Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
Their measure is longer than the earth
and wider than the sea. –Job 11:7-9
Whosoever gives his mind to four things, it were better for him if he had not come into the world: what is above? what is beneath? what was beforetime? and what will be hereafter? –Mishnah Hagigah 2:2
There are two kinds of ignorance. The one is “dull, unfeeling, barren,” the result of indolence; the other is keen, penetrating, resplendent; the one leads to conceit and complacency, the other humility. From the one we seek escape, in the other the mind finds repose.
-Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism
Can we know God? I know that I’ve spent a lot of time writing blog posts about whether or not God wants to know us. My general conclusion was an incredible “yes” but then in any relationship, the current is supposed to flow both ways. Knowing God is sort of like going on a blind date with someone who has talked to our best friend and who knows all about us but we don’t know anything about her (“him” if you’re reading this and you’re female). The date can feel really one-sided and uncomfortable.
God knows all about us and we don’t really know a thing about Him…no, not really.
Sure, we have the Bible. We can read about God’s involvement with people. We can contemplate the mighty works of the Creator and marvel at His power and greatness, but the human mind cannot imagine the unimaginable. God is far beyond our ability to comprehend.
And what if we’re not even supposed to try to know His mysteries? More from Rabbi Heschel:
To the Jewish mind the ultimate enigmas remain inscrutable. “It is the glory of God to conceal things” (Proverbs 25:2). Man’s royal privilege is to explore the world of time and space; but it is futile for him to try to explore what is beyond the world of time and space…We have said..that the root of worship lies in the sense of the “miracles that are daily with us.” There is neither worship nor ritual without a sense of mystery (Heschel pg 62).
That sounds a little like a religious setup. It sounds like the line given by some crafty “holy man” to his new converts telling them that they don’t need to know anything about God. Just let the priests interpret it all for you.
I don’t think that’s what Heschel is saying, though. He isn’t really saying “don’t look under the hood”, he’s saying that it will do us no good to try because we wouldn’t understand what we were looking at. It would be like a physicist trying to explain the inner workings of the CERN Large Hadron Collider to a three year old child. Even if he or she were the top genius of all three year old kids, the child still wouldn’t “get it”. How much less can any one of us “get” the inner workings of God?
Beyond that, the mystery of God is sort of the point. The gods of myth we studied in school were all rather “knowable” because they were pretty much like human beings are. For God to really be God, the God who created the Universe and everything in it, from the largest galaxy to the smallest sub-atomic particle (and whatever else is “out there” that we don’t even know about), then He absolutely has to be beyond our comprehension. That’s the paradox of our relationship with Him. Getting to know and unknowable God.
The awareness of mystery, not often expressed, is always implied. A classical example of that awareness is the attitude toward the Ineffable Name. The true name of God is a mystery. It is stated in the Talmud, “And God said unto Moses…This is My name for ever (Exodus 3:15). The Hebrew word ‘for ever’ (leolam) is written here in a way that it may be read ‘lealem’ which means ‘to conceal’. The name of God is to be concealed.” (Heschel, pp 63-4)
There are some religious circles that won’t want to accept this conclusion, since they put a great deal of value in “knowing” and using the Ineffable Name (which they usually pronounce as “Yahweh” or something similar). Having “secret knowledge” may give some people or groups a certain thrill, but it becomes arrogant presumption to use that which you do not know, and to attempt to possess that which you are not allowed to appropriate.
You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. –Exodus 20:7
The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice;
Let the many islands be glad.
Clouds and thick darkness surround Him;
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. –Psalm 97:1-2
This isn’t to say that people have not tried to pierce the veil between man and God. Both Christianity and Judaism enjoy a rich mystic tradition and in both the Tanakh and the Apostolic scriptures, we have examples of men going beyond the normal perceptions of the Creator and seeing much more than most of us were meant to experience. Consider the visions of the Prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. What of John’s revelation. Then there are these witnesses:
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” –Exodus 33:18-23
I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. –2 Corinthians 12:1-4
But where does that leave us?
What would be so bad about letting the mystery be the mystery? This isn’t to say we should avoid drawing closer to God and that study is futile, but the Psalmist said, “The awe (Yirah) of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10). The word “Yirah” in Hebrew can mean either “fear” or “awe”. Fear usually implies a reaction to potential punishment, either in this life or in the life beyond, while awe is our reaction to God in His infinite glory, and not based on whatever consequences we might end up facing:
Though He may slay me, yet I will trust Him. –Job 13:15
Jesus admonished his disciples (including us) not to worry because we have no control over the things God provides (Matthew 6:25-34). Expand his “sage advice” to include not worrying about God, who He is, what He does, how He works. If we trust Him then we do know Him, or at least we know as much as we need to know. It is said that awe (or fear) of the Lord is “the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10), but that doesn’t have to include infinite knowledge or understanding beyond where God has placed His boundary markers. What we need to know, He’s already told us. The rest can remain a mystery, and we can be in awe.