Fr. Jeremy Paretsky, O.P., on the knowledge of God

You don’t have to be a Christian to feel a great sermon as a perfect specimen of its genre.

The last time I visited New York as a mere tourist before my promotion to citizen, I had the privilege of hearing what I – as an orthodox unbeliever – thought was a superb sermon by my old friend Jeremy Paretsky at St. Vincent Ferrer, the lovely Dominican church in the East 60s.

Now, my judgment might have been biased by friendship, but Mike O’Hare – a tough critic, and (if possible) even futher from being a Christian than I am – agreed with me that the sermon was a perfect specimen of its kind.

Jeremy was kind enough to expand the notes he spoke from into a full document, and to permit me to reproduce it below. On the off-chance that some RBC readers might not have the entire Bible memorized, I have provided the four readings for the day as a prologue.

The Texts

Job 38

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding, who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddling band for it, and brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors, and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?”

Psalm 107

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. 

For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.

They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.

Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven. Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!

II Corinthians 5

For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead:

And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.

Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.

Mark 4

And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.

And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side. And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship. And there were also with him other little ships.

And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?

And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?

And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

How Do We Know God?

How do we know God? Is it even possible to know God?

Well, how do I know the world?

Through observation and experience, although sometimes observation and experience are misleading. The sun rises, the sun sets, but I have to learn that it is the earth’s rotation that creates the illusion. I don’t see microorganisms or blood corpuscles except with the aid of a microscope, so that only in comparatively recent times have people been aware of a vast invisible world, and the existence of sub-atomic particles have to be inferred.

And when it comes to people, how do I know another person? In dealing with other people I can evaluate experience, deduce consequences of interaction. But observation is misleading and sometimes we find what we expect to find, prejudices determining our conclusions: is that another person or a creation of my imagination?

In a general way I know another human being because we have the power to bond with one another, to love one another, to enter into one another’s lives. We are all in some ways alike, have something in common – humanity – and know the common human experiences of hope and fear, of hatred and of love.

To truly know I have to be on the inside, find what is common, what is different and what bridges the differences – our common humanity containing sometimes more than we would like to admit. If we do admit the common that
bridges our difference, we can become like the other, like knowing like.

So, back to my first question: How do we, can we know God?

Who and what am I looking for? Job thought he knew God, thought God was just as he imagined him, that he was like knowing like, but every step he took
towards the God he thought he knew increased his bewilderment, his anguish, as he went from being a man who was comfortable with the god who rewarded him for his piety to one who experienced God as raw power, even fearful, bestial, if not outright demonic in his ability to overturn an entire universe.

With each stage of his attempt to confront God Job has to deal with a god created by the human imagination, and must learn that each new “god” is not God. Only when Job strips away from his experience all that is not God,
only when he exhausts all his human knowledge and power, can he meet the voice that speaks from the depths of the unknown in the uncontrollable, ungraspable whirlwind. The voice from the whirlwind taunts, both to put down and to build up.

To know God, unlike must be remade, so God accords Job the dignity of assuming he is like God. He isn’t, but he is still in God’s image, so Job learns what he is and what he is not, when he learns who God is and who God is not.

The disciples in the boat face a similar problem: they thought that Jesus was like them, and so the disciples felt that they understood him, knew all about this man that anyone needed to know. But in a single night their world was overturned. His voice spoke into the whirlwind (the whirlwind out of which God’s voice spoke to Job), the voice which had spoken at the beginning of creation and which continues to echo down through the ages, fashioning creation ever anew.

The voice that spoke to calm the wind and the waves is the voice that makes us all a new creation. There is a great calm. Suddenly the familiar became unfamiliar – who is this?

St. Paul says, “From now on we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer.”

There was a time in my life when I regarded Christ from a human point of view, indeed regarded God from a human point of view – there was
nothing to know, no one to know. And if Jesus existed, he was misinterpreted by the church that arose after him, or else he was simply crazy. In short, I recognized nothing in common with God, with Jesus. In my late teens I was first seduced by the desire to know how it was that I could reason and how it was I could insist on a moral universe, that there was really Good and Evil.

When I eventually came up against a wall, I pounded on it and demanded to know if there was anyone on the other side. The answer spoke into my chaos.
It created a new relationship, and in so doing established how alike we are: able to use reason, to create, to know good and evil. Only later did I come to accept that in Christ’s humanity we share the common knowledge of human hope and fear and suffering and love.

In Christ the part of our humanity that is unlike God is remade. Christ knows us as like knowing like, knows God as like knowing like, and puts us into a new
relationship with God. My life has never been the same. Your life has never been the same. A new way of being brought about a new way of knowing, and all of us who now exist in a new way, and know in a new way, can know the hand of God that touches us.

At the edge of our experience, when we have exhausted all strength, realized the limits of human knowledge, the limits of human life, there is where we encounter that ungraspable unknown – the ancient power speaking to us from the heart of the whirlwind. It is this power that the disciples witnessed.

Yet the marvel of God’s saving act is that all that unlimited power and knowledge and life enters into our created world as the calm after the storm. We are not given a name in answer to our question – “who is this?” – but the calm which contains the power of the Name of God, who says that from now on in Christ we have a shared history with God – it is this Name of God which enters into our very humanity in order to make us new creatures, new beings with new ways of knowing: like knowing like, man knowing man, God knowing God.

If we try to control him, we are repulsed by the terrifying storm; if we let the unknown in and let it embrace us, we enter the peace and consolation beyond all understanding.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

3 thoughts on “Fr. Jeremy Paretsky, O.P., on the knowledge of God”

  1. Fine, and traditional: to seek God at the limits of human experience.

    May I suggest that it can also be helpful to pay attention to the details. Mark writes that Jesus was asleep in the boat on a cushion. For details, you need the modern translations, which say "cushion" not "pillow". The detail rings true; it's the sort of random thing an eyewitness remembers, not the sort of thing an apologist makes up to underline a heroic narrative. If we see Jesus as God-like, or simply as a man much closer to God than us, we can infer that ordinary comfort is not to be despised. Jesus lived rough because it was necessary to his mission, not as a good in itself; the soldier's attitude, not the hermit's. We can also learn from Haldane's joke that God must have an inordinate fondness for beetles (minimum 350,000 species). So we have two data points: cushions and beetles are good. That's getting somewhere without an existential crisis.

  2. So, if I am to "let the unknown in," does this mean I have the priest's blessing to continue never trying to think about theology or philosophy? Because I find them so abstract that I can never get a grip or seem to get anywhere. Is that okay now?

    I admit, that would be kind of exciting. Because every so often, I feel a little bad about it. And as you referred to in your other post, Mark, I do agree we are in some sense obligated to use what brains we are given. At least some of the time! I usually only get religion in nature — the ocean is beautiful and I remember it could also kill me. Sometimes in church… depending. But *think* about it? Almost never.

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