The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that “just as important as the truth, and of the two the even more important one, is the mode in which the truth is accepted, and it is of slight help if one gets millions to accept the truth if by the very mode of their acceptance they are transposed into untruth.”
God hides himself so we will come to him in the right mode. He is not an object. He is not an old man in the sky, available to our observation, nor a slight grease on the surface of all things, available to our scientific probing. God is love. What merit is it to know of God’s existence as a man knows the existence of his right foot? God doesn’t want our observation, nor our pitiful attempts to “prove” his existence — he wants our love. He wants to be known in truth, as he is, as love, which is only known in the act of loving.
If we’re going to speak of “knowing” God at all, we must mean to know him in such a way that we infinitely strive for him, in which our knowledge and our panting after him are one in the same, for love is not known disinterestedly, rather, love is interest. We cannot know God cooly, as an object is known.
The knowledge of this tree or that apple sets myself and the object apart. I and the tree are divided into the categories of observer and object, because all knowledge is knowledge of something – some thing we refer to — apart from ourselves. But God is not a thing. God is love, and love will tolerate no separation.
Observation brings certainty. We see the tree and are certain of it. Our relationship is simple, call it I-thing. But with God, what’s needed is precisely uncertainty.
Uncertainties are known — not by knowledge, for knowledge attains certainty and thus eradicates uncertainty — but by belief, and belief always has the quality of hurling us upon another person.
For instance, my father calls, and before he hangs up, he says “I love you.” I do not know this to be an objective fact. I do not observe it with the certainty I observe the tree, because the words “I love you,” are an outward expression of my father’s subjective, interior life — a life I cannot know. From my perspective, his kindness to me may have been born out of no more than duty, the pressures of his surrounding moral society, or the desire to raise a child in such a manner that he does not become an embarrassment. In short, the words “I love you” may not be true, and no objective knowledge can eradicate their uncertainty. Even if I were to add up all the constituent parts – his expression, his tone, our history, etc. — I could not arrive — with objective certainty — at the conclusion, “Yes, it all adds up to love,” and this is apparent in the fact that no one bothers to engage in such arithmetic. I cannot know love as an objective fact, existing outside of myself and available to my objective verification. I can only believe in it.
But this is the point! My believing in the love of my father and my entering into that love are one in the same, for in believing — which embraces the uncertainty precisely as an uncertainty — I fling myself entirely on him. I trust in his word. I trust him as I would myself. This blurring of he and the I in the moment of love’s expression; this taking on of the other’s hidden, subjective, interior life as if it were my own; this taking for myself as true what only he can know is true — this is love. In believing I participate in the life of the one I trust to believe. What a pitiful, boring world which elevates objective knowledge over belief! By belief I attain a greater certainty of what cannot be known than the certainty I have of those things that can.
Now we approach, with trembling hearts, the infinite uncertainty of God himself. God is invisible, and this terrible absence, this awful gap in our ability to attain certainty, and this necessary possibility of atheism is also the way in which we come to know God as he is, in truth and in right relation to him. By being objectively uncertain, yet communicating himself to us in beauty, in truth, in the goodness that inexplicably guides our lives, and ultimately in the fullness of revelation, through his only begotten Son, he offers us a qualitatively different type of certainty that would not be possible were he visible in the way a tree is visible. He gives us he opportunity to believe, to know him in such a manner that our knowledge of him is simultaneously a total reliance on him, indeed that our “knowledge” — which we should refer to as faith, for it maintains the objective uncertainty by never rendering Eternity objectively visible — is a participation in the life of God himself.
“If God had taken the for, for example, of a rare, enormously large green bird, with a red beak, that perched in a tree on the embankment and perhaps even whistled in an unprecedented manner–then [the modern man] surely would have had his eyes opened,” says Kierkegaard, but then we would not have related to him in truth, but in untruth. But since God is hidden, we must believe, and in belief we approach God in truth, as we approach love.
That this is truly the proper mode for “knowing God” seem evident in that difference between belief and simply knowing a visible something is that the former requires eternity while the latter requires a moment. Once the green bird is seen, it is known. No further effort is required. We may walk away from the embankment, close our eyes, and still know that the green bird exists. All that was required was the singular moment of perception. But when it is precisely an objective uncertainty that is being offered, an invisible reality expressed to us, the effort to know this uncertainty must be an eternal effort. At no point do we master God. At no point can we walk away. At no point do we attain a certainty by which we are “finished” with the project of belief. Belief is knowledge that comes from a participation in the life of another, and thus our belief in God only remains insofar as we, in every moment of our life, actively participate in the life of God. “I must continually see to it that I hold fast to the objective uncertainty, see to it that in the objective uncertainty I am “out on 70,000 fathoms of water” and still have faith.”
This is precisely why the Christian says he is saved through faith. To be saved means to become the self who you are, the self you are for all eternity, and only by faith do eternal selves act eternally. Only by faith do we participate in the self-offering of God, do we freely and eternally participate in the life of Love himself, do we attain that reality which, in religious tradition, is referred to as Salvation, or Heaven.
But this is hardly a distant mystery: As goes life so goes love, for there are few distinctions between the two. The words “I love you” — spoken in truth and by their very nature — tend towards relationships that last forever. Man and woman marry to express with a lifetime what cannot be expressed in a moment. The one requirement of erotic love is faithfulness, not simply in reaction to the evil of its opposite, which we call adultery, but because the very essence of love is belief in the other, a participation that renders adultery unthinkable. Theirs the eternal, theirs the ritual, theirs the belief in the other’s love that is simultaneously a participation in that love. And what lovers would prefer objective knowledge over the infinite strive of faith? What lovers would demand the singular moment that forever establishes certainty over a lifetime of active love, over the ecstatic comedy of forever proving the unprovable and rendering visible the ever-invisible?
God wants us to relate to him in love, for only by relating to God in love do we relate to him as he is — love himself — and only in this relation are our finite frames expanded and exploded with the infinite. God does not want our validation of his existence any more than the lover wants the beloved to simply say “You exist.” He wants us all swept up in love, forever and ever, amen.