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Volume 13, Issue 3: Incarnatus

Knowing is Presence

Douglas Jones

presence is a term of phobia for the modern/postmodern mind. It conjures up nightmares of tyranny, injustice, violence, and Mel Gibson. To them, those who claim to control the abyss of presence wield it to punish those on the margins. Presence is reality—anything stable which denies that it is constructed by human touch: the external world, God, the self, causality, meaning, truth, beauty, and goodness. Early moderns feared direct contact with the presence of the external world and God, and so they hid behind a distorting veil of sense perception. Later moderns tunneled away even deeper from presence by making language a black kaleidoscope of falsifying forces. Honest Nietzsche tried to turn fear of presence into a virtue, declaring that we need "illusions strenuously and zestfully entertained" in order to "celebrate redemption in illusion."1

The surface justifications moderns give us for denying presence are quite revealing. They always involve some disguised resentment against the body. From Descartes to Derrida we find that it is the nasty body—our senses, our language faculties—that distort the world. "It's the body not the woman You gave us." Some of these anti-presence arguments create problems for themselves by assuming we have little people sitting behind our eyes. Others just fail to discern carefully enough the alleged discrepancy in question ("stare a little longer and you'll see it is a mailbox not a barn"). But whether the arguments invoke bent oars, color relativity, illusions, hallucinations, time lapses, or microscopes, they always share one nullifying assumption: the reality of error. They always have to assume some direct access to reality because they most certainly know that the distorting veil differs from it. Error assumes presence. If they were truly trapped in sensation or language, they couldn't speak about how our perception falsifies the world because they could only be in touch with the veil not the world. Error proves that presence is easily at hand.
To the Christian, however, it is modernity/postmodernity itself that connotes the guillotine and the humorless scowl. Presence isn't too hard or "far off"; it "is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it" (Deut. 30:14). God is "clearly seen" (Rom. 1:20) so that they are without an excusing veil to hide Him.
To us, presence is not a bogey; presence is light and play. In Scripture, presence is the cause and goal of peace, joy, and laughter. It is truly terrible and lovely, dissonant and consonant.
Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God, but in their rebellion, they "hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God" (Gen. 3:8). God spoke to Moses "face to face, as a man speaks to his friend" (Exod. 33:11), and even promised the faithful, "My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest" (Exod. 33:14), and in fact, He did bring them "out of Egypt with His Presence" (Deut. 4:37). David declares, "In Your presence is fullness of joy" (Ps. 16:11) and "You have made him exceedingly glad with Your presence" (Ps. 21:5). The whole covenant community can "come before His presence with thanksgiving" (Ps. 95:3). But His presence is a curse to the unfaithful: "He who tells lies shall not continue in my presence" (Ps. 101:8), and "the mountains melt like wax at the presence of the Lord, At the presence of the Lord of the whole earth" (Ps. 97:5). And David lamented, "Do not cast me away from Your presence" (Ps. 51:11), and he recognized in joy, "Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there" (Ps. 139:7, 8).
Though God dwelt with His people via the Temple, an even greater presence was promised: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel" (Is. 7:14), "which is translated, `God with us'" (Mt. 1:23). Christ was present not apparent. And when Christ began His ministry, He declared they would see the "kingdom of God present with power" (Mk. 9:1). Because of Christ's saving presence, we now have "boldness to enter the holiest" presence of God, and even after the ascension He promised, "Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (Mt. 18:20). From beginning to end the promise of the presence of God among us progresses, growing from shadow to reality: "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God" (Rev. 21:3).
Every dimension of Christian life delights in the joy and nearness of presence. Modernities cower from it at every turn. Truly, it hunts them, and those who hate presence love illusion (Prov. 8:36).
This column looks to the model of the Incarnation to sketch some connections between it and knowledge. Previous installments have argued that knowing, like the Incarnation, is primarily a kind of doing rather than thinking. This doing takes place amid the concrete particulars of the created order which reveal the invisible to us through interacting with them. Such contact with the concrete quotidian assumes we are in touch with real presences not mere illusions, just what we find in the Incarnation.

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