Truth Beyond Understanding

Rationality has its limits as a way of knowing reality.

The_south_transept_rose_at_Notre-Dame_de_Chartres

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.

A God Who Questions

More than giving answers, the God of the Bible asks questions.

A striking feature of the way the Bible presents God is God’s proclivity for engaging in dialogue with individual human beings. We might expect that in this dialogue human beings are the ones asking questions of God and God giving answers.

But in fact the reverse is more often the case. God asks the questions. Human beings are expected to give the answers.

First Example: God with Adam and Eve

A good example is found in the dialogue God holds with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden right after the two have eaten the forbidden fruit and discovered they are naked (Genesis 3). The two humans hide. God comes seeking them out. And the first words he speaks are a question: Where are you?

That question can be understood on several different levels. It is much more than a question about the physical location of the two humans in the garden. It is ultimately a question about the humans’ spiritual condition. Where are they existentially? The dialogue continues as God asks more questions, peeling off more layers of the spiritual onion.

Second Example: God with Cain

We also meet this God asking questions in the very next chapter of Genesis (Genesis 4:1-16). Here we hear the story of the first murder. Cain kills his brother Abel out of jealousy. When God confronts Cain about the murder, the first words he speaks are again a question: Where is your brother Abel?

After countering with a denial that he knows anything, Cain challenges God with a question: Am I my brother’s keeper? This triggers more questioning from God that ultimately leads to exile for Cain.

Third Example: God with Jonah

There are many examples of God asking questions throughout the Old Testament. Let me offer up just two more. When the people of Nineveh repent and God does not destroy their city, the prophet Jonah is incensed. He sits outside the city and pouts (Jonah 3-4).

God comes to him. He challenges Jonah’s petulance by asking him questions. The story finishes on an unanswered question: Was God right to be merciful to the residents of Nineveh or not? Jonah is placed in the position of being judge over God.

Fourth Example: God with Job

Probably the weightiest dialogue of divine questioning comes in the conclusion of the book of Job (Job 38-42). Job has suffered a series of tragedies and can find no answer why. His three comforting friends suggest that they have been brought on by his sin. But Job responds that he is not conscious of any such sin that would have brought these tragedies in consequence. He looks to God for answers.

He receives no answers from God. Instead God comes to him in a whirlwind. God launches into a stream of questions directed at Job. This stream begins with these potent words:

Who is this that darkens counsel by

                        words without knowledge?

            Gird up your loins like a man,

                        I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

And then the questions flow out like a gush of flood waters for the next four chapters. Job is reduced basically to speechlessness, but also to a consciousness of the human condition before the mystery of God.

Fifth Example: Jesus with the Lawyer

This divine pattern of asking questions gets repeated in the ministry of Jesus. Again one notable example. When Jesus counsels a lawyer to love his neighbor as himself, the lawyer asks Jesus the question: Who is my neighbor? Jesus responds by telling the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Jesus finishes his tale by then turning to the lawyer and asking: Which of these three, do you think, was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? Jesus does not give the answer. He awaits the lawyer’s answer, an answer in which the lawyer will answer his own original question.

Why Does God Ask Questions?

When I confront these many examples in Scripture of God asking questions of human beings, I ask why is this God’s habit. One answer can be discarded quickly. God does not have a gap in his knowledge that he is trying to fill. He is not seeking information that he does not have. If God is omniscient, there is no information out there that he does not already know.

So there must another reason, or other reasons, why God asks questions. I think there are. And they profoundly affect how we understand God and ourselves.

Questions as the High Road to Self-Knowledge

One reason, I believe, is that God wants us to know ourselves. The great adage of Greek culture was the phrase inscribed above the door to Apollo’s temple at Delphi: Know yourself. It was a guiding star for Socrates as he strolled around Athens asking questions.

But how do we come to know ourselves? One way may be through self-reflection and meditation on ourselves. But we all have blind spots and inner defenses that keep us from being in touch with our full inner selves. We have to batter through those defenses. And one of the best ways is through others posing questions to us. It is a technique psychotherapists use all the time.

When we are asked questions, especially existentialist questions about our own lives, we must respond by drawing upon our own inner self. In the process we begin to learn what we really do think or believe or value.

I once read a literary author (I’ve forgotten his name) who wrote that he did not really know what he thought until he had to sit down and write out his thoughts. I think that is also true for all of us.

One of the most revealing questions that anyone can ask us is the question: What is it that you really desire in the deepest point of your heart? If we are truly honest in answering the question, we will learn a lot about what really motivates our behavior rather than what we delude ourselves that motivates us. I believe desires drive our action. And if we are to change our actions, that requires our getting to know our real desires.

Questions Nurture Personal Relationship

But there is a deeper spiritual reason why I believe God asks questions. It is that what God desires from us is a relationship of love, not a relationship of manipulation. This is what I think it means to have a personal relationship with God or with other people.

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Martin Buber, 1878-1965

One thinker who has helped me understand this is Martin Buber, the German Jewish philosopher of the early 20th century. He wrote an important book titled I and Thou. In it he contrasts the relationship of I with God or others seen as an It with the relationship of I with God or others seen as a You or Thou.

In an I-It relationship, I relate to God or others as an impersonal It. That allows me to try both to comprehend and to manipulate the other. It easily degenerates into a desire to dominate. That I believe drives a lot of science in the world today.

In an I-You relationship, however, the other never becomes truly impersonal. The relationship therefore retains a sense of mutuality. It also retains some sense of mystery and freedom. We never fully comprehend and therefore can never fully dominate the other, whether that be God or another human being. It involves a constant exchange and adaptation if the relationship is to thrive, as any married person knows who has remained married for a long time.

