Dealing With the Paradox of God: Part Two of Three

Dealing With the Paradox of God: Part Two of Three August 15, 2018

How can we know God if he transcends us?

In the Kabbalah, the answer comes from the distinction between God as he is in himself, Eyn-Sof, and God as he reveals himself to us in his actions through the establishment of  ten emanations, the ten Sefirot. There is perfection in God, as Rabbi Azriel says: “Eyn-Sof is perfection without any imperfection.”[1] Imperfection is secondary to him. But it can be said that he can work and engage on the level of imperfection as part of his perfection. He reveals himself not through his inner perfection, but through self-limitation as he acts with limited being. It is in and through such activity we come to know him. It is not that we know all about him; we cannot, but we will know him nonetheless, similar to the way an iceberg floating partially above water but mostly underwater reveals itself and can be known by those looking at it above water: what they know is the iceberg, but not the whole of it, indeed, only a small portion of it is truly apprehended by them. They will fail to comprehend the whole of the iceberg but what they do know is still the iceberg, however small a portion of it they know.

This is where the notion of the Sefirot, the emanations coming out of Eyn-Sof, play an important role in the Kabbalah. They are related to God, and are God but they are secondary manifestations God established of himself as he relates to the world. Indeed, because they emanate from God and come to us in the world, there is a sense we can know them by uniting ourselves with them, as expressed in the Tikkunei Zohar:

Elijah began to expound and said: Master of the Universe [Ein Sof], You are one, but not in a numerical sense. You are elevated above all elevated beings, hidden beyond all hidden things, thought cannot grasp You at all. It is You who have brought out the ten structures – we call them the Ten Sefirot – to control and guide hidden worlds, which have not been revealed, and world which have been revealed. In Them You hide Yourself from humans, and You bind them together and unite them. Since You are inside them anyone who separates one of these ten from the others, it is as if he made a separation in You.[2]

The Sefirot, as they are emanation from God, they are God as he manifests himself in his own self-limitation towards us. Because they are of God and from God, they are perfect, and yet, because they become limited through God’s own self-limitation, there is also a way in which they are imperfect (because they do not manifest the infinite Eyn-Sof it is natural perfections), as Rabbi Azriel indicated:

Since we should never ascribe imperfection to His perfection, we are compelled to say that He has a finite power which is unlimited. The limitation first existentiated from Him his the sefirot, for they are both a perfect power and an imperfect power. When they partake of the abundant flow stemming from His perfection they are perfected power, and when the abundant flow is withdrawn they possess an imperfect power. [3]

Nonetheless, care must be had; these secondary manifestations are not to be seen as if they are parts of God. Moses Cordovero makes it clear that God remains transcendent even to those external manifestation of himself:

There can be no change in the Emanator Himself, and no divisions within Him, that would justify the idea that He is divided into parts as represented by the Ten Sefirot. For there can be no change or division within Him, rather these are in the external Sefirot. [4]

There is, therefore, a secondary manifestation of God, which imagines God and gives us a means by which we can come to know him, which nonetheless is less than who and what God is. The Ten Sefirot each have their own quality which are attributed to them, there own designation and name; they serve as the image of God which then manifests itself also in humanity. This is how and why they can be put together and used to establish a picture representing God which is put together to mirror the human form, with a right side and a left side, a top and bottom, and a center, in which the various Sefirot or emanations of God inter-relate with each other in a hierarchical fashion (and also, in an engendered fashion, with some being seen as masculine principles and others feminine). Each of these emanations have their own name and function, with the lowest of them being God’s divine presence, the Shekhinah (which is also called Malkhut, Divine Sovereignty).

The Kabbalah tradition, with its Ten Sefirot, represents a unique engagement with the problem of the way humanity can know God and encounter him. The structure ties itself to the human structure, allowing ways by which God’s image and likeness can be found in humanity, explaining how and why we can mediate upon ourselves and in coming to know ourselves, come to know God. It, likewise, allows emanations which can be sought after and grasped. Knowing the relationship between the Sefirot and their source in the Eyn-Sof allows us to realize how we can know God but still to find God to be transcendent to us. It limits the kinds of speculative discussions which can emerge by giving a structure by which God is known and imagined, and yet in providing that structure, it allows for a variety of responses as the many variations of thinking which emerge from the Kabbalah demonstrate.

