God Knows

by Fr. Dominique Bourmaud

“O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!” (Rom. 11:33)

It is easy enough to speak of the greatness of God and to give a list of His perfections. It is not so easy to pin them down in detail, and perhaps more so when dealing with such an evasive thing as knowledge. It will be useful to situate the different levels of knowledge before we speak of God Himself and of what His knowledge entails.

The Ladder of Knowledge

“Know yourself” was the last word of pagan wisdom. Knowledge is the source of wisdom. It opens avenues to things around us. And since we love as we know, we desire and move to obtain things in as much as we have cognizance of them. This is enough to show that knowledge is central in the acquisition of perfection for higher beings.

But knowledge varies greatly according to the nature of the knower. Just dangle a piece of thread before Emmy the cat and you will witness one of the most amazing things in the universe, something much greater than all the innumerable galaxies put together: Emmy is reacting to the thread because she knows it! Quasars and super-novas are no doubt spectacular, but you can dangle any number of threads in front of a quasar and it won’t budge an inch. Emmy, on the contrary, sees it and plays with it. A light explodes in her somewhere and fills her with the reality of this thread. Behold a profound communion is born: Emmy is informed with the thread.

If we climb up the ladder of creatures, we pass onto the realm of intelligent beings. Cats sense, but, besides sensing, men think, love, and make decisions. Man is not any animal, he is a rational animal. He may be a reed agitated by the wind (as said Jesus Christ) but he is a thinking reed (as said Pascal). His superior life is evidenced by his rational acts. When we see a man walking with a dog, we do not wonder which one is on a leash. Nor do we compliment someone by saying that “he leads a dog’s life”.

Above men, angels enjoy an intellectual life which is broader and purer as they live in a higher sphere of existence, devoid of materiality: angels are pure spirits. If humans know only progressively, with much room for error and through the dark veil of matter, angelic knowledge is a brilliant flash of lightning, an intuitive perception of ideas and concepts directly infused by God into their “brain”. Men’s intellection cannot do without sensation: it works like moles groping in a dark tunnel. Compared to this, angelic knowledge resembles the eagle’s eye which, from on high, has the pure and sharp vision of so many more things with fewer glances.

The Mystery of Knowledge

The comparative degrees of knowledge already bring us some interesting data about the mystery of knowledge which will come useful as we discuss God’s own knowledge.

Knowledge offers a vital extension of the individual reaching outside itself into the other world. It is the root of “otherness”, the source of experience. It brings us to a fuller kind of life by expanding our horizons.

Knowledge consists in the communion between two beings: the knower and the thing known, living their different lives and yet united in the act of knowing. To know is to become what one was not. When I gaze at the house across the street, I suddenly get hold of the house within myself, although it still remains where it was, across the street. In creatures, of any level it may be, knowledge is a sign of inner imperfection because it means that I am in want of something that I have not and, somehow, knowledge makes me possess it.

Knowledge is more perfect as the knowing subject is more immaterial. Angels are superior to men because they are totally immaterial and men surpass mere animals because their immaterial soul renders them partially immaterial, unlike cats and dogs. An eye cannot see colors unless its pupilla is transparent: a man wearing pink glasses cannot see the darker side of things. Transparency—translate “immateriality”—allows the subject to receive more freely colors and bodies.

Knowledge is more perfect as its object, the form received, is more immaterial. There is a lesser degree of “knowability” in smelling a rose than in the concept a man can extract from the term “rose.” Likewise, terms like “horse” and “bulldozer” do not have the same universality and depth as “justice”, “truth” and “being” which are richer concepts for being immaterial in themselves. Even if both are gazing on the same object, say an altar, man’s concept will never equate the angelic idea.

God has Knowledge

There is hardly a page of Sacred Scripture which is not marked by the recognition of the All-knowing God. “The Lord is a God of all knowledge” (I Kings 2:3). The Psalms (93, 138, 146) tell us how much God is in control of man’s personal life and scrutinizes his every throb and thought. We quoted St. Paul at the beginning of this article: “O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!” And this is why Vatican I defined that “God is infinite in His intellect.”

God knows differently from creatures. Creatures have knowledge, God cannot acquire the perfection of knowledge as if He did not have it. His knowledge expresses His being. God does not have knowledge because God is knowledge! Angels and men know things in order to take hold of them and perfect themselves. “Travel is broadening our horizons; experience and study is enriching”, because the reception by the mind of “information” of “forms” enlarges the circle of our realizations. He has no need to learn what He did not previously know. He lives in the eternal “Now”, completely, with infinite understanding and total comprehension, always realized.

All creatures know things because they pre-exist our knowledge. God, on the other hand, knows things and they are made. His knowledge precedes existence. His intellect is not informed by things, He gives them their form and their existence. His is the science of the artist who causes his work: “He spoke, and it was made!”

What Does God Know?

If God has knowledge, there must be an object to this science. What does God know? There is a double object of God’s knowledge: Himself directly and the world He created secondarily.

Firstly, it seems easy enough to say that God does know Himself. He gave His own name to Moses “I am He who is” (Ex. 3”14). In His Revelation He has disclosed something of His nature and attributes, which He could not do if He did not have self-knowledge.

St. Paul again reveals this divine knowledge of God: “The things of God no one knows but the Spirit of God” (I Cor. 2:11). Our Lord in the Gospel reveals another facet of this self knowledge of God. “No one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and him to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Mt. 11:27). There is a mutual and exclusive knowledge of Father and Son, which echoes the universal duality between the knowing subject and the object known. This “duality” of knowledge seems to contradict God’s simplicity. And yet this very obstacle lifts a corner of God’s inner life. In common language, the mental word is the concept which the intellect produces when it finally gets hold of the nature of a thing, as when a child grabs the meaning of “weapon” by looking at the bow and the gun and the tank. St. John’s Prologue plunges us into the mystery of God, of the “Word who was with God (the Father) and who was God.” In God, the first procession is by way of intellection, so that God the Father, as He knows Himself, produces a perfect reflection of Himself, and emits the Word, perfectly identical, perfectly distinct, and perfectly united to the Father in the act of mental generation. Could we not say then that the mystery of knowledge as communion helps us plunge into the inner life of the Blessed Trinity?

Another interesting aspect of God’s knowledge is His connection with creation. The relation seems most tenuous as creatures are closer to nothingness than they are to God. How can one know things so distant and yet be in “communion” of knowledge with them? How can there be such communion between so different things as God and the world? Could there be union and even identity at all? Here again, the mysterious property of knowledge can lead us into another mystery, that of divine Creation and Providence.

It is because God knows Himself comprehensively. He does not know Himself through a kind of mirror-concept. He knows Himself through Himself directly, “face to face,” in a way no man or angel knows himself perfectly. So doing, God knows also all His Power, His potentiality and His causality. Thus, He knows creatures in Himself and not in themselves. He sees Himself and needs not see the shadow or reflection of Himself in the Creation. He is like the architect who reads the plans of the house inside his mind—intus legit, and has no need to look outside the window. Likewise, the Divinity includes all the forms, the plans, the ideas, which the Almighty Artist and Creator had in mind when He made all things out of nothing. And this divine scale and model of existence is the reason itself for the truth of such things: this dog and this house is true because it reflects the divine idea of “dog” and “house” in God’s mind. Hence, the divine Christ can truly ay that “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

And although God knows all things in Himself and not in themselves, yet He knows each single one of them. “Not one hair of your head will fall without God’s permission.” “He has loved me and has offered Himself for me.” God knows our misery and the evil of sin, because He is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. He sees us as we are. Are we such as we should be in God’s all-knowing eyes?