Learning Jesus

by Luke Timothy Johnson

Luke Timothy Johnson teaches New Testament at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

This article is adapted from Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel, to be published in January (1999). Reprinted by arrangement with HarperSanFrancisco, a division of Harper-Collins Publishers. This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 2, 1998, pp. 1142-1146. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Attentiveness is a moral attitude that acknowledges the freedom of the other person–a person who is capable of changing. Jesus calls us beyond our present place of comfort into a life that is infinitely richer and more frightening.

Belief in the resurrection has important implications for our knowledge of Jesus. We deal not with a dead person of the past but with a person whose life continues, however mysteriously, in the present. This changes everything. If Jesus is alive among us, what we learn about Jesus must include what we can continue to learn from him. It is better to speak of "learning Jesus," rather than of "knowing Jesus," because we are concerned with a process rather than a product.

How do we approach such a complex process? How do we learn Jesus within the life of faith?

We can begin by attempting to understand what it means to "learn people." In other words, we can examine how we learn from and about another human person, and let that same process lead us to learn the Jesus who lives among us as powerful Lord.

The process of learning another human person is difficult and delicate. One difficulty lies in the fact that there is no clear demarcation between subject and object, between learner and learned. In the case of learning people, both the learner and the one being learned are subjects: the spirit that enables one person to overleap the boundary of the body in knowledge and love and to incorporate the other in the self is matched by the same spirit in the other. The one to be learned is also alive, moving, conscious, alert and free. The one to be learned is also (and at the same time) learning the learner, and is changing spiritually through the very process of exchange that is the learning of people between people.

The learning of another person requires certain moral as well as intellectual capacities. The first of these, in order both of occurrence and of importance, may well be trust. Trust is a fundamental openness to the reality of the other. It involves a certain basic acceptance of the other--a belief that the other is, that the other is real, that the other is true--prior to any empirical calculation. Perhaps the evidence will challenge or even subvert the premise established by trust. But without such basic openness, no learning can take place. In the absence of trust that the other will reveal herself, the learner must take up the stance of the scientist who learns only from surface appearances. It is clear also that having such trust in the other means at some level that the learner is entrusting herself to the other by relinquishing the sort of control that subjects normally have over the objects they are studying.

The attitude of trust involves an element of respect as well. The other is not simply a thing to he grasped, measured and catalogued. Respect means the acknowledgment of the other as truly other than the self as equally worthy as the self, as having as much interiority and freedom as the self. Trust and respect are the fundamental premises for any personal learning. Without them, intersubjectivity is lost; the other person--the one learned--is reduced to object only. As a result, both the spirit of the learner and the spirit of the one learned are occluded.

Attentiveness is another component of intersubjective learning. It is not quite the same thing as concentration, which suggests an intense focusing of the mind in order to see or hear something accurately. Attentiveness suggests alertness, yes, but also receptivity. It is a "leaning toward" the other. Attentiveness is present when we truly listen to the other person, when we contemplate the other person. It does not assume that the other is already known, has been figured out; Instead, it assumes that the other is always capable of change and surprise. The attitude of attentiveness contains within itself space for the other to remain other; it does not rush to change the other or to control the other. Like trust and respect, attentiveness is a mental and moral attitude that acknowledges and accepts the freedom of the other.

To truly learn another person, it is necessary also to meditate on the other in silence. Though this reflexive move is natural and obvious when we fall in love with another person, we often forget how critical it is to all interpersonal learning. Time and space and silence are required to ponder what the other person has said or done in our presence. In such silence we can imaginatively summon the other's presence, can picture him in characteristic motion, can assess what we have just heard or seen in the light of what the other has already revealed of himself. Without such opportunities to reflect and ponder, knowledge of the other person remains episodic, disconnected and superficial. It is in the soil of silent reflection that learning of the other puts down deep roots.

Personal learning cannot take place all at once, but only with the passage of time. At first acquaintance with another person, we are often tempted to "analyze" the other in an attempt to "figure her out." Generally, though, as the attitudes of trust, respect and attentiveness continue over a period of time, we come to realize that our initial conclusions are in need of revision. Since the person keeps changing, our learning of him or her must keep pace. This means that patience is a necessary component in personal learning.

Hand in hand with patience comes suffering; indeed, the very word patience connotes suffering. The ancient Greeks saw it as axiomatic that to learn was to suffer, and they reduced that conviction to a maxim: mathein pathein. Why that connection? Learning demands suffering because it is painful to open the mind and the heart to new truth. Pain is the symptom of a system in disequilibrium. Physical pain results not only from the body's disease but also from the body's rapid growth or from the acquiring of new muscles and skills. Pain likewise results from the need to stretch mental muscles around new ways of viewing the world. When we are learning another person, there is also inevitably emotional pain, for the very act of entrusting our self to another means a decentering and displacement of our self-preoccupation. Furthermore, the other can violate our vulnerability and cause us pain. Both for good and for bad, for loss and for gain, personal learning is always accompanied by suffering, and patience is the virtue that makes such suffering positive and meaningful: we endure for the sake of an education.

