“Quia de deo scire non possumus quid sit, sed quid non sit, non possumus considerare de deo, quomodo sit sed quomodo non sit.”
This is St. Thomas Aquinas’ introduction to his whole Summa Theologica: “Since we cannot know what God is, but only what God is not, we cannot consider how God is but only how He is not.”
At different points in my life, I’ve been pretty sure that we can know exactly who and what God is. We could define him quite precisely. We could come up with a list of attributes. We could name a bunch of names written in an old dusty language: “Jehovah Jireh,” “Adonai,” or “Yahweh.” Of course, we had only a vague idea what those words meant, yet we felt quite confident using them. We pulled out the good book and felt we had not just a good handle, but a definite handle on who God was and what he was like.
Yet the further I travel on the road of faith, the more I learn about the divine mysteries, the more I realize it is just that: mystery.
Anthony de Mello recounts how the great Karl Rahner, in one of his last letters, wrote to a young German drug addict who had asked him for help. The addict had said, “You theologians talk about God, but how could this God be relevant in my life? How could this God get me off drugs?” Rahner said to him, “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, inklings; we make faltering, inadequate attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.” And talking to a group of theologians in London, Rahner said, “The task of the theologian is to explain everything through God, and to explain God as unexplainable.”
De Mello concludes: “Unexplainable mystery. One does not know, one cannot say. One says, “Ah, ah…” That is what is ultimate in our human knowledge of God, to know that we do not know.”
It is a strange comfort, this unknowing. It is threatening, to be sure. But also comforting.
This is what the mystics are perpetually telling us, notes de Mello: “Words cannot give you reality. They only point, they only indicate. You use them as pointers to get to reality. But once you get there, your concepts are useless. A Hindu priest once had a dispute with a philosopher who claimed that the final barrier to God was the word “God,” the concept of God. The priest was quite shocked by this, but the philosopher said, “The ass that you mount and that you use to travel to a house is not the means by which you enter the house. You use the concept to get there; then you dismount, you go beyond it.” You don’t need to be a mystic to understand that reality is something that cannot be captured by words or concepts.”
To know reality, de Mello states, you have to know beyond knowing.
Perhaps Jesus was on to something when he stated in Mark 10:15: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” We must become as little children. Because children are in a place of wonder, and see things afresh. We see things and think we know. And sometimes, our knowing is what gets in the way.