Wednesday, January 17, 2007

On Knowing God

[note: While these ideas have been bouncing around in my head for more than a year and a half, the genesis of this post is a conversation at Habakkuk's Watchpost. Much of the material here is copied and pasted from my comments there. After I left those original comments at Habakkuk's Watchpost, the topic came up again at Guy Sonntag's blog As Light Excels Darkness, in a conversation about Anselm's ontological argument.]

I have written before about the ultimate impossibility of knowing anything about God. God is a mystery to us, beyond the bounds of our knowledge. Yet, as has been pointed out to me by many Christians and other theists - as well as non-theists (perhaps a better term than atheist), at the heart of my religion is the notion that God has been made known to us. If we are to take the Christian doctrine of Incarnation seriously, God is not just mysterious, but also revealed through the person of Jesus.

There is a great distance between those two claims:

1. God is mysterious, and as such the nature of God cannot be known, and

2. God has been made known to us through God's self-revelation, and especially in Jesus.

Our faith, then, teaches apparently contradictory things: the impossibility of knowing God, and the experiential and incarnational reality of knowing God.

Perhaps we can make sense of this by distinguishing between two kinds of knowledge, or two ways of "knowing God": personal, and propositional.

Propositional knowledge is, as you might guess, the set of knowable, true propositions concerning an object. When we speak of the mysterious, unknowable nature of God, I suspect what we really mean that we do not have access to this set of propositions concerning God.

And, perhaps, it doesn't even make sense to speak of such propositions concerning God, since propositional knowledge concerns an object, and it makes no sense to speak of God in any literal sense as an object.

So, it makes perfect sense to say that we can have no propositional knowledge concerning God. It makes perfect sense to say that we cannot make any true statements about the nature of God, since a true statement would be a part of the content of propositional knowledge.

But, does this threaten the kind of knowledge - to the extent that we can call it knowledge - concerning God that is the subject of God's self disclosure, both through revelation and incarnation? If we posit a totally different category of knowledge, then no, I think that it does not.

Personal knowledge is knowledge of, rather than about, a person. To say, for instance, that I know my wife is to say something categorically different than to say that I can articulate true statements about my wife - even if you aren't reading the King James Bible. It is to say that I have intimate, relational knowledge of the person of my wife. Such knowledge may never be summed up by any proposition.

I submit that, to the extent that we can say that we know God, we mean something much more like this. We do not mean that we can articulate certain truths concerning God, but rather that we have had some kind of encounter with the person of God.

Is this not the heart of the incarnation, that somehow God became present to us? Not that in Jesus we gain access to true statements about God, but rather that, in the person of Jesus, in some mysterious way we glimpse the person of God. Not that Jesus literally is God, but that God becomes present to us in the person of Jesus, revealing part of the nature, will, and concerns of God.

And, what if we expand the concept of incarnation beyond the person of the historical Jesus, the founding figure of our faith? What if we say that, in some very real way, we experience the person of God all around us? We are still speaking of God's self disclosure, but once again we are not speaking of any propositional content. Again, to know God, either through revelation or incarnation (a kind of supreme revelation) is to gain relation access to the person of God, rather than to obtain some sort of propositional knowledge concerning God.

As such, God, in the Christian tradition, is the knowable mystery. We know God, even as we know nothing concerning God. God's nature remains beyond the bounds of our knowledge, but God's person is made known to us.

Question(s) for discussion: If you buy this distinction between kinds of knowledge, and if you think that they apply to our understanding of and relationship with God (that is, if you think that we can know God personally, but not propositionally), then how does this inform our theological projects? What can we say, and what can't we say? And, what sorts of questions can and should we ask?


crystal said...


Doesn't it say somewhere in the gospels (John?) that if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus?

This second kind of knowing you describe is the kind taught in the Spiritual Exercises, I think. It is not knowing "about" God but encountering him ... religious experience.

In one of David Hart's books, he talks about the idea of knowing God through nature. He points out that nature is not only beautiful and benign, but also destructive and dangerous ... the God you end up seeing there is like a Hindu God of both life and death.

As for how religious experience informs theology ... I don't know, but I remember someone once sayong that theology is what comes after your experience, it's what you use to make sense of what's happened.

Amy said...

In many languages (Spanish, for example) they have two words for what we bring together into "to know," delineated in similar ways to what you have described. There is a very real linguistic difference between "saber," to know a fact, and "conocer" to know a person, place, etc. I think you've touched on something very real when you say that our knowledge of God is a "conocimiento" rather than a "saber" form of knowledge.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that the distinction you make between propositional and personal knowledge is really as hard and fast as you make it seem. Personal knowledge (perhaps better called "knowledge by acquaintance," since it seems we could have said knowledge of things other than persons) entails some propositional knowledge. If you know your wife in the acquaintance-like way, it seems that you also could be said to know that certain propositions are true of her (if you care to entertain them):

My wife's name is Sami Baker.
She was born on [insert birthday here].
She is [X] years old.

