The Folly of Definition and the Wisdom of Communion

“At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, andlearn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-27)

Truth is not merely the purview of reason. To put it another way, truth is not bounded by reason. Truth exceeds reason. Reason’s desire is for truth. But, hidden in that desire is the yearning for communion. Reason desires that which is beyond itself. Communion is the context in which, mysteriously, reason finds the fulfillment of its longing, i.e. the heart. This is what is meant by the Church Fathers when they talk about the head descending into the heart.

The tragedy is that reason has come to the conclusion that it is its own context of definition and fulfillment as well as the fulfillment of all other human longings. St. Hilary speaks lovingly and yet firmly to this tragedy and its resolution. (Emphasis is mine.)

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It is the Father to Whom all existence owes its origin. In Christ and through Christ He is the source of all. In contrast to all else He is self-existent. He does not draw His being from without, but possesses it from Himself and in Himself. He is infinite, for nothing contains Him and He contains all things; He is eternally unconditioned by space, for He is illimitable; eternally anterior to time, for time is His creation. Let imagination range to what you may suppose is God’s utmost limit, and you will find Him present there; strain as you will there is always a further horizon towards which to strain. Infinity is His property, just as the power of making such effort is yours. Words will fail you, but His being will not be circumscribed. Or again, turn back the pages of history, and you will find Him ever present; should numbers fail to express the antiquity to which you have penetrated, yet God’s eternity is not diminished. Gird up your intellect to comprehend Him as a whole; He eludes you. God, as a whole, has left something within your grasp, but this something is inextricably involved in His entirety. Thus you have missed the whole, since it is only a part which remains in your hands; nay, not even a part, for you are dealing with a whole which you have failed to divide. For a part implies division, a whole is undivided, and God is everywhere and wholly present wherever He is. Reason, therefore, cannot cope with Him, since no point of contemplation can be found outside Himself and since eternity is eternally His. This is a true statement of the mystery of that unfathomable nature which is expressed by the Name ‘Father:’ God invisible, ineffable, infinite. Let us confess by our silence that words cannot describe Him; let sense admit that it is foiled in the attempt to apprehend, and reason in the effort to define. Yet He has, as we said, in ‘Father’ a name to indicate His nature; He is a Father unconditioned. He does not, as men do, receive the power of paternity from an external source. He is unbegotten, everlasting, inherently eternal. To the Son only is He known, for no one knows the Father save the Son and him to whom the Son wills to reveal Him, nor yet the Son save the Father. (Matthew 11:27) Each has perfect and complete knowledge of the Other. Therefore, since no one knows the Father save the Son, let our thoughts of the Father be at one with the thoughts of the Son, the only faithful Witness, Who reveals Him to us.

It is easier for me to feel this concerning the Father than to say it. I am well aware that no words are adequate to describe His attributes. We must feel that He is invisible, incomprehensible, eternal. But to say that He is self-existent and self-originating and self-sustained, that He is invisible and incomprehensible and immortal; all this is an acknowledgment of His glory, a hint of our meaning, a sketch of our thoughts, but speech is powerless to tell us what God is, words cannot express the reality. You hear that He is self-existent; human reason cannot explain such independence. We can find objects which uphold, and objects which are upheld, but that which thus exists is obviously distinct from that which is the cause of its existence. Again, if you hear that He is self-originating, no instance can be found in which the giver of the gift of life is identical with the life that is given. If you hear that He is immortal, then there is something which does not spring from Him and with which He has, by His very nature, no contact; and, indeed, death is not the only thing which this word ‘immortal’ claims as independent of God. If you hear that He is incomprehensible, that is as much as to say that He is non-existent, since contact with Him is impossible. If you say that He is invisible, a being that does not visibly exist cannot be sure of its own existence. Thus our confession of God fails through the defects of language; the best combination of words we can devise cannot indicate the reality and the greatness of God. The perfect knowledge of God is so to know Him that we are sure we must not be ignorant of Him, yet cannot describe Him. We must believe, must apprehend, must worship; and such acts of devotion must stand in lieu of definition. St. Hilary of Poitiers (300 –368), On the Trinity (Book II), 6-7.

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