I guess we’re doing a little bit on human identity at the moment, huh. We talked recently about the problem of individuality and unity in Christian thought – what does it mean for us as humans to be as one, but to also retain our identity as individuals? How do those attributes coexist? We were looking at a part of The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, by the Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky, and we compared it to Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism. We’d been reading the Catholics last year, and this year we’re moving into looking at the Orthodox church, and the comparison just worked as a tidy transition from one stage into the other. And this week – I guess we’re doing the same thing again.
In The Discovery of God, French cardinal Henri de Lubac argued that in lots of ways, we don’t really know ourselves. You know when you have a new experience and discover something you really love – and it’s like a part of you unfurls, wakes up and shudders into place. It’s not new, per se, it was always there – you just hadn’t realised. We are in a sense unknown to ourselves – there are things we have to discover, things we have to learn. De Lubac argues that the reason we don’t fully know ourselves is because we’re made in the image of God. As God is ultimately incomprehensible, so are we – even to ourselves. De Lubac’s idea draws on a long Western tradition that associates God (or our relationship with God) with a lack of understanding. It’s often conveyed by images of darkness, or the desert – it’s the dark night of the soul, the cloud of unknowing, negative theology. I think in the modern day especially it’s cast against rationality and the scientific, a method of rejecting our frameworks and modes of knowledge and contemplating a transcendent Beyond. As Pseudo-Dionysius has it, we “know beyond the mind by knowing nothing.” De Lubac simply carries that principle through into our knowledge of ourselves – the reason why we don’t fully know ourselves, he says, is because we’re made in the image of God, who is ultimately incomprehensible.
Lossky, on the other hand, isn’t convinced. He sees God not as obscure and unknown, but as a divine light – the title of the eleventh chapter of his Mystical Theology. Obviously the Bible uses a range of terms to describe God as light: in John, Jesus is the light of the world; in Psalm 119, God’s word is a lamp for our feet; in 1 Peter 2, God calls us out of darkness into His light. Lossky also quotes a homily from St Symeon: “God is Light, and those whom He makes worthy to see Him, see Him as light; those who receive Him, receive Him as light. For the light of His glory goes before His face, and it is impossible that He should appear otherwise than as light.” As we are transformed and renewed, brought closer to God, Lossky argues, we should only really increasingly see God’s light. We should only be further illuminated. In that context, the Western view of darkness and the desert is best understood as a lack: “Dryness is a state of illness that must not last.”
These opposing views – our experience of God alternately as darkness or as light – also point to different understandings of ourselves. In de Lubac’s view, we don’t fully understand ourselves because, like God, we are ultimately unknowable. From Lossky’s view, however, we must draw the opposite conclusion – that we can come to know ourselves perfectly. As we increase in our connection to God, we become ourselves bearers of light, and shine forth in illumination. In this view, the obscure, darkened corners of our personalities are meant to be excavated. We are meant to know ourselves.
So which is it? Is our experience of God best found through transcendent darkness, or through stepping into the light? And what about our nature as humans? Are we meant to understand ourselves, or are we forever a foreign land? Are we with de Lubac or Lossky? And how do we decide either way? Lossky of course assigns the root of the divide to different doctrinal beliefs: “Since the separation, the ways which lead to sanctity are not the same in the West as in the East. The one proves its fidelity to Christ in the solitude and abandonment of the night of Gethsemane, the other gains certainty of union with God in the light of the Transfiguration.” To me that feels like a post hoc explanation – coming after the fact as a symptom or expression rather than being in any way causative. That’s just a disagreement I have with Lossky about the relative importance of doctrine – we hashed all this out a few weeks ago, regarding the question of what keeps the church apart. Lossky thinks doctrine drives change, and I think doctrine is more reactive. I think it follows culture, rather than leading it. As a point of reference, we might note that a 2020 Pew report showed that a majority of religious people in the US, the UK, France, Canada, and Australia (among many, many other places) are already gay-affirming. That change wasn’t driven by the dogma of theologians. They’re codifiers, recorders- and eventually they’ll catch up with the rest of us. But they’re sure as shit not driving cultural change. People are driven by their shared spirit – by their culture, their tradition – by what Lossky would call the Holy Ghost moving among the people. From that perspective, the two ways – the way of darkness and the way of light – are both valid ways of knowing God. They are different cultural traditions – what de Lubac elsewhere calls differing approaches to God.
But does the same logic apply to human nature? Is our self-knowledge culturally bound in the same way, such that we alternately can or can’t know ourselves depending on our cultural context? I’m tempted to say yes. When I wrote the de Lubac piece, on how we’re unknowable to ourselves, I really agreed with his argument. I felt unknowable to myself – I would do or say things that I couldn’t understand. I would feel things that I couldn’t explain. Since then, I’ve been diagnosed as autistic. And it’s like a curtain has lifted. I find myself more comprehensible – I’m better able to understand why I’m reacting in certain ways to sensory stimulus or social interaction. With that shift in my cultural frame of reference, that different set of ideas around what it means to be a person, I no longer feel like an alien in my own body. I feel capable of knowing myself. Crucially, the only reason why I felt unknowable was because I was attempting to know within the wrong framework. Once the framework was adjusted, knowing myself became relatively easy. In that sense, maybe Lossky is right. If we can understand ourselves with just the right lens, maybe we can understand God too. Maybe it’s just a matter of stepping into the light.