Incommunicable experience

As it is impossible to verbally describe the sweetness of honey to one who has never tasted honey, so the goodness of God cannot be clearly communicated by way of teaching if we ourselves are not able to penetrate into the goodness of the Lord by our own experience.

(St. Basil the Great, Conversations on the Psalms, 29)

God’s Ineffability – Ron Rolheiser

God’s Ineffability – What’s Reveiled in Jesus’ Eyes?  
Ron Rolheiser


God, as I understand him, is not very well understood. A colleague of mine, now deceased, was fond of saying that. It’s a wise comment.

Anyone who claims to understand God is deceived because the very first dogma we have about God affirms that God is ineffable. That means that we can know God, but never adequately capture God in a concept. God is unimaginable. God cannot be circumscribed and put into a mental picture of any kind. Thank goodness too. If God could be understood then God would be as limited as we are.

But God is infinite. Infinity, precisely because it’s unlimited, cannot be circumscribed. Hence it cannot be captured in a mental picture. Indeed, we don’t even have a way of picturing God’s gender. God is not a man, not a woman, and not some hybrid, half-man and half-woman. God’s gender, like God’s nature, is intellectually inconceivable. We can’t grasp it and have no language or pronoun for it. God, in a modality beyond the categories of human thought, is somehow perfect masculinity and perfect femininity all at the same time. It’s a mystery beyond us.

But while that mystery cannot be grasped with any rational adequacy, we can know it intimately, and indeed know it so deeply that it’s meant to be the most intimate of all knowledge in our lives. It’s no accident that the bible uses the verb “to know” to connote sexual intimacy. There are different ways of knowing, some more inchoate, intuitive, and intimate than others. We can know God in a radical intimacy, even as we cannot conceptualize God with any adequacy. And that’s also true of all the deep realities in life, we can know them and relate to them intimately, but we can never fully understand them.

So where does that leave us with God? In the best of places! We are not on a blind date, struggling to develop intimacy with a complete stranger, with an unknown person who could be benign or malignant. God may be ineffable, but God’s nature is known. Divine revelation, as seen through nature, as seen through other religions, and especially as seen through Jesus, spells out what’s inside God’s ineffable reality. And what’s revealed there is both comforting beyond all comfort and challenging beyond all challenge. What’s revealed in the beauty of creation, in the compassion that’s the hallmark of all true religion, and in Jesus’ revelation of his Father, takes us beyond a blind date into a trustworthy relationship. Nature, religion, and Jesus conspire together to reveal an Ultimate Reality, a Ground of Being, a Creator and Sustainer of the universe, a God, who is wise, intelligent, prodigal, compassionate, loving, forgiving, patient, good, trustworthy, and beautiful beyond imagination.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, once, in a mystical vision, saw all of this hidden inside the eyes of Jesus. Staring at a painting of Jesus on a church-wall one day, Jesus’ eyes suddenly became transfigured and this what Teilhard saw: “These eyes which at first were so gentle and filled with pity that I thought my mother stood before me, became an instant later, like those of a woman, passionate and filled with the power to subdue, yet at the same time so imperiously pure that under their domination it would have been physically impossible for the emotions to go astray. And then they changed again, and became filled with a noble, virile majesty, similar to that which one sees in the eyes of men of great courage or refinement or strength, but incomparably more lofty to behold and more delightful to submit to. This scintillation of diverse beauties was so complete, so captivating, and also so swift that I felt it touch and penetrate all my powers simultaneously, so that the very core of my being vibrated in response to it, sounding a unique note of expansion and happiness.

Now while I was ardently gazing deep into the pupils of Christ’s eyes, which had become abysses of fiery, fascinating life, suddenly I beheld rising up from the depths of those same eyes what seemed like a cloud , blurring and blending all that variety I have been describing to you. Little by little an extraordinary expression of great intensity, spread over the diverse shades of meaning which the divine eyes revealed, first of all penetrating them and then finally absorbing them all. … And I stood dumbfounded. For this final expression, which had dominated and gathered up into itself all the others, was indecipherable. I simply could not tell whether it denoted an indescribable agony or a superabundance of triumphant joy.”

