Knowing About God vs. Knowing God-Zizioulas Book Study

This is the first of three reflections on Lectures in Christian Dogmatics by Metropolitan John Zizioulas. It is meant as a guide to those who may want to read this theological text with some guidance. You can buy this book from Amazon at this link here.

May it benefit you in your growth in knowing God!

As we consider the Lectures in Christian Dogmatics by Metropolitan John Zizioulas in this class, let’s review what we’ve learned so far and dig deeper to understand what it means to know God. Of course we can learn about who God is through doctrine-the Church’s catechisms, liturgy, councils, and interpretation of the Scriptures can give us a picture of who God is, what He is like. Is He triune, for example? We are taught through doctrine as we learned in the last class, but what we will see tonight is that Zizioulas argues for a higher knowledge than what we encounter through doctrine. Instead, as we encounter God as persons, we truly can know Him. This is far more intimate than knowing about Him.

In pages 16-21, we meditate upon knowledge in general. Thinking deep about the philosophy of knowledge, we encounter the problem that if we know God the way that we know a table, we realize that we have done something we would not want to do. As the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom proclaims, “You are God, ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible…”, we realize that to know God the way that we know the table is to miss the immensity of His mystery. We cannot “check Him out” the way we would walk around a car to “kick the tires”. We profess that there is always more that we can learn about Him. So where does that leave us? Are we in a tail spin of knowing nothing of God because He is so limitless? As Zizioulas teaches us on page 21, the answer is an emphatic “No”. The solution to this dilemma between objectifying God and an absolute negative theology is a knowledge that is based on personal relationship.

In section 2 (entitled Knowledge Through the Son), Zizioulas takes us through Church history. From the idea of God as the Logos in Greek philosophy, to Fathers such as Dionysius, Justin, Origen, and Makarius, we realize that knowing about God or knowing God through our own senses is insufficient for a God who is so much more than a finite object that we can say that God is beyond being (hyper-ousia). What we learn is that Maximus the Confessor breaks the tension between knowing God with our minds and hearts, without losing the mystery which is at the core of our faith. How does he do this?

Maximus, we learn on page 23, emphasizes that the Logos is not a concept like a table or an automobile. No, the Logos of God is Christ, and the loving relationship between the Logos and God “actually reveals, discloses, and makes known the identity of God as this person, the Father.” This personal relationship is more than an abstract principle, and God is also more than some kind of King who is aloof. As Zizioulas summarizes, “You cannot recognize yourself in isolation from another person. You need a relationship to reflect back to you who you are…A relationship of persons, and therefore of love, reveals the truth, and makes known what could not be known in any other way.” The problem of knowing about God despite His incomprehensibility is reconciled through love. When we love one another, we see the good in the other, and we can even understand ourselves and our destiny of union and communion. We rise above a mirror that is narcissistic, and we instead become free of isolation as we love the Other.

Zizioulas helps us to understand that doctrines such as the Trinity are formulated not to be static truths; instead, we encounter God through doctrine as a stepping stone to this highest reality of personal relationship. Section 3 (Knowledge Through Personhood) really hits home with this reality. Pages 25 through the first half of page 30 make it clear that to not know God (or anyone, for that matter) as a person is to not really know them. Objectification misses the potential for truly knowing a person. This is true even when we assert something that is true about someone; e.g., when we say God is good this is not untrue, but we are objectifying Him as good if we stop at His attribute of goodness. Instead, when we profess that He is Our Father we are getting to the deepest truth of God. His goodness is manifest through personal relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, Zizioulas argues that we must always be clear that persons are not things. We are persons living in freedom, love, and self-revelation. And this is what we should seek when we say that we want to know God. We are not seeking to memorize theological or dogmatic terms. Instead, we are on a journey of love that is initiated by God’s love for us.

As Zizioulas writes on page 31, we know God through a relationship with God, and because God is the God of All, we can say (as he does) that “The knowledge of God as Father involves the re-constitution of every relationship by which we are constituted…The re-ordering of our relationships brings us finally into being, setting us definitively with the relationship to the persons of God that will secure out life without limit”. Stop and think about this concept! So often we are told that Christianity (or religion in general) is about an individual seeking salvation for his or her soul. Even when this is not individualistic and there is a call for salvation through a body such as a Church, Zizioulas would ask us to think more deeply than just asking how our sins are forgiven, whether we are in a state of grace, or any other such forensic analysis of us as individuals. In fact, Zizioulas would object to even calling a person an individual. Why? Because he is saying that our being itself is based on the proper orientation of our relationship to God and to all persons. It is not just that we are “going to heaven” if we have a good relationship with God and know Him, we only truly exist when we know Him and know one another. Section 3 closes with the final reflection on what it means to know persons. From the bottom of page 32 through the end, this is made clear. God is not a ‘thing’, but in the life of the Trinity, we know God through the Son, and are given life through the Spirit.

Where does faith come into play? The last section of this chapter brings our sacramental and creedal existence into focus. Without losing the emphasis on personal relationship, we understand that sacramental life brings us knowledge of God. Disagreeing with many in our world today, Zizioulas maintains that we do not give up real knowledge when we have faith. Nor do the holy mysteries as symbols keep us from knowledge. Taking baptism as an example, Zizioulas points out on page 35 that the ‘crisis’ of baptism is that we gain a new identity as persons. This personal relationship of union with Christ and His Church is all about love and relationships, and not solely concepts of the remission of ancestral sin or a state of grace. In taking on a new identity, we grow as persons in love and union with others. Thus, while we learn and grow in our identity through faith and the holy mysteries, we profess that while faith will pass away and love will remain, faith is a critical aspect of our growth in love and as persons.

In closing, what can we take away from these reflections? I think that a key question which we must ask ourselves is how have we sold ourselves short in making God a ‘thing’? We can offer or recite statements which may be true, but we may miss the heart of our faith and knowledge of God if we sever the importance of personal relationship from our affirmations. How do we make each other individuals and objects instead of persons? How can we get away from that thinking and seek to not just know about each other (our likes, dislikes, et cetera), but know each other? Isn’t that the deepest sort of friendship that we have as families, both physical and spiritual? How does our Byzantine Tradition emphasize that, liturgically and spiritually? For example, do we mean it when we sing, “We have seen the true light…”? Or do we struggle to make this prayer (and all of our prayers) something that is deep within? I hope that these reflections comparing knowing about God to knowing God might kindle in all of us a deeper desire to know God-to see Him as persons, to see ourselves and one another in the mirror of His holy love for mankind. Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ Our God, have mercy on us.

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