“For Thou Art God Ineffable, Unknowable, Invisible, Incomprehensible…”

One of the most fascinating claims of Orthodox Theology is that when we attempt to conceptualize God we invariably fashion an idol.  I find that a dark saying, I admit; I have puzzled over it long and often.  (I have spent much of my life waiting for the dawning of dark sayings.)  But today I ran across this in Eckhart, and I take it to expand the dark saying (without, alas, making it brighter):

Man’s last and highest parting occurs when, for God’s sake, he takes leave of god.  St. Paul took leave of god for God’s sake and gave up all that he might get from god, as well as all he might give–together with every idea of god.  In parting with these, he parted with god for God’s sake and yet God remained to him as God is in his own nature–not as he is conceived by anyone to be–nor yet as something to be achieved–but more as an “is-ness”, as God really is.

Puzzle me that.

15 responses

  1. I never really know what to make of these claims that folks somehow transcend our all-too-human grasping/manipulating natures to come face to face with things/beings as they are so to speak.
    At best I can bricolage it into a kind of Derrida-like call to an unachievable ideal (like say Justice or Democracy) that keeps us from settling for less, from worshiping our inevitable projections as gods, but obviously that’s not what Eckhart was after, nor his devotee Heidegger who wanted for more than “mere” anthropology could allow for, for something beyond our grasping natures something that we could not manipulate (fashion into a tool) for our own ends, some saving grace/Word…

  2. I’ve been trying to find the original of that Eckhart quote online with no luck. I’m suspicious of the use of the lower-case ‘god’. Do you know the original text?

  3. Starting from the last words, maybe there’s an ‘is-ness’ to things that defies conceptualization — the look of the moon, the taste of blue cheese — and defying conceptualization, defies judgment: say the judgment that God (oops — I’ve just slipped into talking of ‘god’) is good, all powerful, and knows everything. So dispensing with, foregoing, taking leave of judgments and concepts in the moment of contact leaves us with an unutterable moment of contact (not exactly ‘thinking,’ not ‘feeling’, not ‘knowing’ — insofar as each of these fall into concepts and judgments). So we stammer and flail in the dark when we leave god for God. Of course what is this moment of unutterable contact a moment of contact WITH ? Not the moon or blue cheese. The being struck by the mere existence of the world and all in it? Not exactly . . .

  4. There’s a point in what E says that, I think, is more or less common ground for all the best theologians, at any rate: that God is not an object of theoretical or practical knowledge (“not as he is conceived…nor yet as something to be achieved”). A pressing question for anyone who says something like that is what other kind of knowledge or awareness there could be, and Eckhart’s more famous philosophical readers – I’m thinking of Hegel and Heidegger – were famously preoccupied with that question. Now I don’t know whether the following is related to that question, but there is something in E’s remarks about our relation to God that is neither theoretical nor practical: I mean his remarks about giving up God for God’s sake, finding that God remains to us when we part with God. I don’t now what to make of expressions like “is-ness”, but the idea of finding God through neither conceptualization nor action – neither through pursuing the true nor through pursuing the good – but through some kind of denial of one’s ability to find God: this I find compelling. As you say, a dark saying – but perhaps an idea like this must remain dark.

    • Thanks, Ben. I hope to write a longer response soon, but for now let me ask: Do you know Pelikan’s remarkable Fools for Christ? In it, Pelikan examines attempts to reduce the Holy (think: Hidden) to the True, The Good and the Beautiful. Hope all is well in the Windy City!

      • somewhere in the dark recesses of my memory lurks a prayer, real or imagined, where E is praying to G_d to free him from his (E’s) God, and I can get my mind around this as a prayer (a signaling of the need for the extra-human/supernatural to intercede where human grasping falls short), but denying one’s ability is still an all-too-human doing/ability so around we go…

  5. Kelly,

    I’ve been wondering what you yourself are expressing when you say you find the Orthodox claim a dark saying. I am not completely clear if you are coming, as it were, from outside or inside the puzzle–from a place of comfort or of discomfort–and if the latter, what kind of discomfort?
    Particularly, I’ve been trying to figure out if you are:

    a) not quite sure you are seeing the point of the dark saying, but still wondering why E and other orthodox theologians are so committed to it–intellectually and out of respect to those people? (I have a feeling that this is not where you are coming from.)

    b) wondering at this saying from a place of some attraction to it, but without finding in yourself enough capacity to say and think it, or enough motivation to say and think it or similar things?

    c) wondering at the dark saying as part of immersing yourself in the darkness of the saying, saying in fact, or accepting in fact, that there really is no other place to occupy in this discussion, apart from a place of wonder (or of some kind of negation of one’s self)?

    I could imagine someone saying that the two puzzles–the puzzle from the inside and the puzzle from the outside–are really the same puzzle: puzzle at the meaning of the saying. But again it doesn’t seem to me that you would say that. If you could help me place your puzzle, I’d be grateful.


    • Reshef, many thanks for this comment. You are right about there being a puzzle about the nature of my puzzlement. I guess, now that you bring it to my attention, that maybe that was what I meant the parenthetical to speak to–about waiting for the dawning of dark sayings. I’m tempted to say that my relationship to the saying is Augustinian: that I believe it in order to understand it. But, to be honest, I am not entirely sure what it would mean to say that, and so at best saying it relocates the puzzle or adds a new puzzle to the old one.

      Certainly, I do think of myself in some (c)-ish relationship to the saying. Still, on occasion I find the aspect under which I relate to the saying shifting in a (b)-ish direction. (Eg, what conception of concepts, if any in particular, underwrites such a saying? Need a concept be conceived of as mediating (and as a result somehow ‘falsifying’) our relationship to what falls under the concept? Or, still more crudely, need my concept of ‘God’ be smaller than God?) In such moments, various McDowellian and Fregean worries crowd me and I am unsure how to place them in relationship to the saying.

      Sometimes I am tempted to think that the saying is really less a ‘thesis’ than it is a caution, in the spirit of St. Thomas’ neo-Socratic reminder: “This is what is ultimate in the human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know God.”

      I wish I could do more to provide a response to your comment that is worthy of it. But this is all I have at the moment.

  6. Thanks Kelly. That helps. This whole business is fascinating.

    I’m not sure I understand something—perhaps there is not much to it. You say that Fregean-McDowellian considerations still worry you here. What I’m not sure I understand is why that is if you have the Thomas out. On the face of it, it seems that the F-M worries only apply if we take the saying in a certain way—as a thesis—and that Thomas’ reminder allows us not to take it this way. Is there something about this dark saying that prevents you (or that you think should prevent us) from letting go of the idea that it is nevertheless a thesis? Or perhaps this question would be more useful: is there something about the saying that makes you think that it is not *merely* cautionary? You say that Thomas’ reminder is a *temptation* for you. Does this imply that for you there is something about this solution that should be avoided? Or perhaps (I’m looking for the right question): is there something in the nature of the dark saying that somehow shapes the nature of the caution as it applies to the saying, and thus somehow keeps the Fregean-McDowellian worries alive?

    Sorry for this confused barrage of questions. I’m not sure if this is at all helpful.

  7. Dear Kelly,
    “God is that which concerns man ultimately” – Paul Tillich
    “God is being-itself” – Paul Tillich
    Thank you for reminding me of Tillich through Eckhart.
    God bless,

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