In his Systematic Theology, Douglas Kelley makes an interesting observation concerning our knowledge of God. In his explain of how knowledge of God is made particular, within the context of the Church, Kelley draws the contrast with the Enlightenment belief that all knowledge is available universally, ahistorically through principles of reason:
The philosophy of the Enlightenment has had an aversion to ‘particularlity’, preferring instead supposedly universal ideas drawn by rootless, individual thinkers from concepts that the human spirit extracts from self, from nature and from history (in varying combinations)….That God should be known by a particular revelation in a particular community of faith was abhorrent to the, and in many respects their hostility to the particularlity of the revelation of God’s truth has constituted the deep, underlying fault-line dividing Western Culture from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century.
Douglas Kelly, Systematic Theology: The God Who Is (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications Ltd, 2008), 1:435.
The idea that knowledge of God (or indeed any related questions) should be knowable beginning from any particular position makes inherent sense to us post-Enlightenment souls. My-self and my reason are sufficient to know and to draw conclusions about God and the “meaning of life”.
By the way, this is not the profound, learned observation we may think it to be. I recall my brother as a child positing this argument, Why does anybody else think they know more about God than me? My opinion is as good anyone else.
This is the reason that another’s conclusions about God can be so unsetting to us: If I meet a man who holds to a different religion, it causes me to question my own. Since both of us are equally positioned to draw proper conclusions, then I must then question the rationality of my position. The only tenable conclusions will ultimately be either no-one knows or everyone knows. There is either no knowledge (and those who think they possess such knowledge are deluded), or everyone knows: in which case the knowledge of very low value.
But such solutions are untenable to most people. They fail on two grounds. Most importantly, they fail because they are unsatisfying. No one knows what life is bothers most people too much. Fortunately, a drug and entertainment culture are sufficient to keep most people distracted, amused to death.
Such solutions also fail because they offend our vanity. We desire to be better situated than others: to be smarter, more in the know, et cetera.
These two problems lead to various “solutions” such agnosticism as a badge of intellectual honesty and virtue or esoteric knowledge. We each have our taste and hence our solution.
But consider against Kelly’s observation: this knee-jerk belief, this Enlightenment doctrine is nothing than a bald assertion. How could one, by reason, possibly know that sufficient knowledge of God must be universally accessible to anyone who takes the time to think? Simple observation does not lead to such a conclusion. There are no universal conclusions which are reached by all. Thus, one posits reason to one’s conclusions: and a lack of reason must inform those who disagree. The agnostic must think the believer of what-ever religion lacking in reason; a quality which the agnostic (and those of his sort) alone possess. And thus, reason becomes a sort of revelation which only a certain sort of person can possess. We are back to particularlity.
Kelly asserts the Christian position that God can only be known on the terms and in the way determined by God:
However, if one wants to meet with the real God, it has to be on his terms. He will be met with in the community of faith which He established, and which He maintains personally by His Word and Spirit; a community which, in turn, bases its life and teaching upon the divinely revealed, particular word in a community that lives by the Spirit.
One can rejects this proposition (and many do). But it is not less intellectually honest to contend that God can only be known in a particular way than to argue that God can be sufficiently known by a-historical reason independent of place or person. The Enlightenment doctrine is an article of bad, blind faith which cannot reasonably assert general warrant for itself; beyond the number of persons who accept the proposition. Reason is really a kind of revelation; and the agnostic, atheistic position, or universalist position (those are the essential options), are particular communities which lay claim to the truth unknown to others.
We are all arguing from a particular community.
The Christian position is that the Spirit of God uses the Word of God to make the people of God, and thus God is only known in that space. (To be clear here, Kelly – and I – are Protestant Christians. And thus, I am not contending that God can only be known in the context of churches in commune with the Bishop of Rome, for instance. There is a potential ambiguity here on the question of “church”.)
This creates a coherent understanding of the knowledge of God, in that the Word of God acts to make us known before God. Kelly draws this point out further. If God could be found outside of the believing community, this would contradict the nature of God. “Otherwise, God could be found impersonally [the church requires personal relationship to disclose the personal God] and generally, rather than personally and particularly.”
It not only permits us to know God, it causes us to be known to God:
Hebrews 4:12–13 (ESV)
12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
The Word of God makes God known to us; while it makes us known to God. It causes to be known.
Very often Christians use this passage in such a way that the knowing is really only subjective: the words of Scripture cause me to better understand my-self. The Word of God thus acts like a sort of flashlight to help me look around my own psyche.
But the text is claiming something different: I am not being exposed to myself; I am being exposed to God: “Even to come into a service where believers are worshipping the Triune God strips away pretense, causing one to be frightening unveiled before the Holy One.” 436.
This act of coming to know that I am exposed to God (because nothing is really hidden from God), is too much for many. “For such reasons, multitudes tragically prefer false gods who have been fabricated by other sinners, so as to keep themselves from being embarrassed by an honest exposure of who they really are, and potentially humbled and changed before the true God.” (436)
But to be humbled is to be freed; to be judged by this exposure is to be forgiven. For God is merciful and ready to dismiss all charges against us. He exposes like a surgeon cleaning a wound to end an infection. He kills that which kills us so that we be alive to God in Christ.