This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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11.3. Coming to Know God

Awareness of the inexpressible

Throughout this manual, especially in those sections devoted to spiritual anthropology and metaphysical doctrine, we have made refence to a kind of direct knowledge of metaphysical principles, often deploying Rene Guenon’s term, ‘intellectual intuition’, and setting this in opposition to knowledge gained on the basis of discursive thought, the latter belonging to the rational faculty. This intellectual intuition is presented as a kind of supra-rational knowledge, also called gnosis, or in Hinduism, jnana. It is the knowledge of God which exceeds the powers of reason.

Intellectual intuition is the source of true spiritual insight. Brought to perfection it is responsible for gnosis. It occurs in those moments when, above and beyond rational activity, the intellect makes direct contact with transcendence: St. Thomas Aquinas preferred to depict this scenario as a special infusion of grace, which is to say, an exceptional and in a way ‘supernatural’ intervention in order to impart wisdom; the Hindus, on the other hand, would make the capacity for gnosis a normal, although rarely accessed, power of the human being. But regardless of the view taken, gnosis is acknowledged as a real ‘coming into possession’ of supra-rational knowledge that, because it is superior to the rational, cannot be expressed via its machinery.

This last remark will become central in our discussion below. We wish here to discuss, not a theory of epistemology, but the path to spiritual realization as experienced by the individual who strives to know God. In this context, it is more meaningful to speak of an awareness of the inexpressible, since that is a more comprehensible starting point.

Our desire is to help the reader understand that what has elsewhere seemed to be a lofty aspect of doctrine is actually a matter of everyday experience for many people throughout history, and the problem is not so much its absence, but rather our inability to recognize it for what it is when we encounter it, what it signifies, and what it means to pursue it and develop it. It comes to us, but we do not know it; it knocks, but we do not think to open the door—we do not even realize there is a door to open.

Once we understand what we are dealing with, new horizons of contemplation open before us, and our self-understanding begins to come into its own.

Beyond thought and prior to it

We must begin by acknowledging that the most significant truths we encounter in life are not expressible and must be wrestled with in solitude. Such things come to us, but we find that despite our sincerest efforts, the content of the encounter is not communicable.

Even those who are gifted in the verbalization of inner experiences are only able to approximate these realities, hinting at them, giving to others a small taste of what they mean, but the formulation is never exhaustive, never complete, never true to the reality in question.

This gives us our first hint at what will become more and more clear, which is that the more profound our understanding, and often the more meaningful and intimate it is to us, the less susceptible to rational expression it becomes. We will find that this is not because it is irrational or sub-rational, as simple emotion, but because the level of understanding in question is beyond rationality, as if the rational faculty were an electronic circuit which is too weak to handle the voltage of the truth undiluted.

The notion that the inexpressible is more profound, more true, than the expressible, is demonstrated by the fact, clear to any sensitive being, that all great works of art, all poetry, is the manifestation of an attempt to give form to an experience that is prior to form, and the production of beautiful things is a response to an encounter with something far more beautiful than the sum total of the any artist’s life work. Art is a striving to externalize an inner experience of something that can only be expressed in diluted form. The Sistine Chapel is the clothing sewn by a sensitive soul, draped over a vision that defied concrete expression.

To write off the history of art as belonging to the irrational side of man, simply because we can obviously not explain it by rational speculation, is frankly dishonest.

To utter profound things is to bear witness to a greater profundity that cannot be taught but only intimated; but it can only be intimated by someone who knows it intimately, and to such a one it is more real than any feeble external productions, which cannot be more than vague recollections of what was seen in a flash of insight.

It does not help matters that this flash of insight is like a sudden vision of the sun: we come away dazzled, even blinded, and by the time we regain our senses we are only left seeing spots, as if the only thing we have to show for the experience is a kind of wounding that is incommensurable with the light we perceived.

Seeing beyond the familiar

To the most sensitive, the most self-aware, it is always clear that we are never able to really say what we mean, and that all language, all concepts that we are provided by language to work with, are insufficient. We combine and recombine these given concepts to make a straw man, and sometimes this helps us communicate what we have seen with the inner eye, but we know that it is just straw.

The difficulty is that most people do not live in their depths, and are more comfortable making use of borrowed concepts, and having adopted these concepts as their own ideas, they think that they are truly expressing themselves by deploying them as they do in everyday speech. It may be that they are right to believe this, since if they have not encountered the inexpressible, if they have never entered into the darkness wherein one experiences the flash of gnosis, they have no need to express it, and so these stock concepts suffice.  For these, it is true that they manage to always say what they mean, an nothing more, but the reason they are able to do this is because they never try to say much at all, never questioning, always repeating. Never entering the depths, they are not weighted with the need to report what they encountered there.

All objects are significant

To perhaps approach the issue from the opposite direction, from external things, we can say that he who has a developed sense of the inexpressible that is beyond all expression senses that all things are more than they seem. To the numb and the callous, a tree is a tree and can be used to build a house; to the sensitive, a tree is never just a tree, but its shape and its lifecycle and its use all hint at a significance that is mysterious to him, but that he knows is a real significance that is essential but veiled, because just as the inner truths are less expressible as they are more profound, so also the more profound the significance of external objects, the more invisible. Even the practical use of a thing will carry with it a hint or a sign as to its meaning; that the tree provides the material for a home is not a dead fact but also contains a hint at the tree’s meaning, but only those with “ears to hear” will “take the hint” and commit themselves to penetrating externalities in order to possess the essence.

False-obviousness and expectation

The hardest thing for spiritual insight is learning to take preconceived ideas as tentative, to stop approaching life as if you knew what to expect, since doing so will result in you only perceiving what you expect, and how can an true insight occur in such a context? Abandon the conceit of thinking that you know what is in the world, and that you have exhausted the significance of things and are now simply tasked with consolidated objects to yourself and commanding them in order to reach certain superficial ends. You must become aware that you are not at all acquainted with the world, but only with its superficial crust, with its obviousness, and that all obviousness is a false-obviousness.

The intellect must, we grant, work with conceptual tools, and one cannot simply recreate these on the fly at every moment. In order to live, one develops a conceptual vocabulary used to interpret reality and interact with it. Nonetheless, one must work to ensure that the concepts do not determine all of the answers to the questions we ask: we must admit that concepts exclude more than they encapsulate, and if we imagine our conceptual framework to be sufficient or exhaustive, then we have reached the end of thought and then end of insight.

Rational objections are futile

At this point, it would be simple to explain away everything that has been said in terms of evolutionary psychology, or basic human emotion. Such a project would also be somewhat futile, because we have already said that what a man reports after he returns from direct contact with the inexpressible is only a pale and partial description. Thus, you may refute what I say about my intuition, but it means little, but you have only refuted what I said, and I never said what I really meant. Thus, you have defeated a shadow but the reality that casts the shadow is still standing, although I cannot tell you where, you can only see it for yourself. The point of telling you about the shadow was to suggest the reality and significance of the object—not to demonstrate it conclusively. Only those who put too much faith in their ability to express the ineffable are bothered when their formulations are found to be incomplete and therefore insufficient from the point of view of ‘proof’ or conclusive demonstration. Those who understand the nature of what it is they wish to talk about also know that their ‘arguments’ are weak before they even present them.

The necessity of understanding the limits of rationalism

It may seem at first that we are engaged in a project of skepticism or, at best, agnosticism, since we will begin by demonstrating the frailty of rational knowledge, and in particular the tentativeness of our concepts. However, if we seem to embark on a project of destroying our confidence in rational knowledge this is not to despair of the possibility of having certainty but to make room for an ordering of knowing wherein certainty can have a legitimate place. This first of all requires shaking ourselves out of a totalitarian rationalism and thereby extending the frontiers of knowledge to a forgotten world, one that will initially seem strange. We illustrate the false certainty of our concepts in order to complete a truncated view of what man may and may not know, and in this way coax the modern man out of a self-imposed intellectual slumber.

The role of doubt

Due to certain philosophical trends since Descartes, we also need to mention the role of doubt in the quest for knowledge. It has become the status quo to begin by doubting everything, and then asking what we may really know. This is an impossible starting point. One cannot doubt everything: when one pretends to doubt everything, this only demonstrates that one has not become aware of the first principles on which they must stand. One must already be on solid ground before ‘doubt’ can be deployed at all.

Doubt is an act of review, of auditing our collected concepts one at time. It has no positive role, and cannot construct or demonstrate to us anything of value: it can only revise the flawed or reject the false, and so to begin in doubt is to try to write a sentence using a pencil that has an eraser on both ends.

What is most important however is that doubt is a tool of the rational faculty and can neither validate nor invalidate the truth that we encounter in the supra-rational, that is to say, the knowledge of the inexpressible, gnosis. An eraser can audit what has been written, but it cannot erase the hand that did the writing. Rub the paper clean, but the hand still holds the pencil.

Thoughts are memories

To further understand the indirect nature of our everyday thinking, we can say that, when we entertain a thought, we are entertaining a memory, and never thinking in direct contact with the object we have in mind. To think about a tree, we must first observe the tree, and by the time we begin to ‘think about it’ it is a memory of the perceptions through which we became aware of its reality. We cannot, in our normal discursive thought, grasp the essence of a thing: we can only deal in reminiscences, and these will always be partial: not only due to the imperfections of memory but to the limits of our perceptions themselves. We saw the tree but could only take in a caricature of it. Thus, all knowledge gained in this way is partial, piecemeal, and riddled with errors. To put it another way, our knowledge of the material world is much like the knowledge gained by means of a scrapbook filled with photos. We collect photos and we draw conclusions but we cannot directly perceive the thing itself via knowledge derived from empirical observation, from experience, and it is with this data that the rational faculty operates.

What, then, is the hope of really knowing things? If rational knowledge based on empirical observation were all man could achieve, then there would be no hope at all. But the reason does constitute the limits of human knowing.

We are not our concepts

The more we develop our sense of the inexpressible, of the supra-rational, the more we become aware of the disparity between the mind’s eye and conceptual work of the reason; the more it becomes obvious that the concepts we stockpile are not identical with the things they represent; the more we become aware that we are not our thoughts, but rather something that stands apart from them and utilizes them, clumsily, to make a way in the world.

Religion begins with a twofold awareness: first, that not only are our concepts not identical with objects, but that we ourselves are not identical with our conceptualizing—we direct thought but are not identical with our thinking—and this is an awareness that allows us to situate ourselves at a level beyond the rational; the second aspect of our awareness is not of our separation from the below, but of the presence of the inexpressible beyond, which invites us, provokes awe in us, and impresses on us a knowing that is more real and more meaningful for being unspeakable.

One could say that man is intellectual amphibious, inhabiting two orders of knowing: the world of reason and discursive thought, where weighing and measuring result in easily demonstrable conclusions; and the world which transcends that which we are able to express but which is more immediate, more real, than anything known via sense perception and logged in the books of memory.

It is in the second world, that of transcendent knowing, where we encounter the essences of things, it is here we sense what can only be called the sacred, and it is in this order of knowing that we find the roots of religion, and it is only due to the reality of this order that we are able to give meaning to any knowledge gained through the machinery of the reason.

The contemplative is maladjusted

We have said that in order to develop a sense for the inexpressible, which will become the sense of the sacred, one must not be at ease with familiar concepts, settling into the routine of thinking in terms of mental clichés. Those who succeed in this are habitually maladjusted to the ideas that everyone else seems to take for granted: they take little for granted because they know that conventional concepts do not deserve that much credit, and that in a generation or two they’ll be discarded. The more heightened the sense of the sacred, the more critical is our acceptance of the products of the reason: it is not that the reason is disdained, but that it is seen for what it is. This is why the sage often irritates his contemporaries prefer to live on ready-made theories and to think by way of concepts the true meaning of which they’ve never made the least effort to discern. He cannot imitate them, he cannot think as they think and still provide the insights that it is his vocation to provide.

We derive concepts from the reason; we derive insights from the transcendent.

Gnosis is immediate

Contact with the universal order results in knowledge that is direct rather than derived via the images of sense perception. This knowledge is prior to judgement, not the end of a logical process but its beginning, the genesis of thought and at the same time its climax.

A universal capacity

The intellectual life in practice is a rare vocation, although the capacity to experience this type of insight is universal and possessed by all men at all times. It is an aspect of the human condition. It is this which allows us to communicate, to some degree, the inexpressible: we provide the hints of the essence that we cannot fully describe, and others who have also experienced this essence, although they cannot describe it either, understand what we are trying to say, and so we are able to share in an experience that neither of us can define. While this explains the fellowship of those with spiritual experience, it also explains the alienation of those without it. To one who does not make inroads into the beyond, what is said of it is foolishness.

Asking questions about meaning

We formulate an endless series of questions that never sufficiently convey what it is we actually want to know, because what we actually want to know cannot be conceptualized.

We ask: “What is the meaning of life?” “Why am I here?” “Who am I, and what is my significance?”

These are so many attempts to ask a single question that we can’t quite put our finger on. We ask, “what is the meaning of such-and-such” but what we really what we want to know is: “What is meaning?” We want, not so much an answer as to the meaning of a particular thing we have encountered within experience, but, rather, we want to encounter meaning in and of Itself, the Absolute Meaning, compared to which all other perceived meanings are only derived.

That is why, no matter what answer we are given in response to our numerous questions, we always have the feeling that we did not quite ask the right question, and if only we could ask it correctly, the answer would become clear, and we could rest.

From wonder to reverence, and the roots of religion

Upon contact with the inexpressible, the most basic and universal human responses are awe, wonder, and reverence. Awe and wonder come first, and reverence is the apotheosis.

Awe in the face of the inexpressible, which develops in us an attitude of reverence, is a phenomenon that is constant throughout human history. The range of revered objects may vary, and this depends not only on the type of person who undergoes the experience and the ability of that person to crystallize that experience into human action.

From a certain point of view, we could describe religion as the externalization of reverence based on a direct experience of the inexpressible. We should, however, note as a disclaimer that what was just said about religion should not be understood as meaning that religions come about due to a slow process of formulation that eventually crystalizes into a doctrine, piecemeal. Religions are, in every case, the result of Revelation. What we have said above is meant to describe the process by which man himself, as a being rooted in time and slowly maturing through his life, comes to develop the religion sense, and comes by a need for religion as a way of maintaining harmony with himself and of discovering the meaning of things.

What matters here is that religion has always presented itself as the primary support for reconciling one’s life with gnosis. Through its external formulations, it provides a framework in time and place that to some degree reinforces our ability to encounter the inexpressible, and to aid us in expressing the reverence that we feel compelled to show as a result of this experience. Religion provides an environment that is the marriage of time and eternity, of the individual and the supra-individual, the particular and the universal. This is why a mature spirituality gives to the individual a sense of becoming complete and of having an inner balance that before was absent.

The inexpressible and the spiritual

At this point we have proceeded by degrees to consider our subject, which was initially described as ‘a sense of the inexpressible’, which creates in those who have deep experiences with it a feeling of wonder and awe, and these in turn develop in us an attitude of reverence. It is this reverence that finds its ultimate expression in religion, and given the universality of the human awareness of the inexpressible, the need for religion is also felt as universal. For this reason we can see why the knowledge pertaining to gnosis is also legitimately called spiritual knowledge, a sense of the sacred, or knowledge of the divine order, these being the aspects of gnosis once it is formulated within the context of doctrine.

Intimacy and secrecy

We have already noted that it is extremely easy for the rationalist to discredit what is said about the ineffable transcendent by those who, returning from its presence, try to speak of it. What we should also point out is that it is of the nature of this experience that our first impulse is to keep it secret. The reverence it inspires in us to some degree makes us feel ashamed of exposing what happened before others. For one thing, we know at the outset that we are doomed to betray the truth by the insufficiency of our concepts to capture it, but more than that we know that we were given was more intimate than any physical embrace possibly between two people, and that there is something profane about any attempt to share it. We hesitate, we do not wish to deprave ourselves.

Accusations of emotionalism

When dealing with terms like ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’, which are primarily emotional states, we must be careful to see that we are deriving about a conceptual proposition from the evidence of these feelings. A psychological response to a thought about a concept is not valid evidence for the objective reality of that concept. Our mind can play tricks on us, as we all know. But what we have taken great pains to point out is that what is in question regarding the sense of the sacred is that it is not a concept, and the awe it inspires is a side-effect, and so we do not derive our certainty from the feeling of awe or wonder or even from our holy fear—our certainty precedes the feeling and is its cause. We are in awe because we have come into a knowledge of that about which there can be no doubt.

To sense meaning is not to create it

In a world where man is taught that he can create his own meanings, even to the point of creating and re-creating his own fundamental identity, it is sometimes difficult to get the point across that man does not create meaning, ever, in any way. Meaning is derived from the perception of the truth about reality, from penetrating the superficiality of appearances and glimpsing the essence of things. We discover meaning, but we cannot invent it. All great teachers, all great artists, are engaged in a project, not of self-expression, but of world expression. Their victories, when they occur, are in unveiling the significance of things to themselves and to others, and in introducing us to the grandeur of the real. True, we feel like this or that phrase or work of art inspired in us the sense of grandeur and awe that we now recognize as the sense of the sacred, but this does not mean that they created the reality that we have sense by way of their works. Rather, they aid us by constructing what we could call an occasional cause of wonder and of exaltation. To put it simply, they map the territory and reveal for us the locations of things that we did not know were there, and may never have found, or would not have found without great difficulty.

Scientific knowledge is not opposed to gnosis

The secular world presents the world as a painting that is only partially unveiled: a finite whole which ‘the sciences’ are working to diligently unveil completely. The sense of the inexpressible, the religious impulse, the belief in God, the entirety of spiritual knowledge: these are but a manifestation of man’s ignorance, perhaps combined with evolutionary holdovers and biological needs. They are a kind of animal response to those regions of our reality that the empirical sciences have not mapped. As science slowly pulls back the veil, it completes its map, and it is believed that as this happens, the regions inhabited by the sacred begin to dwindle, and the hold of religious superstition begins to dissolve, until at some point in the secularist dream-future, religion disappears completely, or at least is conclusively explained away.

Such a view is convincing only to the modern world wherein the sense of the sacred has been betrayed and covered over with so many layers of concrete, hymns drowned in the inescapable din of a thousand form of media that never shut off. If it seems true it can only be because we have tirelessly worked to make it true, and have in some ways succeeded. That is to say, it is possible to reduce the horizons of knowledge to the empirical alone: it simply takes generations of work. It is possible to numb the sense of the ineffable to such an extent that few become aware of it, and those who become aware of it explain it away: but it takes an intense educational process to bring it about.

For those who have remained sensitive to the interior dimension of what it means to be human, and in whom the indoctrination was not quite successful, the results of scientific progress are admitted, as they must be, but the result, with respect to our sense of the transcendent, is the opposite of that described above. For the spiritually sensitive man, the further he travels along the path blazed by scientific knowledge, the greater scope he gives to his sense of what is unknown in the known. In every phenomenon that is explained, he sense a thousand new questions. His awareness of the meaning-beyond-the-fact is enhanced rather than deadened. It is no surprise to him, then, that every time the sciences unveil an inch of their map, the veiled region extends itself several feet in response. He knows that scientific research is a voyage into an endless jungle that only gets darker and more impenetrable, and for every leg of the journey that is adequately mapped, a hundred new territories are discovered. A problem is solved: we stand face to face with a greater problem we could not have anticipated. Every answer gives rise to a more complex question. This is because everything points to something beyond itself and the further it is pursued the more this ‘pointing’ seems to indicate transcendence, and eventually the tools of the sciences become useless and even the scientists begin to talk like theologians, as we commonly see today among physicists who speak of the universe as a kind of cosmic expression of mind. In this they come full circle to the beginnings of metaphysics, to what the religions have been teachings for millennia, like a stubborn child who insists on finding answers himself rather than listening to his parents.

What matters, in the end, is that an acquaintance with the divine makes it clear that any ‘map’ of reality is a point on the periphery of the indescribable infinite, which is a region that defies conceptualized and obviously cannot circumscribed by the experimental sciences. In this way we are prepared for what is discovered and nothing surprises or confounds us, so long as it is true. The sincerely religious man should not be disturbed by either the legitimate discoveries that science makes, nor its illegitimate claims to self-sufficiency. He awed by the first and smiles at the second. He permits these researchers to transport him to the borderlands of the inexpressible. While they fight to eliminate all wonder from the human experience, they amplify his. They frantically try to eliminate the need for God, while at the same time delivering him into God’s presence.

We have a responsibility to our symbols

It is said sometimes that the world is an illusion, and insofar as this has religious truth it simply means that the appearances of things are not the end of the story and that the root of all beings is beyond them, and that only the beyond-being is ultimately real. Yet this way of putting it is not entirely apt, and it might be better to say that the world is more an allusion than an illusion. All beings possess significance, but this significance alludes to a deeper meaning that we must penetrate.

Every being must be understood as signifying something beyond itself, as conveying a hidden meaning, as a term in the divine vocabulary that has no synonym. This being the case, to be implies to be responsible to some meaning. For me to exist at all means that I must stand for something. If the rock or the tree or the bird in the sky all convey a meaning that is beyond them, so also do I represent something that is beyond my individual self. Thus, I am responsible to that something, to that truth that I manifest and from which I derive whatever meaning I possess.

We, all of us, are symbols, in the traditional sense, or more accurately we are composed of various symbols. Every being is composed of symbols, and feels an obligation to realize its symbols. Plants and animals do this perfectly, manifesting precisely what they must. It is only man who can choose to manifest or, on the contrary, to betray his symbols by trying to manifest some other meaning, or by pretending that he can choose his own symbols and reject those given to him.

The benefits of stillness and activity

In the solitude of the reading room we can build up in ourselves a focused awareness of certain ideas, a thorough understanding of some metaphysical principle, and it seems to us that we have built an acceptable temple here in the mind, and we feel content with our work, even proud of it. This focused attention to the mental life is the benefit of solitude for the sake of concentrated thought. It is also its drawback, which is an exaggerated appreciation of what are really frail concepts. It is at this point that actually going out into the world is a kind of salvation.

The moment we walk out of the house all of our theories are reduced to dust. Man cannot be what I knew him to be back in the quiet of the inner room. My knowledge of the order and significance of beings does not seem to help me appreciate it in beings as I encounter them. People everywhere begin to annoy me by defying what I said about in my mind a few minutes ago. The tree I praised for its lofty symbolism is now ugly and filled with fruit that is either insect-eaten or underdeveloped. I quickly get the impression that the world that I had so deeply penetrated that morning is so far beyond me that I am like a child lost in the grocery store not knowing where I am.

It is in these moments a kind of panic or despair sets in, which represents the vacillation from interior to exterior, which is difficult for the consciousness and plays havoc on our sense of equilibrium. All of our inner lights get a blast of cold air and are extinguished.

The task in life is to remain aware that neither the external chaos of life nor the deceiving comfort of our concepts are real. Both possess significance but neither the concept nor the objects encountered in the world convey their significance on the surface: they must be pursued and appreciated to a depth at which they intersect. These moments, which are the final demonstration of the value of both thought and life, are rare, but they may prove to be the most profound. We may say in meditation that the created order is a demonstration of the power of the Absolute, and that nature is capable of conveying an awareness of divine splendor. So far so good, but this means nothing until that moment when we actually see a sunset, not as a mechanical and chemical aspect of the physical universe, but as an awe-inspiring and indescribable experience of meaning. Then, finally, both concept and experience unite and the result is the encounter with the inexpressible, an encounter which would not have been possible, or would not have been possible to the same degree, if either life or concept had been rejected. Tears of despair become tears of reverence.

Experience is necessary to man

In other words, experience is necessary. Man cannot think out-of-context, and to do this is bad for one’s spiritual hygiene. Man is body and soul and his thinking will be influenced by both of the worlds he inhabits, and so he must take care not to deny the legitimate role of either. This makes some days a struggle, and we understand the reason why the vast majority of men do not spend time in meditation at all.

Life will always be stronger than concepts, one’s appreciation for life must always be permitted to overcome one’s appreciation for concepts.

Concepts prevail only through a denial of life. This is what happens through secular ideology as well as through a perverse dogmatizing. It is a mental idolatry to which both the materialist and the religious man are susceptible. The temptation is understandable. Concepts are comfortable, since they give the appearance of stability, they give answers, whereas life presents us with chaos and delivers a hundred questions with each answer.

Man as conqueror or as steward of the world

The modern world speaks of the world as an enemy to be conquered, or in its more practical moments, as a resource to be exploited. When man is reduced to an expression of nature, as a member of the animal kingdom and nothing more, he is likewise fitted into the framework of objects-of-exploitation, even if the rhetoric says otherwise.

The religious man possesses an appreciation for things, and this appreciation is due to a perception of the value of things beyond their practical use. For the industrial world, if a thing has no use value it has no value: for the pious man everything has value because everything has a meaning that it wishes to convey to us. To destroy the world’s most beautiful natural environments or to accelerate the extinction of animal species is to rip pages from the Book of Life, a book written for man by God. We make each forest a lumber yard, and the ocean a fishpond.

It is far better to be at peace with the world than at war with it. Those who approach the world as an enemy will always feel at odds with it, because they have made it so. Those who know the oneness of being feel an unavoidable kinship with beings. When we approach the world as a gift, we extend our knowledge and our appreciation of it.

The pursuit of expediency for the sake of meeting material needs is not evil, since without pursuing these ends we could live; but we must understand that we not live on bread alone. The world is given to us not only as a material resources but as a contemplative resource, and it is possible to exploit it in the first sense to the exclusion of the second. Happiness cannot come by meeting material needs only: without an ability to appreciate what the world offers in terms of wonder is to live in opulent misery. The evil of materialism is that it teaches man only to gratify a part of himself and to expect happiness to come from a category of activity that should only be seen as the support for happiness. We eat so that we may pursue wonder in the world: if we destroy our capacity for wonder in order to pursue a kind of gluttony, we live for nothing. Life by bread alone is not worth living, and the fact that our civilization must anesthetize itself daily with an endless variety of pharmaceutical products is perhaps a further proof of the insufficiency of its wealth.

The adequacy of the question determines the adequacy of the answer

Abraham Heschel wrote:

“The universe is an immense allusion, and our inner life an anonymous quotation; only the italics are our own. Is it within our power to verify the quotation, to identify the source, to learn what all things stand for?…Despite our conquests and might, we are like blind beggars in a labyrinth who do not know at which door to knock to obtain relief from our anxieties. We know how nature acts but not why and for whose sake; we know that we live but not why and wherefore. We know that we must inquire but not who has planted in us the anxiety to inquire.”[1]

Heschel spent a great deal of time helping to clarify the questions we wish to ask about life, and to understand that by examining the questions we already have hints of the answers. In fact any question anticipates its answer. The real difficulty then is in learning how or what to ask, especially when what we desire is to know the significance or the source of all reality.

We phrase and re-phrase it, but we are never satisfied. We ask: “What is the origin of the universe?” But we realize that we also want to know its goal, not only its origin but its end, and also its ultimate significance in the present in which I live. Which is it that I want to know, and is there really a difference between any of these single questions, or is there an essential question that runs through them all, and if so, what is that question and do we adulterate it by tearing it into small pieces and proposing them one at a time, only to be disappointed by answers that do not satisfy because they only address a single superficial aspect of what we really want to know?

It is perhaps a good start to understand the difficulties faced in the asking, and to keep this in mind in order to shield oneself against inadequate answers that cannot provide the knowledge that we crave. One must not ‘settle’ either in the formulation of the question or in the answer that one accepts to it.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone, pp. 43-44.

The false honesty of agnosticism

One response to the difficulty we are dealing with is that which is offered by agnosticism, which pretends to be a humble admission of our inability to know. It is admirable to admit the limits of one’s rational knowledge but at the same time it is soul-destroying to deny the expression of our most important questions simply because the reason cannot supply adequate answers. It seems that to be an agnostic one has to have already accepted a dogmatic rationalism, that every agnostic is an implicit rationalist, and not only this but even this dogmatism is betraying with a fallacy, since the claim that we are unable to know anything of the supra-rational order is one that cannot be verified rationally.

Who am I?

Although we will spend a great deal of time discussing the meaning of the self and what it means to pursue a ‘realization of the self’ in spiritual practice, at this point, while discussing our way of knowing and of thinking, we will simply point out that we see external objects much more readily than we do our interior selves. We are far more enigmatic than the stone or the tree. Even if we are sensitive to the meaning behind the appearance of things, we stand speechless at the doorway to our inner lives.

We instinctively deploy the term “I” as a way of distinguishing ourselves from other selves, as we encounter them and consider them; but as to the content and nature of this “I” we struggle to get much further than its negative use, whereby we only know what it is not. I am not that man over there, nor am I that rock. But the voice that is saying this, where does it originate? Is that the “I”? We are not sure, because we have already begun speaking about the “I” as if it were itself an object to us, and if my self is an object to me that I examine and understand, then from where do I examine it and what is my actual relation to it? It seems I only recede further from things as I make them objects of understanding. So much for the ‘unity’ of the personality, since any attempt to understand our own results in an infinite ‘stepping backwards’ to get a better view of me, only to find that once I’ve stepped back I must step back again.

Here we begin to become aware of the traditional distinction between the ego and the true self: the ego is the ‘I’ that we conceptualize and objectify, which we to some extent ‘design’ according to our actions and tastes and which serves as our ‘personality’. The self, now in the traditional sense, is that which stands above the ego, the true center of our individual being, which cannot be objectified, which defies our inner vision, but which is more truly the kernel of our identity than the ego could ever be.

Disguised transcendence

We finally sense, after so many inadequate answers and after so many failed attempts to conceive of ourselves and only coming into possession of an empty shell, that the self is something transcendent in disguise. We know it intimately and immediately, that it is real, but it defies conceptualization, and so we begin to discern that it somehow straddles the line between the comprehensible and the inexpressible, and the first true step in the path of spiritual realization is to discover, in the direct and certain way, that we are specialized beings who sit as it were on the threshold between the created world and the uncreated world. We notice that there is a barrier, a curtain, between the two, and we begin to feel that we are firmly rooted behind the curtain and this stage on which the life of the world is acted out is before us, but we are only barely leaning through an opening in the curtain, acting on the stage, within time, but with our feet planted in the unknown, beyond the performance and in the ultimately real. We begin to see ourselves as an actor on that stage, with a role to play, but whose essence is not identical with that role, not limited to it, knowing that when the performance is finished, and even throughout its duration, there is a reality that is more real that surrounds the stage.

A man’s life in the world begins to look like that of an unwilling actor given a mask and sent out onto the stage to deliver lines that were not given to him, tasked with making real a character that was never described to him, and eventually discovering that in the unfolding of the narrative he is somehow actor and director at the same time, but in what relation he does not quite know.

Man as object

Eventually we must admit to ourselves that although we feel like we are the knowing subject, any attempt to understand ourselves results in the admission that the self we wish to know is actually an object, the thing known. Who then, is the knower? Wherein lies actual subjectivity? What we must begin to sense is that consciousness is some kind of ‘loan’ from above that does not belong to the “I” but is situated outside of it, and that all I can say of myself after all of this examination is that I am not that—that I see it but since I see it I know that I am somewhere else. The startling realization is the coming of a new question: if “I” am an object, then who is the subject? If my essence is that I am not actually an individual self, then who is the true subject, who is the knower who knows me but cannot be known by me?—who lends to me his comprehension that I am look upon myself only to realize that I am not my self at all? Speculation fails us, for even in having pursued the question this far we have defeated ourselves, since every time we actually frame the question we must admit that we are asking it, but we ask it of a subjectivity with which we feel a transcendent identity but which we cannot connect to our individual understanding. The moment we frame the question, we regress into an inward infinity in search of a true subjectivity, and we cannot find it. It is common for Christians to speak of the bodily dimension as being ‘borrowed’, but what we discover here is that our own consciousness is, we feel, derived: we do not know on our own, but only know by way of a transcendent knower who knows for us, who knows on our behalf, that our mind is a participation in some other mind that is beyond it.

Philosophical proofs

When philosophy approaches the kinds of questions we are asking here, it typically approaches the subject from the point of view of the natural order and asks if we can observe the facts, respect to rules of logic, and conclude that there is a transcendent origin at the back of the immanent world which we know and perceive with the senses.

There are assumptions hidden in this approach, the first being that the world actually does follow certain laws and does not break them, and that these laws can be understood and serve as the basis for conclusions. The reasoning, then, is that if everything that is, is rationally constructed and precisely ordered, then the chance of it having come about at random is far less convincing than it being the product of a superior intelligence. If the universe possesses intelligibility, then it must be an imposed or derived intelligibility. Thus, we arrive at a Supreme Intelligence, or God.

It is not difficult to find flaws in this way of approaching things. They are not ‘convincing’ in any objective sense, if what we have in mind is the reality that is God: atheists and agnostics are right now to be convinced by them, and well-intentioned religious people only find them convincing because they are already acquainted with that which is in question. What they take to be ‘proof’ is really just an affirmation, one that is not conclusive in itself but merely reinforces what is already known.

What is really in question is the necessity of a cause for what we see before us, and if there is order here then there logically must be some cause prior to it, and if the universe has a ‘total order’ then there logically must be a higher cause for this total order, and so on. Yet this proves far too little. From the point of view of logic, God or even ‘transcendent mind’ are not necessary conclusions that can be derived from this reasoning.

What we might possibly say with validity is that God is a possible hypothesis, based on the reasoning from universal intelligibility; we cannot say he is the only hypothesis. For the religious person this means that such ‘proofs’ can be used as a way of demonstrating that belief in God is not a logically invalid hypothesis—but that it cannot demonstrate that belief in God is the only hypothesis permitted by this reasoning.

Again, we must insist that any philosophical proof for the existence of God proves too little. A rational proof for God, which follows the rules of logic or even of science, leaves one with a confidence in the existence of God that stands side by side with a confidence in the law of gravity or the structure of the atom: in other words, since we have adopted scientific methods for our proof, we are left with a scientific certainty, which is always a tentative certainty, subject to rejection once either our methods or our data are modified at some future point in time. All this is to say that while proofs for God are useful as a defenses against accusations of the ‘unreasonableness of God’, they must not be given the status of being the foundation of the acceptance of God as true, since this is not justified and one who comes to God in this way will easily be shaken, and rightly so.

We can also say that even if we proved the existence of God, which we cannot, this would not answer all of the questions we have so far identified as the most important to us. They would offer us another morsel of rational certainty but it would not answer why and for what. We could demonstrate this kind of certainty in front of the whole world, and the world could legitimately respond: “And?” In other words, we are left with a rational hypothesis but we are given nothing in the way of meaning for our lives and, for the matter, the entire cosmos, and so what good is any of it? This, and this only: it provides an intellectual security which will suffice only for those who live for conceptual and nothing more. For those who know that what they want pertains to meaning, we are left asking: “Why should we care?”

Security is not to be had—the error of the apologetic approach

Those who deal too much in apologetics and proofs for God, who depend too much on intellectual security for their peace of mind, have failed to understand that to live a life fully aware of the transcendent is to live ‘spiritually on edge’.

One cannot have the security that is claimed either by the atheistic materialist or the Christian apologist. Security of the type that apologists pretend to offer is not to be had, and this is why I prefer to avoid that practice entirely and only recommend the reading of apologists under certain circumstances. Such books tend to be long chains of begged questions and unwarranted conclusions based on reasoning that could have been useful in any other context but apologetics. To a sincere and intelligent inquirer, that type of writing always prove too little and in almost every case one gets the sense that the apologist is writing out of an urge to reassure himself, and that he has been far too successful in that regard.

It has always seemed to me that apologetic literature, or the apologetic approach to evangelism, is in a very real sense an affront to religion. Not that debate has no place in religion, but that religious experience begins when we come into contact with a reality that is beyond knowing, a reality that destroys our conceptual framework entirely, that reveals all of our knowledge, all of our arguments, to be as straw. Religion begins, not in rational certainty, but in a profound humbling of the mind and its powers. To present religion to the world as first and foremost a ‘reasonable proposition’ is to start off on the wrong foot and even in the wrong direction.

To begin our search for religion by examining the reasonableness of religious claims is to admit that we have not really understood what it is we are interested in knowing, and it is to be misled in such a way that we will struggle to uncover the insufficient nature of the questions we have begun asking.

Questions mean more than they say

One of the first things we notice about people who wish to ask an intimate, meaningful question about the spiritual life, is that they are somehow afraid to say what they really want to know. They ask questions indirectly. Either they are afraid, or in other cases they simply may not know how to ask. How much more is this true when it comes to the ultimate question! We must keep in mind that in this regard, we are like spiritual children who never know how to ask the question we really mean, and even when we are most sincere, we can permit ourselves to evade stating it with complete honesty.

From another point of view, we should keep in mind that questions, even when formulated sincerely, always signify more than what they say. Every question is a loaded question, and the ultimate questions are infinitely loaded.

In order for our questions about the inexpressible, about the divine, to disclose to us the truths we really want to know, we must admit that these questions are the pale and partial imitation of a mystery that we only sense but cannot imagine.

We must know that what we want to know is more than what we’ve asked to know, and thus we must ask the question with humility, with reverence, knowing that if we are to be answer, the answer must exceed the question, since it is in a way that answer to all questions of significance that we will ever ask, in any formulation.

The question is the enunciation of a spiritual need

The question we wish to have answered is not really about whether or not God exists, it is not a ‘question’ at all—it is instead an indefinable pleading within the soul. This is why, even as we try to think about it, it feels so out of place in our minds, like foreign material that we are not equipped to handle. What we are dealing with is not native to the conceptual world and cannot be encapsulated but belongs instead to that which transcends our thoughts and can only be possessed via a moment of direct contact with that dimension. Stated in this way, we can situate the issue on the level where it belongs: not as a mental curiosity but as a spiritual need. Our questions, then, are being formulated at a late stage, as secondary expressions of a primary encounter that exceeds the capacity of the mind to describe, and this is why at the level of the reason “it” can neither be asked nor answered in a satisfactory manner.

Awareness of a spiritual presence as the primary thing

Our sense of the sacred permits us to detect, not an object, but a presence. This presence is everywhere and hovers like a perfume over all things and it conditions the life of the saints and never departs from them. Such is the result of living in constant awareness of the divine that is behind all appearances.

It is sense of spiritual presence that serves as the true foundation of our reasonings about God’s essence. In rationalist philosophy one begins with an idea and then arrives (or does not) at the acceptance of a proposition about God’s existence. Thus, philosophy moves from essence to existence. The religious man moves from an intimate presence and only at a late stage, and secondarily, at speculative knowledge about God’s essence.

This is how it has always been: men everywhere sensed the presence of God and to the extent that they sensed it, they were religious. From this basis the most powerful intellects embarked on speculation, not in the rationalist sense but in the spiritually enlightened sense, taking for granted what the rationalist sets out to prove, and in this way the ancients arrived at a highly developed metaphysics. We do not quite wish to say that simplicity always precedes doctrine, since the most powerfully minded have, at many points, been precisely the ones who keenly sensed the presence, but it must be said that the sense of spiritual presence is the prerequisite to any doctrine.

The vertical dimension

Another way of describing that which we sense and wish to know is via the distinction between the horizontal and vertical dimensions of human experience.

Man lives most of his life focused on the ‘horizontal dimension’ of his being: moving across the face of the earth and expanding his collection of concepts in a quantitative development. His physical and psychic life, in fact, takes place almost entirely in the horizontal domain of quantitative expansion, and for this the rational faculty serves him well.

Simultaneously, man participates in a vertical dimension, although by and large he only perceives it in small doses. This is the domain of ‘quality’ as opposed to quantity, and while in the horizontal dimension man seeks to acquire, or suffers loss, we say that in the vertical dimension man either transcends himself or degrades himself, these latter two being descriptions of his quality or degree of spiritual development.

The sense of the inexpressible is the beginning of our awareness of the vertical dimension. Again, all men do seek quality in some things and in all being the two dimensions intersect, but only man is permitted to either rise and develop his vertical potential, which is limitless, or else degrade himself even lower than the level at which he was born, which is to say, he can even conduct himself in a ‘sub-human’ way if he so chooses.

Spiritual realization involves shifting our awareness, and in fact identifying ourselves more fully, with the vertical dimension. Life within the horizontal dimension never ceases, but its activity is integrated into the pursuits of spiritual development and become a support for it, or else they are rejected, and this is asceticism.

Awareness of the transcendent is not an awareness of God

One of the difficulties for adherents of religious traditions that insist on speaking of God in personal mode is that it is assumed that any awareness of the transcendent amounts, or should amount, to an acknowledgement of a personal God. Yet this is not so, as we see in such traditions as Taoism and Buddhism and even the Vedanta school of Hinduism. Thus, just as logical demonstrations show the necessity of a first cause, but not the necessity of a personal God, so also does the bare awareness of the transcendent dimension fall short, although this latter is obviously much closer to true gnosis than mere logical gymnastics could take us. Awareness of transcendence leads us not to a direct vision of God but rather to the plane at the end of which lie the gates to the Temple in which He resides. Though we can detect the incense, we cannot see into the Holy of Holies.

To take us the remainder of the journey, the religions are unanimous in claiming that Revelation is necessary, in other words, in order to travel the rest of the distance God must first ride out to meet us and, as it were, accompany us the rest of the way, and this is the meaning of all ‘divine descent’ such as that of Christ or of the Koran. Only through a God-given gospel can we arrive at gnosis, not because spiritual knowledge is built from concrete doctrine, but because doctrine and even dogma, combined with the context of a religious framework, provide the support necessary in order for us to withstand and integrate ourselves into the highest degrees of truth. It is for this reason that we have said repeatedly that a vague and promiscuous spirituality is not valid, and that although a healthy spiritual path may begin outside the confines of religious affiliation, it will eventually lose itself in disorientation if it is not supported by traditional affiliation.

We have, at this point, arrived at the necessity of faith and are in a position to understand why it is given such emphasis in certain religions, like Christianity. One might be highly sensitive to spiritual realities but it is faith in a religion, which according to its purpose serves as the means of grace for its adherents, that acts as a sacred map allowing one to cross the desert without falling into quicksand.

The answer to the question is us

Having spent a great deal of time examining the ‘question’ with which man is concerned, and in light of all that we’ve said about knowledge, the sense of the transcendent, and the purpose and meaning of religion, we can restate the issue as follows:

The more we examine the question the more we feel that it is not some much a curiosity about a reality that we’d like to know about, but is felt as an immediate compulsion to know what we are to do. We do not want to know the meaning of everything just to be able to entertain an abstract thought about it, but in order to know accomplish a task that we feel has been delegated to us. Our great drive to understand is for the sake of knowing how to live. We want to know the purpose of things because we sense that we are here to fulfill a purpose.

We spend so much time asking questions and nothing satisfies because when we finally understand, we realize that it is not a question we need to ask God, but rather we have always known that it was He who posed a question to us. His existence is not the mystery—it is the immediately obvious reality. Ours is the mystery, the meaning of my life and my purpose are the things which create in me so much tension. I ask because I know that something is asked of me, and I am striving to sense what exactly that is.

This is part of the pain that comes with an awareness of transcendence not buttressed by affiliation with a religion: it is to know that we have been delegated a sublime task but never to be able to know what that is. It is the part of religion, based on Revelation, to provide that guidance: religion is not God, it is the answer to what God asks of us.

In the end, it was not necessary to come into possession of concepts after all, but to come into possession of the divine commands we must carry out in order to feel like we have answered the call that we tried for so long to properly hear.

We end by realizing that we do not have the question, but it is God who poses the question: I am the answer. Or rather, it is up to me to be the answer, or to decline.

God is more real to us than we are to ourselves

At a certain point in our meditations we come upon the realization that it is not God’s existence that confounds us, but our own. We begin to understand that the reason we were so confused is because we mistook God’s question to us as our question to Him. It is no wonder we could not find the answer. God becomes more plausible than my own self. I know Him, but I am not so sure I know me. My existence becomes incredible, and now I am tempted to seek proofs for my own reality which pales when confronted with the Absolute. We cease asking, “Does He exist?” and instead begin to wonder, “How can I exist, given His infiltrating presence in all things including my own consciousness?” It is within this question that we find our answer.

Attempts to reason to God

God is not a hypothesis that we confirm, after a lengthy reasoning process Belief should instead be likened to the memory of a life-altering collision with the inexpressible. That the collision occurred is undeniable: we retain the mark, although it is invisible to anyone but us. We are coerced into believing at the price of denying our own sense of what is real: to settle back into a bland materialism after such an encounter is to regress and to forget, and to fall back onto the less real simply because it is more readily apparent to one’s senses.

Thus, belief is not an inference, nor is it the result of a conclusion we have reached. To reason to God is, from this point of view, to return to the past, before the encounter occurred, and then to attempt to reason our way to that moment of spiritual insight, which is of course impossible, since insight cannot be coerced or constructed from ‘below’ but is rather a kind of descent of what is beyond us into our immediate consciousness.

Again, then, we insist that rational approaches to the divine are profane, and although they do serve the beneficial purpose of demonstrating that God is not irrational, they can do nothing to prove that He is real.

Reverence, not reasoning, precedes faith

Apologists act as if reasoning or philosophical demonstrations were the preludes to faith: as if step one in coming to know God were a familiarity with the five proofs of Aquinas, or with the historical evidences for Christ, or with the study of natural law and its suggestions of a Divine Lawgiver. These exercises, valid in themselves, do not act as steps on the way to belief.

The true precursor to faith is the awakening of the sense of the sacred, which in turn kindles in the individual an attitude of reverence toward that which he cannot yet define but in the presence of which he feels humbled, in the presence of which he feels compelled to offer praise. These are the precursors to faith. One might pursue philosophy meanwhile: one might enjoy discovering along the way that certain rational arguments support the ‘religious worldview’, but without the development of that inner sense, any belief that is adopted will be tentative because all rational conclusions are subject to revision and can be smashed to pieces on the rocks of actual experience, and when it comes to belief it is precisely a question of spiritual experience, and at this level all other certainties derived from inferior degrees of knowledge—such as the rational order—are reduced to nothing.

Apologetics serves the purpose of clearing away debris

While the rational faculty cannot reach into the divine, it can present certain obstacles to it, obscuring our ability to interpret our spiritual experiences before and after they occur.

It is a question of levels. At the level of our being at which spiritual knowledge is given, at which the encounter occurs, the reason plays not part, since it moves one step at a time—which is to say ‘discursively’—while the presence of God is felt ‘all at once’. This is why we speak of ‘insight’ and ‘intuition’ and ‘immediate knowledge’ and of ‘encounter’. All of these words imply that awareness of God, when it comes, comes all at once, and not ‘one step at a time.’

At the rational level, everything comes a little bit at a time and in a certain order. This is the level at which apologetics operates and so we can see that it in its beneficial aspect it can serve to help work out certain mental knots that we may have formed through prejudice or confusion that would cause us to misinterpret that of which we become aware in moments of insight.

The reason apologetics is more important for protestants

For the most part, faithfulness to an authentic religious tradition will protect the believer from misinterpretations due to ineffective reasoning or lack of historical or scientific data. But outside of traditional affiliation, one is left to his own devices, and it is here that the field of apologetics takes on an exaggerated importance. Hence, we see an extreme emphasis on apologetics within Protestantism, and within Catholicism as well, insofar as Catholics have come to disregard the Magisterium and to adopt a psychology that is almost identical to that of protestants.

We are coerced temporarily, and then abandoned to doubts

We say that the spiritual experience which constitutes our ‘initiation’ into religious life comes all at once. This does not mean that the certainty experienced in the moment lasts forever. We are indeed marked by it, but it is incumbent upon the individual to ‘remain in contact’ with the presence that came upon him and to continue to knock at the door which once was thrown open.

We may feel that we are at one moment coerced into admitting the presence of the sacred—that in the moment of inspiration it is undeniable—but in the next moment, it departs, and in its absence, or shall we say, when we cease to be conscious of its presence, doubt enters.

All of what we have said about our inability to demonstrate to others the content of the experience also applies to our own selves in times of dryness. There is no ‘proof’ we can present to ourselves, no demonstration to reassure us that what we once knew is still real, since it now seems so distance and even at odds with our immediate experience of life in the world.

We encounter the burning bush, but we cannot retrace our steps to that holy ground, nor can the flame that we saw be called forth by us. It is a predicament that is only conveyed in old fairytales, wherein there is a hidden place and the only way to find it is by first becoming lost, and those who seek it directly can be assured that they will never find it.

Even now, though, logical proofs become anticlimactic: if they once convinced us, now more than ever they fall short, because we know that which they cannot convey. We sense their insufficiency—they cannot console. No concept can disperse the encroaching darkness. Proofs may be brought in to support a spiritual certainty, but they cannot create it—they cannot initiate anyone into it.

The implications of free will

The idea of personal liberty, not in the political sense but in the true, spiritual sense, is paradoxical. From the point of view of obedience, we are free creatures only insofar as we submit our wills to the Creator. To use St. Paul’s teaching, we are free from sin only on the condition that we becomes ‘slaves’ to Christ. This suggests that we are free but only if the will that expresses itself through us is actually Christ’s will, and so it is no we who act but God who acts through us. How does the play out in actual experience, then, and how are we to conceive of it in our minds?

The modern world has a very superficial notion of human freedom, and so naturally the notion of free will is misunderstood as well. Even religious people demonstrate ignorance on this subject: they may preach free will, and we often do not know what, precisely, they mean by this term, and they probably do not know either; but by observing their habits and the way the speak about things, it becomes more clear.

Consider this: when they arrive at a crossroads, they pause and they pray for a sign from God telling them which of the two paths they ought to take, so that they may choose with confidence. Naturally there is nothing wrong with prayer when faced with a difficult decision—that goes without saying—but what seems to be ignored is the fact that, in this example, they are not using it, or at least they are choosing not to really exercise it in a meaningful way. They are asking God to choose for them. This is pious, but it has little to do with free will.

Free will is, in its fulness, an invitation from God to participate in the act of creation. Creation in a finite world involves the decision to realize certain possibilities to the exclusion of others. Some things are possible but will never occur: this is because someone chose that it should be so, preferring one possibility over another. If God gave man free will, it is because, like Adam naming the animals, he wished him to actually choose one possibility out of man, and on the basis of this choice, God’s will was done, although it was man who actually selected which possibility would become a reality. The animal shall be called this and not that. Can we really imagine that God would have been pleased if Adam, when presented with creation and tasked with the naming, had turned to God and prayed to have all the names spelled out for him, reducing his task to one of reciting a list?

The will of man, exercised sincerely, coincides with will of God. A decision to realize one possibility and not another is to exercise a will freely. To exercise one’s will freely is not to exercise a will and ten to have God adjust his will after the fact: it is in fact the privilege of participating the in exercise of the one and only Will, for that moment and in that refracted way. God does not ask us which lever, and then pull it for us: we pull the lever with Him, in the same movement. This is not blasphemy but metaphysical necessity. The man who cannot exercise his will in this way, whose will is broken, or whose will is perverted, is not pleasing to God.

I do not quite wish to say that the Christian who prays at every crossroads is in possession of a perverse will, but only that they may never get beyond certain crossroads, and that such a will is not fully functional. The refusal to choose, in this case, is all the more harmful because it is hidden under a mask of piety. This way of going about things amounts to the rejection of a divinely given task, and many of the decisions we make in life are of this type. How often do Christians defer a question that God Himself put before them, simply by answering His question with a question?

How often does cowardice in the face of responsibility masquerade as Christian obedience?

It is the situation of the crossroads and the act of shouldering the responsibility for the decision that makes the man’s choice free and makes that freedom more than an appearance of freedom. If God simply wanted to dictate to man which choice he ought to make, and if it were simply a matter of praying to God to command us which way to go at every turn, then man’s role in the unfolding of his life would in most cases be black and white. But what if both roads are a mingling of black and white, and there is no wrong path and no right path, and we are faced only with a choice and its consequences, which will undoubtedly be both good and bad?

Faithfulness means doing what God commands, but what happens when he commands us to choose? What happens when the extent of his will is to present us with the alternatives, and for us to participate in the act of creation and the determination of events by choosing for ourselves one or the other, without God having an opinion on the matter?

This is perhaps the reason that Christians who are fearful of displeasing God spend a great deal of time paralyzed in prayer, waiting for a sure answer from God stating for them what they should do in this or that situation, when they would be better served by simply facing the task with the courage of a free and responsible being, and of doing what their own discernment dictates.

The sum total of decisions made by righteous men in the history of the world is, we would all agree, the Will of God, but it is metaphysically to present this truth in a way that turns our normal conception on its head: these decisions were not made because they were discerned to be the will of God, rather they became the will of God because they were decisions made by beings to whom God delegated the responsibility, and therefore the power, of determining how history should unfold. They became ‘the will of God’ retroactively, only once made, and not before that moment, even if before God and in eternity all decision are already finalized.

Let us take an example that, in the present civilization, will be widely relatable:

You are in a relationship with a woman, and you have arrived at the point at which you either need to marry her or not, and to bring things to a finality one way or the other. You pray, and you ask God if she is “the one He wishes you to marry.” This is no evil question, but what if God does not have a preference? What if the reality of the situation is that God would be perfectly tolerant of you marrying any one of a hundred or a hundred thousand women that you’ve met or may meet in your life? What if his desire is not so much that you do or don’t marry this woman, but that you express the freedom he has given you by choosing one woman and accepting the consequences, both good and bad, of that choice? What if the wife He has planned for you is not this or that woman, but rather whichever woman you choose to commit yourself to? The point is not to say that there are no terrible decisions to be made, but on the spectrum of good and bad decisions, many only become ‘the right decision’ or the wrong one depending on how you dealt with them after you made them.

This realization is both freeing and terrifying because it makes us realize that the freedom God has given us is not the freedom of children—to obey and be rewarded or to disobey and be punished. Obedience is and must be present in our relationship to God when we are dealing with moral questions, but much of our life is not a choice between good and evil but between one possibility and another. They are the choices an artist or an engineer faces when carrying a grand project to completion: each decision is consequential, and the end result will be effected accordingly, but it is possible to proceed in any number of ways, via any combination of possibilities. There will always be countless ways realizing the good, and on the flipside, even the “best” decision will show itself capable of being perverted into an evil if the man who makes it does not also take responsibility for it.

So many times, what God wants us to do is not so much to choose option A as opposed to option B, but to be faithful to the choices we’ve made: to be a good husband to the wife we’ve chosen, and not to sit in regret wondering whether or not we chose “the right one”.

Such a view of human freedom does have certain benefits. First, it does not leave us paralyzed in those moments when God remains silent. It also removes from us the terror of having to wonder if we chose wrongly, leaving us looking back and speculating what might have been or should have been. It replaces this backwards-glance with a rooting of one’s being in the present, since instead of wondering about what should have been chosen, we set ourselves here and now to making the best possible future on the basis of that past decision: we begin to worry more about how we may best shoulder, at this very moment, the responsibility of what we chose, and so long as we pursue this with a holy sincerity, we can be at peace knowing that we are at every moment living in a state with which God is pleased.