Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. III: The Golden Age of Patristic Literature (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 294-295.
Gregory of Nyssa was a Christian thinker during the fourth century C.E. In his sixth Sermon on the Beatitudes, he states the following about knowing God:
…the Godhead is purity, freedom from passion, and separation from all evil. If therefore these things be in you, God is indeed in you. Hence, if your thought is without any alloy of evil, free from passion, and alien from stain, you are blessed because you are clear of sight. You are able to perceive what is invisible to those who not purified, because you have been cleansed; the darkness caused by material entanglements has been removed from the eyes of your soul, and so you see the blessed vision radiant in the pure heaven of your heart…
How can I know God? What’s it even mean to know God? Christians like to tell me that there’s a difference between knowing God and knowing about God. I feel that I know all sorts of things about God, but I’m not sure if I know him, or even what knowing him means.
I wrote a post last week called God Meditating on the Forms. Although it’s one of my simpler, less drawn-out posts, it got me thinking about an important issue: What does God spend his time doing all day? (Okay, I know that he’s outside of time, but I still wonder what he does on a continual basis.) For certain philosophers, God meditates on order and virtues, such as justice, courage, etc. Or he thinks about himself, since (after all) he is the highest good.
We know people by what they do, but, to be honest, before that post, I had rarely (if ever) asked myself how God spends his time! Usually it’s me trying to assure myself that God loves me, or me criticizing God for what he does not do in my life, or me hoping that God will help me out with something. Maybe I’ve assumed somewhere in my mind that God was busy hearing and answering prayers, putting people in situations that built their character, and helping them out on the road of life. Except when he doesn’t, for reasons known only to him, and that’s why we have the whole issue of theodicy!
So I guess I now have a picture in my mind of what God does: he meditates on the good, and he also does good. Yet, at the same time, he is profoundly disturbed by evil. Still, for his own reasons, he chooses when and when not to intervene. Clear as mud?
What’s that have to do with the Gregory of Nyssa quote? I’m not sure. Gregory got me thinking about how we can know God. For him, we have some vision of the divine within ourselves, but it has been obscured by a lot of junk: passions, self-centeredness, greed, ambition, etc. For Gregory, once we cleanse ourselves of those things, we can see God more clearly.
I think there’s something to that, though I’m not sure how far I would go. For example, sexual passion can reduce people to objects, which I assume God doesn’t do. Yet, it can also be an expression of intimacy and love, which is why church fathers viewed the Song of Songs as an allegory of God’s relationship with the church or the individual Christian. Moreover, God is not totally devoid of passion, for he can be “jealous.” Many Christians like to say, “Yeah, but that means zealous.” Usually, the word appears when God is telling Israel not to worship other gods, so “jealous” appears to be an appropriate translation to me.
“Yeah, but God has a right to be jealous–you don’t!,” Christians may say. But that’s one problem I have with the notion that Christians should imitate God. Sure, we can be kind and good like him (in a sense), but he has prerogatives and attributes that we are supposed to lack. He can have them because he’s the highest being, and we’re not. And so we can’t be entirely like God.
But I would agree that passions like hate, jealousy, greed, etc., can inhibit my clear thinking. I thought about this as I watched Joyce Meyer last night, and she said that she once had a whole lot of emotional baggage, such that she was always looking to others to help her feel better about herself. As a result, she took any disagreement with her as a personal attack, and she didn’t find her security in Christ’s love for her.
I still have that problem, to be honest, and I’m not sure what the solution is. But I do find that asking myself what God does with his time at least helps me get outside of myself, if only for a moment. Whether that will magically transform me into a more generous, kinder person, I have no idea. My mind tends to gravitate towards stinkin’ thinkin’. And when I try to meditate on God’s goodness, my mind can easily degenerate to, “God is good? Yeah, right! How come he doesn’t bless people with Asperger’s with the things that other people enjoy? Why’s he allow so many problems in the world?”
To tell you the truth, it’s hard to know a being whom I cannot directly sense. Actually, I wonder how easy it is to know anyone, since I’m only myself, not somebody else. I can’t definitively say what makes someone else tick! I’m not even entirely sure what makes me tick!
James, this is an excellent post, and you make some excellent points. I believe that we can know God, as much as we are allowed, by our experiences with Him, through His Spirit by His Word.
Otherwise, you have me thinking of a better response.