Incomprehensible God, Part I

Taken from transparentwithmyself.files.wordpress.com

Refurbished re-post from 2014. I will stretch it for a few days as it is somewhat long.

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Behold, God is great, and we know Him not;
the number of His years is unsearchable…
God thunders wondrously with His voice;
He does great things which we cannot comprehend…
The Almighty–we cannot find Him;
He is great in power and justice,
and abundant justice He will not violate.
Therefore men fear Him.”–Job 36:26,37:5,23-24

I remember when I first thought deeply about the infinity of God. Can you believe I remember such a thing? I was in an undergrad metaphysics class and the professor was reflecting on a quote from St. Augustine: “Every infinity is, in a way we cannot express, made finite to God.” As I recall from the lecture, the teacher explained that for Augustine infinite numbers actually exist but are, by the very fact of being infinite, not able to be comprehended by finite minds like ours. However, the same infinite numbers, because they are created by God, are comprehensible to Him in whom “infinity” has a radically different meaning from the “limitless sequence” that characterizes infinite numbers. He said something like this,

God is not a limitless sequence of numbers or spaces or moments, but is the pure, limitless, beginningless act of absolute and total simultaneity, i.e. God is all that He is simultaneously, all at once. But even that is misleading, since “all at once” sounds like a split second in time. If you conceptualize God in terms of time categories the image you’ll get is of a freeze-frame, static God who can’t do anything new because He’s stuck doing everything all at once, in a moment of time that can’t open up into a “next” moment of time because that would imply a change. God is not like that, is not time-bound, but is the creator of time. For Augustine, the best expression for God’s timeless and space-less infinity is the Name He reveals to Moses in the burning Bush: ego sum qui sum, “I am who am,” or qui est, “The who-is.” But how does a creature that only knows time and space speak of God? It’s like the case of a saint who tells us of a vision she [I think he was speaking of St. Catherine of Genoa] has of God in which she sees colors that don’t exist here. After the vision, she fitfully tries to describe those colors to her Confessor. She ends up saying, “Can’t do it!” So we are at a loss as to how we might describe what it means for God to be undetermined by time or by any limit; to be eternal. We can say what infinity doesn’t mean — not finite! — but when we try to say what it DOES mean, the best we can do as philosophers is offer is an inkling, a gesture. The 6th century Syrian author known as Dionysius expressed it powerfully [he cited the text which I eagerly looked up later]:

“Again, ascending yet higher, we maintain that He is neither soul nor intellect; nor has He imagination, opinion, reason or understanding; nor can He be expressed or conceived, since He is neither number nor order; nor greatness nor smallness; nor equality nor inequality; nor similarity nor dissimilarity; neither is He standing, nor moving, nor at rest; neither has He power nor is power, nor is light; neither does He live nor is He life; neither is He essence, nor eternity nor time; nor is He subject to intelligible contact; nor is He science nor truth, nor kingship, nor wisdom; neither one nor oneness, nor godhead nor goodness; nor is He spirit according to our understanding, nor filiation, nor paternity; nor anything else known to us or to any other beings of the things that are or the things that are not; neither does anything that is know Him as He is; nor does He know existing things according to existing knowledge; neither can the reason attain to Him, nor name Him, nor know Him; neither is He darkness nor light, nor the false nor the true; nor can any affirmation or negation be applied to Him, for although we may affirm or deny the things below Him, we can neither affirm nor deny Him, inasmuch as the all-perfect and unique Cause of all things transcends all affirmation, and the simple pre-eminence of His absolute nature is outside of every negation — free from every limitation and beyond them all.”

Ceaseless Quest

I recall feeling dizzy as I tried to wrap my mind around what it means to say that Jews and Christians affirm that God is in-finis, “edgeless,” without bounds, horizons, limits. Like a vast ocean with no shores. I remember also that he referred to Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s argument that God even has an infinite number of attributes, which means that, in addition to those attributes we would ascribe to God — justice, mercy, faithfulness — there’s more and more, in saecula saeculorm! Limitless diversity in God’s nature. Heaven, as an infinite exploration of the divine nature, will be an endlessly surprising journey of the mind into God.

