March 6, 2010

"Knowing God" - the Problem of Humanity

Well in answering one of my good friend's questions to my post below on Brian McLaren's book and doctrine I basically wrote a long enough answer to put it up as a new post. So here's the context. In the review I wrote:
Bonhoeffer wrote, “it is only when one knows the unutterability of the name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ” Thus what we DO know about God is that ultimately God is unknowable. So doctrine is not an end in itself, thus aNKoC is not an end in itself.

Seth has some other good questions which you can read in the post below, but here's the heart of what he's saying:
But I don't get from that quote (and again I don't know the whole context behind the quote from Bonhoeffer) is that God is unknowable. Jesus seems to say the exact opposite. He identifies himself with the Father, and says several times that if you know me, you know the Father; if you see me, you have seen the Father, etc. It seems that God is knowable, but ultimately he is known through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Here's my response:
Well, I want to be careful because there's this strange dialectic I'm trying to walk here (creating a both/and or neither/nor category). In some ways I want to say what you are saying about Jesus, but in a more or differently nuanced way.

First, in regards to JC's words about knowing the Father. Thomas asks Jesus to show them the Father and the way to get where JC is going. I think we can agree that this passage isn't about doctrine (as if Thomas is saying, so is God eternal or everlasting?), knowing God categorically, conceptually, or perceptually. Instead, what Jesus is talking about is "the Way," the life and person that best reflects God on earth (himself). These verses in Jn 14 seem to point more toward relationships, allegiances, and ways of life (or mission) more than doctrinal statements about God.

There are many different ways of "knowing" in the Bible, but I think of the most metaphorical, physical way..."knowing" as sex. This knowing is about something deeper and more personal then concepts. It seems that "knowing" in the Scripture is almost always a deeply human, physical, and relational term as opposed to abstract, categorical.

Second, and ultimately I believe the greater truth is that God is unknowable. What I mean (not sure about Bonhof) is that we cannot use scientific reasoning and the 5 senses to create concepts that tell us "what" God is, God is neither provable or disprovable. We cannot point to God and say, "see God suffers or no God is immutable."

Language about God is tricky, but I don't think our words or categories ever fully satisfy the reality of what God is in his being. It's very important to say, or maybe admit (since there have been many abuses) that what we can know about God is that God is unknowable, un"what"able. But while our language, concepts, and perceptions of God always fall short of his Being that doesn't mean they aren't important. While we cannot say "what" God is, we can say "that" God is...that God is loving, good, infinite, simple, just, faithful, unified, etc. Now do these words describe God metaphysically, ontologically? No, but they do give us categories to understand how God can be the way he is, and relate the way he does (and possibly just as important it helps us understand how we should relate to God and each other).

Since we cannot claim what God is, but only what God is not (Bonhof's Christology) we can speak doctrines without fear of logical the idea that Christ is fully God and fully human (real logical right?). And that bring us back to Bonhoeffer, where he is saying that this way of talking about God (the "that," not "what") allows us to speak logically and coherently about the existence of God while being able to make statements about the incarnation.

I agree that we do know God through Christ, but I cannot say that doctrinally speaking I better understand God's being because of Jesus. Actually, because of Jesus I am a little more confused about God's existence. Did God die on the cross? Does he suffer? 3 and 1, 3 in 1, 3 = 1?

God is knowable, as in we can relate to and be in relationship to God. God is unknowable as in, I cannot point to and make conceptual statements that exactly describe the reality of God's being. Jesus leads us to what is really important, a life giving relationship with God; but after that we are stuck in our limited human categories to think about ways of describing conceptually and perceptually this reality. And that is theology in a nutshell, the aftermath of being swoon by God.


Seth Summers said...

Joe! Thanks for the post. Sorry I have taken a while to respond as I have been basically traveling the state the past couple days (ok...mainly up and down i-35). Anyway, I get what you are saying now.

I agree with what you have said here. I think what you wrote in your concluding paragraph is what I wanted to say and perhaps just didn't get past the relational "knowing" God.

I agree with you that those statments JC makesin John 14 are not doctirnal, but as you said pointing to a way of life.

I suppose I am just not comfortable with the language "unknowable." It seems to me that knowing God relationally and living the lifestyle of Jesus is still in a sense "knowing," though only in part.

I don't know what language to use exactly, because I don't disagree with what you are saying here, there is just something that doesn't sound right about "unknowable" since we are talking about a God that was made known through Jesus, and Paul uses the language of "making God known" in Acts.

I think what I hear you saying is that God in his ontological existence is indescribable due to the limitations of our language. Is that right? Or are you saying more than that? Or something different than that?

Again, like I said, i think it is more uncomfortablity with the language, than with what you are actually describing in this post. Make sense?

Seth Summers said...
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