Having a personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe is no small task. Like relationships between people, connecting with God takes a decent amount of work. Interpersonal connection takes effort to build something lasting and worthwhile for both parties. In many ways, most relationships are a sort of social or emotional trade. Being equals, people have something to trade with each other; however, what does mankind have to offer God? Nothing. God made mankind in His own image out of love. As such, achieving communion with God is central to mankind’s nature. At the conclusion of Genesis’ creation account, mankind has the privilege of seeing—rather literally—God in the Garden of Eden who routinely passes through the garden, but because of the corruption from the Fall, our ancestors Adam and Eve lost that privilege and can only understand a fragment of God’s nature. Now, having a limited ability to commune with Him, mankind must find a new method of understanding our Creator.
From the beginning, mankind has been in a personal relationship with God. This relationship strained with mankind’s fall into sin but has been restored through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. In that story, God does all the work to restore Creation because mankind cannot hope to mend (let alone create) a relationship with Him. The infinite God, the Creator God, can overcome the childlike destruction of close intimacy through the sacrifice of Himself for the sins of mankind. Following Paul’s explanation in Romans, because “the wages of sin is death,” some death is necessary to pay the debt . Through the death of God, mankind can receive “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” . In Creation, God’s relational nature as demonstrated in the Trinitarian Godhead passed down to mankind: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” . That mankind quite literally lived with God in the Garden of Eden and could make requests should be no surprise because of God’s emphasis on this relationship. Along with many other attributes, God originally made mankind sinless. That sinlessness allowed our ancestors to commune directly with God. In his short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” Fyodor Dostoevsky’s sinful narrator dreams of traveling to a planet inhabited by a race of sinless people. In contrast to the learnedness of the narrator, these people have a “knowledge [that] was higher and deeper than the knowledge we derive from our science; for our science seeks to explain what life is and strives to understand it in order to teach others how to live, while they knew how to live without science” . Not needing the scientific process but walking in spirit with God, this race of people is more connected to God and their environment than Dostoevsky’s narrator. Their sinlessness is precisely what gives them this understanding—their ignorance of sin brings them closer to God who gives them their wisdom. Despite being created in the image of God, mankind is not God; we lack the knowledge and power that our Creator holds. The failure to recognize that the all-knowing and omnipotent God knows what is best is the temptation that first dragged mankind to sin and continues to do so today.
In Dostoevsky’s short story, the sin of the narrator corrupts the sinless people. Without their purity, they lose their deep knowledge and develop science in an attempt to reclaim it. After generations of scientific study and pursuit, these people, unable to recover from their deep ignorance, determine that “the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness” . The lost, deep knowledge which had previously given them contentment becomes worthless to them as they would rather know about that knowledge than have it. To depart from Dostoevsky’s language, they would rather possess a counterfeit of their own making. While this counterfeit shares many qualities with the original, it still lacks the authenticity of knowledge acquired through a relationship with the Creator. These now fallen people pursue war, wealth, and glory. They spend their days satisfying every itch and bloodlust, acting like Hosea’s unfaithful wife in relation to their Creator . In a time of rampant idolatry and immorality, God speaks to the prophet Hosea through the misdeeds of his wife. God explains that while Israel pursues other Gods—like Hosea’s wife pursues other suitors—He remains steadfast and faithful. Dostoevsky’s narrator hardly recognizes the planet as it once was. If the mankind of modernity is in a similar state, then it would need to find what God has said about Himself. Doing so would be the first step toward reclaiming Eden and that knowledge which mankind so effortlessly possessed before the Fall.
The Bible, a mysterious and consistent work compiled over millennia, contains many affirmative statements about God. These affirmations are critical to mankind because it is unable to discover these truths itself. Sometimes, the text is clear in its descriptions of God, but oftentimes it uses names and complex metaphors to describe Him. For example, in the Apostle John’s first letter, he describes God in relation to light: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” . Of course, God is not light given that he created light (“And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”), but the image reveals a characteristic of God. The goodness and purity that the light represents is integral to God’s nature . While it helps mankind to understand God, the metaphor breaks down with extrapolation as all metaphors do, but, more importantly, it crumbles because of the fact that God is not definable with human terms. In his work De Docta Ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance), the 15th century German philosopher Nicholas of Cusa explains that “if affirmative names befit God, they befit Him only in relation to created things” . Yes, names and descriptions of God aid mankind in its journey to establish a personal connection to the Father, but those words fall short of fully describing Him. For this reason, perhaps, when Moses, standing in front of the burning bush and having received instruction to lead the Israelites out of their Egyptian slavery, asked God for His name, He responded with “I AM WHO I AM” and “I AM has sent me to you” . Unlike the pagan gods who exist in relation to beasts or seasons, the name of God is one of permanence and transcendence. He exists outside of our frame of reference.
