How Do We know About God? (2)

This is Part 2 and the conclusion of my Blog:  How Do we Know About God?

christ4We read Scripture in order to encounter the Mystery of Christ, not just to gather information or solve problems. We read Scriptures in order to enter into the fellowship which God has created for us to encounter His salvation. Unfortunately some treat Scripture “as an arsenal and not as a treasury.”   They just read it to extract proof texts for polemics, not to encounter the  mystery of salvation who is Jesus Christ.   These polemicists treat Scripture as “a quarry from which we can extract the truth of God’s revelation.”  It takes Christ the Word of God and turns Him back into the tablets of stone of the Old Covenant. It reduces God’s revelation – which He chose to give in the incarnate Lord Jesus – to a set of philosophical statements rather than leading us through the Word to the central mystery of salvation: God in the flesh.   We need to remember that the Scriptures are not the salvation of God but lead us to Him.

Andrew Louth in his book DISCERNING THE MYSTERY: AN ESSAY ON THE NATURE OF THEOLOGY  thinks too much of modern biblical scholarship, especially in the historical-critical mode, is so narrowly focused on what the original author of the text intended that it loses sight of the Mystery of God being revealed.  Louth says inspiration allows both that the author may in fact not have completely comprehended the received revelation and that it may only be the future reader of the text who understands the full implication of the revelation the prophet received.

“…the Scriptures, as ‘inspired’, have the ability to speak to changed times and changed circumstances, have therefore a voice that escapes the limitations of the particular circumstances to which they were originally addressed.”

DSC_0040webFor example the prophets did not fully understand Christ, but saw the Christ from a distance in shadows and figures. The prophets proclaimed the revelation but their prophecies were not fully understood until Christ came and revealed what they had more vaguely spoken about in their writings.   Even when the prophets are clear, they are to Christ what an architect’s models and drawings are to the final and completely built structure.

If we think about Genesis 1, we encounter God the Poet speaking His creation into being, but it will remain for humanity to discover what it is that God wills for His creation. What God intends becomes clear only as humans co-operate with Him to work out their salvation or resist Him and discover the consequence of their own rebellion. The meaning of Genesis 1 is not unproblematic, for it is the beginning of the revelation of the Mystery of God. It demands from us to use our free will to explore and discover what God intends for us and for His creation. This also is how we come to know God – by placing ourselves in a relationship with Him and working to understand the Mystery which He is revealing through the Scriptures and in His people, the Church.

There is not just one method by which we come to know God.   There is however throughout the cosmos mystery and that is the way by which we enounter God.   We journey through our minds and hearts from what we know to that which we do not yet know.    This also is the sense in which I think we can understand Dostoyevsky’s claim, “Beauty will save the world.”

How do we know about God?

How do we know what we know about God? 

In Christianity what we know is shaped by personal experience, by the experience and witness of the community (current and historical), and by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures (which is part of the witness of the community).  Believing in Christ necessitates that we also believe the testimony of the people of God who bear witness to Him – the witness recorded in the Scriptures and that of those who accepted this witness and have passed it on to us.  For it is through the witness of the Church in history – its members as well as its Scripture – that we come to know Christ; thus belief in God is based upon the witness of those who already believe.   To believe is to accept that the believers’ witness is credible and reliable.   Without this witness, we would not know the historical Jesus or His revelation of God, his works, his death, resurrection or commands to take His message to the entire world.

As a result of the 18th Century’s Enlightenment people began calling into question the reliability of past testimony, of the witness and tutelage from the ancients, from teachers or the Church.  The Enlightenment established the individual as the judge of tradition rather than the reverse; it said only the individual can decide what is true and right based upon observation and experiment.  Then the Romantic Age came and further altered thinking by making spirituality an inner personal experience, based in feelings and the individual’s emotional life came to be the measure of true religious experience or conviction.   The Romantics advocated that the only way to understand a text of Scripture is to know the inner experience of the messenger and what he intended by it.  

Andrew Louth in his book DISCERNING THE MYSTERY: AN ESSAY ON THE NATURE OF THEOLOGY addresses some of these issues as he reflects upon how we know what we know about God.  Christians do not rely exclusively on personal experience for the Gospel does not begin in our hearts and heads; rather it has a beginning in history, in the saving acts of God which we learn about through the Scriptures.  Our personal experiences are nurtured by and given context and meaning in the witness of the Church which are made available to us in Scripture and liturgy.  To believe in Christ, we must have heard about Him, and to hear about Him we must encounter those who not only proclaim Him but who incarnate Him in community.  Our knowledge of God does not come from withdrawing from the world and ascending into the celestial realms, it comes from the historical incarnation of the divine in Jesus Christ.  It is what God has done in history and continues to do in the lives of His people where we encounter the full revelation of God.

In our current age, however, the way of “knowing” is greatly shaped by the ideas of Descartes and Francis Bacon who advocated that we must put aside all prejudicial ideas we have received from society and begin to create and structure our own way of knowing the world – by building up a body of “objective” knowledge, established by observation and experiment not by relying on ancient wisdom.  It is a way of knowing that relies on a particular “method and technique.”  And while it gives appearance of being neutral and objective, it still relies on our accepting certain assumptions of this new “scientific” tradition rather than on assumptions given us by ancient texts or wisdom.  (For example we must assume in this way of thinking that there is no purpose or telos in nature.  This in itself is an assumption that cannot be proven and it would seem to me that quantum mechanics challenges our ability to test such an assumption because there are in the end some things we cannot know not for the lack of proper equipment but because they are in fact not knowable from our human frame of reference).

christ3While Christian faith does not begin with our personal experience of Christ (the truth of Christianity is not determined by whether or not I believe or how deeply convicted I feel about Christ) neither does it begin with the written word.  For the Scriptures are not salvation – what God is doing in history – but a written record or report about what God has done or is doing – a recording of His revelation.  They are an inspired record, and reading them can bring about further inspiration but they are not the main work of God.    God’s main objective in interacting with creation was not to write about His revelation or to produce a book.   The Bible is not salvation but bears witness to what God is doing and to God’s saving action in the world.   As Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:40).

What we encounter through the witness of the Scriptures and of the Church is the central mystery of God’s salvation – Jesus Christ, in the incarnate God.  What we find in the Scriptures, “words, even his words, are secondary to the reality of what he accomplished.”  We are invited to encounter this mystery through fellowship with His witnesses and ministers and through God’s people with Jesus Christ and God the Father (1 John 1:1-3).  We are called, according to the witness of Scripture and the Saints, not just to a belief – to an intellectual assent – but to fellowship which we find only in the Church, God’s people.   Baptism into Christ is Baptism into His Body, the Church.  In the Eucharistic Liturgy we not only receive the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ, the Church.

Continued  in How do we know about God? (2)