Must we then, rejecting the Finite God, acquiesce in the view held by many thinkers, that religion is inherently self-contradictory? Religion maintains now that all things flow from the Divine Perfection, now that the imperfect has incontrovertible existence: just as (to illustrate what is at bottom the same difficulty from a different side) religion also maintains now that man is utterly God-dependent, now that man is free to enter into union with God, or, as in sin, to alienate himself from Him. If we are forced to conclude that the two attitudes cannot co-exist without collision, then there is, I think, no alternative but to relegate religion (as, for example, Bosanquet, with whatever reluctance, finds himself obliged to relegate it)1 to the realm of the non-ultimate, of 'appearance.' For nothing seems surer than that the soul of man cannot find the haven of real being which it seeks in an experience which involves the disruption of its own unity.
Or is there, perhaps, some way of understanding the matter that will reconcile these apparent opposites, and vindicate the adoption of the religious attitude by rational beings? I think that there is. But it involves recourse to a principle that is, for what are in the main very good reasons, unwelcome in the courts of philosophy and theology. Yet this principle has never been far remote from the simple in heart, from the ordinary devout man who has no cognisance of logical shibboleths1 which may limit the scope of possible solutions. And it is to be found in diverse guises not here and there, but well-nigh everywhere (as Rudolf Otto has taught us) in the direct expressions of religious experience which precede the conceptual reconstruction of theology. In a word, it is the principle of the 'Unknowable' God.
1 Value and Destiny of the Individual, chap. viii. See especially closing pages.
Unknowable God! Is not this a contradiction in terms? Yes, taken rigidly, I think that it is. By the term 'God' we mean something; and the qualification 'unknowable' implies strictly that we can mean nothing. But no one, I imagine, who has contended for an 'unknowable' God has ever held to this absolute sense of 'unknowable.' At least such characteristics have been supposed to be known as will make significant the use of the term 'God.' Otherwise our assertion may be 'it is unknowable whether there is a God,' but not 'God is unknowable'.
But if certain known characteristics are thus admitted - as in some sense they must be - what is meant by saying that the Being who possesses these characteristics is nevertheless 'unknowable'? 'For,' it may be objected, 'you cannot mean that God is "unknowable" merely in the sense that a fully articulated knowledge of Him is beyond human capacity. So much almost no one would dispute. You must mean something very much more thoroughgoing than that. Yet if you allow that characteristics such as Infinite Power, Wisdom, and Goodness are known (and something of the sort seems needful to vindicate the propriety of your employment of the term "God") it is hard to see how there is any difference save of detail between your view and ours: and harder to see how you can hope by your view to resolve the contradiction which seems intractable upon ours'.
1 The use of this term implies no disrespect to Logic. The 'culprit' is the philosophy which takes the canons of Logic for more than they really are, failing to apprehend the limitations of the field within which they apply.
But there is a difference, and that of the most radical order. It is vitally important to understand how this is possible. Those of us who assert the essential unknowability of God may quite well agree that God is 'Infinite in Power, Wisdom, and Goodness' - but we should stress the word Infinite. And this makes just all the difference. When the attributes in question are raised to Infinitude or Perfection as in the Deity, then, as we believe, these attributes necessarily pass beyond themselves, pass beyond the natures by which we recognise them in our finite experience. Accordingly when we call God 'Perfect in Wisdom,' for example, we are, on the one hand, meaning something quite relevant and definitive, viz. that God enjoys that ideal of wisdom which is the ultimate goal of our human aspirations in the life of knowledge: while on the other hand we are not, we hold, at all compromising God's essential unknowability, since 'perfected wisdom' has by the very nature of the case transcended the character which wisdom reveals in finite life.
And there is nothing really so very strange about this position after all. It is a view whose grounds are quite familiar to us - whether or not they be deemed adequate grounds - that thought in reaching its ideal goal, its perfection, 'commits suicide': as also that morality, were it to succeed finally in its mission of reconciling the 'is' with the 'ought to be,' would pass beyond morality. And it is hardly less evident, although it is a matter of less common comment, that if power should attain its goal of utter mastery over the external, it would thereby, in virtue of its translation of all externality into internality, become something other and higher than that which we think of as 'power' in our finite experience. The doctrine, then, expresses a reasonable philosophic hypothesis. It is no mere ad hoc invention. And if we adopt it I submit that there is no self-contradiction whatever in asserting the reality of a God who is 'Infinite in Power, Wisdom, and Goodness' and who is, nevertheless, essentially 'unknowable.' (How we can arrive at such an assertion is, of course, not here in question. All that I am insisting upon is that to make the assertion is not to maintain a sheer self-contradiction.) To put the whole matter in its briefest compass, the Unknowable God is called 'God' because in Him, as it is believed, our human aspirations attain their complete consummation: and He is called 'Unknowable,' because the consummation of these aspirations carries with it the transcendence of the character they assume in their finite functioning, the character by which alone we are enabled to assign to them definitive conceptual meaning.