Becoming an I through Meeting

 At the heart of this relationship is a meeting. And in that meeting I come to know about myself in ways that I can never do by solo reflection. Which leads Buber to say that all real living is meeting.*

The God of the Bible is not one who is satisfied with a relationship with us in which we regard God as an It. God wants a relationship with us in which we relate to him in mutuality, in a shared initiative and response. He wants us to be persons in the fullest sense of that word. And one of the best ways to come to that goal is for God to ask us questions where we have to become real persons in giving a response. We are compelled to stand up for who we are, speak our insight or belief, and then accept accountability for who we are.

In that respect defiance can be a truly personal response just as much as compassion and love. And sometimes our journey in our relationship with God must involve defiance before it can move into trust and love.

The God of the Bible is not one who wants people to lose and dissolve their identity in union with him. That is the desired goal of a lot of Eastern mysticism. Rather God wants us to find our unique I in our relationship with him. Again to quote Buber, Through the Thou, a man becomes I.**

So if we would grow in our relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves, we can expect to encounter great questions in our lives, questions that challenge us to the core of our being. For it is in the questions and our attempts to answer them that we emerge from out of the mysterious clouds of unconsciousness into the conscious light of personhood and love.

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* Martin Buber, I and Thou, New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1958. Page 11. Although Buber does not mention it, I find it striking that in its Exodus wanderings, Israel’s tabernacle shrine bore the name the Tent of Meeting (see Exodus 33:7-11 and Exodus 40). It was given that name because it was the place where Moses (and through Moses all Israel) met with God. Whether it was through the word Moses received from God or through the sacrifices Israel raised up to God, it was the place of encounter between Israel and the divine, the encounter that gave Israel its very being.

** Buber, I and Thou, Page 28.

 

Meeting the Mysterious I AM

From where comes the power of religious faith?

Bible text: Exodus 3:13-14

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Revised Standard Version)

Like the moth attracted to the glowing light bulb on the front porch, I am continually drawn to this passage in Exodus. I circle around it over and over again, without fully understanding it. Yet I can’t leave it alone. Its mystery fascinates.

The passage comes from the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush on Mount Sinai (Exodus 3:1-4:18). Moses sees a bush burning on the mountainside, but it is not consumed. Curious, he investigates. To his surprise, he encounters the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

God explains the reason for the encounter. God is going to send Moses to Egypt to deliver the Israelites from their bondage to Pharaoh. Moses raises various objections to this task, before he submits to God’s call.

One of the objections is that he does not know God’s name. When the Israelites ask what God has sent him to deliver them, what shall he tell them? Who is this God who confronts him in the burning bush?

God responds to this question by saying, “I AM WHO I AM…Say to this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

What a strange, puzzling name! Yet what an appropriate name for the God we encounter in the Bible.

A name that reveals yet veils

There are a number of ways to take this name. For one, it says to me that God is one who always is. God lives in the eternal present. Time may flow all around us, but God is outside time. In a strange way, Einstein’s theories of relativity confirm this. Time as well as space are part of the created order, not eternal verities.

Second, the name reveals yet at the same time veils. The name reveals the reality of God, but it gives us no avenue for comprehending God. Because of that fact, we can never so understand God that we gain the power to control or manipulate God.

Human beings have invested a lot of time, energy, and money in the pursuit of knowledge. But why? One dominant reason is that we hope that by coming to understand our world, ourselves, and even God, we can shape and influence the forces of life and the universe to work for our benefit and prosperity. How much of science is motivated by the frantic hope that if we can just understand nature, we can compel nature to bless us.

This is not the only reason to pursue knowledge. We can also seek to know so that as the mysteries of nature, of ourselves, and of God are disclosed, we stand in awe of the majestic order that is revealed. Awe does not seek to manipulate. Awe stands in silence, with a gaping mouth. Awe appreciates without a desire to use.

The God whose name is I AM is a God whose essence we can never comprehend. In that respect, God is one whom we can never hope to know all about God that is possible to know. This I AM remains forever mystery.

Knowing God versus knowing about God

Yet the Bible is very confident that human beings can know God. But notice a careful distinction in the words I use. We can never know all we want to know about God. But we can know God in a personal relationship with God.

We can know God in terms of a dialogue with God, as Moses has there on Mount Sinai. We can know God in hearing God question us, in hearing God address us, in experiencing God loving us in his various acts of sustaining us and liberating us. We can know God by listening to God. We can know God by trusting God as our good and divine shepherd. We can know God by loving God.

In this relationship, we can learn something about God. That enables us to talk about God. Theology does. But we never so understand God that we can swallow and digest God. God remains the eternal Other, and so his ways will at times mystify us.

I once viewed a documentary titled “Oh My God.” In it the director wandered around the world quizzing people he met. His question: What is God? I think he was trying to understand the mystery of religion by exploring the many different concepts of God that people hold.

As I watched it, however, I felt he was asking the wrong question if he was trying to penetrate the mysterious power that religion has on people. It assumed that God is an intellectual concept that somehow holds a strange, captivating power over peoples’ minds and feelings. God becomes an object of intellectual inquiry.

But I don’t think anyone can ever understand the power of religion until one realizes that the power is to be found in that encounter with the divine Thou. Only when we relate to God as the ever present Thou in our world and in our lives can we begin to experience the transforming power of religious faith.

The secret of religion only opens up when we realize that it is contained in a meeting, a meeting between the I (or the We) and the divine Thou. That Thou is the one whose name is I AM.

Martin Buber capsulizes this insight for me in a sentence he wrote about the free man who “believes in the real solidarity of the real twofold entity I and Thou.” He then goes onto to correct himself. “I said he believes, but that really means he meets.” (Martin Buber, I and Thou, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958, page 60061)

Moses meets the I AM on that mountainside. His life and ours are never the same.