Knowing the Unknowable
“God is known by knowledge and by unknowing; of him there’s understanding, reason, knowledge, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name and many other things, but he’s not understood, nothing can be said of him, he cannot be named. He is not one of the things that are, nor is he known in any of the things that are; he is all things in everything and nothing in anything”
– Denys the Areopagite
This apophasis was the rule for a class of theologians who felt embarrassed by the more anthropomorphic descriptions of God. The idea that a transcendent phenomenon walked in the Garden of Eden, ate with Abraham, fought with Jacob and engaged in all manner of activities unbecoming of a transcendent phenomenon was ridiculous to say the least. Their utmost fear was convincing an intelligent atheist that a God decked in very human robes was worth sweating over. They therefore set out to strip him of some of the characteristics with which biblical writers cloaked him. The rule was to do as Denys did: First you affirm God and then you deny your affirmation. Follow up your denial by a denial of your denial, then and only then are you close to the knowledge of God. It’s not that we lack knowledge. The fact that our knowledge leads us to confess our ignorance is proof that we are knowledgeable. That should confuse any atheist enough to keep them quiet for a long time.
How could one possibly know such a being? Well, the answer to that one is simple enough: God wants to be known.
In addition to putting atheists, biblical literalists and all other simpletons in their places, this school open up another route in man’s quest for God. God is not to be found in Genesis, or Exodus or Deuteronomy. One thing you must not do is think you could locate him in Leviticus. The search for God must take you on an expedition through Mathematics, Astronomy and Logic. As Karen Armstrong wrote in The Case for God, by the time students got to theological classes they could already work out how many angels could fit on the tip of a needle. When St Paul wrote that we should study to make ourselves approved unto God, I doubt this was what he had in mind!
Is God so transcendent as to mystify us that much? You bet. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.” Then He adds a coda: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 59:8-9. If we take the heavens literally and measure its distance to the earth, we are talking in the range of a few million miles apart. Literally – that is, but a good imagery nonetheless.
So why do we bother trying to cover that kind of distance? How could one possibly know such a being? Well, the answer to that one is simple enough: God wants to be known. In Judeo-Christianity, what we call man’s quest for the knowledge of God started as God’s quest for the love of man. In Abrahamic monotheism it’s God that does the calling, it’s God that gives the revelations, it’s God that does the intervening, unasked, unsought and, sometimes, unknown.
And as for my ancestors, you could imagine their consternation when they learned Jesus had made peace between them and Yahweh. Yah…who? They did not know Him; they did not know this ‘person’ had a problem with them; they did not ask for a reconciliation.
God was the last thing on Jacob’s mind when he fled from his brother. He was probably the last sort of person we expect God to seek out, given that he had just deceived a blind, old man and stolen a blessing; yet the angel of God sought him out – as he said, “my ways are not your ways.” Moses was about the business of his father-in law when he had divine visitation. He did not ask for one; he was reluctant to entertain one. He was called upon to go deliver a nation of slaves and mediate a nuptial between God and them. And who should I say sent me? Moses asked. That would be a pretty redundant question, if they knew him. Isaac, the only one who went out of the way to spend quality time with God had the least eventful records of the patriarchs.
And as for my ancestors, you could imagine their consternation when they learned Jesus had made peace between them and Yahweh. Yah…who? They did not know Him; they did not know this ‘person’ had a problem with them; they did not ask for a reconciliation. He just has the habit of inviting Himself to our consciousness, even when we were content with the way things were, with or without him.
Surely knowing such a God ought not to be as difficult as these intellectual lot make out. He is everywhere, appearing in all places, to even the most undeserving. The only places he appears not to visit often or at all are the Ivory Towers.
Jesus’ life gave enough indication of this. He was born of the lowly, in a place fit for the lowly. Angels heralded his birth to the lowly. When he was old enough to choose his own company, he surrounded himself with the unlearned and the underclass – that stratum of society who knew enough not to take themselves too seriously. Although for much of his teaching life, those closest to him could never discern the meaning of his parables, he nonetheless told them that it is to such as they that the mysteries of the kingdom was revealed. As it is written: “Though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly: but the proud he knoweth afar off.” Psalm 138:6 He only spared time for the scribes when he felt like a sport of tongue-lashing. It is to this class that God appears opaque. It is to them that Unknowing is a virtue. And they appear to revel in it: “Man’s utmost knowledge is to know that we do not know him,” Thomas Aquinas said. Talk about using the simple things of the world to confound the wise.
Scripture is a code. Exegetes should read between the lines. To those who want to have a relationship with him, he is not elusive. His words tell us where to find him: “My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” Ezekiel 37:27 and how to know him: “…did not thy father eat and drink, and do judgment and justice, and then it was well with him? was not this to know me? saith the LORD.“ Jeremiah 22:16
The search for the knowledge of God beyond that which is necessary to walk with him is an enterprise not for the sake of heaven.
This is not to imply that God has a problem with those possessed of great minds. He gave Solomon his wisdom. The Apostles tell us He’s well pleased to bless with wisdom if He’s asked. James 1:5 So why do some find the knowledge of God difficult to gain? Or should one ask rather: why do they want to know God?
Moses said the realm of mysteries belong to God; but those things that are revealed belong to man – that we may learn to order our steps before God. Deuteronomy 29:29 The search for the knowledge of God beyond that which is necessary to walk with him is an enterprise not for the sake of heaven. Such a need has an ego to feed. And God does not readily cater to that: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” James 4:3
God resists the proud but accords grace to the humble.