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.
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.
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:
- A comparison between us and God will at some point fail because God is so far beyond us.
- Therefore the comparison is false.
- Therefore the comparison should be discounted entirely.
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.