Mystical Union: The Epistemology Problem

I mentioned in an earlier post that mysticism, even true mysticism, poses major problems of epistemology to most conservatives.  This problem comes in two parts: conservatives have believed lies about the nature of knowledge, and simply fail to understand the nature of language and how it relates to relationships.

The first part of our problem is that we bought the Enlightenment lie about the nature of knowledge.  Real knowledge — so they told us — is about what can be weighed, counted, numbered.  Real knowledge can be calculated; it happens in a laboratory, or in an equation, and only there.

We brought this over into theology, too.  Real theological knowledge happens when all the proof texts line up, the syllogisms are clear and sharp and valid, and so on.  “If p, then q” and like that.  Propositional calculus reigns.

Well.  The results of a laboratory experiment, or a syllogism, can be real knowledge, true enough.  But we wouldn’t have arrived at the primacy of the laboratory from Scripture.

You can’t get four chapters into Genesis without noticing this.  “And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain…”

He what?

So tell me, Mr. Gradgrind, to which facts did Adam’s intellect assent, that she might conceive Cain?  Did he seduce her with syllogisms, or maybe sing her that great Olivia Newton-John hit, “Let’s Get Cognitive”?

Of course not.  The marriage bed is a paradigm case of real knowledge, and though it can be described propositionally to an extent — parents everywhere struggle to try, when the kids start asking questions — the knowledge itself is far more than propositions.  (Otherwise, why would “virgins discussing sex” be a universally understood metaphor for not knowing what you’re talking about?)

For those of you sputtering “But ‘Adam knew Eve’ is just a euphemism!” — so what?  Do you really think Moses just picked a verb at random?  That “knew” is a lie, a mere place-holder because Moses was too genteel to say “f—ed”?  Of course not.  The word choice is appropriate, and made not just by Moses, but by the Holy Spirit who inspired him. God uses it because it’s an appropriate, a true, way of describing what happens.  If we don’t find it appropriate and true, then we need to repent.

Fast-forward to Deuteronomy and Proverbs, where we learn that real knowledge happens at the pilgrim feasts.  Come and feast before Me, God says, so that you may learn to fear Me.  The fear of the Lord, Proverbs tells us, is the beginning of knowledge.  One of the foundations of real knowledge in ancient Israel was drinking strong drink and eating roast sheep in the presence of Yahweh.  Not just the concept — the actual doing of it.  Put that in your propositional calculus and smoke it.

Back when I was part of a church singles ministry, we once invited the pastor, a couple of elders, and their wives to join us to play a version of the newlywed game.  All these couples had been married for decades, but that only made it more fun.  We separated the men and women, and asked them questions about each other, then got them together to hear the answers to the questions.

The pastor — married four decades at this point — didn’t know the color of his wife’s toothbrush.  But when we asked his wife what animal her husband reminded her of, she tried in vain to suppress a grin, blushed fiercely, and said “Stallion.”

Did he know his wife?  She seemed to think so.


The second part of our problem is that conservatives don’t grasp the Trinitarian nature of language.

The Trinity contains metaphor within its very nature.  If you’ve seen the Son, you’ve seen the Father.  The fundamental is/is not of metaphor is present there — If you’ve seen the Son, you’ve seen the Father; the Son is not the Father.  The Son is a metaphor for the Father.

Language is God’s gift, and it is metaphor.  “Lion” is not a lion; it’s a word.  But then, of course it’s a lion; it’s not “apple” or “skyscraper” or “purse;” it’s lion.  Is/is not.  Metaphor.

“The lion ate the zebra” is storytelling.  The language represents, but does not contain, the reality.  In the right relational context, though, propositions do more than communicate; they become a conveyance through which a relationship can be created, altered or destroyed.

“With this ring I thee wed,” uttered in the context of a stage play, does not actually unite the man and the woman on the stage in marriage.  A single person can stand in an empty room and say “With this ring I thee wed” all day long, and still not be married.

But in the proper context, said by the groom to his bride and vice versa, “With this ring I thee wed” both signifies, and accomplishes, the union.

What makes the difference?

The relationship.

Could the whole thing have been accomplished without words?  No, not really.  Were the couple deaf/mute, they’d have accomplished it without speaking, but not without language.  The proposition is important.  But it’s not a sufficient condition to accomplish the marriage.  The right people have to be present in the right relationship, or it doesn’t work.

What if they mess up the words?  What if they stumble over it?
“With this thee I ring…uh…with thee this ring I…oh, forget it, we’re married!” says the red-faced groom, sliding the ring on her finger.  The bride, thrown off by this, just blurts out “I thee wed” and puts the ring on his finger.

“But wait,” says the pinch-headed fundamentalist, as the guests are eating at the reception a little later.  “She didn’t mention the ring.  Are we sure they’re really married?”

Wedding guests should be clothed with rejoicing; this bean-counter has come to the feast without his wedding garment.  If he insists on making his point loudly and repeatedly, the friends of the bridegroom will quite properly cast him out.


What does this have to do with mystical union with Christ?  Propositions matter, but not in the way that rationalist bean-counters would like to think.  This is a reality we deal with every day; it is by no means too complicated for normal people.  However, it does not reduce well to test-tube categories, and if you have a certain turn of mind, that makes you angry.  “If it can’t be boiled down to essentials and tracked,” you say to yourself, “then how can I be sure?”

That’s exactly the right question, and to find the answer to it, answer this question first: If we can’t reduce Adam’s knowledge of Eve to propositions, how could she have conceived?  How could we be sure she had?


