This small quote from Fr. Thomas has stayed with me since I first heard it. It says so much by saying so little.
I find two groups of people increasingly common in my conversations – those who profess to not know God (agnostics) – and those who struggle greatly with what they have 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 cannot 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,” 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 referred to God as having hyperousia – an existence beyond existence. St. Gregory the Theologian famously said, “Inasmuch as God exists, we do not exist. Inasmuch as we exist, God does not exist.”
If such statements sound confusing or even like nonsense – they are supposed to. For we are speaking about God, who cannot be known. 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 too easily degenerates into mere 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, almsgiving, vigils, etc. (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 “theology,” but it qualifies as such only because of its topic. True theology is the life in 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, etc. At some point, 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 am 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 are 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 are referring to the sort of belief that St. James mocks in his epistle: “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (2:19). And if the discussion moves to questions of debating various theological points – it is 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. So it is with the knowledge of God.
But you have to know Him to know that.