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Can We Say Anything About God? Mysticism and the Problem of Human Knowledge

Hannah Brown

Dr. Steven Boyer is probably best known for his recent book The Mystery of God.1)1 This essay examines Dr. Boyer’s lecture entitled “Knowing the Unknowable,” which introduces the central argument of the book. Dr. Boyer presents a robust account of God’s mystery without arguing for the importance of mystical experiences for Christian faith. Boyer simultaneously affirms both God’s complete incomprehensibility and God’s complete self-disclosure, and describes him as “a three-dimensional object squeezing itself into a two-dimensional world.”2)2 As Boyer demonstrates, this account of God’s mysterious revelation is paradoxical because it asserts that humans can know God without compromising the unknowable, infinite divine nature. Insofar as Boyer’s epistemology emphasizes paradox and human knowledge of God through “unknowing,” it is aligned with past Christian mystical theologians like Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. However, Boyer’s desire to affirm “authentic knowledge of God”3)3 reflects a commitment to revealed truth that mystics like Pseudo-Dionysius transcend to contemplate God “beyond every denial, [and] beyond every assertion.”4)4 This essay will compare Boyer’s and Pseudo-Dionysius’ accounts of “unknowing” human knowledge in light of the paradox of revelation.

Boyer frames his account of human knowledge of God with two seemingly contradictory concepts: First, the ontological or “dimensional” otherness of God; and second, the complete revelation of God in Christ during his time on earth. Building on this framework, Boyer describes human knowledge in two ways. First, he uses the traditional concept of “unknowing” found in works like Pseudo-Dionysius’ Mystical Theology to describe human knowledge of God. In a particularly Dionysian analogy, Boyer compares God to the sun, which is visible but too bright to be seen by human eyes. He adds: “The brilliance of the divine light thus makes all of our knowing into a mysterious ‘unknowing,’ yet it is an unknowing that is also a real knowing.” In this account, “unknowing” initially appears to be authentic knowledge. But Boyer cautions that the content of this knowledge is not quite God himself: “We know—and yet what we know is that God is beyond knowledge.”5)5 Nevertheless, because Boyer is concerned to preserve authentic human knowledge alongside divine incomprehensibility, it is probably more correct to interpret his account of unknowing as an experience in which the human intellect recognizing its own ignorance of the transcendent God and thus comes to a new kind of paradoxical but “authentic” knowledge. This concept of unknowing fits with Boyer’s warning against seeing the interaction of mystery and human knowledge as a “zero-sum game,”6)6 but it also challenges the authenticity of knowledge about God gained from divine revelation. In other words, if the human intellect was created to transcend itself and meet the incomprehensible God through unknowing, then how can we assert that God has the desire (or the ability) to reveal himself meaningfully in human terms? To complete the paradox, despite Boyer’s use of mystical concepts, his epistemology also clearly preserves real knowing by emphasizing divine revelation.

Boyer’s second model for describing human knowledge of God is not unknowing but its opposite—the revelation of God in the incarnation. This second model affirms “the gospel of Jesus Christ,” in which salvation depends on the human capacity for real knowledge of certain definite facts about God. Despite Boyer’s account of God’s ontological otherness, the root of God’s mystery in this account is not his unknowable essence but his self-disclosure in the incarnation. Boyer writes: “This appalling Presence [God] has determined to be, in the fullest possible sense, ‘Emmanuel,’ ‘GOD . . . WITH . . . US.’ That is the mystery of God.”7)7 This is a significant shift from the mystical account of God (as will be shown), and this shift allows Boyer to hold humans’ saving, dogmatic knowledge of God in paradoxical tension with God’s incomprehensibility. In order to appreciate this shift, however, it will be helpful to examine the traditional mystical account of unknowing as articulated in Pseudo-Dionysius’ short treatise Mystical Theology.

Unlike Boyer, who preserves an account of affirmative human knowledge of God (albeit through the mysterious means of revelation), Pseudo-Dionysius affirms unknowing as the necessary consequence of God’s incomprehensibility. Mystical Theology presents a thorough account of incomprehensibility in which God is “beyond every denial, [and] beyond every assertion.”8)8 In other words, the categories of “truth” and “falsehood” by which human reason operates do not apply to God in his self-existence. Instead, Pseudo-Dionysius asserts that the human intellect experiences God as “divine darkness,” writing: “as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.”9)9 In this model, Pseudo-Dionysius rejects the concept of “authentic knowledge of God” for an absolute account of divine incomprehensibility that ultimately renders human knowledge impossible except through “unknowing,” which explicitly rejects the idea that anything can be said about God. Because any assertion or denial would automatically fail to comprehend the divine nature, Pseudo-Dionysius asserts that the human intellect “is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.”10)10

Some implications of Dionysius’s mystical account of unknowing are a view of God as deus absconditus and a concomitant devaluing of the truths of divine revelation as little more than a mask which conceal God’s true unknowable essence. Dionysius openly invites this reading with his description of God as “darkness concealed from all the light among beings”11)11— concealed, one should note, precisely because it is too radiant and blinding to be seen. Nevertheless, we should not reject Mystical Theology for being too extreme: its claims appear to be the logical consequence of Boyer’s concept of God’s “dimensional” otherness and inaccessibility. Specifically, Dionysius’ claim that God is “beyond every denial, [and] beyond every assertion” follows from Boyer’s analogy of the Flatlander encountering three-dimensional reality. Who are we to deny that God can exist beyond the apparent contradiction of being and nothing, that is, beyond paradox? It seems that Mystical Theology’s challenge to divine revelation cannot be solved by simply denying Dionysius’ claims (or denials!) about the nature of God.

Although Boyer does not articulate God’s incomprehensibility in such absolute terms, his account of mystery does offer a solution to the problem by deepening the paradox. As shown above, mystery in Boyer’s account stems primarily from God’s revelation of himself in finite human terms, and not simply from the incomprehensibility of God’s self-existence. Boyer insists that God “desires to be known; [and] has made [himself] known—deeply, fully, unimaginably”—and “that is the mystery of God.”12)12 This account of mystery, while it admits of Pseudo-Dionysius’ absolute claims, also affirms the essential comprehensibility of revealed truth—and thus some mode of authentic human knowledge of God through that truth. Boyer’s paradoxical approach appears to stem from a correct desire to maintain the mystery of the incarnation and the subjectivity of faith. We have seen how Pseudo-Dionysius’ account of unknowing undermines the value of divine revelation, and it is important to recognize that, as Scripture clearly attests, this revelation is the only possible path to faith and relationship with God for human beings. Although we approach God in the knowledge of our own ignorance of him, trust in the incarnation of Christ and in the revealed truth of Scripture is ironically the only way for us to attain this unknowing experience of God. Thus Boyer is right to place God’s revelation at the heart of mystery, and to describe human knowledge of the divine as both unknowing and authentic knowledge.

 

References

1 Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall, The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012).
2 Steven Boyer, “Knowing the Unknowable: How Divine Incomprehensibility Makes Sense of Everything,” Windows on the World, 10/5/2012, 4.

3 Ibid., 1.
4 Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, The Mystical Theology in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 136.
5 Boyer, “Knowing the Unknowable,” 3.
6. Ibid., 1.
7 Ibid., 4.
8 Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology, 136.
9 Ibid., 138.
10 Ibid., 137.
11 Ibid., 138.
12 Boyer, “Knowing the Unknowable,” 4.

 

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