Outline of an Unknowable God, question two

Greeks, Romans and Egyptians appealed to gods who were very powerful and whose actions could be hard to understand, but who weren’t omniscient or omnipresent.

The monotheistic God of the Hebrews offered an upgrade. From a moral basis, an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God was the sort of God that should make one think twice before certain acts. Yet Genesis was “a soap opera,” as John R. Coats, a former Episcopalian minister, put it in his book “Original Sinners.” Noah gets roaring drunk and passes out naked; Abraham passes his wife off as his sister even though it means she’ll be sleeping with another man; Joseph’s siblings sell their bratty brother into slavery. The rest of the Torah is also pretty juicy, aside from assorted dull digressions into how people ought to be. People turn out to need a lot of reminding. Even after the Red Sea gets parted, an ass-saving miracle of epic proportions, the Hebrews freak out and shape the idolatrous Golden Calf. An outraged Moses smashes the original Ten Commandments.

Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus all think God is beyond the human capacity for understanding (Buddhists, technically godless, focus on advancing self-enlightenment). Knowing God in an object sense, knowing God’s properties, as we know those of a tree, a person, an atomic element, is not something religious seekers expect to find. The early 19th century philosopher Hegel, a Lutheran, said “God does not offer Himself for observation.”

“The idea that humans can study God and come to know about Him is kind of preposterous from a religious point of view,” says Fraser N. Watts, who teaches theology and science at Cambridge University and is an Anglican vicar. “God is not an object, He’s a subject.”


Even referring to God by gender goes too far for Maimonides, a 12th century rabbi who wrote, “All we understand is the fact that [God] exists…”

In Judaism, practitioners may even avoid spelling G_d. “It would imply undue familiarity,” says Harold Kushner, a Conservative rabbi  and author of bestsellers such as “Why Bad Things Happen To Good People” and “Living a Life That Matters.” Kushner says Judaism is far more concerned with the presence than the properties of God. “Can we understand God? I don’t think that’s possible. That would make us greater than God,” says Kushner. He says theologians who claim to be authorities on God commit a sin.

Kushner isn’t alone.

“It’s important to us as believers that we’re continually seeking God,” says David B. Burrell, a Catholic priest who wrote Knowing the Unknowable God back in the mid-1980s. “It’s terribly important for us believers not to pretend that we know God. If we ever think we have comprehended God, then it’s not God.”

Scientists often caution that their experimental results don’t reveal a truth, just provide evidence for an approximation of it.

Evidence for most believers comes from experience – miracles, visions, the direct response of God (or gods) to prayer, the personal experience of a higher power, or witness of another’s experience – these things build faith. A few glorious weeks of interaction with Jesus as a teenager set Mother Theresa on her way, though she never directly experienced Jesus again. Like her, many people hinge their faith on one experience that feels divine. These experiences are real, but can’t be measured, though scientists like Andrew Newberg have tried.

It’s hard to hold belief in something we cannot see or may only experience once in a lifetime. You don’t have to be a scientist to gnash your teeth at the unobservable, unknowable, random experience of God. There’s a fable here, Tolkein’s myth-that’s-true. Having an unknowable God tells us that we are not to assume we know as much as we think we do. We are to know that some things lie beyond us.

Does that make us morally better than we would be with no such concept of God?

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