Knowing About vs. Knowing

I got some pushback (and a question) on my previous essay. In that post I said, “Sophrony describes an experiential knowledge of God in the Holy Spirit who is so powerful, that God has no need to demonstrate his power, a God whose glory is so glorious, God is content to reveal only humility, a God whose victory is only by invitation and not coercion or constraint.” The pushback came in my use of absolute language. I said that this humble mode of communion is the manner (and, by implication, the only manner) we come to know God.

The pushback comes from my claim that this is exclusively how we come to know God. We can come to know God as high and lifted up and we can come to know God as humble and non-coercive. While neither here nor there, the person pushing back also believed that coming to know God as high and lifted up is the preferable manner of knowing God because ultimately, this is how God truly is “in his glory.” I disagree. In fact I so fundamentally disagree with this sentiment that I thought it was worth the more careful reflection of an essay rather than just the occasional nature of a conversation.

I will begin with a fundamentally important distinction that cannot be emphasized enough in our Western context. There is a difference between knowing someone and knowing about someone. In the case of God, scripture is the means of knowing about God. It gives us information about God’s mighty acts and, in turn, Israel’s and the Church’s response to those mighty acts. It gives us insight into the nature of creation as well as the character of God the Creator. But we come to know God through the Eucharist and prayer. This knowing cannot occur in isolation from the knowing about. I must know about God so that I can grasp what is happening when God comes to me to make himself known. So while these two modes of knowing are necessarily related, they are distinct.

This distinction must be emphasized today because intellectual knowledge (the sort of knowledge that is knowing about) is the norm today, both in the church and the larger society. This confusion is so basic to the subgroup of Evangelical Protestantism in which I grew up, that the previous paragraph would be considered heretical, because scripture is the be-all and end-all of divine revelation in that tradition. And I suspect that this is the actual point of disagreement that led to the blow-back from my previous essay.

True knowledge only comes through true communion. It is the result of dwelling with, and then indwelling each other (getting inside each other’s head, as I’ve heard it described), so that the knowledge of the other is beyond words or description. According to the experience of the pray-ers and doctors of the church, God only enters into such a relationship from a posture of profound humility. And this makes sense. If the person you are getting to know comes off as great and superior to you in every way, this verticality will skew the relationship. True knowledge as mutual indwelling requires a certain level of equality. And it is here that the humility of God becomes utterly scandalous. God is in no manner our equal, and yet God’s humility is so profound that he comes to us as an equal, or even less than equal, as one who needs our permission for him to even dare approach our inner being. God (who is all-powerful) gives us the power in the relationship.

And in turn, if I am going to get to know God, I need to freely give up the power God just granted to me in the relationship, and give it back to God, to allow God, not only into the parlor of my soul, but into the medicine cabinet, the closet, and that hidden drawer where I stash my embarrassing stuff. Thus mutual indwelling that leads to knowledge requires mutual humility. We need to outdo God in showing such honor (Rom. 12:10) even as he outdoes us.

Anything short of this is settling for knowing about God rather than knowing God.

And finally, who were the two priests I mentioned? (It turns out inquiring minds want to know.) Fr. Bill Calderoni, then of Holy Transfiguration, Wheaton, Ill, more recently of St. John parish in Post Falls, Idaho. And Fr. Jon Braun, who was then with the Evangelism Commission of the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Both are now retired. They were quite literally my first taste of Eastern Orthodoxy. I owe them both a great debt.

5 thoughts on “Knowing About vs. Knowing

  1. What you have said here resonates with my experience as a Protestant, during which long preparatory period I went through what I call my Reformed Stage for about ten years, not ever being in a Reformed church but soaking up a lot from reading. It began as a reorienting of my mind to be more God-centered, as opposed to man-centered, and it was surely “God as high and lifted up,” and I was thankful for that intellectual perspective that nonetheless left me lacking the experience of worship my soul was craving.

    Fr. Jon Braun is very special to me, too, as he was instrumental in my life, long before the Orthodox Church was the home of either of us. In addition to passing on to our cocky group of seekers some glimmers from Holy Tradition he was getting at the time, he was, you might say, the officiant at my very non-traditional, but earnestly Christian-hippie wedding. The way in which he rescued the event from being a total giveaway to modernity was brilliant, but makes too long of a story for a blog comment.

    Thank you for pushing back against the pushing back!

  2. Pingback: The Bible as Story – Just Another Jim

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