Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes . . .
We love the words of this deeply theological hymn. Yet for the most part, this "inaccessibility" of God isn't a trait most of us like to dwell on. We're more often drawn to descriptions of God's knowability—friendship with God, intimacy with God, the aspects of God's Divine Being that we can grasp and understand.
Yet God is, in many ways, very much "hid from our eyes"—not just from our literal vision, but hidden by the limits of our human comprehension. Though we often speak about "knowing God," in what ways is God simply beyond us and unknowable? And how can we seek to better know and grow in relationship with our amazing—and mysterious—God?
The question of how well we can really "know" God has been woven throughout church history from the beginning. There are two realms of Christian theology that explore this issue: cataphatic theology and apophatic theology.
Cataphatic theology emphasizes how God is knowable; we can know him through the revelation of God in the Word, through his character traits, through what he has made, and through what we see. In this sense, God is absolutely a knowable God.
Apophatic theology, on the other hand, emphasizes the more mysterious aspects of seeking to "know" God. From an apophatic standpoint, God is so big, so huge, and so beyond us that in a sense we can never truly know God. We're fooling ourselves if we think we can nail down the flapping corners of the universe and confidently declare, "This is who God is . . . " because God is beyond us.
Both of these theological currents are present in Scripture, and both help us see how we can—and cannot—know and understand God. We live in a society that always wants to level the playing field; for example, we called President Carter just plain "Jimmy" and people often refer to our current president as just "Obama." Similarly, we often have a very friendly and familiar approach to the Holy One. It is a good thing to be close to God and on familiar terms! But if that is the only way we view and relate to God, then our perspective is inadequate and incomplete. If we neglect the mystery of God, we aren't seeing the whole picture.
God is not an object to be analyzed, a theory to be debated, or an abstract concept to be pondered. We cannot put God on a dissecting table, examine everything, and then proclaim conclusively, "This is God." No, God is a subject. Subjects are both knowable and mysterious. As we seek to know God, we must recognize that he is both known and unknown to us—both utterly close and familiar, and stunningly mysterious and unfamiliar.