To Know What You Cannot Know
Fr. Stephen Freeman · May 31, 2012
The goal of the Christian life is true knowledge of God (Jn. 17:3). Fr. Stephen speaks about the mysterious character of this knowledge.
I begin today with a quote from Father Thomas Hopko. Father Thomas says, “You cannot know God. But you have to know Him to know that.” Well this short quote has stayed with me ever since I first heard it. It says so much by saying so little. “You cannot know God. But you have to know Him to know that.”
I find two groups of people increasingly common in my conversations. Those who profess to not know God – that is, whom we would formally call agnostics. And those who struggle greatly with what they’ve been told about the Christian God. The largest group within my conversations are those who feel very secure in their knowledge of God, but who believe a lot of strange things that they can’t possibly know. I feel a calling to help people know a lot less, so they can know anything at all.
Orthodox theology is often described as mystical. The term does not mean weird or esoteric. Instead, it refers to a union of thought and experience, and a grounding in an approach to knowledge rooted in not-knowing. This form of theology is also described as apophatic, meaning ‘that which cannot be spoken.’ True theology is inherently mystical in this sense, because it is concerned with the God who cannot be known. God is above, beyond, outside the realm of human knowing. He is not an object among objects so that he may be studied.
Some of the church fathers refer to God as having hyper-ousia, that is, an existence beyond existence. St. Gregory the Theologian famously said, “Inasmuch as God exists, we do not exist; and inasmuch as we exist, God does not exist.” If such statements sound confusing, or even like nonsense, they’re supposed to. For we’re speaking about God, who cannot be known. So what can language do?
But theology does exist, even if it is mystical and apophatic. There is such a thing as knowledge of God, though He is beyond knowing. Such knowledge is not gained by thinking, or not primarily by thinking. Understanding how such knowledge is gained is key to an authentic spiritual life.
The classical formula of purification, illumination, and deification is something of a shorthand for this authentic life. But it too easily degenerates into, simply, a formula.
Purification refers both to the realization that we do not know, thus purifying us from delusions, and to the ascetical disciplines of fasting, prayer, repentance, alms-giving, vigils, etc. That is, battling with the disordered passions, thoughts, and emotions.
Illumination comes both as pure gift and as the fruit of the spiritual life and its disciplines. In the realm of formal theology, we are often deluded by our ability to learn, discuss, dissect, and compare intellectual systems. The academic world describes this as doing theology. But it qualifies as such only because of its topic.
True theology is the life and pursuit of true knowledge of God. And this brings us back to where we started – true knowledge of what we cannot know. This is the great witness of the Christian faith. That the God who cannot be known makes himself known in and through the God-man Jesus Christ. But even here it is possible to substitute knowledge of a purely intellectual nature for true knowledge.
I recently thought of an example. Those who have learned a foreign language describe the process of learning. It involves memorization, practice, failure, embarrassment, all experiences like that. At some point, though, if someone becomes truly proficient, the process of thinking about the foreign language ceases, and simply speaking begins. So long as we are translating in our heads, we do not yet know the new language. But then, if we ask someone who has become fluent in a foreign language how they know the new language it would escape definition. But they certainly know it.
The same question could be asked of our native languages. How do we know them? I’m not suggesting that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of a language are the same thing; but one is more like the other than either is like thinking. Indeed, thinking is the evidence of not-knowing.
The language of belief, rooted to a large degree in the debates of the last five or six centuries in the West, becomes extremely misleading in all of this. When someone tells me they do not believe in God, I understand what they mean. But they have no idea what I mean when I say that I do believe in God. And they’re certainly taken aback if I say that I know God.
The same is true, to a degree, of many Christians who say they believe in God. Often they’re referring to the sort of belief that St. James mocks in his epistle when he says, “You believe that there is one God, you do well, for even the demons believe and tremble.” And if the discussion moves to debating various theological points, it’s quite likely that true belief and knowledge will never be found.
Orthodoxy has both dogma and canons. These are not set forth as debating points, but as markers within the life of faith, set by those who know the path. They guide us towards true knowledge, though they are not the knowledge themselves. Christ himself is the content of faith, and the true content of dogma and canon.
The life of prayer and worship is communion with the true and living God. Though we may often feel like strangers overhearing a conversation between others. Like the acquisition of a new language, worship slowly becomes something about which we need not think, but something in which we’ve become fluent. And so it is with the knowledge of God. But you have to know Him to know that.
Glory to God.