You might not remember when you last used the expression, but no doubt you have heard it many times. It is what we say when we break through scuttlebutt, supposition and speculation in order to speak directly with another person. “I just wanted to hear it from you.” We use such a phrase when talking about someone pivots to speaking with someone.
We say something like, “I had to hear it from your lips” because direct contact removes any doubt about the issue, which is not a dispute over some objective fact. No, it is a question of where we and the other person stand before one another. That is why, when the other speaks, we know the answer: She does love me. He is finished with me. They do want me to stay.
At this moment, there can be no doubt about who Jesus is and what he asks of them.
Something like that happened at the Transfiguration. It was a concise but critical moment. In this scene Jesus does not speak in words, yet he nonetheless decisively reveals himself to his disciples, Peter, James and John. For them, at this moment, there can be no doubt about who Jesus is and what he asks of them. Now, the only question is their response.
We live some 2,000 years after Jesus walked upon this earth. A chasm of centuries seems to separate us from Christ, but time is not the only strain. There is also a modern attitude that seeks to understand all things in the light of a pseudo-scientism, reducing everything, even persons, to objects and facts.
This approach seeps into the minds of believers as well, and it covertly limits their reception of the faith. Without acknowledgment, indeed without recognition, many modern believers construct a Jesus of history—however limited their historical acumen may be—and then judge revealed truth itself by this highly circumscribed criterion: “Jesus never said....” Sometimes they add the possessive pronoun, “My Jesus never said....” Either way, it is always implicit.
The result is that what is taken as true about Christ is limited to what is reasonable, yet without acknowledgment modern believers themselves set the standard for what they find to be reasonable. They do not realize how their approach—reducing Christ to a historical figure—truncates the human, much less the divine. Why? Because the reasoning that we humans employ in dealing directly with each other is different than that which we use for the non-personal.
When “heart speaks to heart,” it is no longer a question of facts about a person.
When “heart speaks to heart,” it is no longer a question of facts about a person. No, at that moment a personal relationship has been proffered or rejected. Objectivity gives way to offer. If Christ speaks to us in the experience of faith, and if, within that uniquely human experience, he is who he says he is, then his word is no longer a question of debate and speculation. Put another way, before faith is a question of facts, it is an encounter between faces.
The search for what we now call the Jesus of history is a useful human quest, even among believers, but it does not arrive at the essential question for believers: Have I been addressed by another, have I heard from his own lips? Once that happens, everything is turned on its head: The content of faith is determined by the experience of faith. We believe these things because, like the disciples on Mount Tabor, we cannot deny that the Lord has revealed himself to us. We have heard from him, “from his own lips.”
A great theologian of the 20th century, Romano Guardini, closed his classic work The Lord (1954) by circumscribing the search for the historical Jesus. It never arrives at the decisive moment for faith, which is hearing from the lips of another. Guardini insisted:
There is only one true Jesus Christ: the God-man of full uncrippled Christian belief. And faith is as essential to our understanding of him as the eye is to color and the ear to sound. From the start Jesus demanded of all would-be followers a clear Yes! or No! to the demands of faith he made upon them—affirmation or rejection, not a little of each.
We cannot have it both ways. Either Christ is simply one more personage in the world about whom we can speculate or Christ is someone who directly addresses us and who does so as the God-man, the full revelation of the deity. We supervise speculation; we surrender to salvation.
Theology is faith seeking understanding, not understanding limiting faith.
Theology is still needed to ensure that we do not surrender to some small human conception of God or an impoverished import of sacred Scripture, but theology is faith seeking understanding, not understanding limiting faith. Guardini continued:
Christ came to redeem us. To do this he had to inform us who God is, and what man is in the sight of God; and this in such a way that the doors to our conversion are flung open, and we are given the strength to enter into the new. He who succeeds in this cannot be substantially judged by men. The moment man assumes the right to decide how his redeemer is or is not to be, that redeemer is reduced to human limitations, and the given conditions of human existence, as well as the whole sense of revelation, is lost. If redemption exists at all, it necessarily demands that the competence of human judgment halt before him who announces and accomplishes it. And not only relatively, with the “special consideration” due to greatness or genius, but fundamentally, because he is the Redeemer. A “savior” with human limitations is hardly worth believing in. Anyone with the least idea of what Christian life demands in the way of conversion and sacrifice knows this. If the genuine Jesus Christ were no more than the greatest of men, it would be better to hack our way alone through existence.
Before faith is a question of content, a debate about revealed facts, it is an undeniable encounter with a person. Once we have heard Christ “for ourselves” conjecture must end and commitment must begin. Christ is not limited by the way we reason over facts, because we ourselves go beyond them whenever we speak heart to heart. At that moment we are not asked to accept facts about the person. We are asked to accept the person. And once that happens, every fact in the world is reordered by this new relationship.