Friday, January 15, 2010

On Steps to Knowing God

Some Christians tend to simplify spiritual life into steps or principles that can be easily communicated: Twelve Steps/Four Laws/Seven Principles of Salvation, or of A Successful Marriage, or of A Prosperous Business, or of Raising Godly Children. But the problem with this way of dicing up wisdom or knowledge is that once someone begins to look at salvation, for example (or any other aspect of life), as a simple matter of “Four Spiritual Laws,” they then begin to base their faith, their security in God, on those laws. While laws and principles have a use in that they can help us begin to think rightly about God or marriage or raising children, they are really only just aids. Reality—especially spiritual reality—is much bigger than any set of laws, principles or steps. And those who tie themselves too tightly to their neat little set of laws, steps or principles (no matter how helpful they may have been in the past) will sooner or later be confronted with the harsh reality that life, especially spiritual life, is much bigger than their laws, steps or principles allow for.

When this happens, unfortunately, people often give up on God altogether. Or worse, they demonize everyone who does not fit into their scheme of reality. The Fathers of the Church recommend a different way.

The Fathers say that to really know God, you have to be willing to ascend the Mountain into the “thick darkness” with Moses, leaving behind easy answers, wise insights and even reason, and enter into direct encounter with God beyond all reason and categories. And the irony is that it is here in the direct encounter with God, that God sometimes gives laws; but laws are not an end in themselves. Laws, principles, steps, teachings, and traditions all exist to lead us back to God Himself.

It is kind of like Zacchaeus climbing the sycamore tree to see Jesus (next Sunday is Zacchaeus Sunday, so I have read St. Gregory Palamas’s and St. Nicholai Velimirović’s sermons on the story). Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, but the crowd was in the way: he was a short man. (His short height may be a reference to his lack of spiritual inclination, insight or ability.) However, in spite of the crowd, Zacchaeus ran ahead (he didn’t wait for the crowd) and climbed up the tree (which perhaps represents learning, study, prayer, law, and all of the things we might do to seek God). But notice, Zacchaeus does not see Jesus, Jesus sees him! Nothing we do makes us worthy or “earns” knowledge of God. However, God sees our desire and our effort and our longing and reveals Himself to us. We can only discipline our bodies and minds in such a way as to be ready to obey when Christ does “look up” and calls our name. Then, notice, the first thing Jesus tells him to do is to get down from the tree.

François Fénelon says something similar. He says that when someone is converting (and this happens repeatedly throughout our lives in different areas or in the face of new temptations, opportunities, realizations, and situations), the first thing that is necessary is to gain wisdom. But once we begin to gain wisdom, we must see the limits of that wisdom and the dangers of becoming wise in our own eyes. Finally, real knowledge of God (which includes knowledge of God’s presence in my marriage or business or in raising my children) only comes with the abandonment of what can be known, in order to know Him who cannot be known except in “thick darkness.” There is no static point, no point of self-satisfied or confident security. We are always growing. Our security is only in the knowledge of God, a knowledge which is beyond what is called knowledge.


Paul said...

How are we to make sense of the idea that knowing God is like being in thick darkness and the idea of experiencing God as light? Are these simply two metaphors that don't mix and should be kept separate?

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Paul,
Darkness and very bright light have the same effect. In Christian spiritual literature, both refer to the experience of God beyond comprehension in the common sense. The inner man "sees" God in darkness and the Light of God illumines our heart.