Beyond Names and Forms, Ctd.

Jeff, a regular commenter on the blog, asks a worthwhile question in response to this post. He asks:

“…..if God is transcendent and hence unknowable, how do we *know* God is transcendent and unknowable? So too, saying God is beyond name and form and encouraging one to “leave your notion of God for an experience of that which transcends all notions” *is itself* giving form and name and a notion to a subject–namely your God. So too suggesting that the mystery of life is beyond all human conception can only be said if you know through your conceptions where the mystery of life is located.”

I don’t believe it is self refuting to suggest we can know that something is ultimately unknowable. I guess it depends on how we treat the word “know.” It is a word that possesses many layers of meaning. It is not a word that mimics an on/off switch. For instance, I can stand on a beach and see and smell the ocean in front of me and I know the ocean exists. I go for a swim and I feel the water and taste the salt. In that moment I’ve experienced the ocean to the fullest extent that my senses will allow. I leave the beach with some knowledge of the ocean but I also leave with a vast unknowing of its deep, mysterious nature. I appreciate what the ocean is through my limited ability to experience it. But my limited appreciation falls immeasurably short from all that the ocean contains. Jeff, I don’t think you’re arguing this point but I say all this to set up why I think it’s important to acknowledge our unknowing of the mysteries of the world we find ourselves in, including our understanding of God.

If I were to somehow believe that during my day at the beach I was capable of coming to a competent knowing of what the ocean is, I’d be robbing myself of the greatest gift the ocean can offer: mystery. So in a sense, the only way to truly know and be in a life-giving relationship with the ocean is to admit that what I sense of its nature is terribly incomplete. I know it, yet I can’t know it and because of that fact, I feel compelled to return to it and drink it all in again. It’s the same with our relationship to creation, to each other, and to God. I like how Pete Rollins points out that within each person is a mysterious universe of being. If we don’t recognize the way in which we can’t fully know each other then we begin to see the other as an “it” and not a “thou.” In the same way, the language Meister Eckhart uses is critical. Once we are confident we know God, we cease to be drawn into the rich life God offers. Maybe there is a better word? Instead of claiming that I know God, maybe claiming that I sense God is more appropriate. I suppose I’ll leave the knowing to God, who I sense knows me fully and gives me mercy. Maybe that’s a meaningless distinction for some but I hope it’s worthwhile.

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One thought on “Beyond Names and Forms, Ctd.

  1. Well said! I think the ocean metaphor works very well.

    It feels to me as though you are saying that you can “know” in part, but not in whole. Would that be right?

    For example, you can know that God is deeply mysterious, or at least you can say, “I experience something that is massive and worth diving into.” And that is worthy knowledge to have, for you also suggests that God is merciful–and that is certainly a bit of knowledge.

    The idea of “sense” I also think is helpful because it displays how we encounter and interact with God, and that such interactions are personally relevant and meaningful. “Sensing” that God is merciful, for example, is subjective, but I still think it is a candidate for “knowledge”.

    I too share a skepticism of many religious claims. I too think they easily get in the way of our encountering God and our own transformation. I wonder if we need to be conscious of a golden mean here. Not falling off one side of a horse (complete agnosticism regarding God and his pursuit of us) or the other (explicit, all-encompassing dogma), but sitting upright and embracing the mysterious God. In Paul’s words, “I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I [now] am fully known.”

    That passage reflects your last statement, which I thought quite insightful.

    Be well! Thanks for the clarification! – Jeff

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