When I first began teaching theology, I fantasised about writing a book about the hiddenness of God. Why does God remain hidden and invisible? Why doesn’t God just show himself plainly in a way that nobody can dispute?
One of the standard answers to that question was this: If God did manifest himself plainly there wouldn’t be any need for faith. But that begged the question: Who wants faith? Wouldn’t it be better to just plainly see God? There were other answers to that question of course, except I didn’t know them or didn’t grasp them with enough depth for them to be meaningful. For example, one such answer taught that God is pure Spirit and that spirit cannot be perceived through our normal human senses. But that seemed too abstract to me. And so I began to search for different answers or for better articulations of our stock answers to this question. And there was a pot of gold at the end of the search; it led me to the mystics, particularly to John of the Cross, and to spiritual writers such as Carlo Carretto.
What’s their answer? They offer no simple answers. What they offer instead are various perspectives that throw light on the ineffability of God, the mystery of faith, and the mystery of human knowing in general. In essence, how we know as human beings and how we know God is deeply paradoxical, that is, the more deeply we know anything, the more that person or object begins to become less conceptually clear. One of the most famous mystics in history suggests that as we enter into deeper intimacy we concomitantly enter into a “cloud of unknowing”, namely, into a knowing so deep that it can no longer be conceptualized. What does this mean?
Three analogies can help us here: the analogy of a baby in its mother’s womb; the analogy of darkness as excessive light; and the analogy of deep intimacy as breaking down our conceptual images:
First: Imagine a baby in its mother’s womb. In the womb, the baby is so totally enveloped and surrounded by the mother that, paradoxically, it cannot see the mother and cannot have any concept of the mother. Its inability to see or picture its mother is caused by the mother’s omnipresence, not by her absence. The mother is too present, too all enveloping, to be seen or conceptualized. The baby has to be born to see its mother. So too for us and God. Scripture tells us that we live, and move, and breathe, and have our being in God. We are in God’s womb, enveloped by God, and, like a baby, we must first be born (death as our second birth) to see God face to face. That’s faith’s darkness.
Second: Excessive light is a darkness: If you stare straight into the sun with an unshielded eye, what do you see? Nothing. The very excess of light renders you as blind as if you were in pitch darkness. And that’s also the reason why we have difficulty in seeing God and why, generally, the deeper we journey into intimacy with God, the deeper we are journeying into Light, the more God seems to disappear and become harder and harder to picture or imagine. We’re being blinded, not by God’s absence, but by a blinding light to the unshielded eye. The darkness of faith is the darkness of excessive light.
A final analogy: Deep intimacy is iconoclastic. The deeper our intimacy with anyone the more our pictures and images of that person begin to break down. Imagine this: A friend says to you: “I understand you perfectly: I know your family, your background, your ethnicity, your psychological and emotional temperaments, your strengths, your weakness, and your habits. I understand you.” Would you feel understood? I suspect not. Now imagine a very different scenario: A friend says to you: “You’re a mystery to me! I’ve known you for years, but you’ve a depth that’s somehow beyond me. The longer I know you, the more I know that you are your own mystery.” In this non-understanding, in being allowed to be the full mystery of your own person in that friend’s understanding, you would, paradoxically, feel much better understood. John of the Cross submits that the deeper we journey into intimacy, the more we will begin to understand by not understanding than by understanding. Our relationship to God works in the same way. Initially, when our intimacy is not so deep, we feel that we understand things and we have firm feelings and ideas about God. But the deeper we journey, the more those feelings and ideas will begin to feel false and empty because our growing intimacy is opening us to the fuller mystery of God. Paradoxically this feels like God is disappearing and becoming non-existent.
Faith, by definition, implies a paradoxical darkness, the closer we get to God in this life, the more God seems to disappear because overpowering light can seem like darkness.