At the end of our last talk we came to a point where it seemed to be necessary for us to try and define or at least sketch the way in which religious experience gradually finds expression in dogmatic formulations or in other ways – means of communication – and this is what I attempt now.
I think the subject will naturally break up into two talks. On the one hand, I will try to show the descending experience, the descending way which begins with an experience of God, and in our next talk I would like to discuss with you the opposite way that begins with the earth and gradually moves Godwards.
There is a very remarkable chapter in the writings of St. Macarius of Egypt in which he explains that “Theologia”, the knowledge of God – theology in its complete full sense – begins with a direct experience of God, and that this experience is beyond any expressions. It can be perceived, it can be looked through, but as long as it lasts, it occurs in deep silence, in the suspension of thoughts and of emotions – or perhaps it would be better to say, beyond what are our thoughts and emotions in ordinary life. And he says that if God had concern only for the one who has come so close to him, this contemplative silence, this rapture would never cease, because it would be sufficient to fill a human soul, to transfigure it, and no one would step out of it willingly. But Macarius adds that God has concern not only for those who have already discovered him and come so close to him, but also for those who are still on the way and need guidance and help. And so, while the seer is incapable, and if he was capable would not abandon this position of his, God steps back and leaves him outside without this contemplative experience. And so the man finds himself on the edge of his own experience of God. He comes back into the world of perception, of discursive thoughts, of emotions, of intellection. He still is full of what he has perceived and yet is already outside the actual experience and perception of things. And then begins the process by which the one who has been given to know tries to retain what he possesses within his experience, but those things which can be known only in silence and which he can no longer possess within the ordinariness of life. But at this limit which St. Macarius defines as the ‘eleventh rung of the ladder’ – the 12th being contemplative silence – he says: at this rung we discover that faith is the certainty of things unseen, or, perhaps with brackets, of things now unseen, things that have now become invisible but which were seen – in the general sense of the word in which we use the word ‘seer’ to signify one who sees not simply with his eyes but who perceives with his whole person. This definition is interesting because it points to the fact that faith is not a simple act of credulity by which we accept someone else’s knowledge of God, of things divine, of things human, that it is not real until it is the certainty which we possess ourselves of something which we possess ourselves, of something which we know for ourselves but cannot recapture because, as St John Chrysostom puts it, the well is deep and the cord is short.
So that there is a first step which is the vision, the knowledge, the theologia, then one step back, while the man still stands face to face with his experience, the certainty of it, which is faith. I do not mean to say that there are no other aspects to the word, but I am taking advantage of this passage of St Macarius to underline this particular aspect which I believe is not to be forgotten. And then the man has to find a way of retaining a sense of what he has perceived so clearly in silence. Then he turns to ways that are natural to us. We all know from experience that we can resurrect, call back, things already lived through by connecting them with what was concomitant to them: an event can be recalled so vividly when we see the same scenery, when we hear the same sounds, when we perceive the same smells, etc. It is a question of connecting an experience with something which somehow is linked with it and can recall it. The example that I would give and which I have already given to you on other occasions is that of Jeremiah’s vision of the twig of almond tree. In the beginning of his book he says that God showed me a twig of almond tree and said, `What do you see?’ And Jeremiah answers, `God is the keeper of Israel.’ I have already explained that the phrase is built on the fact that the twig of almond tree is built on a pun on the word ‘keeper’ and ‘almond tree’, but the point is not in the pun: the point is that if a man saw, perceived, simultaneously a twig of almond tree and was overwhelmed by the divine presence at the same time, he would never be able to see a twig of almond tree without something of it at least coming back to him – something of the experience once lived.
So this is one of the ways, and the first one, by which things can be retained. The seer who enters into contemplative silence at the limit between the discourse and the silence, between perception and vision, retains one thing perhaps, and this one thing that stands on the threshold can later on be a help for him to come to this threshold.
