Archive for July 8th, 2011

The Unknowable God

July 8, 2011

You cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that. – Fr. Thomas Hopko


Fr. Hopko’s small aphorism is among my favorites in contemporary Orthodoxy. Besides the fact that it sounds humorous – it states one of the most profound paradoxes within the Orthodox faith. This fundamental truth is stated in a variety of ways: we say that God cannot be known in His Divine Essence while affirming that we may know Him in His Divine Energies. We cannot know Him, yet we must know Him.

The deepest proclamation of the Church is that the God who cannot be known has made Himself known to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the God/Man. What could not be known has now been given to us.

There are a number of existential realities that flow from these simple statements – and they are worth considering:

  • What do I know of God rather than about God?
  • Is the God I know more than my own personal projections?
  • Is anything required of me in order to know God?
  • Is there anything beyond myself and my own efforts required to know God?
  • What relationship does this have with the story of Jesus Christ?

The difference between knowing about God and actually knowing God should be obvious. The child of a famous man may not know much “about” his father – but unlike people who know “all about” his father – he is one of the few who actually know him. The difference is far more than a matter of degree. One kind of knowledge is utterly derivative – it can be obtained without any contact with the person involved. I noticed the strangeness of this when some 15 or 20 years back, Bugs Bunny, the cartoon character, celebrated his fiftieth “birthday,” accompanied with major magazine articles and analysis. Of course, all of the learned discourse was about someone who does not exist (at least in the usual meaning of the word). Thus there is a form of theology and religious thought that does not require belief in God (of course, both are false forms theology). Theology that begins with an assumed point of revealed knowledge and then proceeds to build upon that purely through the efforts of human reason is little better than theology without belief in God. God is not an axiom to be assumed as though He were a mathematical formula.

Of course when I say, “I know God,” the question remains, “Am I in delusion?” How do I know whether my experience is anything other than my own inner projections? St. Peter wrote, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” 2 Peter 1:20. The same applies generally to our experience of God. Does what I know of God agree with the experience of the Church throughout the ages? Though such knowledge of God cannot be described as “objective,” it is, nonetheless, an intuitive perception that is communal. It is not simply that I know God, but that we know God – and we bear witness that we know the same God.

The Hebrew verb yada (forgive my lack of a Hebrew font) means “to know,” but is frequently used in passages such as “Adam knew his wife and she conceived….” It is a deeply intimate word that implies union as well as knowledge. It is not a passive form of knowledge. English does not have a verb to allow us to distinguish between passive and active knowledge. We have a verb, to ignore, that implies an active form of ignorance. Knowledge of God, however, assumes activity on our part – it is not a passive revelation, but a cooperative knowing. Thus Christ, in making Himself known to the rebellious Saul (soon-to-be the Apostle Paul), says to him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” He indicates that Saul has been repeatedly confronting Christ, but also repeatedly ignoring these efforts on God’s part. Paul’s response to the light that he sees and the voice that he hears is straightforward, “Who are you Lord?” There is a ready recognition of the power of the revelation, and by naming it “Lord,” a recognition that he is ready to surrender. Our own participation in the knowledge of God presumes that we are actively giving our hearts to Him.

The kind of knowledge we seek of God, is not only active on our own side of things, but is active on God’s side as well. The perfection of such knowledge is described by St. Paul with the words, “Then we shall know even as we are known” (1 Cor. 13). God is active, living and free. He is not an inert object forced by His own existence to be available to our will. God makes Himself known to us as gift. Thus an open heart, a willingness to be patient, and a respect for the Gift and the Giver are required of us.

There is another important action that is inherent in knowing such a God. It is the essential part of an apophatic life. The Church refers to its theology primarily as apophatic, meaning “that which cannot be spoken.” We know, but we cannot always put into words what we know. In the same manner, there are many things we think we know (including things about God) that simply are not true. We believe them because we’ve heard them and assume them to be true. There is a vast amount of Christian teaching that is based on hearsay (and heresy) than on true and living knowledge of God. Thus there is sometimes the necessity of a form of Christian agnosticism (admitting what we do not know) trusting the good God to make known to us what we need to know. I have seen a great deal of inner healing when people admit that false images that have haunted their life in Christ are indeed just that – false images. What you learned in Sunday School or Freshman Philosophy (or Seminary for that matter) may not always be correct (or may have been misunderstood).

God is a good God, who desires to make Himself known to us. He offers us Himself in the God/Man, Jesus Christ. The heart of the Christian gospel is that the God who cannot be known has made Himself known in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Thus we do not know a God before Christ, or beside Christ. St. John says, “The only Son who is in the bosom of the Father – He has made Him known (in the Greek – “He has exegeted the Father”). Thus we begin with Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen. The claim of the Apostolic witness is that Christ is the only exegesis of the Father.

We cannot know God – but we have to know Him in order to know that. Glory to God for His infinite mercy!