I was having a discussion with someone through a comment exchange on another blog about a week ago. The subject was about knowing, understanding and reason. I can’t seem to find the comments now so I have to go from memory, but the gist of it (from my perspective of course) was that how we know God is not by figuring Him out as it were. In particular there is a subtlety to the word “comprehend” that implies control, i.e to “grasp” a thing. “Understand” in contrast (though used as a synonym) comes from words meaning to “stand under”. One definition of which is, “to be thoroughly familiar with the character and propensities of…”.
In my comment I observed the difference between the two approaches to “knowing” was in the “position” (or attitude) of the knowledge seeker.
I used music as an example of a form of knowing that is not based in reason because the artist conveys information to the hearer which bypasses language and evokes an emotion in the hearer. The fact that many hearers respond in the same way implies that there is a transfer of information (i.e. many hearers get the “same message”).
The person on the other side of the discussion could not see that (as I remember, their view was that a set of tones and tempo evoke an emotion, there is nothing to know). So I thought about it a bit more and this is what I came up with…
Different people learn mathematics differently. Some can “grasp” the concepts directly while others have to “take it on faith” as it were, and apply the rules of the specific mathematics being learned until they understand (i.e. become familiar with …) it. For me, learning calculus was very much the latter experience. Part of the problem is the need to suspend your belief in some things you already know to understand the new concept. What you already know limits your ability to understand the new thing.
One aspect of calculus is the concept of “instantaneous rate of change”. This is explained by Morris Kline in his textbook on the subject. For the purpose of this discussion it is enough to see that the “rate of change” of anything is the amount of change divided by the change in time. Since the instantaneous change and the the instantaneous amount of time are both zero at an instant (a single point in time), it should be clear that the concept is nonsense. Everyone knows that division by zero is undefined. Yet it works!
Once you understand the principle it becomes blindingly obvious that the physical representation of this concept is simply the slope of the tangent of a function describing the behavior of the thing in question over time (if you don’t see that intuitively don’t feel bad nobody seemed to until some point in the 1700’s).
The point is I could not “figure out” calculus when I had to learn it. What I already knew about rates (change over time) prevented me from seeing the possibility (it was nonsense to me).
Knowing God can be like that.
The English Standard version says: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
If our attitude toward knowing God is to “grasp” Him using our reason, our natural intellect, we will be unable. Even if we think we can, we cannot because He is greater than we can comprehend. On the other hand if we humble ourselves and admit we cannot know God by “figuring Him out” but instead give up our preconceptions and accept Him, applying His truth to our lives, then we begin to understand Him by becoming familiar with His character and behavior. Only after the Spirit has changed our hearts and we begin to see how the Lord works in our lives does it become clear to us.
Then we wonder how we could have missed it before and why it isn’t obvious to everyone.
But that is a different problem.