Several years later in my theological studies I discovered, via theologian Jean Danielou’s work on St. Gregory of Nyssa, that I was not alone in my dizziness. Gregory — who said “the more one steps into the depths, the more one becomes dizzy” — argues that in this life and in the next, our journey toward union with God never rests in a final “got it” moment, but ceaselessly progresses from glory to glory (epektasis). Like a child that runs after a beautiful butterfly trying to capture it, those who enter the Kingdom will find themselves endlessly in pursuit of the ever-elusive God. As St. John of the Cross says:

…the way to the experience and vision of the power of God does not consist in ideas and meditations about God, of which we have made extensive use. But it consists in not being able either to grasp God with ideas or walk by means of discursive, imaginative meditation, as in a land without a way.

This understanding came to shape the way I conceived of theology. If theology is fides quaerens intellectum, “faith in search of understanding,” then God provides us with a quaerens, a “search” that admits of no end-game. For me, this is what makes theology thrilling, engaging, disorienting, challenging and wonder-full. The gift of faith grants to the intellect willing to surrender its puny categories an unfettered access to the “deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10) that have been revealed wholly in Christ, and permits the mind to plunge into an unfathomable ocean; or to join in a mountain climbing expedition up the slopes of the soaring Mountain with no peak. As Jesuit theologian Jean Daniélou said:

There is at once for the soul an aspect of stability and possession, which is her participation in God, and an aspect of movement, which is the ever infinite gap between what she possesses of God and what He is…Spiritual life is thus an everlasting transformation of the soul in Christ Jesus in the form of a growing ardor, increasing thirst for God growing as participation in Him increases, which is accompanied by a growing stability, the soul becoming simple, and fixed ever more firmly in God.

I’ve always been mesmerized by the fact that one who surrenders to this endless movement toward God at once discovers a great stability. As my spiritual director once put it to me when I complained of my tumultuous life, “Tom, God is a Rock, but He’s a Rock in a state of perpetual earthquake.” When you sink your anchor in a God whom Nyssa calls “changeless motion,” you soon discover that this is precisely what God is: absolutely trustworthy in an utterly unpredictable way. Volatile peace. Such a “rest” makes life ever inherently interesting.

Icon of the Transfiguration, with Peter, James and John assuming the proper dispositions of true theologians resting on the Christ-Rock! Taken from nd.edu

13 comments on “Incomprehensible God, Part I

  1. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for this reflection. It captures well the excitement of the Christian life. (That is an understatement). Thank you!!

  2. Susie Veters says:

    That was amazing! Tell your son it hurts my brain too. But that is a good thing:)

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. Ona says:

    Do you realize how important that is, Dr. Tom? There’s heaps of teaching out there. No end of words about the Word. But to demonstrate and share your heartfelt love and passion for Our Lord is a teaching beyond mere teaching.

  4. LP says:

    On Saturday I left a comment that prayer was a covenant with God (a PACT: praise, ask, confess, thanks). Today, I really have no words in response to your blog Dr Tom – it has left me breathless and bowed down in humility. I recalled the Cloud of Unknowing when I see the morning mist… How we study and read and think… when God calls us simply to be one with Him. Thank you.

    May you and your bride and children be blessed now and forever. Amen

    • Thank you, LP, for your wonderful PACT comment the other day and your gracious comment today. God is so good to give us such beauty to contemplate already in this life! Thank you for your blessings and good wishes. Pax, Dr. Tom

  5. Ona says:

    Reblogged this on Ona Kiser and commented:
    A lovely meander on God written by a friend, worth a read!

  6. perfect timing–I am thinking a lot about the stable instability, the secure insecurity, of the Christian life just now. thanks for this post.

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