As so often happens when I’m out and around, I managed to find myself in a conversation with someone who saw me in my clerical collar and wanted to chat. And as is also becoming more common, his questions weren’t for the sake of investigation, but rather for taking the opportunity to ridicule Christianity.
I was doing my best to stay out of sight in the corner of Panera in Brighton eating my favorite chicken salad sandwich. The young man—Todd—claimed atheism as his point of origin, and for some reason, his particular approach to our discussion involved testing my abilities to reasonably explain the afterlife. To be completely honest, I was quite annoyed. I was taking advantage of some limited time in between tasks, and all I really wanted to do was eat my Napa Almond Chicken Salad sandwich in peace. Not to mention I was in the furthest corner of the restaurant for a reason. I actually wanted to avoid such interactions—which again, happen far too often these days. And lastly, as I already mentioned, it was obvious that his intentions weren’t to learn, but rather to try to prove Christianity to be the backwater foolishness he already believed it to be.
A side note: For the record, looking foolish in such conversations doesn’t concern me all that much anymore. The Word of God has already declared that the Gospel will be received as foolishness, and so what does a guy like me truly have to lose in these circumstances?
Anyway, I took the time to talk with him. Well, actually, I didn’t have much of a choice. He actually pulled out the chair across from me and sat down at my table.
Essentially, we went around and around on a few points, his mouth filled with philosophical ramblings and my mouth filled with chicken salad. As I was taking the last bite and doing my best to politely communicate that I needed to leave soon, he somehow landed at the trite phrase, “Know thyself.” Truthfully, I don’t recall exactly how he arrived there. I just remember him saying it and then trying to explain what it actually means.
Now, I’m not entirely stupid. I know Socrates repeated it. Plato, his student, taught from the phrase, too. Todd was now using it, and doing so more along the lines of the way Plato tried to spin it—saying that the mythology of religion is irrelevant and that we shouldn’t waste our time investigating such foolishness, but rather we should spend our limited days employing reason to better ourselves in the here and now with the hope of something better.
Here’s something funny… I asked Todd if he knew the origin of the phrase. He didn’t.
Another quick side note: Don’t get into a discussion and use a phrase you can’t trace to its origin.
Γνῶθι σεαυτόν is the phrase that Pausanias (2nd century B.C.) says was etched in the granite of the forecourt to the temple of Apollo in Delphi. “Know thyself” the passerby would read. I’ve heard it said that this same phrase was sometimes carved into the stone caps of early Greek ossuaries. In other words, for early Greeks, to know the self was to know something essential to the nature of man. It was to be reminded that the bones inside the burial box had arrived at the destination to which every human being who ever lived would be traveling.
“Know thyself” was not necessarily a self-empowering phrase. It was a reminder that in the end, everyone will face off with Death. Every person—good or bad, smart or not-so-smart, reasonable or unreasonable—was going to die. The phrase betrayed the futility of human betterment against Death.
I told Todd this. I also told him that Saint Paul called Death “the last enemy destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). I told him Paul could say this because Jesus (who was crucified and buried and yet whom Paul had seen personally afterward) had defeated Death on the cross. I told Todd that Paul, a man who had everything to lose by believing this foolishness, was killed for it. I told Todd that Paul wrote about a new “self” that was put on through faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross (Ephesians 4:24). In other words, now in faith, to know the self is to know Christ and His promises that surpass the limitations of ossuaries with stone caps and dreadfully depressing phrases. For the Christian, Death is now nothing more than a portal—a trail blazed by Christ—through to eternal life.
Todd said I was, in essence, simpleminded, and that everything I’d just said was unprovable. Of course there were a thousand different directions I could’ve gone in response, but I was already very late, so I told him that far too much in this life points to Todd’s position being a very dangerous gamble. I encouraged him to do a little more digging, and if he didn’t want to read the Bible, then to consider studying the Early Church Fathers. They’re rich in ways I thought might resonate with his philosophical mind. I suggested Chrysostom and Athanasius in particular. I gave him one of the new business cards that Pastor Zwonitzer had printed up for me, and then I left.
This is the most recent of my episodes at Panera.
But still, there’s a little more I learned in the jaunt—and maybe it’ll be of use to you and maybe it won’t.
It was Menander (a Greek dramatist who Saint Paul actually quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:33) who said something about the phrase “Know thyself” being a silly proverb. He said that to know the man next door is a much more useful rule. I kind of like that thought. Bringing it into the sphere of Christianity, it can mean anticipating and receiving someone—anyone—in order to find just the right way to share the Gospel that saves, even if the initial goal of that someone is to test his own intellectual skills in order to make you look like a fool. Menander’s view means knowing the needs of others and responding, even if being late to your next appointment is the result.
Know thyself. And know the man next door.
Know you’re passing away. Even better, as a Christian rescued from Death, know the new self which has been established and given by Christ. Accept that this self will be considered foolish to a world of neighbors, and yet be ready for the Holy Spirit at work in that self to be open and aware of these other selfs around you—to the dire spiritual conditions of the person next door. It’ll be in those moments that the foolishness of the Gospel is given through you. And knowing the new self also means trusting the Lord when He promises these opportunities will never be seized in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).