Knowing What We Don’t Know

The New Testament, particularly in the writings of St. John (but in St. Paul’s works as well) say much about “knowing” God. In St. John’s Gospel Christ says, “And this is eternal life: that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Thus, knowing God is equated with salvation itself.

On the other hand, we speak of God as “incomprehensible and unknowable” (for instance, in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). As Fr. Thomas Hopko has often said, “You cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that.”

There is, I suggest, an unknowing that is knowing. This, of course, is a paradox, as is almost everything well said in theology. It is often necessary in the spiritual life to not know God in order to rightly know Him.

In work with catechumens (those preparing to be received in the Church), I often spend as much time helping them to unlearn as to learn. The God whom we seek to know is not the same thing as the “God of our understanding,” much less the God of our imagination. Knowing God is eternal life (now and always). What kind of knowing is paradise?

It is very difficult to find words to describe the kind of knowing that is described in the New Testament. It is certainly not an assembly of facts – nor is it the kind of knowing that can be arrived at through reason. Some describe this knowing as something like intuition, but I am not sure that this says enough.

There are two words or phrases that occur to me that have something of this sense of knowing. One is the word, “nevertheless.” The other is the phrase “and yet.” Both carry a since of hesitation. Offered one thing (as almost inevitable) and someone responds, “Nevertheless.” It is a negation that is an affirmation as well. It need not necessarily speak the ground of its affirmation, but it remains. The most famous such “nevertheless” I can recall is that of the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (Book of Daniel). They are confronted with the tortuous flames of the wicked king Nebuchadnezzer, being asked to abjure their faith in the true God. They acknowledge the flames and the threats of the king, but respond with “Nevertheless.” Despite every comfort to the contrary they will not deny whom they know. They know God more than they know fear. There is no long discourse on their knowledge or great refutation of the errors of Babylon. There is the resounding sound of “nevertheless!”

Something of the same hesitation hovers about the phrase “and yet.” It is often a phrase unspoken, a hesitation of the heart. It is a hesitation that suggests there is something more than has thus far been acknowledged. Its absence in the Garden of Eden is deafening.

Confronted by the enticements of the serpent, we are told:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat (Gen. 3:6).

Yes, the tree is good for food and pleasant to the eyes, and to be desired to make one wise… and yet. Such a hesitation is the pause that makes sin to vanish and the knowledge of God possible. In the course of our own lives, how much room is allowed for and yet?

Both nevertheless and and yet are negative expressions – though both depend upon a positive. We yield all too easily to what we think we know and do not hesitate sufficiently before what we do not know.

That hesitation is often a moment of faithfulness or at least the moment in which faith can be born. In its negative aspect, it is an emptiness, a kenosis, that allows a true fullness to appear in its place. It is a hesitation that admits what we do not know while allowing the possibility of knowledge at the same time. It is the inner life of wonder.

The content of the Orthodox Christian faith is not an argument. It is not something to be compared to other things such that we can say, “This is better.” It is the continual life of God lived and known by His people, who through the ages, when confronted by manifold opportunities for more convenient options have been able to say, “And yet…” When pressed by their enemies, even to the point of torture and death, they have affirmed, “Nevertheless.” And in so doing have preserved the knowledge of the true and living God and kept intact the treasure of Tradition that is nothing other than that true Knowledge.

God give us such holy hesitation.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





18 responses to “Knowing What We Don’t Know”

  1. Jeremiah Avatar

    Holy hesitation is something I desperately need. Lord help me to say nevertheless and and yet.

  2. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    This reminds me of the response I frequently make to street evangelists who ask me if I am saved. What else can you say?!

  3. Peter T. Avatar
    Peter T.

    Thanks! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this issue of “unknowing.” Although it took quite a bit longer to discover what I was looking for, the early stages of my conversion to Orthodoxy mostly had to do with the collapse of my former notions about God. For a long time, I had no idea how my wife was ever going to make the trip herself, because I knew there was almost no way for her to travel by the same road. But lately she’s been having her own experience of “unknowing” what she thought she knew about God, and that in itself is encouraging. It all makes me think of the baptismal service, where you have to start by renouncing Satan and heresies, before you get to confessing the faith of the Church. By the time we get there, we’ve all had to walk our own road of repentance from the lies we believed.

  4. Prudence True Avatar

    Ah, yes . . . Orthodoxy isn’t just a less tarnished version of something else to compare and contrast with a pro/con list. Through the treasure and fullness of Traditions the knowledge of God permeates the soul.

    Sit in Liturgy and listen with an open heart, you’ll see for yourself.

