How do we know God? The question is simple and straightforward – until we begin to answer it.
I have written lately much about icons, and particularly the Seventh Council’s contention that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This simple statement has such a richness of implication that it is hard to ask too much of it. It obviously means to say that there are ways we know God that are not confined to the words of Scripture. Not that icons are ever properly contradictory to Scripture – but present what they do in the manner that they do it is clear that we encounter God in ways that transcend the written word.
Icons, canonically, have something of a strict control about them. We can’t make icons just any way we want (though the pressures of the modern world have stretched this stricture to its limits). They have this strict control, I believe, not because of their weakness, but because of their power. Just as the written word has a tremendous power – and thus has its strictures as well – so images have their boundaries.
But the very revelatory character of images points to something beyond both Scripture and Icon – which is a ubiquity to God and His self-revelation. In simpler terms – God is everywhere and there’s nothing we can do about it.
It is important to note that the Church is not the sole dispenser of knowledge of God – and even as we dispense what we have, we do not have what is most key in the knowledge of God – we do not control the action of God. We cannot say to someone, “If you do this, then you will know God.” Were it so easy, so straightforward, seminary would likely be limited to one class, and all of our priests would seem wise. But such is not the case.
We we have been given is true and faithful and what we have we can share. But still each person must themselves encounter the true and living God in such a way that what has been made known to us in Tradition becomes true for them in an existential manner.
Of this none of us have control. To some great extent, even the person who is seeking to know God is not in control. We never truly know our own heart – and though convinced of one thing with regard to our heart – it is entirely possible for something else to be the case. The heart is mystery – even to ourselves – and outside of the clear light of God’s revelation we do not know even this most intimate thing about ourselves.
We add to this finally the fact that God Himself is free. He is not simply the Absolute and thus confined to His own attributes. In Orthodox understanding, we begin with God as person before we proceed to say anything else. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and His being (in a logical sense) rises from that act of communion. Thus God is “free” as philosophers would say, even of His own Substance. Thus I cannot predict God or tell someone else what they may do and how He will respond.
I can recall in my earliest Christian days making just such a promise. I knew very little and was simply a very zealous Jesus Freak. I recall in a personal encounter with someone making a specific promise about what God would do if they would do thus and such. The details of the story are not important at the moment. But I recall that as soon as I had uttered such a rash promise, I had a feeling that I had crossed a boundary that should have not been crossed. I had no theology to tell me so, only my inner sense of my relationship with God. Somehow, it seemed clear to me that I was not the senior partner in this relationship and my rashness had forgotten that fact.
I recall praying (under my breath) and asking forgiveness for my rashness and begging God not to hold it against the person with whom I was talking, or against me. The good God, apparently forgave me, and did what was asked, but I also knew it had been pure grace and an act of kindness – no necessity bound His action, least of all my promises in His name.
We know God as He makes Himself known to us. Within the life of the Church, having submitted our lives to Holy Tradition and the discipleship of Christ, it is possible to point to sacraments, to Scripture, to icons, to all the various things God has set forth that we may know Him. But outside of that life, there are no holds barred. God is not willing that any should perish and will make Himself known however He chooses – and no one can gainsay it. God is God.
But the Tradition would tell us quite the same thing.