Knowing God: Truth As Paradox (Reflection)

ParadoxJesus said that eternal life was “to know the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom God sent” (John 17:3). From this verse and many others like it, there seems to be a real comprehensibility of God—a salvific knowing where we join God in intimate relationship.

Yet the moment we believe we have come to “know” or “grasp” God, we suddenly realize that what we have believed cannot be God. For God to be truly God would mean that God is beyond knowing. The finite just cannot fully grasp the infinite. Our thoughts and words will never completely make God comprehensible. St. John would later try when he said quite clearly that God was pure or perfect love (1 John 4:8).  But even this is impossible for us to take hold of. God is simply greater than our capacity to comprehend.

We soldier on, nonetheless, in our pursuit of knowing God or we wither in despair. A.W. Tozer said, “The yearning to know What cannot be known, to comprehend the Incomprehensible, to touch and taste the Unapproachable, arises from the image of God in the nature of humankind.”[i] This yearning to know, though, is so elusive that we are often filled with angst, and rightfully so. Hopefully, we will recognize that within this unease is the necessary prompting to search all the more. We all want, yes, we all need, to “know” God. To truly be alive, we must be in relationship with Divine Mystery.

So, how can we really know God? In the Hebrew language, this knowing (yada) is akin to the passionate feelings and sexual intimacy shared by lovers. Adam knew Eve. We don’t simply know about God. We are to know God personally, even intimately. Of course, we need to tread carefully here. But I do want to emphasize that this “knowing” is not only factual or intellectual. It is yada! We must be able to “feel” God to know God. Our feelings are facts too!

Now, beyond the “feeling” of God, as important as that is (for our feelings, like our thoughts, are elusive as well), we are called to approximate the knowing of God as true Truth with our minds. We must know this Truth in a way which we might even communicate it to others with words and actions.

But how do we know anything? Other than those who believe that all knowing is illusory (which would still be a knowing), most of us know that we know. Still, can we know anything for certain?

Without getting overly academic, our ability to know, especially as expressed in modern terms, is usually placed somewhere along two poles (a continuum) of the purely subjective (absolute idealism) or the completely objective (naïve realism). The acclaimed missiologist Paul Hiebert gave a listing (or a taxonomy) of how we can know, and settled on the, still modernist, view of critical realism. Hiebert said, “In critical realism we speak of the Truth with reference to reality. We also speak of a truth—our partial understandings of the greater Truth. Our understandings are objective (to the extent they are tested against reality) and subjective (because they are ours as humans in our specific cultural and historical contexts).[ii]

This is a great start to understanding how we might know the Truth, but it still does not account for the perplexingly contradictory truths of Scripture. If we are to take Scripture seriously, then the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the reality of Jesus’s glorified resurrected body are neither objective or subjective truths—they are simply preposterous.  They are paradoxes. To grasp these truths one needs to pull the objective and subjective poles of the paradox tightly together. Ron Rolheiser said, “To let go of either pole of a paradox, to reduce the tension, is to fall from wisdom. Hence, as we struggle theologically and spiritually with certain key questions, we must be careful to always hold two, seemingly contradictory, truths together.”[iii]

Now, of course, this all may seem like metaphysical nonsense to some—bourgeois philosophizing. Who has time to care about such things? What does it really matter? Most humans simply want to know how to live a fulfilling and happy life. But that’s it, isn’t it? We all do want to know God!

As my new book In Search of Jesus the Anarchist is coming out in just a few weeks, I am preparing you to deal with the paradox of my outlandish title. How can Jesus be an anarchist? But Jesus was an anarchist because he was completely free and yet in complete submission to God, who is Jesus’s equal. What a paradox!

I deal a lot with paradoxes in my new book, especially the paradox of freedom and equality. Can we be both free and equal? In several recent conversations with Christians I know, even those who are open to explorative theology, the notion of equality seems to them an impossibility. Of course, if equality is an impossibility, then so is freedom.

Freedom and equality are two poles of a paradox called Jesus, who is the Truth! Anarchism rightly defined, for those who are still unaware, is simply freedom and equality lived out in paradoxical tension. Freedom and equality come together as we struggle to hold them together. And as we hold them in tension, we realize our Great Commission: to set the world free in Jesus so that all can live in justice and in peace (Jn 8:32; Lk 4:18-19).

© Paul Dordal, 2017

[i] A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1961, 9. [Updated to gender neutral by the author].

[ii] Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994, 71

[iii] Ron Rolheiser, “Truth is Found in Paradox.” Downloaded from http://ronrolheiser.com/truth-is-found-in-paradox/#.WN-3i_nythE on December 3, 2016.

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