Knowing God – Through the Lens of Religious Genius

Question for consideration

Each cluster of texts is comprised of contributions from authors of different religious tradition. Each text has a brief commentary by a scholar and one or two questions to assist you in focusing on its particular approach to the theme under discussion.

It is recommended for those not so familiar with text study that each of the texts is read guided by the accompanying question or questions. However, advanced readers may not need the guidance and may prefer to encounter the texts without the mediation of the questions.

After reading the individual texts, consider the following general questions in relation to the theme.

For each cluster of texts on a particular theme ask the following questions:

1. In what way do each of the texts reflect a unique cultural/ socio-religious setting and to what extent are they reflective of a universal human quest for meaning?

2. What unique contribution to our understanding of the theme does each text make? Can the unique contributions resonate with followers of another religious tradition?

3. Identify any understandings of the theme that are common to all the selected texts. Do these understandings appear more prominent in one tradition than in another or are they likely to resonate equally across all traditions?

4. How do these texts enhance your appreciation of their authors as ‘religious geniuses’?

Knowing God

Sources 1, 2, 64, 105, 90

The five texts below present dynamics that express tension between knowing God and not knowing Him, or the inability to know Him. Are these the same dynamics? If  yes, what does this teach us about the ability of the human person to know God, as taught by different religions? If not, how does this reflect differences in the worldview of the religions or the authors we study?

Read the texts and the commentaries, if you desire, guided by the accompanying questions. After reading the texts, respond to the questions above, which represent a synthesis of the four questions on the previous page with respect to the theme of ‘Knowing God’.

Guiding questions: (Source 1) Note that St Gregory believes that particular conditions need to exist before an individual can think about God in a safe way? What are the dangers of philosophizing about God in the wrong situation? (Source 2) Why will ‘philosophizing’ never enable humans to adequately describe God?

Source 1 (Christian): St Gregory the Theologian,
Excerpts From The Five Theological Orations: On the Trinity. [1]

On Theology

27.3. It is not the case, my friends, that everyone ought to take up philosophizing about God. By no means should anyone at all do this. The subject is not so cheap or low. And, I might add, it is something that should not be done in the presence of any audience, nor at any time, nor in regard to any theme that takes one’s fancy. Rather it is something that ought to be done only on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits. It is not for anyone to do this, because it is right only for those who have been tested, and are past masters in meditation; those who have already been purified in soul and body, or at the very least are in the process of being purified. It is not safe for the defiled to touch what is pure, not safe at all; just as it is unsafe to allow weak eyes to stare into the brightness of the Sun. So what would be the rightful occasion? It is when we are free from all external defilement or disturbance, and when our governing spirit is not clouded with disturbing and false images. We must not be like those who mix up good writing with bad, or mingle filth with the ointments of sweet perfumes. For it is necessary to be truly at rest in order to know God and discern the high road of divine realities, when the proper occasion is granted to us. And who are the persons who can lawfully engage in this? Those, I say, for whom the subject is of real concern, and not those who make it a matter of chit chat to pass the time, along with their other daily concerns: after the races, or in the theatre, or at a concert, or during a dinner, or even at still lower employments. For to such people as this, idle jests and hair-splitting syllogisms about divine philosophy are simply an amusement.

Commentary by John  McGuckin: Gregory’s text here became after its elevation by the Oecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, the quintessential digest of Christian theological method. Theology is used here in the antique sense of discourse about God’s inner being. His question is how does a limited human consciousness dare to penetrate by words and thoughts and imagery, into the inner nature of the divine transcendent. Gregory argues here that religious insight is something which, to be accurate and elevated, has to be prepared for by serious purification of heart and mind. here he makes the important case, often neglected by religious thinkers, that to speak or think accurately abut transcendent things, one has to ‘live transcendently’ first. The focus and preparation he speaks about at greater length in this speech is both a moral katharsis, and an intellectual ‘focus’ – gained by careful reflection.

