Knowing God Means More Than Describing Him (April CT column)

Last week, Christianity Today published the last in my five year series of Wrestling With Angels columns. I’ll have some exciting announcements soon about what’s going to be on my plate next, but in the meantime I’d love to get your thoughts on the power and limitations of words …

Sometimes, our spiritual experiences can’t be put into words.

In the April, 2014 issue of Christianity Today

the-ocean-4I tackled my first English essay in college with enthusiasm, a thesaurus, and a naive disregard for page limits. The paper came back with the following comment: “Carolyn, you’ve made some fine points, but unfortunately they are lost in a sea of circumlocutious wordiness.”

I’ve always loved words. A well-turned phrase can replace chaos with cosmos. Solomon likened words aptly spoken to apples of gold in frames of silver (Prov. 25:11). When a preacher parses some Greek or Hebrew, I’m astonished at the vistas of meaning that hide within a bit of syntax. Words are teachers, Swiss Army knives, and painters’ palettes. Given the right choreographer, they dance.

Yet, for all my love of language, I’ve been troubled by a growing sense that I need to pay more attention to wordless things. I don’t mean simply that “actions speak louder than words”—although they often do, and we should all be required to balance each use of “compassion” with at least ten compassionate acts. Lately I’ve been wondering: Have I reduced the scope of what I can know to what I can articulate?

Occasionally, something—a strain of music, a friend’s touch, a sunset, or simply a sudden sense of Presence—will “speak” to me. When that occurs, I have an overwhelming urge to put whatever’s happening into language. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem real. This impulse is particularly noticeable in my devotional life. Give me a prayer list or a passage to study, and I’m there. But ask me to sit silently in God’s presence, and I get anxious.

Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic writer, distinguishes between meditative and contemplative prayer. In the former, he argues, we are active and verbal. In the latter, we are passively inarticulate. When we try to perceive God, Rolheiser suggests, we’re often like a fish who asks his mother, “Where is this water we hear so much about?” First, the mother might set up a projector at the bottom of the ocean to show pictures of the sea. Then, she might say, “Now that you have some idea of what water is, I want you to sit in it and let it flow through you.” That difference—between thinking about water and actually attending to it—is like the difference between meditation and contemplation.

Epistemology (the study of how we know what we know) often emphasizes knowledge rendered in propositional statements: I “know” that 2 + 2 = 4. But there is also “acquaintance-knowledge,” gained through direct encounter with another person, place, or thing. Many non-English languages have a distinct vocabulary to signify the profound differences between these ways of knowing. For example, the verb for knowing something factually is wissen in German and sapere in Latin, while “acquaintance-knowledge” is designated kennen (German) and cognoscere(Latin). The first kind of knowledge is general, abstract, and easily put into words. The second is individual, particular, and often hard to articulate. You find wissenin textbooks and creeds; kennen comes through relationships and experience.

One of my favorite preachers says that, by Tuesday, he must “break the back” of whatever passage he’s going to teach on Sunday. In this mode he’s seeking wissen—knowledge of the text that he can codify, control, and explain to his congregation.

Alternatively, one of my favorite contemplatives says that his faith only flourishes when he lets a passage break him. He uses the practice of lectio divina (“sacred reading,” or dwelling on a text to listen for the Holy Spirit) in order to pursue a more direct encounter.

I believe both modes are essential. God indeed invites us to “come . . . reason together” (Isa. 1:18, ESV). He also implores us to “be still, and know” that he is God (Ps. 46:10). In the earliest Latin Bible translation, the verb for “know” in this passage appears as cognoscere—acquaintance-knowledge—not sapere.

Perhaps it’s fitting that I devote my final Wrestling with Angels column to exploring the power and limits of words. We’ve exchanged a lot of them over the past five years, and I’m deeply grateful. Rest assured, I’m not giving up on language—you can count on my circumlocutious wordiness in future pieces for ct and, Lord willing, in songs and books to come.

Yet I hope to write without the assum­ption that everything knowable can be named in words. Our God is both the Word who became flesh (John 1) and the Spirit who “himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26, ESV). Let’s swim not only in the sea of our own words and ideas about him, but also in his fathomless ocean of love.

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