I would like to begin today’s talk with the same analogy with which I began last time, that of the stained-glass window, but from a slightly different point of view. Last time we used the stained-glass window to discover the light beyond, and now I would like to attract your attention to the fact that apart from revealing the light beyond, the stained-glass window is being revealed by the light that flows into it. This is very important for us to remember because the revelation of God to man and the revelation of man to himself are correlative: the discovery of the light, thanks to the colours of the window, is at the same time a revelation of these colours and of the ability they have to break up the light and to reveal it. In other words, this light which is beyond comprehension is being revealed to us through the window. This revelation of the window by the light gives us some insight about revelation in general.
There is always, and there has always been, I think, a tension between those who think of the knowledge of God which we have as being objectively true and those who, instead of accepting its absoluteness, think in terms of a relative knowledge. I think that this glass-window can teach us something more about it. The light which flows from outside is broken up in all the seven colours of the rainbow, and then it becomes perceptible, it becomes intelligible. If it remained without colour it would remain beyond comprehension. The sum total of the seven colours, however, does not restore to us the vision of the incomprehensible light. We cannot put together these seven colours and then see what is beyond seeing. The same is true with every revelation of God: whatever God unveils, reveals to us, is revealed, as one of the hymns of the Orthodox Church says concerning the Transfiguration, `insofar as the disciples could see and perceive it’.
And there can be no revelation beyond the ability which the person to whom something is revealed possesses to see and to understand. Every revelation is somewhere between the objective reality and our ability to understand. If something is revealed to us which we cannot understand, which we cannot perceive, it remains unrevealed. That explains why, on the one hand, the revelation of God has absoluteness as far as we are concerned and yet as far as he is concerned, it is always relative, correlative with us.
One of the great theologians of Byzantium says that whatever we say about God which is adequate to what he has himself revealed is true. And he adds it may even be the absolute truth as far as the earth is concerned, but it is never the absolute truth as far as God is concerned, because God is always both knowable and unknowable, revealed and ungraspable, beyond revelation and yet within revelation. It does not make the revelation of God to us simply relative – that is, an object of option and opinion – but it underlines the fact that God revealed to us is revealed so far as we can receive this revelation.
This implies a number of things. It implies on the one hand that the progressive discovery of God which we find in the Bible is legitimate, not a gradual invention of a more elaborate and more acceptable God, but God who becomes more and more acceptable to more and more civilised and refined people, but a discovery of the real God with newer and newer, greater and greater depth and elaboration by people who have been taught by the previous revelations to become different from what they were, nearer the God they have discovered and therefore the God who is to be discovered. It also means that the truth which God reveals about Himself leads us ultimately face to face with the mystery of God. Anselm of Canterbury’s words ‘I believe in order to know’ must be supplemented by ‘I know in order that I should believe’; in other words, to stand in awe, to stand with veneration worshipfully adoring, face to face with more than I ever will be able to possess and to understand.
And in God’s revelation of himself there are also two aspects at the same time. He reveals, that is, he makes us know and understand certain things, but the moment we know and understand them, we are confronted with an even greater depth of mystery. The example which I would suggest is that of the incarnation. If we think of it in a very simplified way, in terms of popular piety perhaps, or emotional piety, what we find is that God unknowable, transcendental, spirit, becomes the Babe of Bethlehem and, seemingly, although the Gospel also underlines that it is true, the fulness of the Godhead abides in our midst in the flesh. It seems at the first approximation that if we take into our hands this incarnate God we are holding God in our hands. When the Mother of God held the child of Bethlehem, she held God in her arms and, after a fashion this is true, the fulness of Godhead, incarnate, was there. But what it also reveals is a new vision of what we mean by God being spirit, being transcendental; it means that our vision is totally inadequate if by saying that God is spirit we contrast him with matter so as to make both incompatible, because otherwise the Incarnation could not occur and could not be real, it means that God who is being incarnate is so completely beyond contrast, contradistinction, opposition, incompatibility, that remaining himself without change, he can commune to what is not himself without destroying it, without taking away from it its intrinsic quality, making it what it is not.
The example which Maxim the Confessor uses, which I have already quoted more than once in these talks, is that of a sword of iron plunged in the fire. He says that if plunged in the fire, a sword of iron becomes glowing with the fire. Something is shown to us by analogy about the Incarnation: sword and fire, iron and fire, remain what they were, completely ultimately different from one another and yet they are united in such a way that the fire acquires a body and the iron acquires the quality of fire. Maxim ends his analogy by saying, ‘so that we can then burn with iron and cut with fire.’
And there is a remarkable passage in the work of St. Ephraim of Syria in which he shows that in every action of Christ the human and the divine were blended and both active, each of the powers and natures according to its own reality. So that the Incarnation reveals to us not only the presence in our midst of the Lord and all that is what we call the economy of salvation, but something about God that makes him more transcendental than he was, at the very moment when he seems to become completely immanent, present in our human situation. And this applies to every revelation of God. Revealed, he reveals both something for us to know and a depth for us, not only to discover but also to approach with reverence and amazement, in the silence of all the powers of soul and body. It reveals also something about us men: it reveals to us the extent to which we are akin to God and capable of knowing him. This is one of the most remarkable things of the divine revelation that God never reveals himself to man without revealing man to himself, to man. The greater our knowledge of God, the greater our vision of man, because we cannot possess this revelation apart from, or beyond, the capabilities of man: that is, ultimately the kinship there is between man and God.
