Friday, February 15, 2013

Holy Art Thou, All-Knowing!

Closed-mindedness is probably the leading cause of almost all the existential problems in our world. The belief that God is all-knowing has the power to keep us open-minded. What follows is an explanation of this conviction.

The trisagion ends with three affirmations about God. This limitation is perhaps due to the importance of the number three and also due to the number of persons in the Holy Trinity. If this could be expanded with more affirmations, one of them is that God is all-knowing (omniscient). 

The idea that God is all-knowing can be found all over the Bible. Here are a few of them:
  • Even before a word is on my tongue,behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. Psalm 139:4 
  • Great is our Lord and mighty in power;his understanding has no limit. Psalm 147:5 
  • The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good. Proverbs 15:3. 
  • Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Matthew 10:30 
  • Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Romans 11:33. 
  • 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. Hebrews 4:13 
  • God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.  1 John 3:19-20 
What do we mean when we affirm that God is all-knowing? The western Christian world has often seen this affirmation as an objective description of God, which has led to several logical problems. If God knows everything, why can't God manage the world better? If we have free will, how can God know what we are going to choose? If God knew that Adam was going to disobey God, why didn't God prevent Adam's disobedience. These are just a few examples of such logical problems.

The Eastern Christian world has not seen this affirmation as an objective description of God. Like the other affirmations about God, this is also seen as a kataphatic statement. Although it appears to be about God, really it is not about God, but about all the beings other than God. That God is all-knowing means that God alone is all-knowing, and therefore, no being other than God is all-knowing. In our everyday speech, we often say "God knows" to mean no one knows. Thus the statement "God is all-knowing" means that no one is all-knowing. It also means that God is the source of all knowledge. "For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding." (Pro 2:6). James adds that those who lack wisdom have only to ask for it and God will give it abundantly and generously. (James 1:5)
The affirmation that God alone is all-knowing implies that no human being can ever claim or hope to have the custody of absolute knowledge. Our knowledge will always remain relative-- it keeps changing as we gain more knowledge. We can never claim to be sophists (wise people) as Socrates' contemporaries did; we can only claim to be philosophers (lovers of wisdom). We can never claim to be the custodians of truth; we can only become seekers of truth.

About God we can know nothing. No affirmative statement can be true about God. The affirmative statements made about God are really negative statements about what is not God. About the world and things in the world we can have partial and relative knowledge; never complete or absolute knowledge.

If all of us, human beings, realize this, we will be willing to cooperate better and learn from one another; we will stop fighting with one another for our beliefs about God. The only true faith anyone can hold is that God alone knows the absolute and ultimate truth.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the question of how we gain knowledge. It tries to find out where we get knowledge from and how we gain knowledge.  How well we receive a new piece of knowledge depends very much on the receptivity of our mind. The parable of the sower illustrates this. We may gain knowledge by direct experience or by indirect experience. Indirect experience refers to the experience of others communicated to us. Once we receive a piece of information, we process it by relating it to other pieces of information we already have. We always gain new knowledge by relating it to the knowledge we already have. Thus our knowledge is relative. Imagine two children watching a lion. This animal might create two different impressions upon their mind depending upon what animal they have already seen. For the child who has already seen an elephant, the lion appears to be a small animal. For the child who has seen only smaller animals like a dog and a cat, the lion appears a big animal. When you speak to an audience your words create slightly different impressions on each one of them.

The Relevance of this Affirmation
We can have two different approaches toward knowledge: we may claim God to be all-knowing or claim ourselves to be all-knowing. If we claim God to be all-knowing, we will always keep our mind open willing to learn new things, but if we claim ourselves to be all-knowing, we will keep our mind closed, unwilling to learn anything new. If we believe that God alone is all-knowing, we will not claim to be in custody of absolute truth. Such an openness will make us willing to listen to others and learn from them.

St. Paul makes this distinction when he says, "Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know" (I Cor 8:1-3).  Here Paul is talking about those who claim to be all-knowing. Unless they turn around and claim that God alone is all-knowing, they truly know nothing. This idea is reflected in the proverb, "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." (Proverbs. 1:7)

There are two kinds of special fruits in the Garden of Eden: of life and of death. The fruit of death is the knowledge of good and evil. It is a superficial knowledge that is quick to judge. The fruit of life is wisdom. It is a deeper knowledge that hands over the judgment to God. Adam decides what is good and what is evil for himself too quickly. He should have let God make that decision.

Our civilization denied God, and it claimed that man can be omniscient. We sat on the seat of God and made quick judgments-- we ate the fruit of death. Humanity has been in the valley of the shadow of death since the last century. We had two world wars, and we stayed on the edge of a third world war that could wipe out all traces of life from our planet. Unless we humbly admit that God alone is omniscient, we cannot overcome death.

In the Book of Job, we see Job's friends placing themselves on the seat of God, and passing judgment on Job. Job, however, surrenders himself to the wisdom of God. 

Paul distinguishes between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world. The wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. (I Cor. 3:19-20). These are the same options Adam had. Every human being has to face these options. Wisdom of the world assumes that we are/can become all-knowing. But the wisdom of God assumes that God alone is all-knowing.

Paul further advises to “Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith” (1 Timothy 6:20-21). Faith includes the belief that God alone is all-knowing. In the presence of such a faith, how can there be godless chatter and opposing ideas?  James thinks that the true wisdom from above is gentle, peaceful, pure, honest, and impartial; but the wisdom from below expresses itself as strife, confusion, envy, and evil. (James 3: 13- 18)
The affirmation that God is all-knowing means that no human individual or community can ever claim or hope to be all-knowing. If we are willing to accept this, we will be open-minded, and we will be able to learn from others, and cooperate with each other better. Those who are not willing to accept this will have a closed mind, and they will not be able to learn from others, and cooperate with others.

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