Unknowns and Knowing God

Christianity has many unknowns, which makes possible many differing beliefs. This can be discouraging. There are limits in the extent of our reasoning, something Immanuel Kant explored in his theory of antinomies. And there are limits in the answers resolvable in scripture, in response to which Pseudo-Dionysius admonished that theology must remain within the bounds of revelation. But the unknowns need not stop us from knowing God. Key is to persist in way of holiness and nurture a life with the Holy Spirit.

Anyone familiar with a religion will have noticed that there are a lot of disagreements. Every religion has multiple versions even if they share common origins and common sacred texts. Christianity is replete with unknowns, which makes possible multiple interpretations as different people try to fill in the gaps. These differences are not only over minor matters but concern even the most fundamental doctrines like the nature of God, Jesus Christ, and the process of salvation. With so much underdetermined how is it possible to know God and follow him? I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I don’t know of any way to answer all the unknowns. But I do think that even with many unknowns it is nevertheless possible to know God and to follow him. The unknowns don’t need to be a cause for despair.

My original working title for this episode was “theological antinomies and apophatic theology”. I’ll explain what those terms mean in short order. But I scrapped that title for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s kind of alienating and pretentious. And I also don’t really want to endorse apophatic theology wholesale. Still it’s the title that got the wheels turning. And that was by putting two important thinkers into imaginary dialogue with each other: Pseudo-Dionysius and Immanuel Kant. The reason for doing that was to think through how to persist in the joyful celebration of the ideas of Christianity even in light of the many unknowns that remain unresolved.

Pseudo-Dionysius was a philosopher and Christian theologian in the 5th or 6th century. He’s called Pseudo-Dionysius because in his texts he takes on the persona of Dionysius the Areopagite, a 1st century disciple of Paul. He wasn’t that Dionysius, so we just call him Pseudo-Dionysius. The texts I’ve been reading are On the Divine Names and The Mystical Theology. These are very significant works in the history of Christian philosophy. His theology is a standard case of apophatic theology. Apophatic theology is also called “negative theology”. Rather than make statements about the way things are it makes statements about the way things are not.

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who lived from 1724 – 1804. Kant’s greatest work was his 1781 Critique of Pure Reason. In the Critique Kant came up with a  very interesting model for the way that the mind works and how we reason. What’s most relevant in it to my topic here is his notion of antinomies. An antinomy is a contradiction between beliefs or conclusions that are each in themselves reasonable. Kant proposed that it is part of our human nature to try to understand things beyond the limits of what reason can establish. And so our reasoning eventually leads us into antinomies. Kant’s antinomies had to do with the finitude or infinitude of time and space, the existence of fundamental, indivisible substances, causality versus spontaneity, and the existence of necessary being. Those all have some overlap with theological ideas but I don’t want to focus on Kant’s particular antinomies but rather this general idea that as we continue reasoning about things we eventually run into antinomies that, for one reason or another, we’re not able to resolve.

Dionysius wasn’t addressing the same problem of antinomies that Kant was but I think his thought is applicable to it. Here’s my basic idea. Christians devote themselves to God in many ways; through obedience, sacrifice, prayer, song, art, service, love, and through study. Theology is a rational study of God and of the religion. But since it is a rational activity it’s susceptible to the kinds of antinomies that Kant talked about. As we push further and further in our thinking about God and religion we reach limits that are intrinsic to the reasoning process itself. Also in the case of theology we come up against the limits of the finitude of revelation, in at least two ways. First, the scriptures just don’t answer all the questions we want to ask. And second, different parts of the scriptures lead us to different answers. You might say that the scriptures themselves contain antinomies.

One classic example of this is in regards to the godhood of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the theological topic of the Trinity. Take the following ideas:

The Father is God.
The Son is God.
The Holy Spirit is God.
The Father is not the Son.
The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is not the Father.
There is only one God.

