I often need to remind myself of this. One of my better theology papers. Enjoy.
It seems that in modern Christian thought, we often find two opposite positions concerning human understanding of God: either we can know God, or we cannot. We can know God because he has revealed himself to humanity through the law, the prophets, Christ, and Scripture. On the other hand, because God is a Being so completely other, we struggle to comprehend even a small part of Him and must often resort to the use of metaphor and analogy in order to approach a semblance of understanding. In his lecture, “Knowing the Unknowable: How Divine Incomprehensibility Makes Sense of Everything,” Dr. Steven Boyer argues that we must affirm both the mystery and the knowledge of God as integrated concepts of utmost significance (as a “both-and” rather than an “either-or”). As we come to greater and greater understanding of the gravity of the mystery of God through His revelation, we are able to gaze upon this mystery in wonder and recognition of its magnitude. In short, our ever-increasing knowledge and understanding of God in all His incomprehensibility can allow us to more fully participate in and celebrate the mystery of God.
The mystery and the knowledge of God often seem to be incompatible. If we emphasize the claim that God is knowable through self-disclosure, we often fail to acknowledge God as a Being completely other, and the deep sense of wonder so fundamental to the Christian faith may be forfeited. Similarly, if we focus on the mystery of God, there is little reason to study and seek to know Him, and understanding may be overlooked. Boyer remarks, “Either we affirm knowledge but find that knowledge by definition dissolves the mystery; or else we affirm the mystery but find that mystery by definition precludes knowledge. Or else we aim for some half-and-half compromise, which leaves us neither with real knowledge nor with real mystery” (Boyer 1). How can mystery and knowledge of God be reconciled?
An illustration of this antinomy is found in the writings of one of the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Gregory of Nyssa. In The Life of Moses, St. Gregory addresses this paradox through two particular events in which Moses encounters God: the burning bush and the giving of the law. When God speaks to Moses from the burning bush, His radiance shines from earthly material (Nyssa 59). The bush is illuminated by God, and Gregory points out that through God’s “visitation” to Moses, Moses is granted direct access to truth because of God’s self-disclosure. However, the opposite seems to happen when Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to meet God in the darkness. In Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, Moses’ experience of God is still limited in order to preserve his life, for “no one can see God and live.” Moses sees God’s back as he passes by, but even so, Moses is given a glimpse of the glory of God unmediated by earthly material (95). Colloquially, we might say that in the burning bush, God reveals himself to Moses on Moses’ terms (through the mediation of knowable earthly things), and in the Sinai encounter, Moses experiences God on his own terms (as an incomprehensible, heavenly being). Moses experiences God both in the light of the illumination of knowledge and all the darkness of mysterious incomprehension.
This example from The Life of Moses may prove helpful to explain how God can be both incomprehensible and knowable, but the further question is as follows: how can Christian thought concerning the integration of the mystery and knowledge of God prove to actually enhance a life of faith and practice? Bishop Kallistos Ware addresses this concept in The Orthodox Way: “The traveler upon the spiritual Way, the further he advances, becomes increasingly conscious of two contrasting facts – of the otherness and yet the nearness of the Eternal” (Ware 11). Indeed, Ware remarks that in life of faith, what bears the augmentation is the believer’s consciousness of both the mystery and knowledge of God.
Consciousness, or awareness, is a crucial concept to note on the topic of “Knowing the Unknowable.” Boyer points out that in Scripture, mysteries of faith are actually revealed concepts that simply prove to be outside the limits of human reason. He states, “The marvelous plan of God is not a mystery that is solved or left behind once it is made known. Instead, it is made known precisely as a mystery” (Boyer 2). It is not the ability to understand a mystery through the faculties of reason that is crucial in order to know God; instead, knowledge of God is found precisely in our consciousness of the mystery itself. Boyer remarks, “You might say that the Christian approach to knowing God makes sense precisely because knowing means so much more than just ‘making sense’” (8). The deepest, truest knowledge of God is derived from the awareness and recognition that the mystery of utmost significance and infinite complexity has been made known, has been revealed to mankind. And the response that properly follows from that awareness is worship.
Because human reason does fall short of comprehending God, theology and the search for understanding of God ends not in solving the mystery, but in ever-increasing awareness and recognition of the Great Mystery that is God Himself. Thus, Boyer reminds us that in the Christian tradition, theology has always been inextricably connected to worship in the same way that knowledge of God has always been tied to mystery. He describes the manner in which the Christian doctrines have been revealed by God and the proper human response to revelation: “This is how Christians of yesteryear came to believe in the Trinity – by means of God’s own self-disclosure to his people, as they reasoned and loved and worshiped. Note well this connection: reason is directly linked to love and worship” (7). He says elsewhere, “For most of Christian history, the beauty of intellectual pursuit and the joy of ecstatic worship went hand-in-hand” (6). Seeking knowledge of God can greatly enhance one’s wonder of the mystery of the divine, and increased awareness of the great mystery that is God inclines us to search and seek for the intelligible truth of that which we experience.
As a final analogy, music is an inscrutability that may prove useful. I must study music theory in order to understand what the instruments of the orchestra are doing, so that I can more fully grasp the complexity of what I hear. I cannot disregard the importance of knowledge of music theory simply because music transports us in a way than cannot be fully understood. However, my emphasis on the study of theory must not prevent me from being caught up in the grandeur of the swell, in the beauty of the music. I must also recognize that no amount of theoretical musical knowledge will explain the transcendent quality of music: the rapture, the abandon, the aching loveliness. It seems that our treatment of the mystery and knowledge of God is similar. Our knowledge should prove to enhance our consciousness of the mystery of God even as the mystery of God draws us toward Him in all the darkness of unknowing.
Instead of focusing our energies on either the mystery of God or the knowledge of God, to recognize God as both immanently knowable and transcendently incomprehensible is to worship and celebrate the Being that is God more holistically. Boyer says, poignantly, “We are created not merely to think true thoughts (however lofty), but to enter into the Truth itself, with a capital T; to sing that Song; to drink from that Fountain…To enter into this life is not merely to understand; it is to feed, to be nourished, to live” (8). Indeed, as we grow in the knowledge of God’s revelation to mankind, we also ought to grow in consciousness of the Holy Mystery. In the presence and recognition of Someone so incomprehensible yet so beautifully revealed, there is no proper response but to worship and celebrate with both holy dignity and joyous abandon.