I’ve always enjoyed photography. I remember as a kid being on a field trip to the Lawrence Hall of Science, cradling my boxy little Instamatic camera and looking for the right angle needed to get the shot. Later (in high school, I think), a relative bought me my first SLR. What a prize! A whole new world opened up. I became something of a Kodachrome nut (and rightly mourned its passing), and even enrolled in a weekend Nikon School.
I remember a curious but revealing lesson the Nikon instructor taught us: if you want people to like the portraits you’ve taken of them, show it to them backwards. You’ve probably had the experience of looking at a photograph of yourself, and thinking, “It’s okay, I guess, but somehow it just doesn’t look like me.” Everyone else thinks you’re being crazy or vain: that picture is so…so…you, they insist.
The point, of course, is that we’re used to seeing ourselves in mirrors, not as others see us.
Looking into the future, and trying to teach the Corinthians the superiority of love, Paul writes: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known” (1 Cor 13:12, CEB). This probably isn’t a random choice of metaphors: Corinth was known for making some of the finest mirrors in the ancient world. But what did he mean?
Some of us may remember the old King James translation: “Now we see through a glass, darkly.” Literally, the words translated as “darkly” mean “in a riddle/enigma.” Paul’s metaphor itself, frankly, is a bit enigmatic, which gives rise to the different translations. The NRSV has “dimly” instead; the NIV hints at the idea by saying that we see “only a reflection”; the CEB leaves it out entirely. (Note: the name of this blog comes from Eugene Peterson’s rendering of the same phrase — as Christians, we’re all “squinting in a fog.”)
Whatever Paul’s exact meaning, however, surely the point is that despite the knowledge we think we have, and no matter how finely polished the mirror and clear the image, we still do not see things completely as they are. Our knowledge now is partial; eventually, it will be complete.
But that’s not the whole of what Paul is saying. It’s not just what we know, but Who knows us. To a Jew, the phrase “face to face” would probably call up the memory of the intimate relationship Moses shared with God. Only God, after all, knows us completely.
The promise is not merely that one day the gaps in our knowledge will be filled in. Paul, it seems, is pointing to something much grander than that. Take everything about what and how we know, about what we think we need to know. What of all this will change when we’re standing in a direct, undistorted, face-to-face relationship with a loving God who knows us backward and forward?
At the very least, we may fully and finally come to appreciate the words with which Paul closes the chapter: of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love.