We’re all liars. Every single one of us who has ever spoken about God is a liar. Nothing we can say about God is ever really true.
This may at first glance sound like a concession to the supposed “postmodern attack on Truth.” But, this is actually a deep and ancient intuition about God, one that can be found throughout the Scriptures and later Christian tradition. And, therefore, it’s well worth exploring a bit as we embark on our exploration of what it means to know God.
When it comes to God, all we can really say is that our words can never measure up to the reality.
As we will see in subsequent posts, both the ancient stories of divine encounters in the Hebrew Bible and the mystical tradition of Christian spirituality agree — in their own, very different dialects — that God is simply too big for us to name, grasp, and comprehend. Our words just cannot measure up. As St. Gregory of Nyssa noted, “Anyone who tries to describe [God] in language is truly a liar—not because he hates the truth, but because of the inadequacy of his description” (On Virginity x.2).
This was no obscurantist position. It was in fact the dominant way of understanding God-talk in both the East and the West throughout most of Christian history.
For example, St. Gregory Palamas, the last great Byzantine theologian, building on a long line of thought stretching out from St. Gregory of Nyssa, developed what might be called a kind of hyper-theism, belief in a God beyond any and every conception of God. Of the mystical encounter with God, Palamas wrote, “Whatever name one gives to it … would not, properly speaking, apply to it, or else would properly apply to it alone.” In other words, if we consider knowledge of God to be knowledge, then nothing else is knowledge, since God is entirely beyond anything else that can be known. Likewise, if we say God exists, nothing else can properly be said to exist, since any way in which God exists must be wholly different from how anything else exists. In this way, one might say that knowledge of God is beyond knowledge, and God’s existence is beyond existence; God is therefore even beyond “God” (In Defense of the Holy Hesychasts, II.iii.33).
While these ideas were most fully developed in the Christian East, they were by no means absent from the West. An anonymous medieval English mystic famously described experiencing God in a “Cloud of Unknowing.” Likewise, Thomas Aquinas, without a doubt the most important medieval Latin theologian, noted that “The supreme knowledge which we have of God is to know that we do not know God, insofar as we know that what God is surpasses all that we can understand” (SS 126.96.36.199.ad 4).
And while it was buried in the flood of positivism of the Modern period, since the chastening of Western thought in the twentieth century, this sense of humility of theological language in the face of the infinite God has experienced a revival in recent decades.
Karl Rahner, for example, made Mystery the focus of his reflections on God, a God whose holiness is so utterly different from our own experience of life that to know God is to submit to the realization that God can never truly be known. Rahner’s reflections on God often read like a Buddhist koan, designed for the sole purpose of demonstrating the inadequacy of the human mind: “The horizon itself cannot be present within the horizon. The ultimate measure cannot be measured; the boundary which delimits all things cannot itself be bounded” (Foundations, 64f). Towards the end of the twentieth century, western academic theology took what is known as its “metaphorical turn,” with theologians such as David Tracy and Sallie McFague insisting on the metaphorical nature of all theological language. And at the turn of our present century, Elizabeth Johnson claimed, with language reminiscent of that of Palamas: “Divine transcendence is beyond the beyond” (Quest for the Living God, 16.)
Even among these postmodern theologians, the point isn’t to attack theological truth, but on the one hand, to ground our experience of that truth in prayer, contemplation, and the relationship with God, and, on the other, to guard it from the very human tendency to confuse our finite ideas and words for the infinite God (in the language of a previous post, confusing the map with the territory).
There are three reasons why all this is important. The first is that it demonstrates the fundamental paradox of the spiritual life: God is wholly unknowable and yet can be known. Everything we say about God, we need the humility to unsay. If we say that “God is our Father” (for God is relational, loving, caring, protective, our source, and so on) we also need to be able to say “God is not our Father” (for God is not male, does not biologically beget us, and nor does God exhibit the negative characteristics we might associate with human fatherhood — God is not controlling or power-hungry, for example). For when it comes to an infinite God, all speech is metaphorical, slippery, and insufficient.
The second is that it’s okay to be suspicious of the concepts and dominant images of God you may have encountered. It isn’t scandalous or dangerous to question the way we talk about God; in fact if we take our traditions as Christians seriously, not only are we able to have these concerns and questions, but we must have them. If we don’t question our God-talk, we risk losing the mystery of the infinite God to too small and narrow a concept. We risk turning God, or at least “God,” into an idol.
And, the third reason is that it is the experience of God that grounds, qualifies, and clarifies all of our language about God. Not only is the map not the territory, but the map is dependent on the territory, an abstraction that must always be grounded, qualified, and clarified by the territory.
We may be liars when it comes to God, but that’s okay, as long as we know it, as long as we recognize that our words are wholly insufficient to the task at hand and offer them up as we offer up our very lives to God: with humility, love, and the faith to admit that we may very well be wrong.
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