God cannot be deciphered, circumscribed, or captured in human thought; but, from what can be deciphered, we’re in good, safe hands. We can sleep well at night. God has our back. In the end, both for humanity as a whole and for our own individual lives, all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of being will be well. God is good.

Alexei Ospipov on the limits of experience and the knowledge of God

Is it really possible to deny God only because everyday experience does not give Him to us? But we know that “everyday experience” is in no way absolute, that it encompasses only some superficial sides of events and phenomena, that plain common sense is limited, and that there are many irrefutable facts which do not fit into what would seem to be unshakable, self-evident truth. Everyday experience gives us almost none of the things modern scientists talk about, but we believe their experience; we believe them without even knowing them or having the remotest possibility of testing the larger part of their assumptions and conclusion. On what grounds do we disbelieve the innumerably greater quantity of religious experiences, the testimony of people who are pure as crystal?

The experience of these experts in the “science of sciences” does not speak of unsubstantiated faith, nor of opinion, nor of an accepted hypothesis, nor even simple tradition, but of the fact of their knowledge of God.

The main experience of religion – a meeting with God – possesses (at least in its highest points) such a victorious power and fiery conviction, that it leaves any other obviousness far behind. It can be forgotten or lost, but not denied…. If people of faith began to tell about themselves, about what they have seen and learned with final certainty, then a whole mountain would form under which the mound of sceptical rationalism would be buried and hidden from sight.

Knowledge of God is an exact science, and not a chaos of mystical ecstasies and unhealthy exultations caused by inflamed nerves. Knowledge of God has its own systems, conditions, and criteria. How can we attain the knowledge of God? It begins with a selfless search for the truth, for the meaning of life and moral purity, and by forcing oneself towards goodness. Without such a beginning, the “experiment” of knowing God cannot be successful. These conditions are expressed in the Gospels briefly and clearly: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”.(Mt 5:8).

Alexei Ospipov

Preaching the gospel apophatically

“The limitation of theology and language, let alone of speaking about God, indicates that preaching is not just the verbal proclamation of the gospel in the pulpit but also the need for ritual, living and solidarity. It incorporates these significant elements not in a compartmentalized but in an integrative and holistic whole.”

PREACHING THE GOSPEL ANEW: A Reappropriation of Negative (Apophatic) and Positive (Cataphatic) Theology in Redemptorist Mission and Identity in the Age of Globalization by Joseph Echano

YHWH, a God of darkness and mystery as well as light and illumination

In western Christian art the living God is often associated with light, but a review of the Old Testament reveals a far more complex picture. For the God of Israel and everything else is associated with both darkness and light by the prophets. Here are a few examples that illustrate what I mean.

God is hidden in darkness

  • “The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:21)
  • “You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness.” (Deut 4:11)
  • “These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness; and he added nothing more. Then he wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.” (Deut 5:22)
  • “Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.” (Psalm 97:2)

God is master of darkness and light

  • “He made darkness his canopy around him — the dark rain clouds of the sky.” (2 Sam 22:12)
  • “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)
  • “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” (Joel 2:31)

Nothing is hidden from God

  • “He reveals the deep things of darkness and brings utter darkness into the light.” (Job 12:22)
  • “even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139:12)
  • “In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see.” (Isaiah 29:18)
  • “He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.” (Daniel 2:22)

And of course it does not end with the Old Testament but continues into the life of Jesus, the image of the invisible God. For when he died, “from noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land.” (Matt 27:45)

John Keenan on The Emptiness of Christ

Some reflections by John P. Keenan on The Emptiness of Christ :

The scriptural words of and about Jesus likewise describe him as empty of essence.

[The] function of doctrine in Mahayana theology is not to communicate a body of information about God, but to engender a sense of the presence of God beyond all words.

It is impossible to understand him apart from the web of relationships that form his life.

