God is not a problem that needs to be solved but a person that needs to be known. But what does it mean to know God? Knowledge has a supremely significant role in the Christian life. But what kind of knowledge exactly? Unfortunately the kind of knowledge that is so important in the Christian life is often misunderstood or taken for granted, sometimes even especially among Christian groups that highly value orthodoxy. The irony is that it is possible to be obsessively concerned with learning all of the “right doctrines,” and yet still not know God in a truly biblical sense.
There is more than one way of knowing. For example, there are personal, relational ways of knowing and impersonal, abstract ways of knowing. The ways we go about getting to know another person differ from the ways we go about knowing information. Both forms of knowing involve our rational capacities for critical engagement. But relational knowing often demands more of our whole selves—our rational, emotional, and volitional capacities.
Personal, relational knowledge also involves taking risks, remaining open, being vulnerable, embracing uncertainties, and surrendering some control. It involves mutuality and reciprocity. It therefore always has the potential of challenging and changing us at a deeply personal level. It is not merely a matter of adding a few extra facts to one’s mental storage vaults. A true relational encounter has the potential to affect us at our innermost depths. Impersonal, detached knowledge can be appealing, in contrast, since one can accumulate it while remaining dispassionate, closed, in control, and relatively unchanged. It rarely threatens to disturb and subvert our comfortable lives, unless we allow it to.
This is the difference, at least in part, found in Martin Buber’s classic distinction between I-Thou knowing and I-It knowing. While these two kinds of knowledge are not necessarily incompatible, they are quite different. When we treat God more like an idea than a person, we easily make the mistake of attempting to grasp and comprehend God in the same way we would try to understand an abstract concept. God is treated more like a math problem to be solved or an theory to be mastered. Nothing could be more misguided and disrespectful than attempting to reduce a person—human or divine—to an idea to be mastered. But an I-It approach to knowing God remains seductive because it allows one to maintain the illusion of being in a position of power and control, the illusion that it is possible to objectify and comprehend God completely.
It is easier to recognize that this way of impersonal knowing and relating can be both disasterous and disrespectful on the level of human affairs. It occurs when we naively imagine we know everything about someone, when we think we have someone totally figured out, when we stereotype and label and pigeonhole others, since this selective way of knowing is cognitively tidier than what is involved in a fully human relationship. There are no surprises, no excitements, no mysteries, no room for real changes when human relating devolves into an exchange of this kind of narrow-minded, impersonal, manipulative knowledge. So many small and largescale conflicts continue unabated because we prefer to interact with one another according to uncomplicated labels and stereotypes. We so often choose to relate to others in these ways since it does not require much risk or vulnerability, not to mention a genuine willingness to change, which are all involved in authentic, personal, mutual relationships.
We often discard and reject other people according to inadequate stereotypes and labels. Likewise, we often discard and reject God according to inadequate stereotypes and theologies. Any attempt to know God through some impersonal epistemology is doomed to failure, for God can only be personally known through a relational epistemology of love. This is why faith—or trust—has such a significant role in Christian discipleship. God can only be personally known through loving faith. This is one reason why Gods existence can never be definitively proven or disproven exclusively by some deductive syllogism or by impersonal, inductive inquiry. These methods of inquiry, while valuable, are inadequate when it comes to the task of relational knowing.
Just as knowledge is gained in a human relationship, we know God by what God chooses to reveal to us and by how God chooses to interact with us. Indeed, all personal, relational knowledge comes by revelations and interactions. This means that it is impossible for one person to fully know another person as they are in their essence. Unknown depths and mystery exist at the core of every person. Likewise, it is impossible for one person to fully know God as God is in God’s essence. Truly relational knowledge is always partial and incomplete.
Many mystics have emphasized the role of unknowing in the process of coming to know God more fully. They point out that knowing God often requires us to unlearn and unknow God in the familiar ways we have become attached to, so that we may be open to knowing God in new and surprising ways. For mystics, the process of “unknowing” also refers to letting go of the images and concepts of God that we hold, since our ideas of God can ironically become barriers that prevent us from actually encountering God. Healthy, balanced Christian theology, then, always has room for cataphatic (or affirmative) theology and apophatic (or negative) theology. “Negative theology,” which has historically remained prominent in Eastern churches, places an emphasis on the ineffable, infinite, unknowable, and mysterious characteristics of God. Negative theology assumes that it is impossible for any human image or idea to completely capture all of the qualities of God. This overlooked tradition can provide some helpful counterbalances to the sometimes overconfident, maximalist Christian theology that some espouse.
St. Symeon the New Theologian offered this description of what it is like to know God:
“We can know God in the same way a man can see a limitless ocean when he is standing by the shore with a candle during the night. Do you think he can see very much? Nothing much, scarcely anything. And yet, he can see the water well, he knows that in front of him is the ocean, and that this ocean is enormous and that he cannot contain it all in his gaze. So it is with our knowledge of God.”
Indeed, knowing God calls for some serious epistemological humility. It also calls for us to take the risk of becoming open and vulnerable, as well as comfortable with ambiguity and “unknowing.”