And then there will be all the ways by which one can connect things beyond expression with things ordinary and simple, either with the ordinary and simple experience of life or with already concrete and worked-out symbols. You remember the conversation of Christ with Nicodemus one night in Jerusalem, when Christ spoke to him about the Spirit. The word nowadays has a definite theological meaning but then the word itself, before it became loaded with meaning, meant the blowing of the wind; and what Christ was attracting Nicodemus’ attention to was something which was direct experience, which he could then transfer onto another field. They were standing probably on the flat roof of a house. The wind, the evening breeze was blowing, refreshing them. They could perceive the movement of their clothes in the wind, and Christ said, `God is like this blowing wind. Where it comes from, where it goes to, you do not know. The only thing you do know is that the wind is blowing, and this is your direct and only concrete experience of the thing.’
Another example can be taken from the way in which phrases from Scripture which had already been coined by previous experience were later on taken up by writers. The lamb: `Here is the lamb of God.’ The lamb for a Hebrew, reared on the Scriptures and in the experience of the Old Testament, meant something concrete, direct and precise: it meant the lamb of sacrifice, it meant the whole very complex system of thoughts that began with the sin of man and the death of the innocent, it meant that human sin always falls on the innocent that becomes a blood offering; it meant also the connected thoughts and images linked with the suffering servant of Yahweh, the man of sorrow. This was a word that could be used because it already was loaded with specific significance. One step further and you find expressions like the definition of the Church as the Bride of the Lamb. This one draws its significance from two sources: on the one hand the scriptural, the traditional meaning of the Lamb and on the other hand the direct human experience of the bride. And it is only if both experiences are there, if both words make sense in the way in which they should, that the image becomes rich and adequate. But apart from a genuine knowledge of what these two terms mean, the image falls into pieces and becomes either a nonsensical symbol or a twisted symbol.
Here we see a series of steps by which an experience possessed in contemplative silence, in the directness of this meeting face to face, passes through what we call faith, and only through faith, because there is faith as the threshold (certainty of things now become unseen), begins to find expression in connecting symbols, in intellectual symbols connected with experience. And so gradually from one approximation to another this experience is conveyed in terms more and more concrete perhaps, more and more intellectual, until it can be embodied at times, when it is necessary, in doctrinal or philosophical propositions.
In the process several things occur which we must take into account. The first thing is what we have already discussed in the beginning, that whatever is said about God refers to God insofar as he is knowable to us, but there is always a beyond. This is very important for us to realise: that whether we use theological dogmatic formulations or images or any kind of approximation, what we speak of is God to the extent to which he can be known, God as he can be known, but not God as he is in himself, God who is beyond being known. And this applies even to the greatest and the most essential formulations of our faith. However mysterious, however ineffable our knowledge of God as One in the Holy Trinity is, it belongs to the realm of knowledge and not to the realm of the unknowable. When we speak of God, One in the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, we speak of God in the way in which he reveals himself to us – in other words, in the way in which we are capable of knowing him. But we can say nothing, we can’t even enter into the mystery of God in himself through contemplative silence. There is a limit beyond which God is himself and cannot be known. To that we will come next time probably in greater detail.
The other thing is that whatever is said about God is said in order to be received as a message, and this implies first of all that a given person who wishes to express for himself his own knowledge of God can do so only within his own language, his own form of thought, his own possibilities of expression. And this means also that there are things which will find expression gradually as vocabulary develops, as understanding develops, as depth of experience increases and widens and deepens.
The human contribution to the divine revelation is essential. You remember that when we spoke of the stained glass, we saw that the light that falls on the stained glass is at the same time a revelation of the light beyond and of the stained glass in itself, in the same way in which any revelation of God is a revelation of him but also simultaneously – and to the same extent in a way – a revelation about ourselves. However much God reveals himself, he reveals at the same time how much we are capable of receiving this particular revelation. And it is very important to realise this, not to treat divine revelation as something which is completely estranged from human contribution, as though God was revealing something, showing something which no one can understood, no one can perceive, which is beyond every grasp, simply for us to know, as though it was unrelated to us. The two are always deeply related, and it is life in God and our connectedness with him and the kinship there is between him and us that makes it possible for revelation to be given and received within the limitations which I have marked, but also thanks to these limitations.
