Truth Beyond Understanding

Rationality has its limits as a way of knowing reality.

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The south transept rose window of Chartres Cathedral–for me a visual symbol of trans-rational knowing.

I am glad that the canon of the Bible includes the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Its weary skepticism provides a needed antidote to the many times we get way too confident in talking about our faith.

Towards the very end of his book, the author (known as Qoheleth, the Preacher) expresses this opinion: Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Recently I find myself saying with him: Amen.*

I have spent a good part of my life studying the Christian faith, reading theology, pondering the Bible, all in an effort to make rational sense out of this faith that I inherited from parents and the religious culture in which I grew up. In particular, I’ve wanted to see if I could separate the distortions in what I was taught from the pure truth of the gospel.

I’ve then in turn devoted great energy to sharing my discoveries with others, through preaching, teaching, writing, conversations, and even this blog.

And yet that pure, unadulterated grasp of the truths of Christianity still exceeds me. The faith I study so diligently continues to hold mysteries, paradoxes, and puzzles that I cannot resolve.

Especially puzzling are the mysterious ways God works in God’s world, ways that seem to refuse to yield to rational comprehension. This is no new insight on my part. It is the old, old message of the Book of Job in the Bible. Job resonates with anyone who tries to discern where God is at work in times of unspeakable tragedy.

What all this does for me is underscore the fact that the truth for which we long seems to exceed our rational ability to grasp it. This is not to say that truth is irrational. Neither is it rational. Rather, I have come to believe, it is trans-rational. It eludes any rational attempt to understand it or cage it in human words.

Trans-rational knowing

Can we know the truth? Yes, I continue to hope that we can, but we must approach it in a trans-rational way. What is that way? I concede that I don’t know.

That’s because it is likely to be far different from the way of knowing that we are taught in our schools, a way of knowing that goes back to the Greek philosophers and scientists that lie at the start of the Western cultural tradition. The Greek tradition assumes that the truth is an objective it that can be grasped intellectually and expressed in rational propositions. Its reward is the gift of an intellectual certainty on which we can build a secure base for our lives.

When I try to guess what this trans-rational way of knowing looks like, I am brought back to those lines in Psalm 27 where the psalmist writes:

Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,

            be gracious to me and answer me!

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”

            Your face, LORD, do I seek.

         Do not hide your face from me.(Psalm 27:7-9)

The psalmist, it seems to me, here describes a way of knowing God that he metaphorically calls seeing God face-to-face. It is a kind of knowing that is direct and deeply relational. It is a way of knowing that is hard to express in words because it is so deeply direct and relational. Yet it is still a way of knowing the Truth (with a capital T), which turns out to be not a proposition, but a deeply personal One.**

If what I say is correct, then I think we must take seriously the contemplative and mystical traditions of Christianity. For it is the mystics who bear witness to this kind of trans-rational knowing. The mystics claim that they have come to know the One, but they struggle to find words to express that quality of knowing.

Words cannot express their experience adequately. And so the words they do write can sound awfully befuddling to one who has not had their experience. Sometimes, as a result of their experiences, the mystics may abandon writing words completely. One can know what they have experienced, they say, only by experiencing it for oneself.

For me the best exemplar of this is Thomas Aquinas. There are few theologians who have relied more upon reason to express the truths of the Christian faith systematically or written more voluminous books. Of Aquinas’ scholarship, it can truly be said there was much making of books.

The trans-rational experience of Thomas Aquinas

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Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274

One of his companions reports, however, that towards the end of Aquinas’ life, Thomas heard Jesus speak to him during mass, saying “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?” Thomas replied: “Nothing but you, Lord.”

It seems that afterwards he experienced some kind of spiritual vision or ecstasy. Aquinas never shared precisely the details of what he experienced. But it dramatically changed the course of his work. He stopped writing and never wrote again during the remaining months of his life.

When his confessor urged him to take up his writing again, Aquinas responded: “Reginald, I can do no more. Such secrets were revealed to me that all I have written now appears of little value.”

When I read this account, I find myself asking: In his mystical experience, did Aquinas move into that realm of trans-rational knowing where he perceived the inadequacy of words to express the Truth he had come to know directly and relationally?

There comes, it seems to me, a point in the life of any scholar (as it seems to have come in my own) when one must finally admit that reason alone cannot ultimately answer all the questions we bring to our study of life and the world.

To continue to trust in reason alone is to imprison oneself within the constantly fluctuating world of scholarly opinion or to experience emotional burnout as one seeks a certainty that constantly eludes us. What is given in this trans-rational way of knowing is not intellectual certainty, but a connection to the Truth that serves as an anchor through all the vicissitudes of life.

If we cannot make the leap into trans-rational knowing, then maybe it is wisdom indeed to follow the further advice of Qoheleth: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.(Ecclesiastes 12:13). And for most of us that may indeed be the way of wisdom in our daily living.

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* In recent months I have been experiencing severe pain in my neck. The doctor says the pain results from hyper-stressed neck muscles. The cause, he says, is the head posture I assume when I am doing my reading and writing. The making (and reading) of many books, it seems, can indeed become a pain in the neck.