Source 2 (Christian): St Gregory, On God the Father

28.3. One of the ancient Greek theologians said: ‘While it is difficult to conceive of God but to define Him in words is an impossibility.’ Quite clever in one way. Nevertheless, my opinion of the matter is that it is impossible to express God; and even more impossible to conceive of God. 28.17. What God is by nature and essence, no human has ever yet discovered or can discover. Whether it ever will be discovered is a question which I leave to whoever wishes to examine and decide. In my opinion it will be discovered, when that within us which is godlike and divine, I mean our mind and reason, shall have merged with its Like, and the Image shall have ascended to the Archetype, of which it now possesses the deep inner desire. But in our present life all that comes to us is merely a little emanation, or as it were a small effulgence from the Great Light.

Commentary by John  McGuckin: Gregory here stresses the primacy of ‘apophatic’ theology: a method of knowing God that turns away from speech and apologetics, since words can never properly contain the Uncontainable Godhead. In a sardonic reference to the many ‘theologies’ available in his day, he reprises the theme that the heart, once purified, will see the divine clearly, without having to rely on words that separate and lead us astray. Direct personal experience is , in this way, quintessential to true religious discourse.

Source 64 (Hindu): Nammalvar: TVM 1.1. 2, 3, 7, 8 and 9

Guiding question: According to the poem below, what are the ways that one can ‘grasp’ an understanding of the Divine and what are ways that cannot be productive?

The ineffable nature of the Supreme Being:

Beyond the reach of the inner mind, freed of filth,
full blown and rising upward,
beyond the grasp of sense organs,
He is pure bliss and knowledge!
There is none like him
in the past, present, and future.
He is my life!
There is none higher than he.

He has this, and not that,
precious but elusive to the mind.
The earth and the firmament are his;
He is with form, the formless one.
In the midst of the senses, he is not of them.
Unending, he pervades.
We have attained him who has bliss.

Becoming all things
spread on open space, fire,
wind, water, and earth,
He is diffused through them all.
Hidden, he pervades,
like life in a body.
The radiant scripture [speaks)
of the divine one who ate all this.

Beyond the range of the divine ones’ intelligence,
He, the first one of the skies and everything thereon,
Cause of the creator, most Supreme One, ate them all!
He indwells; as Siva and as Brahma,
He burnt the triple cities, he enlightened the immortals,
He destroys, and then creates the worlds.

If you say he exists, he does;
his forms are these forms.
If you say he does not,
his formlessness
is of these non-forms.
If he has the qualities
of existence and non-existence,
he is in two states.
He who pervades is without end.

Commentary by Vasudha Narayanan: When Nammalvar speaks about his total union with Vishnu, in many verses he refers to it as his “eating” and containing the deity and as Vishnu “swallowing” him. This recalls to mind two famous stories from Hindu texts called the Puranas— Vishnu, in his incarnation as Krishna steals and eats butter—and also steals the hearts of the young cowherd girls. In the Tiruvaymoli, Vishnu from the local temple comes in stealth, steals and eats the life of the poet. This is the accessible mode of the deity. In the majestic, “supreme” mode, Vishnu is depicted as swallowing the universe at the end of various cycles of time and bringing it out again to create the universe again, cycle after cycle, lasting trillions and trillions of years. The eating and swallowing images, therefore, are charged with notions of both cosmic union (the universe as one with the inner soul and the Inner Controller) as well as erotic, sexual union, when experienced and expressed through the human body.

Source 105 (Muslim): Al-Ghazali, “The Science of the Way of the Afterlife (‘ilm tarīq al-ākhira)”

Guiding question: According to al-Ghazali, what are the barriers to understanding the Divine and how can they be eliminated?

By the knowledge of the Unveiling, we mean that the covering is lifted so that the plain truth becomes clear in reference to these things. [This] coming of clarity is in the manner of the eyewitness experience about which there is no doubt. This would be possible in the innermost part (jawhar) [understood as either ‘atom’ or ‘heart’] of the human person were it not for the accumulation of the rust and scum of worldly defilements on the mirror of the heart. And so, by the science of the Way of the Afterlife, we mean the knowledge of how to polish this mirror [thus cleansing it] of these [various kinds of] filth, which are a veil [keeping one] from God — be He praised and exalted — and from the gnosis of His attributes and acts.

