God is He Whom we know best in not knowing Him. – St. Augustine
It is He about Whom we have no knowledge unless it be to know how we do not know Him. – St. Augustine
Both quotes are from De ordine.
Fr. Thomas Hopko is fond of saying that “We cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that.” This statement, like those of St. Augustine’s, tease our minds towards higher considerations – particularly in a world that markets God as though he were a candy-bar. The recent spate of bus ads in London are an excellent example. Atheists ran ads suggesting that there “probably is no God” and suggested that people not waste their time. Christians countered with ads that there “probably is only one God – ours – join us!”
Of course some of this is just a sad commentary on modern culture. But it is seems to me that if God ceases to be a mystery then humanity stands no chance. The holy Tradition of the faith teaches us not only that God is a mystery – that all of our dogmatic statements cannot “capture” Him – but also that man is a mystery – “fearfully and wonderfully made.” And the two are connected. Man is a mystery because he is person, created in the image of God.
The great tragedies of the 20th century occurred when various regimes made man to be less than mystery. The material man of Marxism lost all value other than as a tool of productivity. The land that gave the world some of its greatest poets gave its imagination over to the mind of a madman.
Hitler’s reduction of man to “uebermensch” and others to less than human defined man primarily with the image of power. Instead of producing a race of Gods he produced shame in the most educated nation on earth. In all, the 20th century proved Dostoevsky to have been prophetic: “If there is no God, all is permitted.”
There are various ways that modern entities seek to redefine the human. For some we are consumers, objects of manipulation by carefully crafted marketing. For others we are infinitely malleable, not only able “to be all we can be,” but able to be anything we want – whether that includes a different gender or even the features of a wild beast (body sculpting and implants).
Only if we approach man with Biblical fear and wonder will we hold him with proper respect. The human aspect of personhood holds a transcendent quality – an ability to extend itself beyond itself – an ability to love. This is true of the least of our brethren.
But such wonders will remain opaque to the modern eye if the wonder of God does not accompany it. Human imagination, itself a powerful force, will never manage to imagine the wonder of man unless it first is seized by the wonder of God.
Thus we have the Orthodox tradition of “apophaticism,” of learning to know by “not knowing.” It is a theological and spiritual discipline that says “no” to our own limited understanding in order to say “yes” to a revelation that would carry us beyond understanding. Augustine’s statements (which came as a small surprise to me) stand within this spiritual tradition. Time has refined the practice of “not knowing,” presenting it today as a means of sharing in the life of salvation – a strange phenomenon in a world that knows too much.