Saturday, May 28, 2011

Knowing God?

I feel like the question of how we come to know God occupies a lot of my time.  It's a funny question.  For me, it doesn't spring from any anxiety about my own knowledge of God.  Perhaps there is some angst over the fact that other people don't see what I think I see.  Mainly, though, the question is not an existential but a theological one for me.  Given that we know God, how are we to understand that knowing?  Given that it is the case, how can it be the case?  The question is important because at all stages of the theological development of the church the different answers that have been given have represented fundamentally different views of what it means to be a Christian, and by implication what it means to be a human being.  More importantly, different views of how we come to know God lead to different views of the God we come to know.

Consider the first few centuries of the church.  The initial strong consensus that one comes to know God through Jesus Christ - the visible Son of the invisible Father, the precise image of God in the flesh - is challenged by a culturally much stronger and more acceptable form of mystery religion.  Yes, Jesus, but also some sort of mystery - a kind of top-up knowledge.  To really know God, you need Jesus+spiritual experience, or Jesus+secret knowledge.  And of course, because knowing God is caught up with salvation, it turns out that your ascent to salvation is also through secret knowledge.  And given this secret knowledge, one is able to 'see' that of course Jesus was not God in the flesh, but something else, something more refined and more worthy of the dignity of the deity revealed in the mystery.

Or consider the reformation period.  Here there is a more promising starting point, for all are agreed that one comes to know God through Jesus.  The question at issue between Protestant and Catholic is actually 'which Jesus?'  Is it the historical, once-for-all Jesus, to whom the Scriptures bear witness with a finality that cannot be gainsaid?  Or is it the Jesus who is present in the church, to the extent that the church's tradition and teaching reveal him?  That cannot be unrelated to the main difference between the two sides when it comes to salvation: is it by the once-for-all achievement of Christ on the cross, or is it by the repeated sacrifice of Christ on the altar?

Or think about the 'enlightenment'.  The early church period is in some ways reversed.  The prevalent view is that common sense and experience can lead all people to know God.  Jesus helps to clarify that knowledge, and sharpen it, and give shape to the relationship with God that all people everywhere have by virtue of creation.  This view was opposed by versions of the Protestant and Catholic dogmas of the reformation era, both to some extent hardened and weakened, but both demanding (rightly) that Jesus comes in some sense first - although this was sadly muddied on the Catholic side by a strong commitment to the Aristotelian thought of Aquinas.

What is the point?

The point is simply this: whenever you see something co-ordinated with Jesus Christ as a source of knowledge about God, you know you are in trouble.  Doesn't matter whether it's spiritual experience, natural theology, church tradition or anything else.  It's trouble.

On which, more shortly...

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