Its purification and cleansing is [accomplished] by means of abstaining from the lustful desires and [by means of] emulating the prophets in all of their states, may the prayers of God be upon them. For, to the extent that [these things] can be purged from the heart and to the extent that the heart comes close to the threshold of the Truth, His verities will glimmer within it. But there is no way to [get to this station] save through the [spiritual] discipline whose explication comes in its [own, rightful] place and through knowledge and instruction (read ‘character formation’). These are the sciences which cannot be written down in books and of which nothing is spoken by the one upon whom God — be He exalted — has bestowed His blessings, except with his [own] folk (ma‘a ahlihi),( those committed to a path of observance and moral/ethical transformation) who are those having a share in it. [The communication of these sciences can occur both] by way of oral teaching (mudhākara) and by the way of secrets. That is the hidden knowledge, which [the Prophet] (may God bless him and grant him salvation) meant by his statement, “verily of knowledge there is [something] akin to the outer shape of the hidden thing; only the folk [possessing] the gnosis of God — be He exalted — know it. If they utter of it, only those who are deluded about God — be He exalted — will [remain] ignorant of it. So do not scorn a learned man to whom God — be He exalted — has given [some] knowledge of it, for God — be He mighty, sublime — has not scorned him since to him He gave [the knowledge].[2]

Commentary by Timothy Gianotti: The science by which the servant draws nigh unto the Divine and by which the mysteries of faith may be known is the knowledge or science belonging to the awliyā’ (saints) and the prophets: namely, the “science of the Way of the Afterlife.” This science includes a praxis-oriented dimension (al-mu‘āmala), which al-Ghazālī says involves perfecting one’s religious practice, reforming one’s actions, and gradually transforming one’s inner character (through the “Science of the States of the Heart”), and it includes a hidden yet undeniable noetic dimension, which he calls the Science of the Unveiling (‘ilm al-mukāshafa). He refers to this noetic side of the Science of the Way of the Afterlife in many places throughout the Ihya’, and we can be sure he does this as part of a strategy of enticement, a way to awaken a desire for the higher goods within the hearts of his readers.

Guiding question: According to Rav Nachman, why might a person have difficulty knowing God? Is this hindrance something to be overcome or something to be embraced? (Use the commentary to assist in answering this question.)

Source 90 (Jewish): Rav Nachman of Breslav

Likutei Moharan 1:115 (God in the Thick Cloud)

“So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was” (Exodus 20:18).

If one spends one’s entire life in materiality, and later on gets enthusiastic and wants to follow God’s path, then the quality of judgment argues against that person, and doesn’t allow him to follow God’s ways and creates a hindrance for him. But God desires kindness and leniency and hides God’s self, as it were, in that hindrance. And one who is aware looks at the hindrance and finds there the Creator, as it says in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 1:3a): “If someone says to you, ‘Where is your God?’ you shall say to that person, ‘In a great city in Aram.’ As it says: ‘God calls to me from Seir’ (Isaiah 21:11).”

And one who is not aware, when one sees the hindrance, immediately moves away from it. The hindrance is like a thick cloud, for a thick cloud is dark and a hindrance is dark. [The words “darkness” and “hindrance,” or that which holds back, share the same three Hebrew letters—het shin kaf], as it is written in Genesis 22:16: “You have not withheld [your son].” This is the meaning of the verse “So the people remained at a distance.” When they see the thick cloud, namely the hindrance, they remain at a distance: But Moses, who represents the quality of awareness for all of Israel, “approached the thick cloud, where God was,” namely: he approached the hindrance, where the blessed God is actually hidden.

Commentary by Zvi Mark and Biti Roi: In this teaching Rav Nachman develops a paradoxical theological statement concerning God’s presence precisely where there is doubt. This is achieved through the metaphors of fog and darkness. R. Nachman’s genius comes through in this text not only in the reflective-theological statement, but also in the experiential backing that he provides for this statement. Learning this teaching allows the believer to become fortified in faith. It teaches him that despite the difficulties, and precisely by entering deeply in them, he can find God. Doubt as an aspect of faith, and the existential experience of distance from God are presented as integral aspects of the religious life. The experience of divinity that is inherently connected to doubt is related not simply to the destruction of the Temple or the cessation of prophecy. Rather it is placed at the very moment of revelation at Sinai. In this way doubt, the fog and distance from God are viewed as inherent in the very experience of faith.

[1] Excerpted from the Five Theological Orations (Orations 27-31). JP Migne (ed). Patrologia Graeca. vol 36. 9 -172.
[2] Al-‘ilm, 30-1.