God’s Lack of Experience

The hits just keep on coming: just recently I officially entered old age by throwing out my back picking up my son in the middle of the night.  Instead of bouncing back in a day or three, here I am doing therapy 3 weeks later to regain my full range of motion.  On top of everything else, it’s meant no chance to compose my thoughts.  Sleep is better than writing; c.f. Maslow.

For those of you who don’t know what a bad lower back feels like, may God continue to richly reward you.  It really is everything my older male friends warned me about: an indescribable, indefeasible, infantilizing pain.  Trust me: you don’t want to know first hand.  Unless you are looking for a shorter stay in Purgatory…

But my griping dovetails nicely with a question one of my Form III students posed last week while wrapping up Anselm’s Argument (The Argument, not one of his many others).  I’ve heard it many times before but his variation stuck with me because I didn’t answer it as well as I could have/should have.  I blame being rooted to a chair.

Namely: if God doesn’t learn, die, lie, fail, suffer, and the like, aren’t there things He doesn’t know?  Doesn’t this make him incapable of sympathizing with us who do, and therefore loving us?

There are many fruitful ways to approach this question and I picked none of them:

  1. Maybe, but let’s wait until we get to the divine attributes phase of our natural theology
  2. That’s exactly how Greek philosophy tended to approach the matter, and that’s what is so different about Judaism/Christianity
  3. Jesus
  4. It’s not true that we cannot know what we do not experience ourselves (see: doctors treating cancer, priests counseling married people)
  5. It is true that we cannot know what we do not experience ourselves, but that is a limitation on our knowing.

The last two points (no doubt I could consider more) are closest to how I prefer to answer the question these days.  The problem is that they trip each other up in terms of presentation, and the topic to consider is not easy for a beginner.  “Modes of knowing” is a little too fancy for all but the very best of my students, which is partially why teaching them about faith in a few weeks is going to be such murderous glass-chewing.  You ain’t met an eliminativist until you’ve met a teenage eliminativist.

Throwing lemmas at them only spins them around and confuses them.  So for simplicity, it’s really Number 5 that I should use to get through to the kids.  I think.  Remember, teaching kids philosophy and doctrine is like trying to hit a pinata blindfolded…and under water.

In the Anselmian spirit of aqnmcp (aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit) (ok, I relent: that than which nothing greater can be thought), we have a classic case of removing limitations here.  It is a mark of our lack of intelligence that we need to experience something to know it.  What would it mean for something to be truly capable of knowing without that limiting condition?

Haha, I jest: God is not capable of knowing.  He just knows.  Capacity implies limitation in its own way as well.  Man my students love it when I start messing with their minds.

So let us try to consider what it would mean to know a thing perfectly without having to experience it.  We can’t fall back on our experience to do so, can we?  Not if my objector is right.  But we can see it is a limitation, yes?  And if our whole game in Anselm’s argument is to strip out limits…

Yes, but what is it like?

Derp.  Nothing.  That’s the point.  Welcome to the transcendent ground of being.  Who happens to know exactly my back pain despite not suffering it Himself.

(Trinitarian Personhood and Incarnation to be cashed in at a later date!)

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