6 Responses to Mystical Union: The Epistemology Problem

  1. Jim Johnson says:


    I smiled, grinned, and laughed as I read this post, its great examination of things related to language, knowledge and truth in the realm of believing people. Its very refreshing.

    And I really liked the part about the “bean counter”!

    However, in the last section you ask two penetrating questions. It reminds me of a problem in graduate school in quantum mechanics, we discussed the classical thought experiment about Schrödinger’s cat (from wikipedia):

    “A cat, along with a flask containing a poison and a radioactive source, is placed in a sealed box shielded against environmentally induced quantum decoherence. If an internal Geiger counter detects radiation, the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when we look in the box, we see the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead.”

    I won’t go into the math, but there is a wave function present in the problem. Observation collapses the wave function and solves the problem. The wiki continues:

    “Niels Bohr, never had in mind the observer-induced collapse of the wave function, so that Schrödinger’s Cat did not pose any riddle to him. The cat would be either dead or alive long before the box is opened by a conscious observer.”

    So “in theory” its our observation of empirical data that confirms or deny’s our answer to the question how could we know Eve conceived or know that she had? We can’t since we were not present to observe. Unless we have the ability to travel back in time, we can’t make concrete observations about what happened to Adam and Eve. All we have is the text and faith. Some will try to make the argument:

    We know that mankind had a source because we exist. We have various accounts of creation and evolution, so we have some data on which to base our belief that Eve conceived…etc…etc.

    That line of thinking is flawed for many reasons, one of which is that all we have really is the text and our faith. We are not observers, Eve is not Schrödinger’s cat any more than Jesus the Messiah is, and in the end we have to wrestle with the data we have, which is: data about the natural world (natural theology if you will), the scriptures, and what our heart and mind tell us about what all that data says. There is no other input.

    So let those who wrestle “major problems of epistemology” continue to wrestle with it. They will either believe or not. For those who believe there is no problem with the Mystical view your proposing.

  2. Tony L Smith says:

    I enjoyed that, I had to patiently read, but I got it. This is why He will tell some “I never knew you” ‘You never let me touch you, how could I know you?’
    Oh for Him to know us so completely that He will use us like a mechanic uses his favorite tool ‘he knows it’ I know we aren’t tools, but you know what I mean

  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Here’s a description of how TF Torrance thought through how knowledge of God worked through mystical union with Christ. Torrance’s approach is often called stratified knowledge:

    Thomas F. Torrance’s model of the stratification of knowledge is one of his most striking and original contributions to theological method. Torrance’s model offers an account of the way formal theological knowledge emerges from our intutive and pre-conceptual grasp of God’s reality as it is manifest in Jesus Christ. It presents a vision of theological progression, in which our knowledge moves towards an ever more refined and more unified conceptualisation of the reality of God, while remaining closely coordinated with the concrete level of personal and experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ. According to this model, our thought rises to higher levels of theological conceptualisation only as we penetrate more deeply into the reality of Jesus Christ. From the ground level of personal experience to the highest level of theological reflection, Jesus Christ thus remains central. Through a sustained concentration on him and on his homoousial union with God, we are able to achieve a formal account of the underlying trinitarian relations immanent in God’s own eternal being, which constitute the ultimate grammar of all theological discourse. (Benjamin Myers, “The Stratification of knowledge in the thought of T. F. Torrance,” SJT 61 (1): 1-15 (2008) Printed in the United Kingdom © 2008 Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd doi: 10.1017/S003693060700381X)

    We have intimate experiential knowledge of God in and through the union of Christ’s divinity with humanity by the Spirit; and then through our union with His humanity into the divine life by adoption and grace through the Spirit. The context of knowledge in mystical union is Trinitarian relationship.

  4. Tim, I’m at a loss for words. But, reading this, one can’t help but think of the famous lines by Goethe:

    “In the beginning was the Word” — thus runs the text.
    Who helps me on? Already I’m perplexed! . . .
    The spirit speaks! And lo, the way is freed,
    As Tim calmly writes: “In the beginning was the Deed!”

    No, I’m not bitter and angry…I’m just sayin. 🙂

  5. Sorry, this is a better translation:

    “In the beginning was the Word” — thus runs the text.
    Who helps Tim on? Already he’s perplexed! . . .
    The spirit speaks! And lo, the way is freed,
    As Tim calmly writes: “In the beginning was the Deed!”

  6. Tim Nichols says:

    Gary! 🙂 I’m seriously impressed! Theological light verse is a lost art. Thank you, brother!
    Allow me to respond in kind:

    God spoke, and all was light; the waters split in two
    Dry land heaved up and on the mountains glistened heaven’s dew
    At Yahweh’s call the heavenly bodies ruled the night and day;
    Beneath, fish swarmed amid the seas, and birds across the sky.
    At spoken word, green carpet spread, and trees rose from the sod
    And from the dust rose woman and man, the breathing image of God.

    Observing from a time machine our brother Gary sat,
    To hear the propositions God spoke: “Let there be…(this and that)”

    He felt, nor saw, nor smelt a thing;
    His hands were o’er his eyes.
    And when the Lord His rest did take,
    It came as a surprise.
    “Say something, Lord” the listener cried,
    “Speak words into my ear!”

    But on His throne the resting God, surrounded by glory bright
    said nothing…
    Save women, horses, day and night, the planets’ careering run,
    Cold grapes on the vine by moonlight, and by day the heat of the sun.

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