Singing the prokeimenon on Thomas Sunday was a meditative and contemplative moment for me. Although I have sung these words many times, and will sing them many more before I die, at that moment they set my mind in motion, and I saw a diversity of thought being portrayed in one small set of words: Great is our Lord and great is his power. His understanding is without measure (Ps 146:5 LXX).
God’s understanding is without measure. The Greek here reads “καὶ τῆς συνέσεως αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἔστιν ἀριθμός” — that is, his comprehension is not quantifiable; it is not a number, in other words, it is not capable of being summed together.
Now there is a simple way many will take this verse, when they first examine it. God’s knowledge is said to be infinite. Everything which exists, and all that could exist but does not, God knows. He even knows all those things which one can ponder, of entities which do not exist, which cannot exist, and yet which can be thought of (such as a four-sided triangle). Of course, the question which must come out this interpretation is whether or not the sum total of all that exists, all that could exist, and all that could be thought of but could not exist, is infinite, and if so, is that what God is. For we know God is one with his act of knowing.
Here, we must say that God, in his transcendent nature, would transcend such a list. Even if we can make an infinite list of such possible things, we could easily plot them out in such a way to note that they are bounded (what this means, I hope, will soon be made clear). God in his simple existence would be the one who causes that list to be bounded. All that exists is, in its way, a reflection of him in the analogy of being, though he would be beyond the summation of all such reflections, because, if summed up together, they would all be less than what God is. God’s measureless knowledge is beyond such lists.
If we take, in the empirical world, two given points on sidewalk, we can find an infinite number of ways to divide the distance between them. This is, after all, the point of Zeno’s paradox. Yet, because we see these two points within the real world, we can also see, even if they are infinitely divisible, they are bounded, and we can ourselves walk on, around, and beyond them. If we can overcome a potential infinity, and see ourselves no longer bound by the way that infinity is constructed, we have the potential to understand how the world itself can be bound, containable within limits, and yet capable of infinite delineation so that we can create an infinite number of subjects for our knowledge.
We measure the world with our minds. We break it up into various constituents. How we do so, how we delineate those parts, is important. We are not talking about things which are not real, because those parts are real just as what lay between two points on a sidewalk are also real). But we must recognize something more. We can divide the world in many ways, and even if we have a good reason for how we do so, just as there are many good mathematical ways one can divide those two points on the sidewalk, we are doing so at the expense of the absolute unity which lies before us.
How we categorize the world and divide it into systematic parts must be seen as real, that those entities established through our division are real. However, it also shows how those construction points must not be seen as absolutes, and how there remains other ways the world, and its constituent parts, can be seen and understood. We are discerning the world at large, what we discern is real, and yet it is the real mediated by a human mental construction. We must see such constructions as being permeable — we are not discovering monads which lack interaction, but we are seeing reference points which inter-relate and form a greater whole. That whole will transcend the summation of the parts, because those constructions separate and divide and eliminate aspects of that whole. Our measurement of the world is not the world as it is in itself. Nonetheless, what we come up with is real; the measurement which we use to discern the world will come up with a real presentation of the realm of experience – so as long as that measurement is followed properly and to its proper end (for this reason, empirical science measures the world and will allow for further refinement, leading to a better understanding of the world according to the way empiricism measures the world; we must remember that while what it presents is real, it is not the only way the real can be presented to us, and there are other means of representing the world which are complementary to the empirical method of science. Each construction will reveal something different about the world, and when combined, will reveal more of the world, even if their complementary revelations lead to paradoxes which cannot be systematized).
What is important about what is said above is that for us, understanding, knowledge, is established through various measurements. The real is truly explored by what we use to measure it. Such knowledge is true, and yet it must not be seen and confused as the absolute. The absolute is beyond measure. Our knowledge is easily discernible as being a thing of measure, for our knowledge is about the objectification of the world around us, and therefore, into the designation of the world into a variety of separate things. Anything which is rendered as a thing, as an object of our knowledge, is itself something which we can then count, and what we know about it is found as one of the many contents of our mind. Our understanding is numerable, because our knowledge is established through such reification.
But God is different. We can read this verse from the Psalms as saying our way of understanding the world, of dividing it into objectified parts, is not the way God understands the world. God does not understand the world by any kind of measure, not by any kind of numeration.
What exactly does this mean?
