Dear Donagh,

In last month’s reply to an atheist you said, if I follow you right, that God is beyond the reach of language.  If you take that seriously how is it different from atheism and agnosticism?  But I don’t think the clergy take it seriously.  Popes and bishops are always telling people what we can say and can't say about God.  If you say nothing can be said, you close down the whole show, which mightn’t be a bad thing.  JK

Dear JK,

As you are aware, a great deal is said; there is a constant buzz of conversation in the Church.  The Christian faith puts a strong emphasis on the word: the incarnate Word, the biblical word, the prophetic word, the kerygmatic word…. And yet Christians also speak about the necessity of silence. 

This is not necessarily a contradiction.  St Ignatius of Antioch (1st-2nd century) wrote: “If you are to hear the words of Jesus you must also hear his silence.”  When there are words with no spaces between them – no silences – it doesn’t matter what is said because nothing is heard. 
But your question is whether anything can be said at all.  The answer, I think, is yes and no!  I haven’t seen anything clearer than Meister Eckhart’s summing up of it: “God is called by many names in scripture. I say, if one knows anything in God and affixes any name to it, that is not God. God is above names and above nature…. We can find no name that we could give to God, but we are permitted the names the saints called Him by, whose hearts were consecrated by God and flooded with His divine light.”

That makes it clear that language about God cannot be the neutral language we use of objects – the language of the observer, the bystander.  God is not an object, and cannot be grasped in the way that intellectual language grasps its object.  In other words there cannot be a concept of God (the word ‘concept’ is from the Latin concipere, which means ‘to grasp’).  That leaves us floundering out of our depth.  

But this floundering is nothing new.  The early Christians were sometimes thought to be pagans and atheists because they were unwilling to use the customary language about God.  This agnostic vein runs through all Christian thinking about God.  “No one can give a name to God, who is too great for words,” wrote Justin Martyr in the 2nd century; “if anyone dares to say that it is possible to do so, they must be suffering from an incurable madness.”  I could give you dozens of examples from different centuries.  I give just a few, to illustrate that this Christian ‘agnosticism’ is not a strategic move in the face of modern atheism but a constant throughout the ages.  One of the best expressions of it is in the 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing: “Now you will ask me, ‘How am I to think of God, and what is God?’  I cannot answer you except to say ‘I do not know!’ for with this question you have brought me into the same darkness, the same cloud of unknowing where I want you to be!  For though by the grace of God we can know fully about all other matters, and can think about them – yes, even the very works of God – yet of God himself can no one think.  Therefore I will leave on one side everything I can think, and choose for my love that thing which I cannot think!  Why?  Because he may well be loved, but not thought.  By love he can be caught and held, but by thinking never.” 

What’s left when all of that is taken away?  The language of the heart is left – the language of intuition and love…. We are permitted the language the saints used, Eckhart said.  Their hearts were “consecrated by God,” he said: they were not coarsened or corrupted or thrown into confusion by wayward desire, but calm and focused, and capable at last of being “flooded with divine light.”  Of course the heart, like the mind, is capable of superficiality.  The superficiality of the heart is sentimentality, and no doubt there has been a lot of that in religion, but its presence doesn’t discredit the deeper wisdom of the heart any more than mental superficiality discredits the mind. 

We can take it that that “divine light” is not the same thing as intellectual understanding.  For the latter the condition of your heart doesn’t matter: a great ruffian could be very intelligent.  But knowledge of God is much more subtle and not so well able to give an account of itself.  Put it like this: how would you go about laying out your knowledge of your father or mother?  It is personal or intimate knowledge, and though it doesn’t exclude intellectual knowledge, it is something of a far different order.  In 1958 the distinguished scientist Michael Polanyi wrote a remarkable booked entitled Personal Knowledge, in which he rejected as a fiction the ideal of ‘scientific detachment’ – even in science.  “In the exact sciences,” he wrote, “this false ideal is perhaps harmless, for it is in fact disregarded there by scientists.  But… it exercises a destructive influence in biology, psychology, and sociology, and falsifies our whole outlook far beyond the domain of science.”  Far beyond, we might add, even into the domain of theology.  “Don’t talk about love,” I once heard a priest say; “leave that to the Franciscans.  Let your motto be Truth!”  What kind of truth do you get when you leave out love?  Objective?  Hardly that.  In fact hardly anything.  It is just a naïve belief, Polanyi wrote, that “true knowledge is impersonal, universally established, objective.” 

When people speak from a heart such as Eckhart described, their words carry authority – as was said of Jesus (Lk 4:32).  Jesus spoke “with authority,” he was himself the source of what he was saying, unlike the scribes and Pharisees who liked to quote others.  Knowledge of God is intimate, personal, difficult to defend…. But it doesn’t go away, despite all the attacks over the centuries; and as some philosopher conceded, that may be the nearest we can ever get to a proof of its validity. 

A few other posts on this website are relevant to your question, JK.  See the ‘Gospel Commentary’ for March 13; and see ‘Between Ourselves’ January 2013, and ‘Wisdom Line’ 2002 (Martin Buber).  

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