The scriptural words of or about Jesus do not analyze the divine nature. God is described time and again as beyond any definition. God dwells in light inaccessible. No one has ever seen God.

But this proclamation does not offer any definitive knowledge of what God is. Rather, it renders us, Job-like, aware of the total otherness of Yahweh, of the absence of any limiting definition.

Still, it is clear from the tradition that the meaning of Christ is not simply a contentless sign of an empty God.

Emptiness and dependent coarising are convertible, signifying complementary insights into essence-free being. Jesus then is not distinctive in virtue of a unique and different definition, but in virtue of his teaching, his death, and his resurrection and ascension – all of which he shares with us.

His divinity may be seen precisely in the emptiness of his personal identity, whereby he transparently mirrors the presence of Abba.

The crucial point is to remember that both the initial descriptions and the consequent theologies, both the principles and the inferences, are contextual and never absolute.

The contextual, relative words spoken by an enlightened person both hide the truth and reveal it to be other than, different from, those words.

He is the son of God as the sacramental sign of the otherness of Abba.

By disappearing in the experience of Abba and the commitment to the rule of God, Jesus embodies the reality of God in himself and for us.

In virtue of his abandonment of essence and self-definition, Christ reflects the direct experience of Abba and calls others to engagement

It is as “worldly convention-only” that Christ shares in the divine otherness of God. That is to say, it is not by clinging to an exalted, divine being, but by emptying himself of being that Christ mirrors the divine and is one with the silent Father.

[We need] tools for constructing a Christology that is at once mystical and critical.

[Mahayana Christology] avoids the old conundrums of essentialist Christology, always in danger of falling to one side or the other and always teetering on the point of presenting a schizophrenic picture of the Lord.

Theology for Knowing the Unknowable

I have long had a facination with Mystical Theology, which is also know as Apophatic Theology or Negative Theology. If you share these interests in any way, one book I have found quite accessible as an evangelical Christian is “The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable” but Christopher A. Hall and Steven D. Boyer. Here are a few comments I found of interest:

God, according to Christianity of every stripe, is the supreme mystery, a blinding sun too bright to look at, but the source of illumination that allows us to see everything else on the landscape.

In every one of these passages, mystery is linked decisively with its revelation, its being made known, and yet the mystery does not cease to be mysterious as a result. 

What organ or capacity or element in us could possibly be adequate to perceive or to convey the living God in all his fullness? Feeling? Aesthetic awareness? Conscience? Sensation? Intuition? Some distinctive “religious faculty”? If reason is not adequate to the task, what human capacity is more adequate?

But surely every human faculty that confronts the divine mystery will ultimately prove to be insufficient.

Every faculty may approach God. But every faculty must approach God as God — and this means that every faculty should expect to be overwhelmed and undone by a supremacy that cannot be mastered.

If God is really God, then recognizing a limitation of reason at just this point is really the most rational thing we can do.

As we become satisfied with any picture or image of God, we are in danger of idolatry.

Job recognizes that to understand God the Creator aright is always to confess that he is exalted beyond our understanding. 

The biblical doctrine of God, then, moves easily from speaking of God as Creator to speaking of God as beyond knowledge.

In opposite images, we learn that God dwells in “a dark cloud” (1 Kings 8:12) but also in “unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16). Either way, no one has seen God at any time (John 1:18), for no one can see his face and live (Exod. 33:20).

It looks as if creatures will always perceive an overpowering “otherness” in the Creator—and perhaps will perceive it best when the blinding obfuscation introduced by sin is finally removed. Recall that even the sinless angels in Isaiah’s vision must cover their faces and their feet in the presence of the thrice-holy God (Isa. 6). 

God can be present in all of creation as no creature can, precisely because God transcends creation as no creature does. 

God is so “other” that his otherness, unlike other othernesses, includes even sameness. 

Any transcendence that is conceivable is shown by that very fact not to be genuinely transcendent. 

It seems that the more fully God is revealed in Scripture, the more readily the human authors of Scripture acknowledge his unfathomable greatness. 