God’s knowledge must be understood within his divine simplicity. God is without parts. God is incapable of being turned into parts. Properly speaking, we cannot predicate anything to God (of course, we do so, but when we do so, we must realize it is because we are following the rules of human language which cannot but talk in terms of predication; when we predicate something to God, it must be in a relative sense — we must understand that in an absolute sense, it is not a predication but an aspect of God as God which we are describing). God’s knowledge is one with God’s being. God knows because he is, and since God is, God knows from his very isness. God knows everything in and through himself. That means, God knows through his divine simplicity. Divine simplicity cannot be measured, because it cannot be divided into parts. It is in this way God knows and understands without measure — he knows simply in the very act of his existence, and knows all things, not through construction, but as they are in the wholeness of the real, in the absolute which is himself.Does that mean we know something which God does not know? We know the world in parts, but God understands without measure; this would seem to say there is something which God does not know. Once again, we find ourselves at the limits of human language. God’s knowledge must include knowledge of parts, but he knows them simply, so that he knows them as they really are. He knows the world in the ways it can be constructed, but he knows it all that because he knows the real as the real, in its absolute and simple mode of being. He can and will interact with us, according to those parts which we see and understand the world, because the absolute is the foundation for those parts. Moreover, he knows the absolute as it really is, but in knowing it as it really is, in his simplicity, he also knows the absolute in the parts it can be discerned. Those parts come from the absolute, and it is how the absolute is grasped by the human intellect when it follows its own mode of knowing. But God, in his simplicity, knows how human knowing knows, and so can communicate in relation to that means of knowing. This, of course, is what makes revelation possible, for God to be able to actually communicate with us, while remaining absolutely simple and measureless in his knowledge.
In this way, we can, if we look, see three different truths are established.
First, there is the absolute, which not only be true, but is the foundation for and source of all other means of engaging the truth. This absolute is found in the divine knowledge. We can already discern this level of truth, and through grace, we can experience it, we can receive a vision of the world as it is in the absolute through the grace of God. This is exactly what we will experience in the beatific vision. As all mystics who have had such an experience know and tell us, this vision is real, this experience is real, and truly transcends the measured way the world is experience, but as soon as we try to describe it and explain it to others through language, it already becomes something less than it is, for it becomes a part of the measured world. If expressed properly, what is said becomes a pointer in the realm of relative truth to the absolute. But such pointers are themselves measured and so relative.
The second truth which we can see established is the measured (conventional) truth, often discerned as being relative because of the subjective way it is encountered. It is the real as it is objectified by the way we encounter and understand the world, that is, by those mental constructs which we use to explore and delineate the world at large. While saying it is relative, we must not confuse this in saying is false or anything can be said about the world and be labeled as true. The measured world is about the real. We can discern, based upon how we measure the world, that there are things which just do not exist. If someone claimed they existed, they would make a false claim (such as the horns of a rabbit). Since what we see and understand as a rabbit is a creature which has no horns, talking about the horns of a rabbit would be talking about something which does not exist, and to claim it did, would be a falsehood. Thus, this measured examination of the world, even if determined by a subjective means, ends up being a relativism, it is not nihilism, because it is about a real world, and about real entities. It is true, but it is the truth of measured knowledge.
The third truth is the realization that the measured truth, while truth, is what we just said above: subjective, constructed, and therefore capable of being presented in a multitude number of ways. People will normally experience the conventions without realizing they are conventions. Each way we can construct the world could end up presenting a true description of worldly phenomena, capable of discerning truth and falsehood, but each of them would be in themselves, empty of inherent necessity. That explains why we can, and do, find different systematic explanations for the world. They are complementary relative truths. Each will have strengths and weaknesses, where it is easier or more difficult to understand some aspect of the absolute, but each, because they are not the absolute, must not be treated as absolute. When they are treated as such, they turn from being a relative truth into falsehood, because they are being treated as something they are not, and lead away from the absolute. When they are understood as relative, then this third truth is also realized.
It is for this reason why relativism must be understood in its proper form. If the relative is understood as relative, and let to be as it is, a relative truth, it is not nihilism and a falsehood deserving denigration. But when relativism is absolutized, then it does lead into nihilism, because it is trying to use its empty and less than absolute form of the truth as being absolute. This cuts it off from the absolute, and all that is left is its own inherent emptiness. This is what makes the absolutism of relativism nihilism. And that is the secret which we must always keep before us: absolutism is nihilism, because it absolutizes the relative instead of remains open to the absolute from which the relative emerges.
Great is our Lord and great is his power. His understanding is without measure. He is in himself the absolute from whom all relative truths flow. Let us make sure they remain attached to him, if we want to find eternal life. To the glory of God. Amen.