Well, I think I will stop at this point because there is a quite different side of the problem which I would like to discuss next time: the way in which our experience of the created world can lead us to the discovery and the knowledge of God and what are the processes that lead to it.
Answers to questions
Question about the difficulty of knowing other people and how far it is relevant to our understanding of the problem of the unknowability of God.
Even on an ordinary human level we cannot say about another person that we know them completely, and because they cannot be an object for us we cannot make them an object of intellectual awareness, we cannot possess them in this way, we cannot accept and analyse them in that way, neither can we do this with ourselves because there is always part of us that escapes from this kind of analysis precisely because we are not only objects in the world but also subjects, persons who are free and spontaneous. One can take it as a kind of analogy and use it in a discussion about the unknowability of God, how far the two problems are different or identical.
Surely the problems are diametrically opposite, and one has an experience of God that is direct and one knows him in a way that one can’t know another person, while an experience with another person can be boiled down into intellectual terms of describing them physically, mentally, and in psychological terms. Surely the two problems are entirely opposite, not the same problem at all.
Do you think, though, that you know anyone whom you can describe in those terms? I would say you hadn’t got a clue to the person.
No, but even if I know a person as well as one can, it is not possible to be part of them, I can’t in any sense partake of the spirit of them.
Isn’t the crux of the matter that you have to know how a person thinks in order to know him?
Well, I think if we had to know how people think to know them, there would be lots of people almost unknowable.
That’s what I mean..
I think Bill has used a phrase which I find relevant to the highest point to Irene’s question. He seems to distinguish the knowledge of God from the knowledge of people by the word ‘partake’ and ‘be part of.’ I think if that is the dividing line, then there is an absolute difference indeed. We can know God only by participation in something. How far can we know people by participation in the same sense? I do not mean that there is no participation in certain ways and senses, but to make it clear I would like to give an irrelevant example. You know all the discussion between the protestant world and the non-protestant world about invoking saints. Nowadays we understand the word ‘invoke’ simply as ‘speak to’, ‘ask for prayer’, help, etc., but if you read a certain number of English and Scottish divines of the time of the discussion you discover that their protest was not based at all on the idea that one cannot address oneself to saints but on the fact that they took the word ‘invoke’ in its basic original meaning, which means ‘come into oneself’ and they say one can invoke God: ‘Come and abide in me’, but one cannot address oneself to a saint and say, `Come and abide in me.’ It makes no sense. Well, isn’t there an analogy here? We can certainly have participation of some sort in our human relationships, but certainly not the kind of participation that would be defined ultimately in St. Paul’s words, `It is no longer I but Christ who lives in me’ or any such thing.
I like Irene’s point very much, and I think she made a very valid point, which is that love of another being must, if not in intensity, then in quality be the same as the relationship to God, because loving someone is this experience of participation, and it’s precisely because we don’t love that we so rarely touch the centre of a human being. And the attitude that Irene was describing of knowing people, experience, events, anything extraneous to oneself as an object is just that very viewpoint in which you do not participate with something else, and it must be possible to enter into this participation, even if it is not as complete.
Isn’t the knowing of one another deeply through Christ, and in that way these things are alike and different?
I was going to say almost exactly the same as Jamie said, only I was going to put it the other way round, that the obstacle to knowing other people is when we are looking for the evil in them, and being puzzled about it or what to do about it. If we stop doing that, we do in fact increase in knowledge of them.
This evil is a curse. We abuse our so-called individualism. And rather than love, accept a person, whoever they are, because they are a fellow-member of God’s community, as we must do, we become passive to them. We must allow our heart to soften to them and open up to them, i.e., presence of heart and not so much presence of mind By this means we can train ourselves not to demote them or do anything against them that we wouldn’t do against ourselves. We ought to reappropriate the human past, looking towards the eschatological view of the end of the world. The unknowable God wants a certain essence of soul for his unknowable divine purposes, and we must take it that the end of the world must be the oneness of all mankind, including all past souls. Solovyov helps quite a lot. We ought at least to try to love our neighbour.