** I say the One (with a capital O), because I am trying to express the idea that the Truth is not an impersonal It. But another way of saying it is to say that the Truth we seek to know is a Thou. That is the way Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, expresses it in his book I and Thou. This is a book (among the making of many books) that has had a deep influence on my thinking.

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A Pang for Eternity

Does life have meaning? It depends upon where you look for an answer.

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Gustave Doré’s rendition (19th century) of Dante’s vision of Paola and Francesca in Hell.

I was reading Ecclesiastes when I stumbled upon this sentence: He [God] has made everything beautiful in its times; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end (Ecclesiastes 3:11 RSV).

The sentence is evocative like good poetry. I had to pause and take in what the author was saying. It struck me as something very perceptive.

Odd Book in the Canon

Ecclesiastes is an odd book in the Hebrew canon. The author is called the Preacher and linked to Solomon, proverbially the wisest of the Hebrew sages. But he does not speak like a Hebrew sage. More like a Greek philosopher or moralist.

He is decidedly rationalistic in approaching the meaning of life. He travels widely, observing carefully all around him. Though he believes in God, he does not rely much on the precepts of Hebrew religion for his analysis. Rather he is skeptical of much of what the Hebrew faith teaches.

What does he conclude from his observations? Everywhere he looks, he sees impermanence. Seasons come and go, so do human beings. All–king or peasant, rich or poor, wise or foolish, noble lady or maid–all face the same fate: the grave.

So his final conclusion is: all is vanity. All is but a puff of wind. What is here today is gone tomorrow. Human beings therefore should just enjoy the pleasures of today nor work too obsessively, for they do not know what tomorrow brings. It’s a distinctly morose view of life.

The Longing for Meaning

That’s why the sentence I quoted at the beginning so struck me. The author seems to believe that a longing for something permanent, something forever meaningful, lies within the mind and heart of human beings, but we can never find it.

The longing lies deep in the human psyche. The question is: Is there any way to satisfy it? The Preacher is skeptical. Human beings, despite all their longing, cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

This would suggest that human life is always restless, never able to find contentment. This brings to mind the image in Dante’s Divine Comedy of the lovers Paolo and Francesca whirling around their circle of Hell passionately pursuing each other but never able to find a moment to rest and connect.

Rationalism’s Dead End

I wonder if the Preacher’s dismal vision may not represent where a totally rationalistic approach to life ultimately ends. Can reason alone, whether inductive or empirical, finally penetrate into the inner secrets of life and the universe? Can we ever really understand to our full contentment? I think the Preacher would say No.

I find this a provocative question because a couple of years ago I read Jim Holt’s book Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story. In it he traces the way modern human beings try to answer the vexing question: What is the mystery of existence? Why should there be a universe at all, and why are we a part of it?

He seeks answers by interviewing some of today’s top philosophers, physicists, and cosmologists. Many of them are working on the far reaches of current scientific exploration. It is amazing how much modern science has uncovered secret after secret about the universe.

And yet, despite their amazing knowledge, Holt quotes a number of scientists who have concluded at the end of all their study that the universe is meaningless. It has no purpose. It just is, period. Now, I think the Preacher would be right at home within their circle. All is but a breath of wind.

Moving Beyond Reason

If this is the ultimate end point for a purely rationalistic approach to understanding life and the world, then human beings have to turn elsewhere for an answer. Some, I think, turn to the world of imagination. Others to the world of religion. Human beings have eternity in their minds. If science cannot satisfy their longing, then they will search in alternative fields.

In the world of imagination, they can explore a world which has meaning. That’s one reason, I suspect, we are constantly attracted to stories–whether in print or cinema–where good ultimately triumphs over evil. We encounter them in fairy tales, TV police dramas, compelling novels, and cinema (the Star Wars series is a great example).

Imagination may not be able to prove its case by rational argument, but imagination may intuitively perceive a truth that is not available to reason. Or alternatively there is always the possibility that imagination may be dead wrong. Yet we are drawn back over and over again to stories that posit some kind of meaning to the lives we live. Our fascination with these stories bears witness to the depth of our longings.

The other alternative is religion, especially if the religion is based upon some belief in divine revelation as do Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Historically religion has been probably the most prevalent way for most of humanity to find the contentment to the longing for eternity that the Preacher detects in the human mind.

One Christian Answer

Certainly the Christian faith does that for me. And no one provides it better for me than something out of my spiritual heritage as a Presbyterian. In the 17th century English Presbyterians adopted what are known as the Westminster Standards. They include a catechism for instruction in the faith.

The opening question of the catechism with its answer is probably the best known statement in all of the Westminster Standards. It reads:

Q. What is the chief end of man? 

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

 There, at the very start of its exposition of the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith, the catechism tackles the question of meaning right on. Life has meaning, and it’s tied up with our relationship to God.

It is easy to write this off as pious frou-frou. But I find it strangely profound. The universe, human beings, find their purpose in being in relationship, a relationship with their Maker. That relationship has two dimensions. One is the glorification of God; the other, however, is the enjoyment of God. Ultimately we are to bring pleasure to God and to enjoy pleasure ourselves through our relationship to the same loving God.

God creates out of a loving delight. We find our meaning as we respond to this same God in loving delight. Maybe that is the answer to that glimmer of eternity that the Preacher finds in human minds. But it is not an answer that reason alone could deliver. Only divine grace does.