Three Movements in Knowing God

This series on knowing God began with the ancient truth that God can be known but can never be fully understood or described using human concepts and language. Then, over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about the importance (and limitations) of symbols in talking about God, and worked through how these truths played out in three of the major theophanies in the Hebrew Bible.

This same fundamental truth of the unknowable-God-who-is-known lies at the heart of the mystical tradition within Christianity. While we associate this tradition most with medieval Christianity, we can see it at least as far back as the Apostle Paul, who described a direct experience of God so intense and confounding that he didn’t know if it was physical or purely spiritual, and during which he “heard things that are not to be told” (2 Cor 12.1-4), or more literally “unspeakable speech” or “unutterable utterances” (ἄρρητα ῥήματα, arrheta rhemata).

The critical point with this language of unutterable utterances, whether it’s from Paul here or later mystics, is that their rejection of language and concept is not a wholly, or even predominantly, philosophical move. Rather, it is grounded in a profound belief in the reality of the direct mystical encounter with God.

But what kind of knowledge is it they are talking about?

Historically, the knowledge of God has been divided into three categories or movements:

  • First, there is the knowledge of God that we gain through symbols, analogy, and the wisdom of God that is found in the created world (known as kataphatic (‘in accordance with speech’) knowledge, or positive theology).
  • Second, there is the deeper knowledge of God that comes from the wisdom that those symbols and analogies will always fail us (apophatic (‘apart from speech’) knowledge, or negative theology).
  • But, third, for the mystical tradition there is another movement beyond this, a move that is simultaneously more positive than the positive way of analogy and more negative than the negative way of unsaying what we say. This is the direct encounter with the Mystery of God, the experience before which all of our stories, our self-justifications, our excuses, our beliefs, and theologies simply fall away.

The result of such experiences of the Mystery of God, outlined in the mystical writings of the saints throughout the ages, are a great gift to us. Sometimes these texts seek to describe the experience for us, and so return to the world of the symbolic and metaphorical — the vivid and colourful visions of Hildegard of Bingen come to mind. Just as commonly, they don’t try to describe the experience, but rather try to explain it or how it comes about, and so we have treatises on practices of prayer or on the divine light — the writings of Pseudo-Dionsysius or the anonymous work known as The Cloud of Unknowing might quintessentially fall into this category. Still, other times, mystical writings pull back from attempting to describe what they saw and heard and simply bask in the love of God — here, we might think of John of the Cross’s poem The Dark Night of the Soul.

And so, when we talk about mysticism — even specifically Christian mysticism — we are talking about a broad and sometimes contradictory phenomenon. But the tie that binds remains the insistence and expectation that God can be known directly and intimately.

And it is to these writings that this series on knowing God will now turn during the season of Lent.

6 thoughts on “Three Movements in Knowing God

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