So far in our wanderings around the subject of faith, we have come to appreciate that God — the Transcendent — is also the Unknowable. If we think back to our example of the chimp learning calculus, we can recognize that the poor chimp would have no idea where to begin. The chimp would be utterly lost. But what if a very patient and kind person were to start teaching the chimp the fundamentals. Of course, under present circumstances, the chimp could never be taught higher mathematics. But, that’s because the animal’s instructor couldn’t get inside the chimp’s head. What if the teacher could somehow inspire the chimp to learn?
There’s a very old saying in philosophy (that applies across the realm of human experience). It says, “Quidquid recipitur in modum recipientis recipitur” — ‘Whatever is received is received in the mode of the receiver.” What does that mean? In simplest terms, if you want to communicate with someone, you’d better speak her/his language. Remember the elements of communication I spoke of in an earlier post? When you attempt to communicate, you’re only responsible for formulating the communication, for encoding it in language and for launching it into some transmission medium. It’s up to the receiver to receive and decode your communication; but s/he can only do that if you’ve encoded it in and transmitted it in a way that it can be received and decoded. For that, the receiver is in control.
Now, what happens when God — the Transcendent and Unknowable — communicates with us humans? God’s communications must be encoded and transmitted in human format. Fortunately for us, we are born with a spiritual hunger. We want to find the spiritual key that fits the lock deep inside us, and we keep looking for it for as long as we live. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you,” wrote St. Augustine of Hippo.1
Let’s say that you wanted to communicate with your best friend — your dog. There are many ways you could approach it: you could teach the dog to recognize the meaning of some simple human words and phrases; you could add some simple and clear gestures (like ‘sit’, ‘lie down’, ‘stay’, ‘roll over’); you could take advantage of the fact that your dog wants to know what you want, staring intently at your face, by showing your pal some clear facial expressions. However you would choose to get your meaning across to your dog, you would have to be very conscious of making sure you were on her/his level, and checking to see that s/he was receiving the same meaning you were sending.
Now imagine that you and I are the “pets” and God is trying to get a message across to us. God has to communicate with us using our human perception. Remember that God doesn’t “perceive” in anything like the way we do. When we talk about God “seeing” or “hearing” or “feeling” or “speaking”, these terms are all analogous because we have no clue what perception means sub specie aeternitatis (‘from the perspective of eternity’). All we can say is that, for God, all knowledge and understanding is immediately present in the same timeless “instant.” So, God has to reduce all communication to human perception.
Humans are in awe of the natural world. Regardless of how common the experience may be, it never ceases to inspire awe in those who have eyes to see and hearts to feel. The universe — and all that’s in it — is a love letter from the Divine to the human when seen through the eyes of faith. Nearly everyone has, at some time or other, been blown away by an experience in nature and has said to her/himself, “There’s got to be Something greater than I here.” It’s so universal an experience that even Thomas Jefferson appealed to “nature’s God” in the American Declaration of Independence2 as the foundation for his argument for human freedom and self-determination.
So what is God trying to get across to us, and how are we receiving the message? Our perception of the Transcendent within and beyond the world of nature was expressed by the Greeks in the form of the “Transcendental” categories of unity, goodness, truth, and beauty. To the extent that humans can experience these things in nature, they can come to appreciate them in God as both the Source and Paradigm (or “Form” in Plato’s language). The human communications that we are familiar with are about some subject. If we wrote a love letter, it would be about us. In the case of God’s communication, however, it’s not about God; it is God. Once again, when we are open to receive God’s self-revelation, there is little information received. It’s not about the knowledge. What we receive is with no less than an encounter the Living God, an encounter that leaves us gasping in awe not so much at the God of our understanding, but, rather, at the God of our lack of understanding.
2Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence of a people who were entitled “to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them.” According to David Volker, “‘Nature’s God’ was clearly the God of deism in all important ways. That Jefferson included God in the ‘Declaration of Independence’ is very significant because it helped lay the foundation for a civil religion in America.”