At a Loss for Words

Anthony de Mello, SJ

Dag Hammarskjold, the former UN Secretary-General, put it so beautifully: "God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal deity.  But we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance of wonder renewed daily, the source of which is beyond all reason."  We don't have to quarrel about a word, because "God" is only a word, a concept.  One never quarrels about reality; we only quarrel about opinions, about concepts, about judgments.  Drop your concepts, drop your opinions, drop your prejudices, drop your judgments, and you will see that.

"Quia de deo scire non possumus quid sit, sed quid non sit, non possumus considerare de deo, quomodo sit sed quomodo non sit."  This is St.  Thomas Aquinas' introduction to his whole Summa Theologica: "Since we cannot know what God is, but only what God is not, we cannot consider how God is but only how He is not."  I have already mentioned Thomas' commentary on Boethius' De Sancta Trinitate, where he says that the loftiest degree of the knowledge of God is to know God as the unknown, tamquam ignotum.  And in his Questio Disputata de Potentia Dei, Thomas says, "This is what is ultimate in the human knowledge of God -- to know that we do not know God."  This gentleman was considered the prince of theologians.  He was a mystic, and is a canonized saint today.  We're standing on pretty good ground.

In India, we have a Sanskrit saying for this kind of thing: "neti, neti."  It means: "not that, not that."  Thomas' own method was referred to as the via negativa, the negative way.  C. S.  Lewis wrote a diary while his wife was dying.  It's called A Grief Observed.  He had married an American woman whom he loved dearly.  He told his friends, "God gave me in my sixties what He denied me in my twenties."  He hardly had married her when she died a painful death of cancer.  Lewis said that his whole faith crumbled, like a house of cards.  Here he was the great Christian apologist, but when disaster struck home, he asked himself, "Is God a loving Father or is God the great vivisectionist?"  There's pretty good evidence for both! I remember that when my own mother got cancer, my sister said to me, "Tony, why did God allow this to happen to Mother?"  I said to her, "My dear, last year a million people died of starvation in China because of the drought, and you never raised a question."  Sometimes the best thing that can happen to us is to be awakened to reality, for calamity to strike, for then we come to faith, as C. S. Lewis did.  He said that he never had any doubts before about people surviving death, but when his wife died, he was no longer certain.  Why?  Because it was so important to him that she be living.  Lewis, as you know, is the master of comparisons and analogies.  He says, "It's like a rope.  Someone says to you, 'Would this bear the weight of a hundred twenty pounds?' You answer, 'Yes.'  'Well, we're going to let down your best friend on this rope.'  Then you say, 'Wait a minute, let me test that rope again.'  You're not so sure now."  Lewis also said in his diary that we cannot know anything about God and even our questions about God are absurd.  Why?  It's as though a person born blind asks you, "The color green, is it hot or cold?" Neti, neti, not that.  "Is it long or is it short?"  Not that.  "Is it sweet or is it sour?"  Not that.  "Is it round or oval or square?"  Not that, not that.  The blind person has no words, no concepts, for a color of which he has no idea, no intuition, no experience.  You can only speak to him in analogies.  No matter what he asks, you can only say, "Not that."  C.S. Lewis says somewhere that it's like asking how many minutes are in the color yellow.  Everybody could be taking the question very seriously, discussing it, fighting about it.  One person suggests there are twenty-five carrots in the color yellow, the other person says, "No, seventeen potatoes," and they're suddenly fighting.  Not that, not that!

This is what is ultimate in our human knowledge of God, to know that we do not know.  Our great tragedy is that we know too much.  We think we know, that is our tragedy; so we never discover.  In fact, Thomas Aquinas (he's not only a theologian but also a great philosopher) says repeatedly, "All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly."