the sense of coming from experience)—so it's only sort of external. I can know myself both from looking within and also from reflecting on relational experiences I have had with others. In that sense, relationships (with God, other individuals, groups, etc.) can be a source of intimate self-knowledge. Reflecting on my involvement in those relationships (as well as the way others respond to me) can help me learn more about myself.

    In addition to that, I think that coming to a fuller understanding of what it means to be human can help me to understand myself better. Asking questions about human nature can be useful in understanding who I am, especially questions like: "Who are we?" "What is our place in the world?" "What are our abilities and limitations?"

    How do we go about answering those questions? Geez...that's one I'll probably be working on my whole life.

  3. This is where things can get a little tricky. Do you remember my previous mentioning of Michael Polanyi and his work on epistemology? Basically, when you get down to it, no matter who we are, except for God I would surmise with all humility, we are always going to have to contend with our own perspectives and those of others. I think this is simply part of what it means to be human. You already addressed a couple of important resources (existential knowing of ourselves both within and along with other's contributions of their experiences of us), and I would add such things as our current possession of skills needed for the purpose of self-knowing, religious tradions along with our own specific understandings of what they may entail with their own resources for appropriating what may be the case, along with our already-formed yet transforming spirits. I am sure there are others, but these are a few possiblities. And yet, it seems there is no absolute way of conceiving just what all this may mean from one individual to the next. It's as if each individual's journey in knowing self may be tailored especially for them, though there be some basic generalizations that may be suggested as pertaiing to all humans. Polanyi's thinking suggests that all of our knowing, including our knowing of self, is very personal in nature and requires much in the way of our personal commitment predicated upon many factors both external and internal to ourselves. This kind of understanding humbles me incredibly, and helps me to recognize all the better what a poor judge I am of others.


Let me know what you think....