And so forth. This set of propositions doubtless doesn't exhaust what you could be said to know about Sami in the acquaintance-like way, but that doesn't mean that you don't know some propositions to be true of her.

Why not say the same thing about God? Perhaps we are acquainted with God through God's having revealed God's self to us; perhaps we can't cash out all that we know of God through that acquaintance in propositional form. But I still don't see why this should somehow entail that we can't be said to know any propositions at all to be true of God. Could you speak a bit more to that issue?

PamBG said...

I agree about the two sorts of knowing, but I think that we have to hold them both in tension. John tells us that to know Jesus is to know the Father and the letter to the Hebrews says Jesus is the perfect image of the Father. (There may be similar ideas expressed elsewhere in the NT, but they don't spring to mind at the moment.)

I think that we can at least make the propositional statement that there is something about the way that Jesus conducted his life that reflects the life of the Trinity. And then we get into Trinitarian theology which is probably quite important here: if God is a relational God who wants to know us relationally/personally, then such theology will be important.

As far as I'm concerned, the life of Jesus gives me the evidence to say with confidence that God does not want people blowing up "infidels" or "unbelievers" in his name. This might seem like an extreme statement but it's quite important as far as I'm concerned.

Orthodox theologians have a lot to say about apophaticism - the belief that we can never "really know God" - a fundamental tenet of Orthodoxy. Read Vladimir Lossky's The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. United Reformed Church[1] theologian Colin Gunton tears apophaticism apart in his book Act and Being:Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes. Gunton goes to the other extreme - and I think I'd rather find a point somewhere between Gunton and Lossky - but Gunton's book is worth reading if you want someone taking a faithful liberal Christian stance for propositional knowing.

[1] A liberal Reformed denomination in the UK in communion with the United Church of Christ.

Sandalstraps said...


Thanks for your comment. Here I am going to reply more specifically to Amy and Brian, but I didn't want you to feel left out.


German makes that same distinction, with the verbs kennen and wessen.


Good point. I'll paste here part of a comment I left at the Watchpost, since it deals with a similar issue. But, before I do that, I want to deal more specifically with personal and propositional knowledge as concerns our relationship with persons. (And, perhaps that we can have propositional knowledge concerning persons - that is, knowledge about persons - points out a limitation in my term "personal knowledge." I am open to using a new term to describe this kind of knowledge, if you've got any suggestions.)

In our relationship with other persons, you are right, we demonstrate both propositional knowledge and what I've called personal knowledge. That is, as you note, part of my relationship with my wife includes that I can articulate propositions about her (including that she will turn 30 on March 25!).

However, I wonder if propositional knowledge is always connected to personal knowledge. I doubt that it is. When Adam was born, for instance, he exhibited a kind of relational knowledge, a kind of personal knowlede, especially of and with his mother. He could distinguish her from all other persons, and existed in a unique relationship with her, trusting her and being radically dependant on her. However, I know that he could not articulate any propositions concerning her, and I doubt that he even held anything like those propositions internally. She was mysterious to him, in that he did not know anything about her, and as he existed then, could not learn anything about her (as I understand it - this may ultimately be disproved by developmental psychologists). In order to come into propositional knowledge concerning his mother, he had to grow into an almost entirely different sort of being.

Perhaps from our vantage point here, this is similar to our relationship with God. "We are," to use Ben's phrase in his post at Habakkuk's Watchpost, "constitutionally incapable of knowing anything finally true about God by our own faculties." But we still exist in the context of a relationship with God; a relationship in which we are called to recognize our radical dependance on God, and to trust God as the very ground of our being.

As I understand it, this means that we cannot know anything concerning God, but it does not mean that we can't make distinctions between good beliefs and bad beliefs, nor does it mean that we can't articulate our theologies with at least relative confidence and security. This is because I'm using a very narrow definition of knowledge, which I explained in a comment at the Watchpost (I know some of this is very, very old hat for you):

The most basic definition of knowledge is "justified true belief." This definition entails three things, though I will add another to it in a moment:

1. To truthfully make the claim that I "know" something, I must believe that the content of my claim is true.

2. To truthfully make the claim that I "know" something, it must also be the case that the content of my claim is true.

3. To truthfully make the claim that I "know" something, I must also be justified in my belief of that claim.

That is, not only do I have to believe that a claim is true, and have it in fact be the case that the claim in question is true; I also have to have good reasons for believing the claim to be true.

To this I will add, by way of amplifying what is meant by belief here, that knowledge entails certainty. To say that I know something, in addition to the above criteria being met, my belief must be absolute and unwavering. Not all people hold this to be necessary, but it seems to me that this is a part of what we mean when we say "I know" instead of "I believe."