I would like to take one or two points which connect what Basil has just said with what Roderick said. Roderick pointed to the fact that it is by seeing evil in people that we put a barrier to knowledge. But seeing evil, in the sense in which he uses it and in the sense in which we see evil, always means rejecting the other, because when we see evil with charity, with compassion, with a sense of solidarity, etc., there isn’t any question of losing any amount of knowledge or any ability to know. And here it ties up very neatly, I think, with what Basil said, that one of the main things is acceptance of the other, in which he used the phrase ‘being passive to them’. ‘Passive’ may be understood either just as ‘inactive,’ ‘unresponsive’, but it may also mean what it means in the word ‘passion’, the Passion of the Lord, a state in which one is receptive to the utmost, one is afflicted with all the suffering which is borne from the evil seen, perceived, the evil that surrounds us, without any refusal of solidarity, without refusing to be vulnerable, remaining completely open in the way in which Christ was when he says, “No one is taking my life from me: I give it.” This is the total openness which again is defined in another passage of Scripture when he says, “The Son of Man has come and men have dealt with him as they chose to. There is this element of passion and passivity, of handing one’s whole self over, accepting wounds, suffering or any other consequence of what the other is.
But at the moment one becomes passive in that sense, the moment one accepts in that sense, one does indeed see evil and perceive evil, but not as a barrier to knowledge, but in terms of a solidarity made of compassion, of bearing one another’s burdens. And, as Basil puts it in the end of his remarks, in terms of perceiving oneself already now, eschatologically perhaps, as being one man: I am he, he is me — not in the sense that the differences are blotted out, because obviously suffering cannot be inflicted or love perceived if there is no otherness, if there is no ‘I and thou’ situation – but in the sense that he is not an alien, he is my own blood and flesh and bones. Now if we try to connect this with the original question which Irene asked, this is in a way a participation by outgrowing individual life and existence into something which is the total man in which the notion of the individual dies out while the notion of the person remains.
But I see, personally, one great difference between the knowledge of God and the knowledge of people in that respect, in terms of persons. God is unknown to us and totally known to himself, he can reveal himself. A person is unknown to us and also unknown to herself and cannot reveal herself beyond a certain point. And it is only God’s own knowledge of each of us that makes it possible for us to discover each other. At the core of each person there is something which is the very essence, the very being of this person which remains known and knowable to God alone – because if we could know each other without any kind of limitation, we would become identical with each other. Now I think I have thrown enough new bricks into the pond. Irene doesn’t agree with something I have said, which is a good thing.
I was just going to say if one talked about going knowing oneself, then one is using the word ‘knowledge ‘ in a very special way, because the way we use it, God can’t know himself in the way we know ourselves. I think I would agree with you when you say that God knows himself but I want to underline 4 or 5 times that when we use this word ‘knowledge’ we only mean it, we are only using it, as an analogy. We can’t possibly use it in the same way as when we talk about human knowledge. That’s a very ordinary point but very important in this particular instance. But it saves God from being a sort of object to himself, for I don’t think he can be ever. It also saves us from being an object for God, which I don’t think we are ever, because it’s a different knowledge.
As there seem to have cropped up two different types of knowledge, I think it’s very important to distinguish between them; object knowledge, with separation, which can be quite intellectual; the other kind of knowledge always involves participation and experience of something, and when you experience something it ceases to be an object to you because it ceases to be fixed. It becomes moving. I think this is what you meant by mysterious.
The second type is much more certain than the other, isn’t it? That is perhaps the important thing about the kind of direct experience that one may have very occasionally of God, because this is a more certain kind of knowledge, deeper but more certain, more real if you like, than the ‘object knowledge’ you’ve just described.
Isn’t the doctrine of the Trinity the attempt to explain the way in which God knows himself and something which we can’t possibly know the meaning of, what is the way in which God knows himself. But somebody must have – like Macarius – must have had an experience of it, as he whoever formulated the doctrine of the Trinity. As Irene says, we don’t know ourselves, so there is nothing in our experience to say how God knows himself.