  5. […] Father Stephen writes on knowing God, under the title “Knowing what we don’t know.” […]

  6. Seraphim Avatar

    Merveilleux — thank you once again dear Fr. Stephen!

  7. skholiast Avatar

    It was in a different post on this blog that I first read the succinct words of Father Thomas Hopko: You cannot know God; but you must know God to know that.

  8. Postulant David Avatar
    Postulant David

    Another good “nevertheless” in Scripture is in Psalm 89:33.

    “Nevertheless, My lovingkindness I will not utterly take from him, Nor allow my faithfulness to fail.” NKJV

  9. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    My first response: I have no idea what you are talking about. 😉

    Seriously, I do agree that there is something mysterious, a “wonder,” an intimacy with God that can only explain how we make decisions in our crises.

    Reason doesn’t quite work. If we rely on circumstances to tell us what to decide (The King is treating us well, I guess we are on the right track), that breaks down when the King is threatening to kill and torture us.

    If your idea or plan is working well, all paths are lining up, the money is flowing, then God is in it. Is he not in it when things dry up? Or is that the big moment where we are most called upon to believe that God will come through?

    Reason falls short. In those crucial times there needs to be a genuine relationship with God himself to guide us to the truth. Intuition is a good word, but I agree it is not strong enough. “Mystical relationship” maybe? “knowing with the heart” “Inner certainty”? I’m not sure.

    There are verses that say we should believe what we have asked for before receiving it. There are others that talk about “I believe, help me in my unbelief.”

    Good meditation, Father.

  10. Seraphim Avatar

    Without the Shekinah nothing is sufficient but where the glory of the Lord shines, nothing is lacking.

    This truth really bears repeating:

    Since the Shekinah is light, those passages of the Apocrypha and New Testament which mention radiance, and in which the Greek text reads δόξα, refer to the Shekinah, there being no other Greek equivalent for the word. Thus, according to Luke ii. 9, “the glory of the Lord [δόζα Ḳυρίου] shone round about them” (comp. II Peter i. 17; Eph. i. 6; II Cor. iv. 6); and it is supposed that in John i. 14 and Rev. xxi. 3 the words σκηνοῦν and σκηνή were expressly selected as implying the Shekinah. The idea that God dwells in man and that man is His temple (e.g., Col. ii. 9; II Cor. vi. 16; John xiv. 23) is merely a more realistic conception of the resting of the Shekinah on man.

    From Jewish Encyclopedia (p. 259)

    Consider the farmer in Isaiah 28. Does he plow continually? Does he keep on breaking up and harrowing the soil forever?

  11. Yannis Avatar

    Another wonderful post.

    By the way F. Stephen, you use to have a sermon of yours in the St Anne’s Orthodox Church website; the one in which you talked about subscribing to other “gods”, the god of work, of responsibility etc.

    As much as i like the new site, it unfortunately (for me) does not have it (perhaps not yet?). Could you possibly post a link to it if it is still anywhere on the net?

    Thank you.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I will look things over and see if I can retrieve it. You’re very kind. I am traveling much this week which leaves little time to write or to monitor the site. Many thanks for everyone’s patience over the next few days.

  13. Yannis Avatar

    Its straight from the gut and without conformism; impossible not to like for me 🙂

    Take care Father Stephen and have a safe journey,

    God be with you.

  14. Postulant David Avatar
    Postulant David

    Psalm 73
    22Then I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was like a beast before You.
    23Nevertheless I am continually with You;
    You have taken hold of my right hand.

  15. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    Father Stephen you’re right when you say The content of the Orthodox Christian faith is not an argument. It is not something to be compared to other things such that we can say, “This is better.” GK Chesterton once said that “familiarity does not breed contempt, comparison does.”

  16. Luke Avatar

    If 2 negatives make positive maybe
    (unknown) x (unknown) = known?
    So because,
    “the term ‘unknown unknown’ refers to circumstances or outcomes that were not conceived of by an observer at a given point in time. The meaning of the term becomes more clear when it is contrasted with the known unknown, which refers to circumstances or outcomes that are known to be possible, but it is unknown whether or not they will be realized” – from WIKI

    When I read the 3 young men passage before I assumed that it meant they had a amazing revelation or clarity but perhaps it was a matter of trusting God.
    Not assuming an outcome maybe the key. Maybe they really really din’t know and they abandend themselves (kenosis) like you said.
    I’ts all very analytical but it sort of makes sense to me.

    thank you Father for the post,

  17. Michael Rice Avatar
    Michael Rice

    Why do we pray for a shameless, painless death at Divine Liturgy? THanks

  18. Eden Eternal Guide…

    […]Knowing What We Don’t Know « Glory to God for All Things[…]…

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