"God is the Lord and has revealed Himself unto us; blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord" (Ps 118:26-27)
We are born with an inner urge to know God. But God is not visible and often seems so distant. We thirst for knowledge of God and often don’t know where to look. We must first of all realize that God is not physical, not a mental concept and not something we can construct by philosophical reasoning. God can be experienced. But how?
The first words in our creed are “I believe”. Our confession is based on faith and is not founded on rational grounds. There are no proofs based on a logical examination of facts. It is based on an inner conviction with a moral foundation. To believe in God means that we acknowledge God with our minds and that we strive towards Him with our hearts. As Orthodox Christians we believe in that which is inaccessible to our outward experience, such as knowledge gained through scientific exploration or what is observed by us through our senses. Our faith is a mystical revelation in our soul. With it comes a feeling of love, fear, veneration, reverence and humility. Our faith is a reality that binds us with the source of all life and power - our God. As Paul says, Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb 11:1).
Can we know God’s essence?
God in His essence is incomprehensible. The Apostle Paul tells us, God is “unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1Tim. 6:16). Paul is telling us, by speaking of an “unapproachable light,” that we cannot know the essence of God. But, we can experience His energies. We do have some knowledge of God based on what He has revealed of Himself to us. But, this knowledge is never complete. Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, and I know in part” (1Cor. 13:12). What we seek is something that can only be seen “dimly” and is only partially known.
Saint Basil the Great writes:
"If you wish to speak or hear about God, renounce your own body, renounce your bodily senses, pass over the seasons of the year, their orderly arrangements, the adornments of the earth; stand above the ether, traverse the stars, their splendor, grandeur, the profit which they provide for the whole world, their good order, brightness, arrangement, movement, and the bond or distance between them. Having passed through all this in your mind, go about heaven and, standing above it, with your thought alone, observe the beauties which are there: the armies of angels, which are above the heavens, the chiefs of the archangels, the glory of the Dominions, the presiding of the Thrones, the Powers, Principalities, Authorities. Having gone past all this and left below the whole of creation in your thoughts, raising your mind beyond the boundaries of it, present to your mind the essence of God, unmoving, unchanging, unalterable, dispassionate, simple, incomplex, indivisible, unapproachable light, unutterable power, infinite magnitude, resplendent glory, most desired goodness, immeasurable beauty that powerfully strikes the wounded soul, but cannot worthily be depicted in words.”
How do we begin to get knowledge of God?
We begin by confessing our ignorance about the essence of God. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315 - 386) tells us, “We explain not what God is, but candidly confess that we have no exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God, to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.” We cannot think of God in terms of a philosophy. Words cannot define God, but why? Because, this would limit God to our own reasonableness. We are part of His creation and therefore less than God. The Creator must be larger than the created. God is infinite and beyond all human reason. About all we can say about God is that He isn’t this, but also, He isn’t that either. This is known as “apophatic theology” where we define God by what we know He is not. We can set boundaries that help us to know God, but never totally describe Him. We can say that God is not physically visible or is not a creation. The key is that we must be careful not to use our reason to derive a definition of God beyond what has been revealed to us through Scripture and Tradition or our direct experience of Him. For this ends up being only our own mental creation. It is necessary to go beyond words and reason to understand the true nature of the Divine. The starting point to knowing God is to accept that we are not searching for a definition that can be put into words, but a relationship with Him.