Do a Google search for God and you’ll have over one-and-a-half trillion results to wade through. People think and talk a lot about God.
What they mean when they talk about him, though, is not always clear. Who or what is God? Is it enough to say, with Paul Tillich, that God is humanity’s ultimate concern? Can God be adequately described by those characteristics commonly attributed to deity, such as eternity, immutability, omniscience, omnipotence, and so on?
Unlike some philosophers, the Bible makes no attempt to define God; it only describes him. (I use the masculine pronoun for the sake of convenience, knowing that the use of gender terms for God is currently debated). The biblical writers were wise not to define God, for to define anything implies delimiting it. A being that can be delimited cannot be the unlimited, infinite being the Bible refers to as God.
While the Bible does not try to define God, it refers to him with a great variety of descriptors: he is eternal, immortal, invisible, wise, unchanging, all-knowing, almighty, awe-inspiring, joyful, and much more.
Additionally, the Bible describes God in terms of the roles he assumes: he is creator, sustainer, redeemer, savior and – perhaps most remarkable of all – friend. He is father, guide, and judge. He is provider, protector and lover. He is warrior, restorer and ruler. But who – or what – is all these things? That’s where we run into trouble.
God, the theologians insist, is incomprehensible. Of course it must be so, since humans would have to be greater than God to be able to fully understand him. If we forget this basic truth, we are likely to envision God as simply a more advanced version of ourselves. We reverse the creation process and make God “in our image, after our likeness.” But any God we make can never be more than an idol.
In the Bible, God says to humanity: “You thought that I was altogether like you.” This is not just a statement of fact, but an indictment leveled against people who should have known better. Unspoken but implicit in the indictment is the follow-up charge: “But you were wrong.”
The God of the Bible is not an enhanced version of human beings. God exists in a way that human have never experienced and cannot comprehend. God does not relate to creation in the same way humans do. His interaction with the physical universe is not dependent upon five senses, as is ours. He has no body: his experience of reality is immediate, while ours is necessarily mediated through the senses and the brain.
We learn things. God does not. He knows, completely and without the necessity of learning, everything there is to know. God is not one day older now than he was on the first day of creation. As Nicolas of Cusa put it, with God “later is one with earlier, [and] the end is one with the beginning.”
God, according to orthodox Christian theology, exists as three persons. We cannot imagine such an existence. In all our experience, one person equals one being, but God is three persons and one being. Perhaps there are beings in the universe that are two-personed or four-personed. Poor humanity may be the odd man out, with only one person per being.
Apart from God taking the initiative to introduce himself, we would have no more hope of understanding him than a fish would have of understanding a fisherman. God’s self-revelation was, of necessity, limited to what human senses and intellect could grasp. As such, the process is not unlike the transcription of a concerto (say, Bach’s Brandenburg Number Three) for piano. Much of the substance would necessarily be left out, but the result would be a true representation of the reality.
Only God could initiate a genuine revelation of himself and, according to the Bible, he has done so. He has transcribed himself as a human person, Jesus Christ. This is the meaning of the doctrine of the incarnation. The unknowable God has made himself known in a way humans can understand, by giving us “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/18/2017
Epilogue: Since I write this to be published in newspapers, I have to limit myself rather severely sometimes. When tackling a big theological concept like God’s self-revelation or a philosophical subject like epistemology, that can be a real challenge – and frustration. There is more to be said than space allows (and I’d be glad for you to say more in the comment section!). I feel it necessary to expand on one point. I wrote above that “God’s self-revelation was, of necessity, limited to what human senses and intellect could grasp.” I feel that requires clarification.
Yes, God revealed himself in ways that our senses and intellects could grasp, but that does not mean that God can only reveal himself to our senses and our intellect. Pascal may have been right: The heart may have reasons that reason cannot know. It is possible that God’s self-revelation is made to us (and received by us) in ways that we are not yet able to fully understand. While it is true that we cannot understand God, who is greater than us, it is also true that we do not yet even understand ourselves.
But I take comfort in the fact that God does.