Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
Let anyone with ears listen!
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
If you study the neural underpinnings of perception and attention, you will find that there is a complex, step-by-step process by which our brains integrate information from our various senses into the experience we are familiar with in consciousness. Our brains process the information from each senses separately in the primary and secondary sensory areas before they are then integrated together in the associational cortices that connects all the information together that serves as the cognitive material that make up the contents of our conscious attention. As a consequence of this, there are various degrees to which our brains and minds process information in the world around us.
One of the most readily apparent differences of degrees is the difference we are aware of between hearing and listening. We are all familiar with those instances where we hear something that has been said, but we don’t give a lot of attention and thought to it. For instance, two people in conversation may have a break in their communication when one person gets distracted by something happen in their peripheral vision, causing them to momentarily lose track of what a person was saying, even though they heard the words.
However, another difference in perception can be described in terms of how much attention we giving in the act of listen. In passive listening, a person may hear what someone else says, but is not highly concerned to take care to determine whether they are understanding the other person correctly. They may simply assume they do, whereas active listeners take greater care to think through and consider what is being said. Active listening requires more attention and cognitive effort to achieve, but in so doing, the person’s own thinking and feeling is more open and malleable to the information they receive from another person, which makes active listening an integral part of have empathetic feelings that accurately represent what another person thinks and feels (rather than just simply assuming we know what someone feels).
All told, in the sensation of hearing, we have various degree of processing and attending to information, which means that the way we interact with those speaking can dramatically different from one situation to the next. Similarily, we can do the same with visual attention. A person may be aware of a painting in a book but not stop to give it much attention. Another person may study the painting for a brief moment and think what the significance of the painting is to them. Then, another person may give greater focus to the painting and all its masterful strokes and its portrayal of the scene that allow them to come to a greater understanding and comprehension of the painting.
While modern neuroscience and cognitive science are helpful in allowing us to understand the differences in these various degrees of processing, people living in pre-scientific world intuitively understood the differences between the various types of attention. We see this occurring in Isaiah 6.9, where God tells the prophet Isaiah what to speak to the people. Even as the people can hear what the prophet says and can observe the events happening to them in the social and political landscape, they will not be able to comprehend and understand what is being said and what is happening. They will sense and perceive, but their recognition of what is happening will escape them.
One of the recurring critique of the Old Testament prophets is that the people know what God has spoken, they know what God has commanded, they participate in religious piety, etc., but yet their heart is far from the substance of what God has said, commanded, and called for. In such a place, they operated in a divided heart, where they given a minimal degree of attention and awareness to God’s word, but yet their hearts are far from living out the meaning and purposes that God has for them. Such a phenomenon occurs when people passively pay attention, reacting to what they know from God without giving greater attention to consider if they are understanding God and reflecting on themselves in relationship to God’s word. When one does this again and again, people may hear and have a minimal degree of recognition of what is being said and done, but yet they do not deeply consider and seek to grasp the full meaning. If they do attempt to probe deeper, it is often an exercise in self-isolated imagination and confirmation bias where a person seeks to rationalize how what they know about God delivers to them the “truth” for what they already want to believe and rationalize. As a consequence of lesser degrees of attention and the absence of humility, people’s hearts become divided between a surface level devotion to God and a heart that does not grasp, but may even conflict with the word of God.
Ultimately, however, this is true of the human condition when it comes to knowing God. Because God is holy and we have in Adam been naturally separated from the close, intimate presence of God, we are all far from understanding and knowing God, and consequently, we are always inclined to interpret what we know of God from our own, egocentric frame of reference by which we appeal to God’s word as a source to legitimize and support what we want, while not giving deeper consideration of what God is calling for from us. While some people are more overt in their contradictory and dissonant way of life than others, it is the reality we all come from in knowing God. Our hearts are naturally divided because we struggle to engage in the form of active listening and comprehending of God because we are readily inclined in our own desires to fit God into the mold we want God to be shaped as.
However, even as this is the inevitable starting point, it is not our inevitable destiny. When Jesus declares that being born from above will allow someone to see the kingdom of God, this does not refer to a visual sensation of life lived in eternity, but rather the perception and comprehension of God’s kingdom in the midst of the all-to-earthly realities. When we are born from above, we are introduced into a whole new way of perceiving and making sense of God’s activity and God’s word. God plants within us the seed that when watered can grow over time to deeply understand God’s word in a way that we otherwise couldn’t. Our divided hearts are slowly transformed in a purity of heart, where one’s intentions are not divided between a surface level adherence to religion and a deeper level movement away from God’s word, but to a wholly encompassing desire for the goodness and righteousness of God’s kingdom. Because we are born from the heavens above, we can begin to recognize where heaven is meeting earth and through this, we can give deeper attention and meditation to God’s word that brings us to a more accurate understanding, that eventually moves our hearts to a purity of purpose and intentions.
All the meanwhile, as we move from the divided heart to the purity of heart, we experience all the struggles with the various desires of our hearts and how our passions and drives tempt us to things that do not go down the same path that God’s will would have for us. It is in this place, where we are aware of the divergence laid within out heart, that we put to death the deeds of the passions coming from our bodily experience by perceiving and understanding the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings and following the leading of the Spirit to a way of life that hits at the very root of sin. Through this, we experience the life of sanctification that continues to remove the division within our hearts and replace it with greater wholeness and purity of purpose.
It is our natural state as religious people to not be able to comprehend God and His righteousness, even as we have the sources of God’s teaching from the past in Scripture and traditions of the Church. It is only through believing in God’s self-expression and self-disclosure in Jesus Christ that we can begin to move down the route of understanding God as He is, so that we can then understand the true purpose of religion as expressed in Scriptures and the traditions. It is only when we behold Jesus and come to believe in Him, even as we live in that state of faith with a sense of uncertainty that receives from Jesus without presuming that we must fit Jesus into specific agendas, that the divisions of our heart between our seeking after God and the rest of our lives can be mended and cured.