I took a break from this series on knowing God over the last couple weeks of Advent and for the season of Christmas. So, I thought that it would be wise to take a step back and see where we’ve been so far and where we’re going.
The first few posts in this series focused on the problems with talking about God well. These are important points, but left on their own they may very well lead us to a general skepticism about knowing God at all.
This wouldn’t leave us in a very satisfying place. And, in fact, religious traditions and human experience insist that we can and do know God. Despite any philosophical objections one may have about the impossibility of knowing a transcendent God or of finite language to describe an infinite God, God can be known, truly. Any legitimate theology needs to be able to manage this paradox.
One moment in history provides a particularly insightful exploration of this paradox. In the mid fourteenth century, a monk named Barlaam arrived in Constantinople from Calabria (the culturally Greek region at the southern tip of Italy) and was appalled to hear monks talking about having direct experiences of God. He caused enough of a stir that a major controversy ensued. In defense of the monks, St. Gregory Palamas undertook a synthesis of the whole Eastern theological and spiritual tradition to demonstrate that God could in fact be known directly, truly, really, without intermediary.
The problem with philosophical speculation about God is that it can trap us in its own reasoning. This seems to be what happened with Barlaam, whose desire for philosophical alignment left no room for the paradox of finite beings directly experiencing and knowing an infinite God. Essentialist philosophy is unable to account adequately for the experience of a God who reveals Godself, who is known, participated in and even seen. Palamas argued — rightly in my view — that when it comes to theology, our logic and language must bend to fit God, not the other way around. In a memorable passage, Palamas reminds his reader that the divine name given to Moses was not “I am the Essence” but “I am the One Who is [Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν],” or perhaps to better capture the Greek, “I am the Living God.” While Palamas was relying on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint, which was the most widely used Bibles among the Jews of Jesus’ day and was the ‘Old Testament of record’ for Christians until the Reformation, the Hebrew reads something like “I am what I am and will be what I will be,” which similarly captures Palamas’ point. In fact, I would argue that the whole point of the name revealed to Moses is that God cannot be defined and confined. Returning to the point at hand, God’s life and existence must receive the priority over faithfulness to metaphysical systems. God is not the impersonal and untouchable divine essence of the Neoplatonic One, but the Living God of the Scriptures. God is not just essence but also has energy—God moves, acts, creates, provides, and relates. And in these energies (which are simultaneously one and many, “indivisibly divided”), God can and is known; and through these energies, we are saved, sanctified, and united to God.
Simply put, for the Christian tradition, God can be known — truly and even intimately — because God wants to be known. In fact, to know and be known, to love and be loved, is understood to be the primary rationale for God’s creating the universe in the first place.
Now that we’re in the season of Epiphany, the rest of this series will explore the ways the Christian (and broader Judeo-Christian) tradition has expressed this paradox of knowing an unknowable God. We’ll start at the beginning, looking at the stories of God’s interactions with people in the Hebrew Scriptures. Then we’ll explore what the mystical tradition can teach us about knowing God. Finally, the series will end by working through three different, though mutually-reinforcing, perspectives through which we can know God, how each of these played out in the life of Jesus, and how they can play out in our lives today.
But for today, let’s rest in the hope of this Epiphany season: that God has shone light into the dark places of the world, and that if we seek God, we will find God, and know God.