Archive for September 18th, 2010

Knowing What We Don’t Know

September 18, 2010

The New Testament, particularly in the writings of St. John (but in St. Paul’s works as well) say much about “knowing” God. In St. John’s Gospel Christ says, “And this is eternal life: that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Thus, knowing God is equated with salvation itself.

On the other hand, we speak of God as “incomprehensible and unknowable” (for instance, in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). As Fr. Thomas Hopko has often said, “You cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that.”

There is, I suggest, an unknowing that is knowing. This, of course, is a paradox, as is almost everything well said in theology. It is often necessary in the spiritual life to not know God in order to rightly know Him.

In work with catechumens (those preparing to be received in the Church), I often spend as much time helping them to unlearn as to learn. The God whom we seek to know is not the same thing as the “God of our understanding,” much less the God of our imagination. Knowing God is eternal life (now and always). What kind of knowing is paradise?

It is very difficult to find words to describe the kind of knowing that is described in the New Testament. It is certainly not an assembly of facts – nor is it the kind of knowing that can be arrived at through reason. Some describe this knowing as something like intuition, but I am not sure that this says enough.

There are two words or phrases that occur to me that have something of this sense of knowing. One is the word, “nevertheless.” The other is the phrase “and yet.” Both carry a since of hesitation. Offered one thing (as almost inevitable) and someone responds, “Nevertheless.” It is a negation that is an affirmation as well. It need not necessarily speak the ground of its affirmation, but it remains. The most famous such “nevertheless” I can recall is that of the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (Book of Daniel). They are confronted with the tortuous flames of the wicked king Nebuchadnezzer, being asked to abjure their faith in the true God. They acknowledge the flames and the threats of the king, but respond with “Nevertheless.” Despite every comfort to the contrary they will not deny whom they know. They know God more than they know fear. There is no long discourse on their knowledge or great refutation of the errors of Babylon. There is the resounding sound of “nevertheless!”

Something of the same hesitation hovers about the phrase “and yet.” It is often a phrase unspoken, a hesitation of the heart. It is a hesitation that suggests there is something more than has thus far been acknowledged. Its absence in the Garden of Eden is deafening.

Confronted by the enticements of the serpent, we are told:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat (Gen. 3:6).

Yes, the tree is good for food and pleasant to the eyes, and to be desired to make one wise… and yet. Such a hesitation is the pause that makes sin to vanish and the knowledge of God possible. In the course of our own lives, how much room is allowed for and yet?

Both nevertheless and and yet are negative expressions – though both depend upon a positive. We yield all too easily to what we think we know and do not hesitate sufficiently before what we do not know.

That hesitation is often a moment of faithfulness or at least the moment in which faith can be born. In its negative aspect, it is an emptiness, a kenosis, that allows a true fullness to appear in its place. It is a hesitation that admits what we do not know while allowing the possibility of knowledge at the same time. It is the inner life of wonder.

The content of the Orthodox Christian faith is not an argument. It is not something to be compared to other things such that we can say, “This is better.” It is the continual life of God lived and known by His people, who through the ages, when confronted by manifold opportunities for more convenient options have been able to say, “And yet…” When pressed by their enemies, even to the point of torture and death, they have affirmed, “Nevertheless.” And in so doing have preserved the knowledge of the true and living God and kept intact the treasure of Tradition that is nothing other than that true Knowledge.

God give us such holy hesitation.