Because personal learning takes place intersubjectively over a long period of time, it also demands creative fidelity. Each part of this concept--a concept borrowed from Gabriel Marcel--is important. Fidelity is the attitude of trust extended through time. To learn from another we must be loyal to the other, stick with the other, be willing to endure with the other through a variety of circumstances. Pulling away, refusing to remain attentive, abandoning the other altogether means cutting off the process of intersubjective learning. (Here again patience comes into play, for such loyalty is frequently put to the test through suffering.)

The other part of the concept of creative fidelity is equally important: to be truly faithful, one must be creative. This is because the other, as free subject, always changes. Loyalty to what a person used to be is not creative fidelity. Loyalty to one's ideal image of the other is not creative fidelity. Not even loyalty to one's own first commitment of loyalty is creative fidelity. Creative fidelity is the willingness to trust, be attentive to and suffer with the other even as the other changes. It is a living process, because it is a process that goes on between two living, conscious and free subjects.

The process of learning Jesus must be, for each individual person who undertakes it, even more complex than the process of learning another human being. The elements of all intersubjective learning are present, yet in distinctive ways that make learning between two humans analogous rather than identical.

The reality of the spirit that enables all intersubjective learning in this case involves on one side the human spirit, with its capacities for knowing and loving, and on the other side the Holy Spirit of God, which mediates the presence of the risen Jesus to humans. It is the spirit of humans, says Paul, that enables them "to know a person's thoughts"; it is God's Spirit that "searches everything, even the depths of God" (1 Cor. 2:10-11). Because humans are gifted with that divine Spirit, they are able "to comprehend the thoughts of God" and thereby to "understand the gifts bestowed on [them] by God" (1 Cor. 2:11-12). The mutuality of knowing and being known is thus much deeper (1 Cor. 8:1-3), even if it cannot be articulated, for the Spirit of God is more interior to us, as Augustine declares, than we are to ourselves. Because by his resurrection Jesus has become life-giving Spirit, he is able to know and to be known in a manner impossible to him when confined to his mortal body.

Such spiritual intimacy is intimated but not adequately expressed by those passages in the New Testament that speak of Christians being "in Christ" (1 Thess. 4:16; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 5:17; Phil. 2:1; Col. 1:2) or of Christ being "in them" (Col. 1:27; Eph. 3:17). Paul's language concerning his own relationship to the risen Lord is most emphatic: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). That language is not far from the wording used by John for the mutual indwelling of Jesus and his friends: "Remain in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me" (John 15:4). In his last prayer for the disciples, Jesus petitions (through John's pen) "that they may all be one, even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.... I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one" (John 17:20-23). To affirm the reality of Jesus' resurrection life is to affirm also that in the Spirit Jesus can both know and be known.

The element of trust is even more critical here than it is in the case of other interpersonal learning. We need to have trust first of all that Jesus is raised from the dead, lives now as powerful Lord and is available to us in the Spirit, even though appearances and the laws of probability do not support that conviction. We need to trust, furthermore, that the means by which Jesus has chosen to communicate with us are reliable: that the portrayal of him in the Gospels is not the result of the early church's malicious manipulation or fundamental misunderstanding, for example, or that the entire tradition of creed and teaching is not so corrupt that it distorts Jesus entirely, or that the encounter with Jesus through meal and word and saint and stranger is not mere fantasy or projection. In short, our trust is directed not only to Jesus but also to the ways in which Jesus has entrusted himself to humans. We place our trust in the process of communication through the power of the Spirit and the ways in which the Spirit finds embodiment.

As in other interpersonal learning, such trust can be severely tested. When the power of the Spirit is not obviously present, it is tempting to place trust elsewhere. When the witnesses that embody the Spirit's presence are damaged or distorting, it is difficult to sustain loyalty. We can grow discouraged, disenchanted, even at times disengaged. At such times, we are tempted to seek some other means of securing knowledge about Jesus than those means through which he has chosen to reveal himself; we yearn to find some leverage over tradition by uncovering some "objective" knowledge of Jesus not dependent on the fragile trustworthiness of the witnesses chosen by Jesus to embody his presence in the world. Giving in to such temptation, however, means stepping outside the realm of interpersonal learning. It makes Jesus an object rather than another subject. It seeks to know him as we know a thing rather than as we know other people.

Our trust is directed toward God as well--trust that in Jesus has been truly disclosed the truth about human life and the truth about God, so that if we entrust ourselves to God through Jesus God has truly shown us the "way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6), that in Jesus we truly perceive the "pioneer and perfecter of faith" (Heb. 12:3), that in Jesus "made perfect" we see "the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (Heb. 5:9). We trust that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself " (5:19) and believe that by placing our trust in Jesus (and the way toward God that Jesus has revealed through his own faithful obedience), we shall have "entrusted our lives to a faithful creator"(1 Pet. 4:19).

Trust is a dimension of that attitude usually called faith. The author of Hebrews says of faith that it is "the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (11:1), and declares concerning God that "without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that God exists and that God rewards those who seek him" (11:6). Our "faith in Christ Jesus" (Col. 1:5) is our way of articulating faith in God, out of the conviction that God has revealed, in Christ, the perfect pattern of faith and that "he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to [our] mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in [us]" (Rom. 8:11).

