[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?
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