Within the Islamic tradition, the transcendence of God is revealed in and through the attributes which are given to him, that is, in the divine names.  According to Al’Arabi, the number of such names are infinite, revealing that they come from the infinitely transcendent God:

The Names of God are infinite because they are known by all that derives from them which is infinite, even though they derive [ultimately] from a [known] number of sources, which are the matrices or abodes of the Names. Certainly, there is but one Reality, which embraces all these attributions and relations called the Divine Names. This Reality grants that every Name, infinitely manifest, should have its own reality by which to be distinguished from every other Name. This distinguishing reality is the essence of the Name [the Name itself], not that which it may have in common [with others]. In the same way every [divine] gift is distinguished from every other by its own individual quality; for, even though all derive from a single source, it is evident that one gift is not the same as another.  The cause of that is the mutual distinctions of the Names, there being no repetition in the Plane of Divinity with all its extensiveness. [5]

Now, the names reveal God not because God, or the Reality, or the Essence, is able to be captured by them, but rather, because God in his engagement with us veils himself in forms which we can know, the attributes which we normally attribute to God as Fakhruddin `Iraqi states:

The very veils of its Essence are its Attributes – but these Attributes are enfolded in its Essence. Its Majesty years for its own Beauty – yet its Beauty is embodied in its Majesty. [6]

They reveal, nonetheless, by their existence, the truth of the Essence which transcends all limitations;  we must not seek to go beyond them because we will not be able to receive which lies behind them, the Essence as it is, which blazes strong and which cannot be contained by us:

So these veils must not be human but Divine, God’s Names and Attributes: luminous ones such as manifestation, benevolence, and Beauty; tenebrous ones such as nonmanifestation, all-subjugation, and Majesty. These Names and Attributes must not be raised, for if they were, the Unity of the Essence would blaze forth from behind the screen of Might, and all things would be totally annihilated. For it may happen that though the Names and Attributes of all things become qualified by all-pervading Existence, even though these things actually come into being through the theophany of the Essence. But the theophany of the Essence itself acts from behind the veil of Attributes and Names.[7]

What is important is to realize that these names are united, both in relation to each other, as they form one integrated whole (similar to the Sefirot), but also in relation to their foundation and source in the Essence itself:

Unity in respect to the Names may be called “Unity of Multiplicity” and in respect to the Essence “Unity of Essence.” Both are referred to by the same word, unus, one. The One threads through all things, as does the number one through all numerals: If “one” did not exist, the numerals would not exist, could not be named. Of if “one” were to appear in its own name, the realities of the other numbers could never appear.[8]

There is then a “one” which emerges from the names and attributes which form the integrate whole of what we can know and comprehend, and this is but a derivative revelation of the Essence which transcends our comprehension and yet is said to be “One.” This derivative nature is manifested in God’s act of creation, which demonstrates creation itself takes on the divine names for itself and represents, according to Al’Arabi, the revelation of the Essence to himself:

However, a further spiritual intuition will reveal that which was necessary to affirm His Divinity is none other than the Reality Himself, and that the Cosmos [of created beings] is nothing more than His Self-revelation [to Himself] in the forms [determined] by their eternally unmanifested essences, which could not possibly exist without Him. [9]

Nothing can veil God but God himself; he establishes the veils, the revelations of himself to contingent being, and so whatever reveals him, including creation itself, is derived from the Essence, so that in a way, God is everywhere present in creation as a veil which manifests the Real:

How could anything else veil Him? for veils belong only to the limited, and He has no limits. All you behold in the world of form and meaning is His Form – but He is unbound by any form. Where He is not, nothing exists – but wherever He is . . . that thing is also naught.[10]

This, then, allows a way for creation to partake of the divine names, to partake of the divinity, and to be deified. God, the Beloved, empties himself in the establishing of the attributes and places them upon creation, his beloved, lifting it up so it is able to be called by God’s names:

When the Beloved would exalt the lover, He first strips from him the garments collected from all worlds, and clothes him in the robe of His own Attributes. Then the Beloved calls him by all His own Names, and seats him in His own place. [11]

This means, creatures can find God within themselves, as they serve as a reflection of the Essence:

Thus, the recipient sees nothing other than his own form in the mirror of Reality. He does not see the Reality itself, which is not possible, although he knows that he may see only his [true] form in It. [12]

Nothing is outside of God, and yet God in himself is not contained by what is revealed in and through his creative activity. God is all that is, and all that is, is in a way, united to God, but not according to his essence for the Essence is impenetrable and beyond all the veils in which God is revealed.

