Sunday, February 09, 2014

Controversies: Can we know God?

This post does not have the format of prior posts in the "Controversies" series, since I am not yet well-enough versed in both sides of the argument. But I have now found an author who firmly takes the stand of "No, we cannot know God" -- enough that I can at least sketch out the supporting points and what the two sides of the debate might be.

Side 1: Can We Know God? No.

My notes here are largely based on the views of Maimonides as presented at length in his Guide for the Perplexed. I realize Maimonides is not a voice within the Christian tradition. (I do not know to what extent the view that "You cannot know God" is within the Christian tradition. If I gain more insight into that, another post could address that.) Maimonides came from a Jewish background but had a viewpoint that was at times more based on Aristotle and the philosophers than on Moses. His basic arguments for God's unknowability are:
  • God is not comparable to us or to anything in creation in any true sense. 
  • His essence is beyond our direct knowledge and beyond our comprehension. 
  • God does not have attributes, as attributes would make him subject to accident, potentiality, divisibility, and all kinds of imperfection.
  • Since we do not know God, any positive statements about God are likely wrong. 
  • Even approximately-true positive statements may be offensive to God as falling so far short of the truth. 
  • God does not have relationships with creatures: he is not subject to outside influence.
  • The closest we can come to a true understanding of God is negative knowledge, that is: knowing what God is not.
These statements are defended at length by Maimonides based on generally-accepted philosophical axioms and theorems of his day.

Side 2: Can We Know God: Yes.

My notes here are largely based on generally-accepted premises within Christianity. Specifically:
  • When God made us in his image, there is some true comparability there -- not by our pretension but by God's grace, and not of the type that puts us on the level of God, but of the type that can make understanding possible.
  • God has spoken in many and various ways through the prophets of old, so that it is not necessary for us to pierce through the mysteries of eternity in order to know something true of him. 
  • God has established covenant relationships with his people, so that it is possible for us to relate to him in predictable ways, not based on any outside influence we might have over God but based on his freely given promise. 
  • God has revealed himself more directly in Jesus of Nazareth, with the character of the Divine Being in human form.
  • God has sent his Holy Spirit, to live within us and guide us.
There is some variety within the Christian tradition on how we understand these and the relative weight we place on each. But in general the Christian tradition holds that God's revelation is real and therefore our knowledge of God is real.

General Comment on the Controversy

The writings of Maimonides about the unknowability of God are sterile: logical, but without humanity, without warmth, and without much relationship to this world. (This is something Maimonides would likely see as an asset, not a defect.) His view of God as unknowable has transferred its character onto his own writings. To an extent, the view that we cannot know God is a view that disowns Scripture as a guide. Or as Maimonides says, "The adherence to the literal sense of the Holy Writ is the source of all this error ..." (Guide for the Perplexed, closing notes of Section I: Chapter XLII, where specifically he may have had in mind "errors" such as thinking that God has attributes.) Or as Pascal, a leading Christian philosopher, noted: "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the philosophers."

From a logical point of view, Maimonides' arguments sometimes run along these lines:
  1. A comparison between us and God will at some point fail because God is so far beyond us. 
  2. Therefore the comparison is false. 
  3. Therefore the comparison should be discounted entirely. 
I would say that the error comes in thinking that because the comparison's usefulness is limited, therefore it is entirely false and useless. God's limitlessness, when rightly understood, both causes us to admire him and draws us in deeper that we might gain in depth also.

A view of God shapes our view of everything else. If we suppose that God does not give much value to this world, then neither do we. If we suppose that God does not give much value to people, again, neither do we. If we believe that God himself values kindness and compassion -- even love -- it gives us a very different view of the world. At the ultimate end of a view like that, we find the idea that our eternal fate may rest on seeing someone thirsty and giving them a drink. The idea that God is unknowable is based to some extent on the premise that he is indifferent to the world and its people, and that to be otherwise would be a defect. Those of us who follow Jesus have a very different view of what would be a defect in God.


Aron Wall said...

The sort of approach to theology you are ascribing to Maimonides is called "apophatic". The
Wikipedia article
on this has a section that should help you track down some specific Christian apophatic theologians. A lot of them seem to have taken a mystical point of view, where it is possible to experience the divine but in a way which is indescribable.

Even in the "Athanasian" Creed (which makes a lot of assertions about God), it also says "Father incomprehensible, Son incomprehensible, Holy Spirit incomprehensible".

I agree with you that making positive statements about God is critical to Christian theology. However, think I would say that all such positive assertions about God's nature are in some way metaphorical. As a clear example, when we call God our Shepherd, that says a lot about God, but in a very nonliteral way.