Anyway, we make a great many claims, with varying degrees of security, without having all of the above in place. In fact, many important propositional claims may not even be subject to "knowledge," simply because we can never accertain their truth-value.

Ethical claims, for instance, may be beyond the bounds of knowledge, as there is no universally accepted measure of the truth value of an ethical claim. But that does not mean that someone cannot declare (propositionally) that murder is wrong. Similarly, many of the claims of theoretical physics may be beyond the bounds of knowledge, but that does not mean that they cannot be articulated, nor does it mean that their articulation is meaningless.

Propositional claims about God are speculative metaphysical claims, and their truth-value is never subject to verification. As such they lay outside the bounds of knowledge. But like ethical claims, and like other metaphysical claims, there may be some value in articulating them; and there may also be varying degrees of standing and value for those claims.

When I say they are beyond the bounds of knowledge I simply mean that we can never be certain about them, that we can never absolutely know their truth-value. As such, they are of secondary importance, but that does not mean that they are unimportant, nor does it mean that they are all equally unfounded.

Sandalstraps said...


Sorry I didn't acknowledge you inmy last comment. I was still typing when your comment posted. I hope that my comment in response to Brian answered your concern about what I'm saying can and can't safely be said concerning God. By saying that we can't know anything propositionally concerning God, I'm not trying to say that we can't make relatively safe statements concerning God.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the links, Chris.

You said, "By saying that we can't know anything propositionally concerning God, I'm not trying to say that we can't make relatively safe statements concerning God."

If we cannot know anything concerning God, then on what basis can we make "safe" statements about him? Unless you mean that we can make safe statements about any god from within the context of the belief system that surrounds the given deity.

Sandalstraps said...


That's an excellent question.

I hope that I dealt with it a little bit when talking about ethical claims as propositional claims whose content lies beyond the bounds of knowledge. We can't know, per the standard of knowledge laid out here, that murder is morally wrong. It is not an objectively verifiable claim. We can't empirically observe the wrongness of murder in any direct way. But it is quite safe to say that murder is wrong, even if we don't always agree on what, exactly, constitutes murder, and why exactly it is wrong.

There are a number of reasons for this. The primary one is a shared moral intuition. That is, most people share the moral intuition that it is wrong to unjustly take the life of another person. It is safe to make the claim that murder is wrong on the strength of this shared moral intuition.

Other reasons for the wrongness of murder are outlined in various ethical theories. The relative safety of those accounts for the moral value of murder depends both on the internal merits of the arguments presented and on the extent to which the various components of the ethical theories conform to the external world of our shared experiences.

We can look at any moral behavior through the lens both of our moral intuitions and through constructed ethical theories, and make more or less safe propositional statements concerning the moral value of that particular behavior. To the extent that our moral intuitions can agree, or to the extent that ethical theories are both internally consistent and accurately describe our shared experiences, we can evaluate the moral value of behaviors. Not with the kind of absolute certainty required of knowledge - at least not in most cases - and not in any directly empirical way, but still with relative safety. Certainly enough security to guide most of our actions.

I think that metaphysical and religious claims work a lot like this. We also have shared religious intuitions, which is why both myth and religion are an integral part of almost every community throughout human history. We have a natural drive to search for existential meaning, and that search for meaning is often found in communion with the sacred, whatever form that sacred takes in a particular community.

When, then, we make statements concerning God from within a religious community and tradition characterized by a collective shared intuition about the sacred, we make relatively safe statements. These statements are not absolute - and are almost always metaphorical - but because they participate in an enduring religious tradition they carry a great deal more weight than the speculations of a single person who claims to have some direct revelation that is not shared by a community.

This, of course, does not address the "problem" posed by religious pluralism - the fact that there are a great many enduring religious traditions, and they do not all say the same things about God. I've dealt with the problem that pluralism - or, more accurately, the plurality of religions - poses for religion here. To sum up my main point in a sentence or two, those who see pluralism as a problem for a particular religious tradition assume that religions are principally in competeition with each other. But, while religions do not share all of each other's intuitions concerning God, there are a great many spiritual intuitions that hold almost across the board. And, while totally emphasising these common intuitions unfairly minimizes the many differences between religions, and as such insults the particularities of any religion; focusing only on the differences between religions and not on their common ground places them unjustly in total opposition to each other.

The near universality of religious belief and practice across human history speaks to the experiential reality of the sacred. This shared experience gives us some safe ground from which to speculate about the nature of the divine, even if such speculations are best understood metaphorically, as imprecise ways of grappling with the ineffable.

The precepts of any religion can be evaluated both on their internal consistency and on their ability to describe the divine - human relationship as it is experienced by us. We can never have certain knowledge concerning God, nor can we ever make God the subject of an objective, empirical, scientific study. But we can still make statements concerning God, and evaluate those statements, even if we can never know their truth value with absolute certainty.