We can find scriptures to support all of those. But it’s pretty apparent that this just doesn’t all fit together very nicely. There’s something unusual going on here. There’s been a lot of theology on this topic and I think a lot of it has been quite productive, even if indirectly. For example, the philosopher Joseph Koterski made the case that the philosophical concept of a “person” as understood in natural law theory arose in large part over the intellectual effort to make sense of this Trinitarian puzzle (Koterski, Natural Law and Human Nature. 2002). And that’s useful. Still, I can’t say that any theology has ever resolved the puzzle. And to be fair, it’s usually understood to be a holy mystery anyway, one that we can’t resolve, which is a bit like a Kantian antinomy.

Dionysius’s apophatic approach was to forebear from theorizing and even to deny any particular positive theological formulations. It reminds me a bit of twentieth century deconstruction, though it’s of course rather different in its underlying motivations. Dionysius had a keen sense of the way many religious ideas go beyond our capabilities to understand through our reason. And that was one reason for his apophatic approach. But he was also especially sensitive to our reliance on scripture. For example, here’s a passage from the opening paragraph of On The Divine Names:

“And here also let us set before our minds the scriptural rule that in speaking about God we should declare the Truth, not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the power which the Spirit stirred up in the Sacred Writers, whereby, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we embrace those truths which, in like manner, surpass them, in that Union which exceeds our faculty, and exercise of discursive, and of intuitive reason.”

So that’s the first motivation, that these truths exceed our faculty and exercise of discursive and intuitive reason. Continuing on:

“We must not then dare to speak, or indeed to form any conception, of the hidden super-essential Godhead, except those things that are revealed to us from the Holy Scriptures.”

And there’s the kicker. I think that’s the even bigger issue for Dionysius. He is very sensitive to our dependence on revelation.

We might ask here, was Dionysius always true to his own standards? In my assessment he was not. He actually made a lot of positive assertions in his writings that were not based in revealed scripture but rather in Neoplatonist philosophy. That’s not to say those assertions were wrong. They might be correct. I find Neoplatonism rather compelling and attractive. But I also think it tends to make God look too impersonal and inaccessible, which is exactly the opposite of what a life with the Holy Spirit presupposes. So he wasn’t perfect or perfectly consistent. But I find him an interesting and valuable thinker. And his standards were good ones.

One more passage from Dionysius:

“For a super-essential understanding of It is proper to Unknowing, which lieth in the Super-Essence Thereof surpassing Discourse, Intuition and Being; acknowledging which truth let us lift up our eyes towards the steep height, so far as the effluent light of the Divine Scriptures grants its aid, and, as we strive to ascend unto those Supernal Rays, let us gird ourselves for the task with holiness and the reverent fear of God. For, if we may safely trust the wise and infallible Scriptures, Divine things are revealed unto each created spirit in proportion to its powers, and in this measure is perception granted through the workings of the Divine goodness, the which in just care for our preservation divinely tempereth unto finite measure the infinitude of things which pass man’s understanding.” (On The Divine Names 1:1)

This is great stuff. I think this is consummate theology right here. Dionysius is exceedingly astute and a gifted philosopher and that’s wonderful, but even more important to his success as a theologian is his piety, his humility, and his reverence for God. I think that makes a huge difference. It’s one thing for an intelligent person to be able to expertly articulate the fine details of a theological theory. But in the words of Paul, if he doesn’t have the pure love of Christ it’s like sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1).

It’s important not to claim to know more than we do. It’s alright, actually admirable to acknowledge the unknowns, the limits of our knowledge. It’s an act of reverence for God to acknowledge that we are dependent on his revealed word and that he has chosen not to reveal answers to all of our theological and doctrinal questions. But what is critical in the life of faith is to know God in a personal way. Something I consider indispensable and irreplaceable in religious life is direct communication with the Spirit. It’s crucial to remember that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are persons and that we come to know persons through personal encounters. Our personal encounters with people don’t give us exhaustive knowledge about them in every possible detail. In my relationships with human beings there’s a ton of information that I don’t know about them. It would certainly be valuable to know more about them in that manner. But ultimately that’s not what it means to have a personal relationship.

The Holy Spirit is the indispensable gift in the life of a Christian. Jesus said:

“If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you… These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you. Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:15-18.25-27) A life with the Holy Spirit is a life of keeping the commandments and of prayer. The Holy Spirit is sent to bring the words of Christ to remembrance and to give peace. This is a life of a personal relationship with God.

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