What right, really, do we have to talk about God?
Most people if asked their opinion about an area outside their expertise will demur: "I really don't know all that much about it." Well, among friends they might pontificate in ignorance—that's the fun of being with friends! But put them in a room of people who do know what they're talking about, and they'll keep their mouths shut lest they make a fool of themselves.
We usually have no such reticence when it comes to talking about God, though. And if there ever was a "topic" beyond our comprehension, it is the infinite, immortal, and all powerful God! So wouldn't discretion suggest that we shut up?
The issue arose after reading comments on my last SoulWork installment. In it, I compared God to an emotionally distraught Italian housewife, as well as to a drama queen. I talked about God "gambling" on his creation. I drew on a variety of word images to communicate a strong, simple, biblical theme: God is passionately engaged with his creation, he deeply cares about us, and he will go to extraordinary lengths to keep us as his people. These dramatic comparisons alarmed some readers and thrilled others, as one might have expected.
But whether readers were alarmed or thrilled at this depiction, the fact is, this is only one aspect of God's character as revealed to us. If taken in isolation, and if pushed to its logical limits, it becomes blasphemy—an irreverent distortion and diminishing of God Almighty.
Scripture reveals not only a God who cares for us passionately, but who is the Holy One, high and lifted up. He is a God who is utterly righteous and all powerful, one who is not ruled by his passions or the quirks of his creation, but by his own sovereign will. There is no passage that better exalts God's transcendence than these famous verses in Isaiah:
Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
or what man shows him his counsel?
Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
All the nations are as nothing before him,
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness. (Isa. 40:13-17)
Then Isaiah sternly warns us against creating God in our image, whether that image is found in a stone block or a word picture:
To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
An idol! A craftsman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and casts for it silver chains.
He who is too impoverished for an offering
chooses wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
to set up an idol that will not move …
… To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One. (Isa. 40:18-20, 25)
God is truly incomparable. There are no statues we can shape or word pictures we can craft that can possibly do justice to his being.
This is the genius of apophatic theology, about which our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox tradition have taught us so much. Apophatic theology talks about God in terms of what he is not. God is uncreated, not bound by time and space, and in one sense is unknowable—that is, because he is infinite and we are finite, we can never know God as he is. From the perspective of apophatic theology, we can even say that God does not "exist." We use that word to talk about people, plants, animals, and rocks. But how and why these created things "exist" cannot be compared to the way a transcendent, immortal deity "exists."