St. Gregory Palamas, from the Christian tradition, accepted the transcendent and incomprehensible nature of God, and yet understood God revealed himself truly to us so that we can come not only to know God through the light of his revelation, but integrate ourselves with him. According to the spiritual tradition which preceded him, it was said that God became human so that humans could become God. Theyare to do this not by nature but by grace. God and humanity do not mix together to become something new, nor does the divine nature absorb humanity, annihilating it in the process. Rather, God, in and through himself, established the means by which we come to know him and come to be united with him, the means which is God, but not God as he is in himself but God in the way he acts with and reveals himself to his creation. The immanent nature of God transcends his economic activity. While what he is in his relationship to us is less than who and what he is in himself, his economic activity is not to be seen as some created other which stands between creation and God. Grace is not some created secondary nature, but something which is derived from God, making it eternal and truly God even if it is distinguished from the divine essence.

In this manner, St. Gregory Palamas, taking the transcendence of God seriously, confirms God’s transcendence is verified by his ability to reveal himself to us. We can come to see and know God, not according to his essence because it is invisible and incomprehensible, but according to his revelatory activity which enlightens us (as such in the light which surrounded Christ on Mount Tabor):

The human mind also, and not only the angelic, transcends itself, and by victory over the passions acquires an angelic form. It, too, will attain to that light and will become worthy of a supernatural vision of God, not seeing the divine essence, but seeing God by a revelation appropriate and analogous to Him. One sees, not in a negative way – for one does see something – but in a manner superior to negation. For God is not only beyond knowledge, but also beyond unknowing. His revelation itself is also truly a mystery of a most divine and extraordinary kind, since the divine manifestations, even if symbolic, remain unknowable by reason of their transcendence. [13]

Similar, in part, to what is said in the Kabbalah, Palamas understands God’s self-revelation is found in the glory of his presence: “God, while remaining entirely in Himself, dwells entirely in us by His superessential power; and communicates to us not His nature, but His proper glory and splendour.” [14]  God, in his essence, is beyond names, and so is unnameable; however, we can and do give him not just one name, but many names, based upon his self-revelatory activity. (the divine energies of God).[15]  Each and every action we see and experience coming from God reveals God to us; they are of God and from God, and so it is God who is there and at work, so that what we identify in those actions we can name and label and predicate to God as long as we realize it is not God as he is in his ultimate transcendence but God as he is in his  self-revelatory activity towards us which is being named:

But since God is entirely present in each of the divine energies, we name Him from each of them, although it is clear that He transcends them all. For given the multitude of divine energies, how could God subsist entirely in each without any division at all; and how could each provide Him with a name and manifest Him entirely, thanks to the indivisible and supernatural simplicity, if He did not transcend all these energies?[16]

When we talk about God as being good, love, or even being, we are doing so in relation to his energy; even the divine presence manifested in glory is a representation of God and so should be said to be a divine energy and not God in his immanent nature:

Even in the created realm, this glory and splendour do not pertain to essence. How, then, could one think that the glory of God is the essence of God, of that God while remaining inparticipable, invisible and impalpable, becomes participle by His superessential power, and communicates Himself and shines forth and becomes in contemplation “One Spirit” with those who meet Him with a pure heart, according to the most mystical and mysterious prayer which our common father addressed to His own Father?[17]

Coming from God, these energies are eternal with God, always with him and never apart from him; they are uncreated even if they are experienced and manifested in and through creation:

These works of God, then, are manifestly unoriginated and pretemporal: His foreknowledge, will, providence, contemplation of Himself, and whatever powers are akin to these. But if this contemplation, providence, prescience, predetermination and will are works of God that are without beginning, then virtue is also unoriginated, for each of His works is a virtue; existence is also unoriginated, since it precedes not only essence but all beings, for it is the first existence. [18]

The energies are plural, but unite together and are one in God because it is one eternal, uncreated, simple Divine Essence from which they flow.  “And how will there be many gods because of God possessing an energy, since the energy pertains to God or, rather, since God Himself is both the divine essence and the divine energy?”[19] God transcends them, but we know God in and through them, and not some secondary creature which is other than God himself:

Thus, neither the uncreated goodness, nor the eternal glory, nor the divine life nor things akin to these are simply the superessential essence of God, for God transcends them all as Cause. But we say He is life, goodness, and so forth, and give Him these names, because of the revelatory energies and powers of the Superessential. [20]

The key is to understand and keep distinguished the divine nature and the energies; the energies are uncreated because they are truly of God and so are God, but we must not think by knowing the energies we therefore know and comprehend God The distinction remains:

The energy is not known from the essence; but we do know from the energy that the essence exists, though we do not know what it is. Thus according to the theologians God’s existence is known from His providence, not from His essence. Such, then, is the way in which energy can be distinguished from essence: the energy is that which makes known, while the essence is that whose existence is made known by the energy. [21]

There is, with Palamas, the possibility of a plurality, indeed and infinite plurality, of names for God, just like there is for Al’Arabi; God is known and revealed in diversity, but that diversity is the manifestation of God in the way he reveals himself to us. God is not limited, and so he has his way to engage us and make sure we know him, even if we will not comprehend him as he is in himself. The names of God, the predications which we apply to God as his attributes, are the means by which God reveals himself to us; we understand them through our human means, so that we distinguish them, one from each other, making it difficult for many of us to see their unity in God, but yet when we understand how each of them is God, and not other than the one God, we then can begin to see the unity which lies behind them. Thus, when talking about the light of grace, Palamas explained:

While it appears to produce a distinction and multiplication within the one God, yet it is nonetheless the Divine Principle, more-than-God, and more-than-Principle. The light is one in the one divinity and therefore it is itself the Divine Principle, more-than-God and more-than-Principle, since God is the ground of subsistence of divinity.[22]

The divine names are, then, are best understood to be those energies of God, this actions of God, by which God has revealed himself to us. Authentic names, authentic predications from God come from God, not us, as their source, but we use our mind and intellect to explain and discuss them as we engage them in theological discourse. We know God, we apprehend God, through his self-revelation towards us, but God as he is in himself will forever remain transcendent to us, as there will forever be a distance between God as he is in himself with the way God acts and reveals himself to his creation through his energies.


[IMG= Kabbalistic “Tree of life” with the ten Sephiroth and the 22 Hebrew letters as they are presented in the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation) by AnonMoos [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons]

[1] Rabbi Azriel of Gerona, “Explanation of the Ten Sefirot” in The Early Kabbalah. Trans. Ronald C. Kiener (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), 90.

[2] “Tikkunei Zohar”, Second Introduction in The Kabbalistic Tradition. Ed. and trans. Alan Unterman (London: Penguin Books, 2008), 25.

[3] Rabbi Azriel of Gerona, “Explanation of the Ten Sefirot,” 90.

[4] “Moses Cordovero, “Pardes Rimmoniim” in The Kabbalistic Tradition. Ed. and trans. Alan Unterman (London: Penguin Books, 2008), 26.

[5] Ibn Al’Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom. Trans R.W.J. Austin (New York: Paulist Press,1980), 68.

[6] Fakhruddin `Iraqi, The Divine Flashes. Trans. William C. Chittick and Peter Lamborn Wilson (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 71.

[7] Fakhruddin `Iraqi, The Divine Flashes, 96.

[8] Fakhruddin `Iraqi, The Divine Flashes,  99.

[9] Ibn Al’Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 93.

[10] Fakhruddin `Iraqi, The Divine Flashes, 97.

[11] Fakhruddin `Iraqi, The Divine Flashes, 124.

[12] Ibn Al’Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom. Trans R.W.J. Austin (New York: Paulist Press,1980), 65.

[13] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads. Trans. Nicholas Gendle (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 32.

[14] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, 39.

[15] The term energy, ἐνεργής, means the activity, cosmic force, and or active principle behind such a force, indicating that Palamas, in talking about the divine energies, is talking about God’s creative activity with the world.

[16] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, 95-6.

[17] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, 67.

[18] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triad,  94.

[19] St. Gregory Palamas, “Topics on Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life: One Hundred and Fifty Texts,” in The Philokalia: the Complete Text. Volume IV. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware, et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 414.

[20] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, 95.

[21] St. Gregory Palamas, “Topics on Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life: One Hundred and Fifty Texts,”  412.

[22] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, 39.


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