Acquiring and Transcending Knowledge, St Maximos the Confessor

Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice, Fourth Century,  #26-33

In this section, St. Maximos illuminates the way we get to know and understand and its purpose.

For him, knowledge is not separate from faith and the experience of God but, instead, drives the journey from worldliness and emptiness to deification and union with God. To understand what he says we must abandon any definition of knowledge we are familiar with– knowledge as information, intellectual exercise or mastery.

According to Maximos, there are two kinds of knowledge.

The intelligence recognizes two kinds of knowledge of divine realities.

He calls the first, “relative” because it is limited by what we, as finite beings, are able to recognize and understand within our own resources:

The first is relative, because it is confined to the intelligence and its intellections

Limited as it is, however, this relative kind of knowledge gives us a glimmer of what lies beyond it and awakens in us a longing for a higher level of knowledge; that which “is true and authentic knowledge.” The true purpose of all knowledge, then, is ascendance to God.

The second and superior level of knowledge is no longer just theoretical. It is enabled by grace and manifested through experience and participation.

The second through experience alone and through grace it brings about, by means of participation and without the help of the intelligence and its intellections, a total and active perception of what is known.

Paradoxically, this second kind of knowledge transcends not only relative knowledge but the intellect itself. Our understanding leads us to that which is beyond understanding.

This real knowledge, which through experience and participation brings about a perception of what is known, supersedes the knowledge that resides in the intelligence and the intellections.

The intellect no longer “knows” physical reality. It “forgets” it as it forgets itself and lives in God through experience of, and participation in, Him.

It is through this second kind of knowledge that, when we come into our inheritance, we receive supernatural and ever-activated deification.

Becoming trapped in relative knowledge, we are unable to experience God. How many times do we find ourselves ensnared in obsessive circular thinking—projecting, analyzing, making assumptions, resenting, planning, controlling or fantasizing—and become unable to experience the present, to fully give to, or receive love from, others?

“According to the wise,” St Maximos tells us, “we cannot use our intelligence to think about God at the same time as we experience Him or have an intellection of Him while we are perceiving Him directly. By ‘think about God’ I mean speculate about Him on the basis of an analogy between Him and created beings. By ‘perceiving Him directly’ I mean experiencing divine or supernatural realities through participation.”

The nature of knowledge and the way we acquire it in stages reveals also something about the nature of God and our relationship with Him. God, St. Maximos says, didn’t simply bring us into the world. He enabled us to constantly progress spiritually and reach the level of complete union with Him through theosis.  He is not simply the author of our being but the perpetual savior of our souls who is continuously guiding us to higher and higher levels of knowledge and participation in Him.

It was indeed indispensable that He who is by nature the Creator of the being of all things should Himself, through grace, accomplish their deification, and in this way reveal Himself to be not only the author of being but also the giver of eternal well-being.



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