It seems to me that we should let go of the pervasive cultural presumption that we humans can know anything in an absolute way, that we can cognitively or intellectually know the absolute truth or reality of any particular thing or nature generally, this includes religious dogmas about God, philosophic articulations of the Real, and scientific “theories of everything.”
I suggest we cannot know any such thing, by the very definition of the word absolute (with an exception I’ll note below).
If something is really “absolute,” then by definition it does not exist in relation to other things, in relativity, even to our minds. An absolute cannot exist as a thought, concept, philosophy, religion, idea, or theory in relationship to our subjective mind. If it is something that can be known by the mind, then it is in relationship to our mind, contingent on that mind, and thus is not absolute. It is relative; we are thinking about it relatively. Anything we can think about relatively cannot be absolute, by virtue of the fact that we are thinking about it. It is in relationship to our thought.
What we can know in our mind, it seems, is never absolute, but relative, it is relative (at least) to our mind, our particular body, our culture, our language, our education, our biology, our evolution, etc.
The idea that we can know absolutes, or an absolute, is perhaps one of the deep causes of disputes, divisions, and wars between humans throughout history, individuals or groups thinking they know the absolute truth, and trying to force this “truth” on others. But the reality may be that no one “knows” an absolute, not one, because it is a cognitive impossibility. Our human minds are by their nature limited to finite subject-object relationships in relativity.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we cannot know many relative truths, some being much better relative truths than others, perhaps pointing more accurately to the way things really are, helping us navigate life and cooperate with each other in marvelous ways. But we should not mistake these for absolute truths or realities. That seems to be the fatal error we often make. We mistake the shadows on the cave wall for the light which casts them.
The irony and paradox is that not even my thoughts above are absolute. I do think there is a way of “knowing” that is not intellectual or in the cognitive mind-space, in which I suggest we can know an absolute, even the Absolute. Some call this absolute “God,” the “Transcendent,” the “Real,” the “Divine,” or “Ultimate Reality.”
This knowing of God is not a relative thing, subject to object. It is not a thought or perception in the mind, an object of intellectual or conceptual knowledge. It is not something we “know” in the classical sense of knowledge. The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart illustrated this well when he said:
Simple people imagine that they should see God as if he stood there and they here. This is not so. God and I, we are one in knowledge.-Meister Eckhart
Knowing God as some other relative thing, over “there” somewhere, would make God an object of knowledge, something that could be contained as a perception within the mind’s eye, in relationship to that mind, and a being among beings. Eckhart is saying that this is not possible with God; God is not an object in the mind’s eye, or thing in relationship to other things. Rather, it is an intuitive knowing, a knowing through identity, through being, through experience, through the knowing itself.
(If you enjoy this writing and content, please consider giving a Gift. If every reader gave just $1, it would be sufficient for my family's needs. I am deeply grateful to you for your kindness and generosity. 🙏 —Bryce)
Some call this different kind of knowing gnosis. This word comes from the same gno- root as our English word knowing, and is perhaps more closely related to our English word recognition, and has the same quality of being an “aha” or epiphany, a realization of something already known, which is why we recognize it (perhaps related to anamnesis). This gnosis is an inner knowing of one’s deepest self, nature, and being. It is knowing one’s knowing ability itself, or consciousness, that aspect in us that “knows.” It is consciousness itself knowing consciousness, or perhaps simply being consciousness, since consciousness cannot turn itself into an object of its own knowledge, just like an eye cannot see itself.
It is not an object of knowledge in the mind, but the faculty of mind and consciousness itself. Thus, it is not in relationship to the mind, or contained within the mind’s conceptual knowing space, but is the mind/consciousness itself. Maybe this is what Jesus meant by the “kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).
It is perhaps the deepest sense of “I AM” or beingness (isness) or having existence which is shared by all things that are, that have being. Thus, it is not in relationship to any thing, in a relative sense, even to our minds, but rather is the absolute nature of all things, even the nature of mind/being/life itself.
But what about all those prophets, mystics, sages, contemplatives, gurus who claim to have “seen” God, and described God as an objective thing, being, or person? I think they may have been limited by the very nature of language itself, which is inherently dualistic, limited to subject-object relationships and forms. They could not refer to the absolute in absolute terms (because none exist), and so they relativized that absolute, reifying it in relative terms, turning God into an image, an idea, an object of thought. They had no choice if they wanted to communicate something about the Divine to others.
Lao Tzu made this disclaimer in the Tao Te Ching, at the very start of the book:
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
Many of the mystics noted that the Divine is ineffable in itself, indescribable, and yet they still went on to describe it in a multiplicity of terms. That should have been our first clue that what they are saying was not absolutely true about the Divine, but merely a pointer, a symbol, a metaphor, but not the Divine itself. They were trying to attune their listeners’ minds towards the Divine, shift their consciousness in the direction of realizing gnosis, of consciousness recognizing itself, letting go of the intellectual mind to realize what the mind itself is made of.
Their words were not supposed to be taken literally as the Divine itself, which was always the risk of them opening their mouths and talking about it. But people inevitably did just that, thinking that what these prophets were saying was the literal absolute truth, which is perhaps why subsequent mystics had to become iconoclasts, eliminating those images from others’ minds so they could realize the Divine directly, without the intermediary symbols/images getting in the way.
The noted mythologist Joseph Campbell once said:
The image of God is your final obstruction to a religious experience.-Joseph Campbell
Why? Perhaps because any image in the mind is not going to be God as God is in itself, as it really is, the Absolute itself. It is thus an obstacle, a stumbling block, a veil, a dualistic object of knowledge that prevents the mind from realizing what the mind itself is made of. This could be the deeper meaning of the word “sin,” or “missing the mark,” or “looking beyond the mark.” The mind overlooks itself in considering only the activity within the cognitive dualistic subject-object conceptual space, but not what itself is.
We become attached to all of these images of what we think God is, what we think the Absolute is, but those mental attachments ironically may be the very things which prevents us from realizing God. The contents of consciousness, or activity within the mind, keeps us from realizing consciousness itself. The mind veils consciousness, our deepest and purest being. Meister Eckhart seems to have expressed this dilemma well when he paradoxically prayed:
God, rid me of God!-Meister Eckhart
The images of God which we carry around in our minds can be the very thing which keeps us from realizing God directly, because God/Absolute is not any thing which the mind can conceive of within itself. Rather, it is the mind itself, or perhaps better, consciousness itself, being itself. I think that mind is the activity of consciousness. When the mind comes to rest, as in contemplative practices, all that is left is pure consciousness. Only consciousness is present, pure awareness, pure beingness, and this can somehow be the gnostic unveiling of the Absolute, as our deepest Self.
Maybe this is what St. Catherine of Genoa realized when she said:
My deepest me is God!… My I is God, nor is any other self known to me except my God.-St. Catherine of Genoa
Of course, such ecstatic confessions become immediately problematic and misunderstood, because some people take it literally and relatively, as expressing something absolute about the relative finite person, that that person is God. That has gotten many mystics into deep trouble. But I don’t think this is what the mystic intends. I think it means they have found that nature deep within themself that is not relative, that is not particular, finite, mortal, or part of their mind, or a perception in the mind.
Rather, it is something universal, timeless, and the essence of existence itself, manifesting itself as the person, as the mind, and all beings and things that arise in the mind and in the world. They have touched upon that quality of being itself that surpasses all knowledge, all particularity, all finitude, all mortality, all duality, the kind of being that is unconditional, and pertains to all times and places and things equally, the absolute nature of reality itself, or the Absolute itself.
What do you think? Is it possible to “know” an absolute, the Absolute, or God? In what way? Please share your thoughts.