Theology

I have learned that the place wherein You are found unveiled is girt round with the coincidence of contradictories, and this is the wall of Paradise wherein You abide! The door is guarded by the most proud spirit of reason, and unless he be vanquished, the way will not lie open. --Nicolas of Cusa, Vision of God (15th century)

I am a contemplative, not a theologian. I am distrustful of "theology," and generally opposed to "doctrine." I am a Christian, and it is through the story of the Incarnation that I relate to God. I find great riches and depth in Christianity. It has to be admitted, though, that there's also an awful lot of garbage encrusted around it. Neither do I believe that Christianity's sacred Scripture and Tradition together, even at their best, give me any more than an obscure view "as through a glass, darkly" of God.

I object to theology, to the definition of doctrine, because it treats God as an object, or some kind of mechanistic process. We cannot "know" God the way we can "know," say, biology or history. Those are subjects which no candid scholar would ever aspire to reach the ends of, or ever claim to "know" in their totality. Nonetheless, they can be studied objectively and known rationally.

But God is not a thing, not a process, not a concept. God is a Person, to be "known" not with the mind but with the heart. It's kind of odd that English should have one word for such different kinds of "knowing," isn't it? And yet, in some ways, they are not only distinct but actually opposed.

In any close, long-term relationship, there tends to be a "getting-to-know-you" period at the beginning, which gradually turns into comfortable familiarity. There's nothing wrong with comfortable familiarity. It's what allows us to turn some of our energy and attention from the shiny new relationship, and get on with everything else in our lives. It's what gives us enough sense of security with one another to risk more self-revelation and vulnerability.

The danger is only when we start to think we "know" one another, and stop discovering one another. That is when "I know you" moves from the heart to the head. Then it ceases to be you that I know. It becomes: what I expect from you, what I have seen in you so far, what you believe about yourself, what you have been willing to reveal, and the pattern or role in my life into which I have slotted not you, but this fragmentary image of you that I can only ever see, really, "as in a glass, darkly."

When we allow "knowing" to move from the heart to the head, we shut the other person up into a box. To the extent that our "knowing" is very sure and fixed, as the other continues to grow and develop in life, they may either allow themselves to be stunted and deformed by the box or else bust out of it in a way that hurts both knower and grower. And we also box ourselves in, since it is through relationships that we principally grow. By defining the other in relation to ourselves, we simultaneously define ourselves in relation to the other.

When we "know" we cease to "wonder." We stop listening. We have claimed "mastery" over the other person's character, personality, thoughts and feelings. To judge based on what we can know of a person is to close off the infinite possibilities of that person's next move, change, choice. Rational knowledge is a kind of domination, of control. We "master" a subject in school, it is not a healthy thing to aspire to in relationships. 

I remember years ago, a young Capuchin friar laughing wryly at having achieved a "Master of Divinity" in seminary. It's so wrong ... just as wrong as aspiring to "master" a beloved human friend or lover. That kind of attitude closes off all possibility of real mutual knowledge, or of the self-knowledge that is gained only through relationships, through the mirror of the other's knowledge of oneself. 

The same is true in the relationship with God, with Divinity, who is not a subject to be "mastered," but a Person to be known and loved, Who knows and loves me. And just as in any relationship, the way to know this Lover is by:

listening, without preconceptions, with a willingness to be taken by surprise, an openness to wonder, trying not to project our own ego onto the Other;

being transparent, self-revealing, willing to look hard at ourselves and be seen and known exactly as we are; 

being willing to step up, to accept demands on our time and energy, to sacrifice, do things we don't like, stretch beyond our comfort zone.

To really know a person, whether human or divine, is to know them with the heart rather than the head. To know You is to love You!

Comments

  1. That's such a helpful distinction to make: to know with heart rather than with head. I like the idea that there are many, many aspects of God that are unknowable with either heart or head. I think the human mind and heart, maybe because of the Fall?-are incapable of that kind of knowledge. That's where faith comes in and trust and feeling like a child with a loving parent.
    PS it was wonderful to see you this evening on zoom. Love, Kate

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    1. Yes ... just like another person, or even ourselves, only more so, we can only "know" a little of God. Have you read "The Cloud of Unknowing"?
      It was wonderful to see you, too. I'm so excited that the oblate community is finally going to be re-connecting via Zoom. Love, Felicity

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