Similarly, God's "will" or "emotions" are obviously not the exact same type of thing as the feelings that appear in our own brains and minds---that would just be a more subtle form of anthropomorphism (cf. Isaiah 55:8)---they are just the least misleading way we have to represent or "image" God's relation to the universe. The image is not the same as the original, it is only like it.

Martin LaBar said...

Or, perhaps, Maimonides would say that God has one attribute, incomprehensibility.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Aron

Don't get me wrong, I've read some apophatic-friendly works, and appreciated Lossky's presentation of it to some extent (in his Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church). But I think when it gets to the point as to diminish God's self-revelation in general -- and Christ in particular -- that they have in fact left behind the Christian mainstream. Though I have been meaning to make myself slog through the *whole* of the Areopagite's writings. If I can make myself get all the way through Maimonides's Guide then I should be able to manage that.

I'm curious: Would you say "God is love" is metaphorical?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin

You should hear Maimonides. He is so far against God having attributes that he actually says "God exists, but without having the attribute of existence." His objection is using the category "attribute" and applying it to God in any way -- for any attribute. His objections are philosophical, in that he sees attributes to mean that God has accident as well as essence, and so would be divisible and not necessarily a true unity.

So he'd cheerfully agree that God is incomprehensible but then place that on our limited understanding rather than on God. :)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Aron Wall said...

Dear Anne,

I absolutely agree that minimizing God's self-disclosure in Christ is pernicious---and that theologians who emphasize apophatic theology have tended to do this.

In my mind, metaphorical knowledge is a true form of knowledge, so when I say that our positive knowledge of God is metaphorical, I don't at all mean to imply that it is less important or true than other forms of knowledge. I think even most of our earthly thinking is metaphorical---how much more, then, our thoughts about heavenly matters! Metaphor is a tool we use to grasp deep truths which would otherwise be beyond our understanding.

Yes, I think that "God is love" is a metaphor. The only way I know how to give these words content, is to first think about examples of human love I know about (e.g. the love of a parent for a child, romance, friendship, etc.) and then to say that God's Being is in some way like that (although without the limitations of earthly existence--that's the apophatic step). In other words, I imagine God's nature by comparing it to the earthly thing which is most like it. Isn't that a metaphor?

The trouble is that mmany people, when you tell them that something is a metaphor, they think that means you don't really believe it. For example, when Jesus said that he was "The Way, The Truth, and the Life", he didn't mean that he is a road, a factual proposition, or biochemistry. It just isn't a literal statement, even if it is the most important truth in the world.

I don't think it is correct to "look past" the metaphor that God is love, so that we imagine that God is a fundamentally nonloving entitiy which only behaves as if it were loving. That would imply that we can know in some other way the literal truth about God's nature, so as to go beyond the metaphor to something else which is more real. Not so. "God is love"---understood in the context of the Incarnation---is as close as we can come to understanding and naming the incomprehensible divine essence. God really is more like that than anything else we can imagine.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Aron

I took awhile to ponder that and finally came back with fresh eyes and spotted the parts where we "take different roads" so to speak.

When I think of the saying, "God is love", I don't start by thinking of "examples of loving relationships" the way that you do. I know we're invited to do that by Scripture -- God presents himself as father, husband or groom, occasionally mother or brother; so it's a completely legitimate direction for our thoughts to go, and as you say it's all metaphorical down that path. But my thoughts on that verse tend to start with the characteristics of that kind of love -- for instance, the desire/intention to be a blessing, to work for the good of the other, to be there for them. And from that direction it's not metaphorical.

Again with "the way, the truth, the life" -- Is life ultimately biochemical? Is truth reducible to factual propositions? I think Jesus challenges that conception of "truth" when he claims to be Truth. As far as "the way" to the Father ... well, it's not like we have to go someplace physical to find the Father, so there's some level of metaphor there. That's not the only time Jesus uses language that roughly portrays him like an interface between God and man.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Aron Wall said...

"for instance, the desire/intention to be a blessing, to work for the good of the other, to be there for them. And from that direction it's not metaphorical."

Well, it's still possible that if we unpacked these terms further, we'd see that they involve some metaphors. For example, does God have desires in the same sense that we do? He certainly doesn't have a brain which gets excited when presented with certain stimuli. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD.

Similarly when God "works" this does not imply the expenditure of effort, and his "be[ing] there for us" does not mean being physically present in the same place to help us.

