Friday, June 06, 2008

Can God Be Known?

I have been thinking about this question for a while. And here is something that I wrote.

"Can God Be Known?"
The Primal Legitimacy of Theological Enquiry




The divine transcendence is by definition ineffable. If theology is an enterprise committed to make the transcendence the central theme, then it is nothing more than, and really is, anthropology in general, and psychology in particular. That means when we read a particular theology, what we really know is the theologian’s thoughts rather than the transcendental reality which the theologian attempts to cognitively attain.

And following from that, one has to ask whether is theology, by definition, an enterprise destined to fail? How can one know the unknownable? Therefore before we explore our engagement with the divine, it is worth noting the fundamental role played by negative theology or apophatic theology in theological endeavours.

By ‘negative’, it does not pessimistically assert that we cannot affirm anything true about the transcendent. Negative theology functions, rather, as a means than an end. Drawing from Vladimir Lossky, Rowan Williams comments that apophatic theology is “a receptacle, the necessary condition for the apprehension of revelation.” (Mike Highton (ed), Wrestling with Angels, p.1-24 ). Negative theology essentially permits us the understanding of God’s own exposure of Himself.

Reflecting on these, Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote, “The knowledge of God that is made possible by God and therefore by revelation is one of the basic conditions of the concept of theology as such. Otherwise the possibility of the knowledge of God is logically inconceivable; it would contradict the very idea of God” (Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p.2). Pannenberg argues that it is only through God’s own revelation that we may have a glimpse of the divine. Hence, in order to put revelation in place, apophatic theology serves as a necessary condition that enables the recovery of the theologian’s primary task.

If it is through revelation that we attain cognition about God, then our starting point is already a derivation from the transcendence. And that, in effect, has much to say about our theological cognition on one hand, and much to question on our own initiative in theologising on the other.

On the latter, we have to recognize that the foremost practice of theology is not so much organizing our thoughts of God but rather our appropriation towards God through alleged revelation. In the former, the transcendent is being assumed to be an immediate observable object, which is by its own definition is impossible. In the latter, the divine reality exposes Himself, making Himself observable to which this particular act demands, instigates, and invites our response and hence our appropriation towards Him, became our subject.

In other words the study, learning, and thinking on the transcendence is never at any moment our cognitive initiation, but rather always the process of appropriating ourselves in relation to being exposed to the divine. Thus the conventional understanding of the theologian’s task as studying God by approximation or estimation must be translated to our appropriation towards God. To put it simply, the answer to the question “Can God be known?” is this: God can only be known if and only if it is He, Himself, that initiates the theological enquiry; and He, Himself, that provides the answer. This, perhaps, reminiscences Karl Barth’s aphorism, “God is known through God, and through God alone.” (Church Dogmatics, II:1, sect. 27, 1, p.179). Therefore, the strict implication for philosophy of religion is that, in order to prevent theology to be merely anthropology or psychology, we can only attain cognition of the transcendence through revelatory religion.

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