The transcendent Lord is too exalted to be limited even by the category of transcendence. Hence, he is sovereignly free to make himself known. 

We do know God, and not just in the nonrational experience of mystical ecstasy, but in the concrete categories of rational inquiry that his revelation unfolds. 

Yet his hiddenness is itself part of what God has revealed about himself.

And we bow in deepest worship at just that point where we see most clearly that we cannot see clearly.

There is a genuine revelation that makes known the mystery of God, and there is also a genuine mystery that no revelation can dilute.

The Via Negativa in the New Testament

The following quote is from “Blessed Negativities: The Contribution of Deconstruction to Theology” by Tony Kelly. I my explorations of negative Christology I have appreciated authors like this who illustrate negative theology emerging, not from monastic speculation, but from apostolic experience.

Any assessment of deconstruction might do well to note how negation of a particular kind is evident in New Testament rhetoric, and that to a surprising degree. It is one thing for Christian hope to anticipate an ultimate fulfilment ‘that God may be all in all’ (1 Cor 15:27). It is another matter to fill that expectation with definite objects of shape, colour and temporal sequence, and to describe them in the language and imagery of a provisional world. For all the explicitness of their promise of eternal life, for all the variety of images they employ, the scriptures in fact exhibit a marked reserve in describing the realities they most witness to. Biblical faith is familiar with the double silence in the narrative of its hope: the dark silence of the dead body of Jesus on the cross; and the luminous silence of the resurrection in which faith trembles at the dawn of the new creation. Though the death and resurrection of Jesus constitute the basic parable of Christian existence, it takes none of the waiting or darkness out of our hope: ‘Eye has not seen nor ear heard nor the heart of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2:9). Compared to human perceptions, the ways of God remain inscrutable and his judgments unsearchable (Rom 11:33). Believers are reminded not to settle for any provisional version of human identity, no matter how secure the promise of eternal life, for ‘it has not yet appeared what we shall be’ (1 John 3:2). The way God acts is not designed to fit into human calculation. The most eminent witnesses to God’s revelation, even when, after his death, Christ ‘had presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs’ (Ac 1:3), had asked, ‘Lord, is the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Ac 1:6). Jesus’ answer is instructive: ‘It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority’ (Ac 1:7). These disciples are commissioned to witness to who he was and to what had happened – ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Ac 1:8). Yet they are clearly not able to speak of an immediate demonstrable presence. Hope moves toward the fullness of life, but ‘the Resurrection and the Life’ (John 11:25) is never an object of matter-of-fact description. Jesus is not seen as a presence, but believed in and loved in his absence (Cf. John 20:29-31).

Luther on the hidden God

Following are some quotes from “Luther on the Hidden God” by Steven D. Paulson. Basically its apophatism, protestant-style.

“God hides so as not to be found where people seek him, and reveals himself where he is not sought”

“Adam and Eve were deluded by the serpent into thinking God was jealously hiding something of his own outside the garden, and as an ironic consequence they had to hide themselves from God in the garden. That is, they sought God not where God wanted to be found, where his word promised his blessing, but where God’s word of promise was not. They sought God outside his words.”

“God hides in order not to be found where humans want to find God. But God also hides in order to be found where God wills to be found.”

“God hides beyond every speculation in order not to be found outside the preached word who is Jesus Christ incarnate.”

“God both reveals and hides in the cross of Christ.”

“God outside Christ, outside the word, is an impenetrable power who holds our lives in his hands and is hiding his will from us. He does not want to be found outside Christ. He wants to be found in Christ, but must “hide” a second time in order to fly below our radar which is set for what we take to be “spiritual” things above. He comes where we did not expect him, under the sign of his opposite, in suffering, death, opposition to the law, ungodliness, and shame.”

“How is it that some “see” this hidden God and others do not? This requires what J. Louis Martyn once called bifocal vision, i.e., seeing through two lenses, old and new, at the same time in order to understand how God could be revealed and concealed in the same historical act; how Christ could be fully human and divine; how the cross is also the way of victory over death, etc.”