I stated earlier the need for respect in all interpersonal learning. In the case of learning Jesus, this respect is not simply the recognition of the other as a spiritual and free being; it involves the recognition that in Jesus we have to do with the Holy One of God. Our faith in Jesus therefore is more than simple trust; it is also made up of the fear of the Lord and of obedience. When we attempt to learn Jesus, we are not in an egalitarian relationship; on the contrary, the most profound humility and submission on our part are appropriate. Jesus is not for us simply an interesting figure of the past about whom any opinion is valid, any attitude is acceptable; rather, Jesus is the one whom "God has highly exalted and [on whom God has] bestowed the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:911). Therefore, the appropriate attitude for learning Jesus is to "reverence Christ as Lord in your hearts" (1 Pet. 3:15).

The posture of attentiveness is likewise more imperative in learning Jesus than in other intersubjective learning. Other people, after all, are finite in their spiritual energy, and despite their capacity to surprise, they tend to fall into routines and predictable patterns. In relationships with people, then, occasional downtime is possible. But the resurrected Jesus--the embodiment of life-giving Spirit--possesses the energy of God's own life. The Letter to the Hebrews gives particular attention to the need for attentiveness to the word of God spoken by Christ: "Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion" (Heb. 3:7, citing Ps. 95:8). God continues to speak through Jesus with a word that calls humans into judgment:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Heb. 4:12-13).

The response of faith in Jesus demands the asceticism of attentiveness, for "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31). The relationship with Jesus is neither comfortable nor altogether comforting. It challenges us and even frightens us with its demand that we be transformed according to the image of the one who has gone before us and continues to press upon us. Hebrews says again:

You have come...to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel. See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven... . Thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (12:22-29).

Because the risen Lord is not an embodied subject in the same manner that other people are, the role of silence and meditation in learning Jesus is of critical importance. Neither Jesus' absence nor his presence can be measured like that of other people. His presence is often mediated and indirect, and the learning from that presence is therefore oblique. His apparent absence is particularly hard to assess, for as many mystics have shown, the movement into an ever deeper relationship with Jesus leads from a comforting sense of a palpable presence through the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul, in which the subject of our human longing and love seems to recede even as we approach. Without silence and meditation, the learning of Jesus lacks the depth of personal appropriation. Silent prayer serves to purify the process of our learning, winnowing away the chaff of opinion and speculation and noisy chatter and verbal polemics to reveal bit by bit the pure grain of authentic knowing.

Learning Jesus inevitably involves suffering and therefore requires patience. The learning of Jesus is not simply the acquiring of facts or even of insight; rather, it is a matter of being conformed to the image of the one known. Paul hopes to "know him and the power of his resurrection, and share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that I might somehow attain the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:11). All learning, I have suggested, demands some suffering. All interpersonal learning in particular involves the suffering that results from the clash between two or more freedoms at work. In the case of learning Jesus, however, there is not only that suffering intrinsic to learning itself--the stretching of the self in order to reach a higher place--but also the suffering that results as a life is shaped by the Spirit of Jesus into conformity with the pattern of obedience and self-giving love that he himself displayed.

It is the dimension of suffering, not as something chosen out of masochism but as an element of growth in the Spirit itself, that distinguishes authentic learning of Jesus from cheap versions of Christianity that trumpet Jesus as the solution to all life's problems. The mark of genuine discipleship is the suffering that begins when the learning of Jesus is truly undertaken. Paul expresses the confidence that Jesus "will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that empowers him also to subject all things to himself " (Phil. 3:21), but that transformation is one that must pass, as did Jesus himself, through suffering to glory (Luke 24:26; 1 Pet. 1:11).

Part of the suffering of discipleship derives from the fact that our trust and obedience are directed toward a being who, as the Living One, always moves ahead of us. Our learning, then, must be continuous. We cannot ever stop and say that we "know Jesus"; we can only move forward in the process of learning Jesus. We are not allowed the luxury of certainty, but only the pain of ambiguity that is the lot of all learners as they move from one point of secure knowledge to another. We suffer because we are always in transition, always in a condition of stress, always free at every moment to stop or turn back or close our ears. In learning Jesus, therefore, we must above all have creative fidelity if our faith is to he authentic. We cannot rest content with the understanding of Jesus that was ours as children, or even the understanding of Jesus that was ours yesterday. The living Lord continues to call us beyond our present place of comfort into a life that is both infinitely richer and unspeakably more frightening.

Finally, our learning of Jesus cannot take place all at once, but can only grow over the course of time. Unlike the study of a merely historical figure, which comes to a resolution once all the evidence has been amassed and analyzed, our learning of Jesus continues over time as we engage the Spirit of the risen Lord at every moment. And unlike those Christians who claim to receive an immediate and adequate grasp of Jesus in a single instant of conversion--a knowledge that need never be revisited or revised and that provides a blueprint for all subsequent actions--we must claim a more modest process that goes on through every moment of life. Our fidelity is not to our past understanding but to the living Lord, which means that our learning Jesus continues as long as we live. .