On Knowing What We Cannot Know

“God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God. … Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.” (CCC 40)

Cuzco School, “The Enthroned Trinity,” ca. 1730
Cuzco School, “The Enthroned Trinity,” ca. 1730 (photo: Public Domain)

Will there ever be a time when, especially for the brightest bulbs among us, we shall know all that there is to know about who or what God is in himself? Alas, not even the angels have succeeded in penetrating that particular mystery. It is not, in point of fact, a market any mere creature can possibly corner. How could any finite being — however seraphic in beauty, or unsurpassed in intellect — presume to know the Infinite Other? The inner life of God is beyond the capacity of the created mind to know. Period.

Not only has it never been on reason’s radar to know, it could not ever become even the tiniest future blip on its radar. Even if reason were to perfect its powers, unearthing from its tool kit the finest instruments available to it, the mind would still fall sadly short. It is the fate of all finite being — indeed, the perennial predicament to which the entire order of creation is subject — that, as Kierkegaard’s famous tag line tells us, “an infinite qualitative difference” separates ourselves from God. It is a truth as clear and plain as a potato that between ourselves and God there is but an abyss of the sheerest incommensurability. It is among the defining themes of the Bible, that God is, as the great Cappadocians (that would be Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa) never tired of telling us, Akataleptos, the Incomprehensible. 

And if it were possible to know God as God knows himself, how could he possibly remain God, which is to say, transcendent to us? “If all things were within our grasp,” says Gregory of Nyssa, “the Higher Power would not be beyond us.” He would no longer dwell amid the regions of unapproachable light, the impenetrable realm of divine mystery. In a word, he would not be God. “If you have comprehended,” writes St. Augustine, “what you have comprehended is not God.”

When Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, predicted that by merely putting a monkey before a typewriter and waiting 10,000 years, one would still not have provided sufficient time for even the cleverest little chimp to produce a line of Shakespeare, he gave us a wonderful analogue of the problem. If the difference between men and monkeys is such that no simian could possibly tap out the letters “To be or not to be,” never mind the time spent awaiting inspiration from the monkey muse, imagine the infinitely more infinite difference between ourselves and God.

“Either an angel fell from the heavens with a thunderous crash,” comments Chesterton in his usual witty way, “or one of the animals went entirely off its head. There is no third way.” It is only we men who go about wearing sackcloth and ash, beating our breasts in sorrow for our sins. Animals do not do such things. “That an ape has hands is far less interesting,” continues Chesterton, “than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin; does not carve marble or carve mutton.”

Throw a frisbee at an ape and he will not return the toss; instead, he will most likely try and eat it. In other words, there is simply no common basis upon which real comparisons may be made. This is true whether it be man and the higher primates, or God and the highest primate of all, i.e., ourselves.

One thinks of Dante as he moves through the final canto of the Paradiso, and we dutifully follow along. Whereupon we watch, with utter astonishment, while he stands transfixed before the tri-une truth of God, seeing at the very heart of reality the human face of Jesus. That God, the Supreme Someone, should appear in the very guise of men, “wearing our effigy,” sends him into a perfect swoon, reducing the great poet to a kind of gibbering. In fact, so stupefied is he by the human face of God that he simply cannot crack the code. “Like the geometer whose mind applies / To square the circle, he cannot for all his wit / Find the right formula, howe’er he tries…” It is not a problem he will ever be given the wit to solve. To reach the heights of God, to see how the immanent Trinity is put together — that is not a flight for his or anyone’s wings.

Unless, of course, God were to give us what we cannot ourselves get. To ravish the heart with what the head cannot know. Yes, it is true that nature’s flight will never be enough; but grace gives us higher stuff. Dante now knows this, of course, the last lines of the poem prove it. So, there he stands, knowing full well “my wings were not / Sufficient,” when, all at once, “faith’s flash” comes to him, “to supply  

My mind with that sharp blow by which it got
Its wish. Imagination, there on high —
Too high to breathe free, after such a climb —
Had lost its power; but now, just like a wheel
That spins so evenly it measures time
By space, the deepest wish that I could feel
And all my will, were turning with the love
That moves the sun and all the stars above. 

Desire and will, given what mind cannot know, turn now with the love that moves everything, including God, who is himself this love. Only then will all that had heretofore remained hidden and resistant to reason, suddenly show itself in an eternal burst of clarity and truth as that eternal Love too dazzling for created eye to see.