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

St-thomas-aquinas

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.

Why Mystics Love the Song of Songs

The Erotic Poetry Mirrors the Mystic’s Yearning for God.

I sometimes wonder how the Song of Songs made it into the biblical canon. It is lushly erotic poetry. Bible translators often label the lovers in the poem the bride and the bridegroom, but it is not crystal clear that the lovers are indeed married. The poem may be celebrating pre-marital, not marital love.

The poem, with its slightly risqué flavor, does not seem like something sober rabbis and church fathers would find appropriate in holy Scripture. Yet there it is, with images that are so evocative of sensual pleasure.

One reason why it did get included in the canon is that many of those rabbis and church fathers read the poem as allegory. The real theme of the poem, they contend, is the passionate love between God and Israel, or between Christ and his church, or between God and the awakened soul.

Many modern scholars dismiss this allegorical interpretation as simply eisegesis, an interpretation that reads a meaning into the text that simply is not there. Yet we must deal with the fact that spiritual writers, especially of the mystical sort, have been drawn to this text from almost the time it entered Scripture. Through the centuries, spiritual writers, especially monastics and mystics, have written scores upon scores of commentaries on the Song of Songs. It could vie for the most popular book in the Bible during the Middle Ages.

Why? What is the connection between the text and those who are intense in pursuing the spiritual journey?

The Evocation of Desire

One of the striking things about the Song of Songs is that it says almost nothing explicitly about the sexual act itself. In verse 8:5, the poet writes, “Under the apple tree, I awakened you.”

If this is a reference to the act of sexual union, it is a highly allusive one. It hints, but does not describe. It leaves a lot to the imagination. This contrasts dramatically with all the explicit descriptions of sexual acts that we find in modern novels.

What we find instead in the Song of Songs is repeated description of erotic desire. The lovers are constantly searching for each other, longing to be together. And when they do seem to meet, almost immediately one of them, usually the male lover, mysteriously vanishes away.

Here is one example from chapter 5:

I slept, but my heart was awake.

            Listen! my beloved is knocking.

            “Open to me, my sister, my love,

            my dove, my perfect one…

My beloved thrust his hand into the opening,

            and my inmost being yearned for him.

I arose to open to my beloved,

            and my hands dripped with myrrh,

            my fingers with liquid myrrh,

            upon the handles of the bolt.

I opened to my beloved,

            but my beloved had turned and was gone.

            My soul failed me when he spoke.

            I sought him, but did not find him;

            I called him, but he gave no answer.

What makes the Song such powerful poetry is this ability to evoke the experience of desire, intense desire that lovers can feel for each other.

Spiritual Experience as Desire

This is the feature of the poem that so draws mystics to the Song of Songs, I believe. For in the lovers’ intense erotic desire for each other, mystics see mirrored the similar intense desire they feel for God. They long for God with deep longing. And the best analogy for this deep spiritual longing is the erotic longing the lovers feel in the Song.

The psalmist uses a different analogy to describe this intense spiritual longing. In Psalm 42, we find the psalmist writing:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,

            so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

            for the living God.

When shall I come and behold

            the face of God?

My tears have been my food day and night,

            while people say to me continually,

            “Where is your God?”

In the psalm the longing for God is compared to a basic physical need. In the Song, the longing takes on a more deeply personal character. But both texts highlight the ever-continuing experience of desire, a desire that has yet to be consummated.

This is what attracts the mystic to the Song, as a moth to the shining light bulb. Desire lies at the heart of the mystic’s experience. So much so that the mystic’s experience can often be described as a never-ending search for union with the divine.

In fact, the early church father Gregory of Nyssa believed this spiritual longing will never be completely satisfied, even in the next life. In the fourth century, he wrote, “This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him.” [Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Paulist Press, 1978, page 116] Whether Nyssa is right or not, he highlights that central place desire has in the spiritual journey of those who have developed a particularly close personal relationship with God.

So it may be eisegesis for the mystic to read the Song allegorically, but does that really matter? For the Song of Songs lays bare the dynamic of the mystic’s experience with God.