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Week 1: Mystery


Knowing God is really a strange thing. On the one hand, we can have real knowledge of God. Otherwise everything we believe about God—as Creator, as the one who chose Israel as a special People, as known to us best in Jesus of Nazareth, as present through the Holy Spirit in our lives, in our cultures, and in humanity’s religions—would just be nonsense. But when we say that we know God, on the other hand, we have to be conscious of the fact that, paradoxically, there is no way we can know God perfectly and completely. This is because God is not an “object” “up there” or “out there,” a something or a person like us whom we can see or hear or grasp fully.

It is, as I say, paradoxical, but the best way to begin to understand how we know God is to admit that we can never really do it! Paradoxical, but hardly a new idea. To start with the admission that we can’t know God fully is to claim something very deep in the Christian tradition—the tradition of “negative” or—to use a technical word from the Greek word “to refuse”—“apophatic” theology.  

This is a tradition that has deep roots in the Bible. For example, in the Book of Exodus, Moses at one point asks God to show him the “divine glory” (33:18), or in other words, God’s full self. In response, God says “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’ . . . But . . . you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (33:19-20). So God shelters Moses in the cleft of a rock, covers him with the divine hand, and then passes by him with all the divine glory. And, God says, after passing by: “I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (33:23). Moses, in other words, could have indirect knowledge of God—knowledge of God’s “back”—but, as a human being, he could not have direct, face-to-face knowledge. Take a look at some other examples in the Bible as well: Isaiah 6:1-8, or Job 40:4, after reading chapters 38 and 39, or First Corinthians 13:12, First Timothy 6:16, or the great verse of Romans 11:33: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable God’s ways!”

This biblical conviction about the unknowability (incomprensibility) and in-expressability (ineffability) of God is a red thread that we can trace through the whole Christian tradition as well. For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century spoke of God as “that smooth, steep and sheer rock, on which the mind can find no secure resting place to get a grip or to lift ourselves up. . . In spite of every effort our minds cannot approach God.” Gregory lived in what is now Turkey, but St. Augustine, who lived in North Africa during the same period, said in one of his sermons that “if you understood, then this is not God. If you were able to understand, then you understood something else instead of God.” In the seventh century, St. Isidore of Seville in Spain (San Ysidro) wrote that “God is known correctly only when we deny that God can be known perfectly.”

In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas offered his famous “five proofs for the existence of God” in the first pages of his Summa Theologiae, written at the end of the thirteenth century. However, as Aquinas begins the next section on knowing God, he remarks that, actually, knowing God is impossible, because while we can know that God is, we cannot know what God is—only what God is not. The famous German mystic Meister Eckhardt spoke of the necessity to take leave of God for God! And in the fifteenth century Nicholas of Cusa spoke of the best knowledge of God as “docta ignorantia” or “learned ignorance.”

I could go on giving examples, but I think I’ve made my point. Let me just finish this short tour of the Christian tradition, though, with two more. The first is from Karl Barth, probably the greatest Christian thinker of the twentieth century. Barth remarked that the angels probably smile when they read his theology. The second is a shadowy college student named “Dooley” in the class of philosophy professor Michael McCauley. In class one day, McCauley writes, Dooley made the remark that “when we call God a name, when we call Him ‘God,’ we shrink him.’” Well said, I think!

But this “apophatic” tradition is not just alive in Christianity. The intuition of God’s “un-graspability” is found also in other religions. For example, in the Kena Upanishad, one of the scriptures of Hinduism, we read: “I cannot imagine ’I know him well,’ and yet I cannot say ‘I know him not.’ Who of us knows this, knows him; and not who says ‘I know him not.’” The Chinese classic the Tao Te Ching begins with the famous lines: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao / the name that can be named is not the eternal name.” Sura 18:109 of the Qur’an reads: “Say: if the ocean were to turn into ink (for writing) the (creative) Words of my Lord, the ocean would be expended for the Words of my Lord are—even if we were to bring another ocean like it.” And the great Jewish philosophy Martin Buber (1878-1965) wrote that “God, the eternal Presence, does not permit Himself to be held. Woe to the man so possessed that he thinks he possesses God!”

So on the one hand, we cannot dare to think that we know God. And yet we can and do, because—amazingly—God lets Godself be known. How this grace happens is what we will reflect on next week. This week, though, let’s just dwell on what the famous German theologian Karl Rahner calls “Holy Mystery.” God calls us to know Godself, and we can hear God’s call. But we must never forget that that our call is an amazing grace!

By: Steve Bevans, SVD, Faculty Moderator

Questions for reflection:

  1. What comes to your mind when you think of the “glory of God?”
  2. Do you remember a moment in your life when you were struck by the “Holy Mystery” of God?
  3. How does creation speak to you about God?
  4. Read Exodus, 33:7-23 and reflect on the passage. What does it tell you about God?
  5. Read Job, chapter 38 and 39 and meditate on Job’s answer to God in chapter 4:4. What would you answer if you were on Job’s place?
  6. Bring the sentence from Romans 11:33 (“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable God’s ways!”) into your prayer and think about what it means for your own image of God.

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For further reading:

  • Stephen B. Bevans, An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 9-13.
  • Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 104-20.
  • Jane Kopas, Seeking the Hidden God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005).
  • Michael McCauley, “The Deep Mystery of God,” America  191, 11 (October 18, 2004): 16-18.


Image: Light Echoes from V838 Mon – Astronomy Picture of the Day © NASA 2011

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