On “Divine Knowledge”

In an “inquiry” addressed to Thalassius (a Syrian hermit), Maximus the Confessor (d. 662 A.D.) states: “He (Christ) has designated holy Church the lampstand, over which the word of God sheds light through preaching, and illuminates with the rays of truth whoever is in the house which is the world, and fills the minds of all men with divine knowledge.” We read such ancient words and ask ourselves: What is this “divine knowledge” of which Maximus speaks?

Logic tells us that “divine” knowledge is not the same as “human” knowledge, otherwise we could not tell the difference. “Divine knowledge” is proper only to God. To claim to have it by oneself is a claim to be God, something not unknown to our kind. It does not follow, however, that human beings have no knowledge at all. Obviously, we do. Our intellectual task is to relate “human” knowledge to “divine knowledge.”

This is all fine, but how do we know anything about “divine knowledge”? The fact is that we do not know what it is unless God somehow informs us about it. Did He do this? That He did is what revelation is about.

Where does that leave us? How do we know what things are revealed to us? We cannot properly answer this question until we figure out what we can know by ourselves. In other words, our attention to “divine knowledge” depends on our “human” knowledge.

What am I implying here? Have we not figured out by reason many things that were once considered unknowable mysteries? We have indeed. Still, many fundamental issues remain baffling. So what’s wrong with being “baffled”?

Well, nothing, except that we are not content with our inability to figure everything out. The world is filled with myths and theories that purport to explain everything that we cannot figure out by ourselves. At first, this inability seems like a sign of chaos. On second thought, it signifies a genuine unsettlement in our souls. We know that we ought to know what ultimately it is all about.

Maximus the Confessor
St. Maximus the Confessor

The next step is delicate. Is there anything that at least claims to be “divine” and not merely “human” knowledge? Aristotle said that we should strive to know all that we can know about “divine” things. The difference between gods and men is that the gods are wise, but men are but lovers and seekers after godly wisdom. Aristotle also suggested that, if the gods knew what happiness was, it should be the first thing that they tell us

We wonder about such an observation. Is it possible that the gods did what Aristotle suggested? Well, yes, it is quite possible. How would we know if they did? Probably, we surmise, because their answers or instructions were addressed to our most perplexing lack of knowledge about what we are about in this world.

How do we formulate this issue? In Matthew (19:16), a young man asks: “What good must I do to be saved?” Does not everyone ask himself this question? Probably not in those exact terms. But even if we affirm that “My life has no ultimate meaning,” we are implicitly answering the question of the young man.

What does this “good,” this “being saved,” have to do with “divine knowledge”? If we do not know why we exist, it does not follow that no one knows. It may well be that our very “not knowing” is what opens us to accepting knowledge about ourselves. We realize that this knowledge about ourselves is properly “divine.” It is something we accept as true from outside of ourselves, not something we figure out ourselves. But it does explain.

Where does that leave us? Maximus continues: “Through virtue and knowledge, he (Christ) leads to the Father those who are resolved to walk by him, who is the way of righteousness, in obedience to the divine commandments.”

But does not this imply that those who are not obedient to the “divine commandments,” who are not virtuous and reject knowledge, are in real trouble? It does imply that.

If “divine knowledge” about ourselves is offered to us, can we refuse it? Clearly we can. So it is possible that the world contains both those who have heard of “divine knowledge” and those who have heard it but rejected it.

If this is the case, is it likely that these two “cities,” those who have accepted and those who have rejected, will live calmly in peace together? Not likely. Why?

“Divine knowledge” is a knowledge about what we are, not just a sentiment. Maximus speaks of “rays of truth” in the “house that is the world.” Through “virtue and knowledge,” by walking in “obedience to the divine commandments” – rejection of these ways leaves us at war with one another. No reflection better explains our present public order.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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