Dialoge on the Hidden God – Nicholas of Cusa – Pt 3

Read part one and part two.

Cusa’s dialogue between the Christian and the Pagan presents some challenging questions for contemporary Christians’ language about knowledge, certainty, faith, and how one speaks about God. I find the Christian in the dialogue to be very different from mainstream Christianity’s desire for certainty, rational proofs for the existence of God, and other efforts that inadvertently express to the wider world a degree of epistemological arrogance. (I recognize that to some degree this is a generalization.) More to it, admitting that one does not know something about God (or any other matter of faith) is seen as weakness, laziness, a lack of faith, a rejection of the Bible as a source of knowledge, and a lack of confidence in God. At worst, admitting that one doesn’t know something is seen as a sinful ignorance. Additionally, agnosticism is a target of polemical apologetics. Agnostics are, like atheists, people who’ve got it all wrong. They need to be corrected. To be shown true knowledge. While I’m not disputing the fact that agnosticism is often a mask for apathy or disinterest, I am saying that the inherent value of agnosticism for the Christian faith is underestimated. Again, some observations.

So, back to the Christian and the Pagan.

Where I last left off, the Christian had said something very peculiar about his God: “I know that everything I know is not God and that everything I conceive is not like God…” That is to say, the Christian recognizes that his intellect cannot conceive of anything like God on its own. Even if faith, which amplifies and enlightens reason, allowing one to go beyond reason, is brought into the equation, I think that this simple detail, God’s incomprehensibility, remains true.

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Dialogue on the Hidden God – Nicholas of Cusa – Pt 2

Read Part One.

Where we last left off, the Pagan had asked how the Christian would explain our ability to distinguish between a human being and a stone. The Christian was explaining to the Pagan how we really don’t know the essence of something even though we may claim to. The best example of this is to try to answer the question “What is a stone?” Our intellect cannot exhaust the essence of a stone (if there is an essence at all). But again, how is it that we know something is a stone and not a human being and vice versa?

Christian. …That you know that a human is not a stone does not result from a knowledge by which you know a human and a stone and their difference, but it results from accident, from a difference in the ways of operating and their shapes, to which you discern them, you impose different names.

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Dialogue on the Hidden God – Nicholas of Cusa – Pt 1

Dialogue On the Hidden God (1444) is a short conversation, written by Nicholas of Cusa, between a Pagan and a Christian on the topic of God, specifically on how we might know, or not know, God. A Pagan comes across someone engaged in the act of worship, prostrate and weeping, and is curious. What is this person doing? Who are they worshipping? Why are they worshipping? The Pagan finds out that this person is a Christian and begins to probe as to what sort of God the Christian worships.

Pagan. What are you worshipping?

Christian. God.

Pagan. Who is the God you worship?

Christian. I do not know.

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Merton the Anatheist?

Compare these two writers:

You Must Know How to Doubt

You cannot be a man of faith unless you know how to doubt. You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning the authority of prejudice, even though that prejudice may seem to be religious. Faith is not blind conformity to a prejudice–a ‘pre-judgement’. It is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven. It is not merely the acceptance of a decision that has been made by somebody else. (105)

Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

The Free Decision to Believe

Happily, during my time in Glenstal [Abbey], as later in Benedictine and Ignatian ashrams in India, the atheist too was a welcome stranger. How could one authentically choose theism if one was not familiar with the alternative of atheism? Or the agnostic space between? Indeed, in my first Christian doctrine classes at Glenstal I remember how liberated I felt when the monks had  us read cogent arguments against the existence of God–by Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Russell–before any talk of why God might exist! Atheism was not only tolerated, it was considered indispensable to any wager of faith. (xii)

I like to think of this book as a small intellectual agora where theists and atheists might engage in reasonable if robust debate, acknowledging the possibility of what I call an anatheist space where the free decision to believe or not believe is not just tolerated but cherished. If anatheism signals the possibility of God after God, it is because it allows for the alternative option of its impossibility. (xiv)

Kearney, Anatheism

Kearney only mentions Merton in passing in Anatheism as an exemplar of interreligious dialogue. But I am beginning to see some significant points of contact between Merton and Kearney that would be valuable to the development of the anatheist hermeneutic.

Highlights from Nicholas of Cusa

From Nicholas of Cusa’s On the Vision of God

Introduction § 1 

But I pray first the Word from on high and the all-powerful Discourse, which alone can disclose itself may be given to me in order to set forth, according to your grasp, the wonders which are revealed beyond all sensible, rational, and intellectual sight. (235)

Ch 6 § 21 

In all faces the face of faces is seen veiled and in enigma. It is not seen unveiled so long as one does not enter into a certain secret and hidden silence beyond all faces where there is no knowledge or concept of a face. This cloud, mist, darkness, or ignorance into which whoever seeks your face enters when one leaps beyond every knowledge and concept is such that below it your face cannot be found except veiled. But this very cloud reveals your face to be there beyond all veils… (244)

Ch 7 § 25

No one can approach you because you are unapproachable. No one, therefore, will grasp you unless you give yourself to this person. How do I have you, O Lord, I who am not worthy to appear in your presence? How will my prayer reach you, who are unapproachable by every means? How will I beseech you, for what would be more absurd than to ask that you give yourself to me, you who are all in all? (246)

Ch 9 § 34

If, therefore, your essence penetrates all things, so too does your sight, which is your essence. Just as nothing that exists is able to flee from its own proper being, so neither can it flee from your essence, which gives essential being to all things, nor therefore, can it flee from your sight. (250-251)

Ch 9 § 36

Hence, I experience how necessary it is for me to enter into the cloud and to admit the conincidence of opposites, above all capacity of reason, and to seek there the truth where impossibility confronts me. And above reason, above even every highest intellectual ascent when I will have attained to that which is unknown to every intellect and which every intellect judges to be the most removed from truth, there are you, my God, who are absolute necessity. And the more that cloud of impossibility is recognized as obscure and impossible, the more truly the necessity shines forth and the less veiled it appears and draws near (251)

Ch 9 § 37

Therefore, I thank you, my God, because you make clear to me that there is no other way of approaching you except that which to all humans, even to the most learned philosophers, seems wholly inaccessible and impossible. For you have shown me that you cannot be seen elsewhere than where impossibility confronts and obstructs me. (251)

Ch 12 § 47

Formerly you appeared to me, O Lord, as invisible by every creature because you are a hidden, infinite God. Infinity, however, is incomprehensible by every means of comprehending. Later you appeared to me as visible by all, for a thing exists only as you see it, and it would not actually exists unless it saw you. For your vision confers being, since your vision is your essence. Thus, my God, you are equally invisible and visible. (256)

Ch 12 §50

O Depth of riches, how incomprehensible you are! So long as I conceive a creator creating, I am still on this side of the wall of paradise. And so long as I imagine a creatable creator, I have not yet entered, but I am at the wall. But when I see you as absolute infinity to whom is suited neither the name of creating creator nor that of creatable creator, then I begin to behold you in an unveiled way and to enter the garden of delights. For you are not anything that can be named or conceived but are absolutely and infinitely superexalted above all such things. You are not, therefore, creator, but infinitely more than creator, although with you nothing is made or can be made. To you be the praise and the glory through all eternity. (257)

Ch 13 § 51

O Lord God, helper of those who seek you, I see you in the garden of paradise, and I do not know what I see, because I see nothing visible. I know this alone that I  know that I do not know what I see and that I can never know. I do not know how to name you, because I do not know what you are. Should anyone tell me that you are named by this or that name, by the fact that one gives a name I know that it is not your name. For the wall beyond which I see you is the limit of every mode of signification by names. Should anyone express any concept by which you could be conceived, I know that this concept is not a concept of you, for every concept finds its boundary at the wall of paradise. Should anyone express any likeness and say that you ought to be conceived according to it, I know in the same way that this is not a likeness of you. So too, if anyone wishing to furnish the means by which you might be understood should set forth an understanding of you, one is still far removed from you. For the highest wall separates you from all theses and secludes you from everything that can be said or thought, because you are absolute from all the things that can fall within any concept. (257-258)

Ch 13 § 52

Accordingly, when I am lifted up to the highest, I see you as infinity. For this reason you cannot be approached, comprehended, named, multiplied, or seen. Whoever, therefore, approaches you must ascend above every end, every limit, and every finite thing. Bu how will one reach you, who are the end to which one strives, if one must ascend above the end….The intellect, therefore, must become ignorant and established in darkness if it wishes to see you. But what, my God, is intellect in ignorance if not learned ignorance. O God, you are infinity, and no one can approach you except one whose intellect abides in ignorance, that is, one whose intellect knows that it is ignorant of you….The intellect knows that it is ignorant and that you cannot be grasped because you are infinity. For to understand infinity is to comprehend the incomprehensible. The intellect knows that it is ignorant of you because it knows that you can be known only if the unknowable could be known, and the invisible seen, and the inaccessible reached. (258)

Ch 13 § 53

My God you are absolute infinity itself, which I perceive to be the infinite end, but I am unable to grasp how an end without an end is an end. You, O God, are your own end, since you are whatever you have; if you have an end, you are an end. You are, therefore, an infinite end, because you are your own end, for your end is your essence….When, therefore, I assert the existence of the infinite, I admit that darkness is light, ignorance knowledge, and the impossible necessary.(258)