One may think it clear, then, that the Bible is not the ultimate source of knowledge given its grammatical limitations. The issue with this assessment is that the world does not have a more comprehensive, revolutionary, and Spirit-filled work. No other religious work comes close to the Bible, yet, like the Vedas and Qur’an, the Bible must rely heavily on metaphor, symbolism, and poetry to express its wisdom. To be clear, the Bible is true, and it is likely the truest text ever compiled. Perhaps the problem is with our reading it. Because of our fallible nature, it is unsurprising that human beings are often poor readers. As Nicholas of Cusa describes the issue, “truth is not something more or something less but is something indivisible. Whatever is not truth cannot measure truth precisely” . In the Christian perspective, regardless of whether the Bible is truth itself or a truth simplified for Man, we are not. We cannot read the Bible and learn all its contents. Additionally, for a text on the Creator of the universe, the Bible is relatively small. With a bit more than 600,000 words in the original languages, many modern works and even many Christian theological tomes like Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (1.8 million words) dwarf the Bible. Given God’s sheer magnitude, the Bible is not even a scratch on the surface . If mankind has to continuously write on the matter, then one could conclude that the Bible must be insufficient or unclear to some degree. This possibility is troubling to Christians especially because of the high probability that mankind reads it incorrectly. The fallibility of mankind makes the Bible less helpful than it already is.
Because of its limitations and the limits of language, mankind needs a different method of discovering God. A negative theology, one that borders atheism but does not cross into deconstructivism, allows the mind and heart to pass into a realm devoid of reason and human imaging. As the British philosopher Denys Turner describes in his essay “Apophaticism, idolatry, and the claims of reason,” negative theology, the via negativa, “demands that we talk about God in as many ways as possible, even in as many conflicting ways as possible…so as thereby to discover ultimately the inadequacy of it all” . According to Turner, when describing God, mankind must use its whole arsenal of vocabulary and metaphor. Through hearing and seeing every possible description of God, the human body realizes, as Turner mirrors Nicholas of Cusa, “there is nothing we can say which describes what God is” . If one were to stop asking questions at this point, he would likely conclude that everything is meaningless and that mankind cannot reconnect with God. Negative theology, while important as an intellectual idea, does not provide sufficient answers either, for mankind cannot comprehend what it does not know. Further, it cannot understand that which is beyond its understanding, at least for now.
The best theological solution is to merge the positive and negative theologies. Affirmations about God are wholly necessary for mankind’s understanding of God because they are the closest form of knowledge that mankind can have, but God seems to understand this fact. Even though His official name remains I AM, He intentionally included many others that describe certain characteristics about Him. The Bible’s numerous stories in which God reveals an aspect of His nature teach mankind much more through revealing, even if on a page, God acts in the world. The affirmative of the Bible gives us an incomplete but workable beginning for understanding God. The negative side is an abyss in which the rest of knowledge exists but into which we cannot dive. The apophatic is a humbling reminder that we know only a sliver of the truth. Faith is trusting that we have enough of a piece and a leader who will guide us.
Dostoevsky’s unfallen people reflect what a Christian might call “being Spirit-filled.” They have no information in their brains about God but truth going through their souls. This distinction between truth and information is part of mankind’s fall. On account of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve disconnected from God . Mankind cannot hope to learn its way back to its Creator because the matter has nothing to do with knowledge but faith. The modern age is rife with rationalism and science but often devoid of that faith which makes Christians strong. Those elements of society have their place, but for mankind to commune with God once again, it must focus on the spiritual elements it has neglected for the past few centuries. God gave mankind its reason so that His creation might understand Him better, but mankind has overstepped, dismissing God through its rationality. Through the Spirit, God dismisses mankind’s rationality and brings His creation back to Him.
Ethan Lilly, Contributor
Ethan is a third-year student from Brentwood, TN studying chemistry at Vanderbilt University.
- Romans 6:23 ESV
- Genesis 1:27 ESV
- Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” Transl. David Magarshack. The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky 276. Modern Library, 2001, pp 263-285.
- Ibid. 282.
- See the book of Hosea ESV
- I John 1:5 ESV
- Genesis 1:3 ESV
- Nicholas, and Jasper. Hopkins. Nicholas of Cusa On Learned Ignorance : a Translation and an Appraisal of De Docta Ignorantia / by Jasper Hopkins, 81. 2nd ed., A.J. Benning Press, 1985.
- Exodus 3:13-14
- Nicholas, and Jasper. Hopkins. Nicholas of Cusa On Learned Ignorance : a Translation and an Appraisal of De Docta Ignorantia / by Jasper Hopkins, 52. 2nd ed., A.J. Benning Press, 1985.
- See Job 26:14 ESV, Psalm 8:3-4 ESV, Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV, among others
- Turner, Denys. “Apophaticism, idolatry and the claims of reason.” Silence and the Word : Negative Theology and Incarnation / Edited by Oliver Davies and Denys Turner, 17. Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pages 11-34.
- Ibid. 21.
- See Genesis 3:1-7 ESV