"Is life ultimately biochemical? Is truth reducible to factual propositions? I think Jesus challenges that conception of "truth" when he claims to be Truth."

Indeed he does. But can you define for me what these new concepts of Life and Truth mean, without using any metaphors? At the very least, it seems one has to use a metaphor to see in what way the divine Life and Truth are related to the more mundane senses of life and truth.

But people have been arguing about this for a long time. For example, Aquinas argued that no attributes can be attributed to God and creatures with the exact same meaning (Summa Theologica I Question 13 Article 5), while I am told that Duns Scotus argued for the opposite view.

Weekend Fisher said...

Ok, let's try "truth". I know different people take different options on that one, but the one I think is most viable is roughly: Truth is the mind's representation of reality.

While I appreciate the work that went into the size and meticulous detail of Aquinas' magnum opus, I'll admit to not being a fan.

It's interesting, the strain runs across various traditions, & seems to trace back to Aristotle ... and when you pick up that strain in (say) Christian or Jewish writers, one of the most striking characteristics is the distance that these writers put between themselves and the Bible. It often comes across that the "Old Testament" (for these writers) is not Moses but Aristotle. I'll let others argue about Plato and Plotinus, but the "New Testament" for these writers is not Jesus (except insofar as he can be fit into the framework that started with Aristotle).

Fwiw, I think that "exact same meaning" (of an attribute, between us and God) is a red herring: God is infinite we are finite, God is eternal/necessary we are temporary/contingent, etc., and basically everybody agrees on that. But from there the argument generally goes "because of the differences, the similarities should be discounted at any cost and in any measure and for any application", and I think that is not just mistaken but frankly misleading. It's a misuse of all that cleverness and sophisticated effort to make people *not* know what they genuinely *could have* known, to imagine that because there are very real differences between God and us, that therefore we should prevent ourselves from learning from the similarities, even when it should be our goal. And if God is "the ground of being" then all things are really only understood in relationship to him. Which is to say, cutting off that connection doesn't just prevent us from understanding God, it prevents us from understanding ourselves as well.

Hm, that is a button of mine in case you can't tell. :)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Aron Wall said...

First, let me be absolutely 100% clear that, along with you, I oppose and condemn the statement that "because of the differences, the similarities should be discounted at any cost and in any measure and for any application".

In my view, although we know about God primarily through use of metaphors, these metaphors are TRUE and represent real similarities, and are a reliable source of knowledge.

Regarding the tendency of some theologians to conform theology to pagan philosophy, I agree there was a significant problem there, although prior to the scholastics, I think the mystical Plato was more to blame than the down-to-earth Aristotle, who actually wasn't very widely read in Europe prior to the 1200's.

Plato was, of course, a religious genius, who came about as close to the truth as anyone could without the benefit from God's revelation to the Jews. But there's still a big gap between his views and the Bible.

I'm certainly not going to argue that the Summa is a perfect work (far from it), but to say Thomas regarded Aristotle as more important than Moses or Jesus seems a bit uncharitable. The majority of the questions in the Summa are settled by quotes from Scripture (with Augustine an important runner up). Nor does he devote 59 of his questions to the Incarnation and Life of Aristotle.

I imagine that 800 years from now, people will wonder how much of our New Testament came from the Bible, and how much from Enlightenment philosophy. None of us read the Bible without some prior conceptual framework.

Incidentally, Aquinas was unable to complete the Summa as a result of a mystical experience he had. After which, he said that everything he had written seemed like straw.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Aron

The "Old Testament/Aristotle" part was not so much about Aquinas in particular, as that whole strain of theology where really the starting point is the "unmoved mover" (etc). I have a basic respect for the logical foundations there, but I'm not sure I've ever seen the gap between there and Jesus bridged convincingly.

Let's see if I can make myself a little clearer: it's not that I mind the philosophers so much as I think they were reasoning in a vacuum, with all the hazards that go with the territory. (I'll have to admit a soft spot for some of the Greek mystics like Pythagoras. He seemed to have a sense of beauty and holiness that eluded some of the others.)

And my lack of enthusiasm for Aquinas is more about the general approach and structure (him among others). I'll compare it to a story I was just reading with someone on vacation: reading the Summa in some places seems like planning a trip to Paris but instead having someone hand you a recipe for coq au vin and a photo of the Eiffel tower, saying it's all you would have really taken away with you anyhow.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Btw, Meta (Meta's blog on my sidebar) recently posted about Von Balthasar, & says that's the best "bridge" he's seen between "necessary being" and "personal God". I may have to give him a read.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF