Is it possible to “know” an Absolute, like God?

Is the human mind capable of comprehending any absolute? I suggest no. And yet, there is a way of “knowing” the Absolute.

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.

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.


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9 thoughts on “Is it possible to “know” an Absolute, like God?

  1. God is unknowable in his essence but is knowable in his personal nature. He is three in one. His essence is God, his persons are: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is key to understanding that God is Love. That is why Christ is the only way to the Father. Without an understanding of love as trinity, you will have a partial picture of who God is, but it won’t be complete.

    If God wasn’t unknowable in any degree, then what we would be claiming is that we would be God, which is not a logical possibility as two infinitely powerful beings would cancel each other out. By definition, there can be only one infinitely powerful being.

    I am happy that God is both unknowable in his essence but knowable in his personhood, as that means I can remain in awe and excited about his infinitely creative loving potential.

    There are far greater things waiting for us than any we left behind.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Brian. Do you think God can be understood or approached in a non-Christian framework, like Buddhism or Islam?

  2. Hi Bryce. Thank you very much for your response to my comment. I appreciate it.

    That is a question I have thought about quite a lot.

    I think God can be approached by them, but what do we mean by ‘approached’? I would say that there are certain truths that would be acknowledged by Buddhism and Islam. No Christian could deny that, as even Paul says in Romans 2:15, “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”

    The question is: Are all ‘paths’ valid paths to Truth? I don’t think they are all equal. The reason I say this, and the reason I believe Christianity is the fullest revelation we have of who God is, is: 1. The Trinity, and 2. God as personal.

    While Islam would teach that God is personal, the issue I have with their views is that without the Trinity you don’t have a full understanding of God as love. Love requires relationship and so needs more than one, while at the same time maintaining that God, as infinite, is ultimately one. This paradox is resolved for me with the essence/energies distinction: God is one in essence, but is in three persons. No other religion resolves this issue for me.

    While Buddhism seems to understand many aspects of the roots of our issues as disordered attachment, the issue I have is that Buddhism doesn’t seem to explain nor understand that there is person behind creation. The issue is, if there isn’t personhood behind the objective, and I can share in that personhood in an intimate way, I am bound to an inescapable self where the subjective and objective is never bridged. I am never able to escape the I/It distinction and enter an I/Thou relationship.

    These are my convictions and I have no issue in being shown my errors.

    What are your convictions and thoughts on this question?

    1. Hi Brian, thanks for replying to my question.

      In my view, all paths are not equally effective at returning us to God, but I don’t think I would agree that Christianity is the fullest or best revelation that does so. I think there are elements of truth in all the religions, but none of them are absolutely true, not even Christianity. Even Christianity is a symbolic system and is not the absolute Truth.

      Love does not necessarily require relationship. Relationship presupposes separation, duality, twoness, independent persons that come together, but where the ultimate reality is actually One, there can be no relationship there, per se. Love is One, not two. As Rumi said, “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.” In Love they realize that they are not actually two, but One, and always have been. That One can seem to express itself in dualities, persons, separate parts, but these are all a kind of illusion, and not ultimately real. Or as Paul said, “there is neither male nor female, for you are One in Christ” (Gal. 3:28).

      I don’t believe there is a person behind creation. This seems to me to be an outdated mythic interpretation of the nature of God as supreme human, person, bearded man in the sky, Zeus, etc. I don’t think a person created the universe. “People” began to evolve long after the universe was created, some 10 billion years after what we understand as the beginning of the universe. So it is anachronistic to say that a person is behind creation, in my view. With that said, I still believe we can have an intimate knowledge of God, and share in the identity of God, since I perceive that we are expressions of God, manifestations of the Divine, “the Word made flesh.” The subjective and objective are bridged when we realize they are not ultimately two, but One, and always have been. Their duality is an illusion of our mind, which must separate a subject from an object in order to perceive it.

      Those are some of my thoughts. What do you think?

  3. Hi Bryce,

    Thank you for your response. I really appreciate being able to discuss these things. Even though I disagree with some of the things you have said, I don’t feel attacked and hope you likewise don’t take anything I have or will say in offence.

    But back to your points:

    On love: I disagree with the view that love does not require relationship. For love to be love, we need to be giving and receiving. Love must be in process, otherwise it isn’t love at all. Love by definition needs to have more than one, otherwise how could we even provide an intelligible description of what love is? If we maintain that there seems to be more than one but that it is ultimately illusion, then I would say that we are back at the same problem: There would be no giving and no receiving. Related to this point, I would also disagree with the view that ultimately all is one and that diversity is illusion. Subjective/Objective must exist or at the very least the concept of one and more than one. I say this because if that were not the case, how would we be able to know anything at all? To know something would require you to rise above a subjectivism. If it doesn’t and all is one, how would you be able to know that all is one? You would be stuck in a form of solipsism, destroying any foundation for being able to know truth. Subjective/objective is therefore necessary to say: I know x.

    Then to your point about a person making the universe. I feel your objection is based on the genetic fallacy. Even if we were to accept macroevolutionary theory and not believe that God created persons from the get go, that would say nothing about there being a person who started the entire process. It doesn’t follow that if you are correct that there couldn’t have been a person that started creation. I actually find that there’s a good logical argument that for creation to be understandable by mind, creation itself must have mind underlying it. Otherwise how could mind perceive and personalise experience if it was entire other to reality? I believe us being made in the image of God best describes this phenomena.

    Ultimately I feel that the Christian understanding of God as: One in essence, three in persons, resolves many contradictions while maintaining the mystery that is inescapable.

    When you speak of us as manifestations of the divine, doesn’t this mean that therefore the divine must be: personal and therefore have mind? If it doesn’t, then how are we manifestations of the divine?

    Thanks for the discussion.

    1. Hi Brian,

      Yes, it is great to be able to discuss these things without attacking. 🙂

      I perceive that Love is One, Oneness, At-one-ment, not twoness, duality, separation, division, individuality, independence. The One gives and receives within its Self, because it knows it is One. It is One in Love that gives and receives. That is why it gives and receives, because it knows it is One. Love your neighbor as your Self, not as an “other” separate from you. When you see your neighbor as your Self, you give and receive from them, as if they were your Self, because they are. They are not an “other” that is independent and isolated from you. In fact, in the very giving and receiving, their Oneness is demonstrated, their connection, their interdependence, their singularity. I would even say that giving and receiving can only take place when there is Oneness. Love can only be expressed when there is Oneness.

      It seems to be that the duality of subjective and objective is an illusion, and not ultimately real. Yes, it must exist in some way in order to know anything at all, subject to object, but this knowledge is itself a kind of illusion. When we see a tree, what do we know? The light reflecting off of the tree’s branches and leaves and trunk interacts with our retina, which causes a complex electrochemical reaction in our nervous system to the occipital lobe of our brain, which we perceive in our vision as something we call a “tree.” But what do we know? We have seen something, but what is that seeing, and can we say it is independent of the subject? I would say no, subject and object are not divided or separate. They only exist in interdependence in consciousness. There is no object without subject, nor vice versa. They are one in the seeing. When we awaken to Truth, I suggest we do rise above subjectivism, above this subject we think of as our independent “self,” and realize our Oneness with that Truth, that we are ultimately the One too. We know it is One because we see our Self as that One, our true Self, our Divine Self, our Christ Self. We know Truth by being the Truth, by realizing it is not something separate from us, but is us, our ultimate Identity/Name; as Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” And so it is with us as well.

      “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” and people evolved. People did not exist in the beginning. I see it as very anachronistic to think that a person made the universe, in which people eventually evolved after 14 billion years. That seems to put the cart before the horse in a very significant way. I don’t think creation can be understood by the mind. Has any mind understood it? We may think we understand some of creation, but we really understand very little, it seems to me. But that gets back to the question about epistemology and what we think we know, and how we know it. I am in favor of the mysticism that says that we don’t actually know what we think we know, our knowledge being a kind of illusion, or at best symbol, of the real reality or truth. “What we see is shadows of things, but the reality is Christ [i.e. the One]” (Colossians 2:17). I do think we were made in the image of God, but I don’t think that means God is a person like us. That would be making God in the image of man, it seems to me. What being in the image of God means, I suggest, is that we are an emanation of God, a reflection of God, an embodiment of God, the Word made flesh, as are everything and everyone everywhere in the universe. It is all the manifestation of God’s “Body,” not just human bodies on this tiny little planet in this corner of the Milky Way Galaxy. All things were made in God’s “image,” that includes the smallest pebble on the most distant planet. That pebble is also a manifestation of the Divine, but it is not a person, and it doesn’t have a mind. All things arose from God, from that singular Source, that One, that deepest Reality, in the same way waves arise from the ocean, in my view. That is what I think it means to be a “manifestation of the Divine.”

      For many, the Christian understanding of the nature of God works, and helps them on their journey to God. I think that is fine. I just think it is not the ultimate explanation, or the best revelation. I think that leads to exclusivism and the scandal of particularity, which seems contrary to the Oneness and Unity and Love of God. I think Christianity is a symbolic system of understanding in the mind of humanity, as is every religions’ doctrines and philosophies, but there is deeper Truth to discover, which is what mysticism explores, and what I advocate and write about here.

  4. Thank you for your response, Bryce.

    What I really love about this discussion is the passion we both share about reality, love, and meaning. Thank you for sharing your responses.

    I have a lot to think about and I will be going over what you have said in your response.

    -Brian

  5. Hi Bryce,

    You said the following in your last post:
    “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” and people evolved. People did not exist in the beginning. I see it as very anachronistic to think that a person made the universe, in which people eventually evolved after 14 billion years. That seems to put the cart before the horse in a very significant way. I don’t think creation can be understood by the mind. Has any mind understood it? We may think we understand some of creation, but we really understand very little, it seems to me”

    The problem here is that you want to maintain a materialistic explanation for biological matter, yet your very understanding is not something that is material or can be verifiable. This is why materialism never works, as it has to make use of idea and logic, both of which are not material by definition nor can be analyzed to prove itself. Again, I think you make a genetic fallacy in assuming that even if macro-evolutionary theory is correct, that this somehow disproves that mind existed before the creation of the universe. That does not logically follow, and is based on your assumptions of materialism.

    But I think an even better critique of your view is the problem of the subject/object dichotomy. Without objective mind behind reality, how could we have certainty that we know anything. And if you want to concede a form of mysticism that says we can’t know anything, then this self-refutes as you need to at least know that; and why is that? You say that we understand ‘very little’, but this requires your faith in the human faculty of reason and the belief in truth as an objective category to believe that we know very little.

    Then regarding your understanding of love, you said the following:
    I perceive that Love is One, Oneness, At-one-ment, not twoness, duality, separation, division, individuality, independence. The One gives and receives within its Self, because it knows it is One. It is One in Love that gives and receives. That is why it gives and receives, because it knows it is One. Love your neighbor as your Self, not as an “other” separate from you. When you see your neighbor as your Self, you give and receive from them, as if they were your Self, because they are. They are not an “other” that is independent and isolated from you. In fact, in the very giving and receiving, their Oneness is demonstrated, their connection, their interdependence, their singularity. I would even say that giving and receiving can only take place when there is Oneness. Love can only be expressed when there is Oneness.

    The problem I see here is that even in your explanation, you have to maintain that there is someone doing the loving and someone receiving the loving. If your definition reduces to neither subject nor object, then there can be no loving as there is no process and no doer or receiver; therefore there can be no loving. So I see the subject/object issues in your thinking also reflect in your understanding of love, which is indistinguishable from selfishness (this sounds harsh, but I don’t mean it to be).

    Ultimately, truth is not a thing, truth is a person, fully realized in the person of Jesus Christ. The Trinity resolves the understanding of both one and love: Three persons, one essence, eternally in love. This explanation, which I know is something that must be experienced to be known, provides the best possible explanation for me of: Objective reality, and love.

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