This, I think, should throw some light on the often criticised anthropomorphism of the Bible, – this way in which God is spoken of in human terms and man is seen in divine terms. It is not a mistake; it is not that it is the approximation of a primitive mind; it is completely adequate to the facts; it is because man is like God that he can know God, and not otherwise. I am not going to touch upon what makes man like God at the moment, but just underline the fact that these two revelations are correlative and the greater the glory of God perceived and revealed, the greater also the glory of man, capable of perceiving and of revealing. When I say ‘perceiving and revealing’, I have in mind now no longer what we discussed last time, the icon, and the various means of communication, but also another way in which God is revealed in man: holiness and saintliness in man and also something which the Fathers of the Church were intently aware of, the uniqueness of each person who knows God in a way unique and unrepeatable, the revelation of God through man, but not only through the prophets and the saints but incipiently and at the end of time, fully, through each without one being left aside, because there is a link between each of us and God which is unique and unrepeatable. There are no two human beings that are replaceable by one another: each stands as a creature unique and therefore each stands as one who can reveal God uniquely as no one else can.
Again, to use a quotation which I have used more than once, there is this passage in the Book of Revelation that says to us that everyone will receive in the Kingdom a white stone with a name written on it, a name which no one knows but God and the one who receives it. To be sure, it will not be the name by which we are known on earth: it will not be one of those human names which allow us to distinguish the one from the other. It will be a name which in itself expresses, contains, defines, everything we are: the name perhaps by which God called us when he brought us out of naught into existence, the name that coincides with our very existence, with our very being, the name which is us completely and perfectly. This name signifies, because it is known to no one but God and him to whom God reveals it, the unique relationship between him and God. And I wish you to notice the fact that this name is known to God, but can be known to the one who possesses it only to the extent to which God reveals the name. Total, final, abysmal self-knowledge is also a revelation. And man can know himself and his brothers only in the light of divine revelation because we are opaque to one another and we are beyond knowing for one another. In the human situation we are opaque because we oppose ourselves to each other, because we exist by contrast, because we defend and protect our endangered integrity when someone tries to penetrate into the depth of our being. At times, when love is at work, we allow the only person whom we can trust that way, or the few, to enter deeper and deeper into the knowledge of our person, of our heart and our mind, but there is always a point at which everyone, every human being, every angel of God will stop: it is that central core which is the meeting-point between God and this person, – the point which is the well from which our very being gushes, and there is no way of discovering more about it except to contemplate it in silence, in reverence, in chastity, without trying to know more, and to enter into the mystery of it.
Otherwise what happens is that, after a hopeless fight to discover more, we have destroyed something, at times irretrievably, but we have not found what we were looking for. It is very much like a person who would see water gushing out of a well and who would wish to know where the water comes from, where it ultimately originated and would begin to dig deeper and deeper: the well will be destroyed but however deep the digging proceeds, there will never be a moment when our investigation will show the point at which there was no water and now there is water. The same is true about us: our depth somehow somewhere merges into the divine call, it is rooted in the divine call, in the divine will; it is rooted beyond us and we ourselves can know nothing about it. We can be, but we cannot reach out to the point of our own non-being. We can die, but we cannot return to the point of emergence of our being; and this is very important for us to remember, because it is one of the aspects of our uniqueness and our unique relatedness to God. So that whenever we speak of revelation, we speak of two things simultaneously, always: on the one hand of what we now know about God, which we did not know, and of what we know now about man, which we also did not know before – and that all the time. And this revelation has got this dual quality of being absolute and relative, complete and incomplete because at every moment it widens our knowledge of God, it deepens our communion with God and it makes us aware of the mystery of God, of the total final mystery of God by means of discovery and not by means of exclusion.
This applies to everything which we can say, which we can know, which we can undergo in terms of experience about God. The moment it is perceptible and expressible, experience or knowledge or formulation, it has entered into the realm of the limited. Certain of these formulations are so great, so incredibly great, that they seem to us to be the thing revealed itself, and yet, even those formulations are within the realm of man. I am thinking now, for instance, of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Its incomprehensibility, perhaps its incredible width and depth and height, gives us an impression that there is nothing beyond it concerning God. Yet insofar as it is revelation it is within the experience of man and therefore there is in it more about God than can be put in any other words. But what it reveals to us, for which we should be grateful, is man, because if man is capable of receiving this revelation, he is infinitely greater than we imagine he is.
I will end my talk at this point and next time I will try to trace – of course incompletely, of course only by means of way-marks, of marking-stones, the way in which the experience of God finds within the biblical revelation an expression that leads gradually, step after step, to the concrete, solid, manageable formulations which are the content of our doctrinal, dogmatic, intellectual faith. It will probably take us two talks to see through this part of what I wish to say, because I believe it is important for us not only to have it stated but also to discuss enough for it to have meaning and to make sense.