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Secret truths, accessible to those who seek

The tradition / scripture / spirit distinctions I wrote about earlier intersect with another basic division in religious writing: things that can be explained and understood and things that cannot.

In A History of God, Karen Armstrong writes briefly about Basil of Caesarea, and his discussion of matters more about the relationship with God than the relationships among humans:

Basil expressed [Aristotle's] insight in a Christian sense when he distingushed between dogma and kerygma. Both kinds of Christian teaching were essential to religion. Kerygma was the public teaching of the Church, based on the scriptures. Dogma, however, represented the deeper meaning of biblical truth, which could only be apprehended through religious experience and expressed in symbolic form. Besides the clear message of the Gospels, a secret or esoteric tradition had been handed down "in a mystery" from the apostles; this had been a "private and secret teaching,"

which our holy fathers have preserved in a silence that prevents anxiety and curiosity... so as to safeguard by this silence the sacred character of the mystery. The uninitiated are not permitted to behold these things: their meaning is not to be divulged by writing it down.

Behind the liturgical symbols and the lucid teachings of Jesus, there was a secret dogma which represented a more developed understanding of the faith.

A distinction between esoteric and exoteric truth will be extremely important in the history of God. It was not to be confined to Greek Christians, but Jews and Muslims would also develop an esoteric tradition. The idea of a "secret" doctrine was not to shut people out. Basil was not talking about an early form of Freemasonry. He was simply calling attention to the fact that not all religious truth was capable of being expressed and defined clearly and logically. Some religious insights had an inner resonance that could only be apprehended by each individual in his own time during what Plato had called theoria, contemplation. Since all religion was directed toward an ineffable reality that lay beyond normal concepts and categories, speech was limiting and confusing. If they did not "see" these truths with the eye of the spirit, people who were not yet very experienced could get quite the wrong idea.(114)

While Basil was writing about liturgy, and non-scriptural practices like making the sign of the cross, Quakers seem to have similar issues when describing exactly what happens during a Quaker meeting, how people feel led to speak, and what exactly it is that we're all waiting to experience. Putting it into words often confuses more than it communicates, even among those worshipping in the same room.

For all the simplicity of the form of Quaker worship, it retains the complexity and the same challenges as liturgical worship that come up any time someone asks "why?" While there are people who describe Meeting as simply a quiet time to think and reflect, worship is much more than thinking, with results that don't fit into the simple boxes we use to describe ordinary tasks.

(Armstrong's translation of Basil is slightly different from (a likely old) one I found online, De Spiritu Sanctu, on the unwritten laws of the church, which both extends the mystery to scripture and sounds more concerned about creating curiosity:

Moses was wise enough to know that contempt stretches to the trite and to the obvious, while a keen interest is naturally associated with the unusual and the unfamiliar. In the same manner the Apostles and Fathers who laid down laws for the Church from the beginning thus guarded the awful dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad random among the common folk is no mystery at all. This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices, that the knowledge of our dogmas may not become neglected and contemned by the multitude through familiarity. "Dogma" and "Kerygma" are two distinct things; the former is observed in silence; the latter is proclaimed to all the world. One form of this silence is the obscurity employed in Scripture, which makes the meaning of "dogmas" difficult to be understood for the very advantage of the reader.)

Armstrong then turns to Gregory of Nyssa, Basil's younger brother, for more explanation of these difficulties:

As Gregory of Nyssa said, every concept of God is a mere simulacrum, a false likeness, an idol; it could not reveal God himself. Christians must be like Abraham, who, in Gregory's version of his life, laid aside all ideas about God and took hold of a faith which was "unmixed and pure of any concept." In his Life of Moses, Gregory insisted that "the true vision and the knowledge of what we seek consists precisely in not seeing, in an awareness that our goal transcends all knowledge and is everywhere cut off from us by the darkness of incomprehensibility." We cannot "see" God intellectually, but if we let ourselves be enveloped in the cloud that descended from Mount Sinai, we will feel his presence. (115)

For many years I interpreted my inability to '"see" God intellectually' as a barrier to faith, a problem keeping me from integrating God with my life. In my readings I regarded philosophers' efforts to include God as a sign of weakness, a "Hail Mary pass" that couldn't save their work. As I read more and more about religion, and especially religious history, it became clearer and clearer that reading about religion wasn't actually going to bring me closer to God.

Fortunately, all that reading did lead me to realize that I was on the wrong path, and that I wouldn't find God in a book. Feeling God's presence isn't about reading and understanding words, but rather about being enveloped, coming together with God in ways I can't easily describe, and don't understand in the ways I understand anything else.