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."
Thus apophatic theologians, if they do traffic in metaphors, will talk about God as "uncreated light." Light is hard enough to get a handle on, but add uncreated to it, and the mind goes blank. Which is the point—God is unknowable by our terms!
From this perspective, to compare God to a drama queen is indeed a problem! But then from this perspective, it would also be a problem to compare almighty God to an unjust judge (Luke 18), or an anxious housewife (Luke 15), or a careless farmer (Mark 4)—you know, like Jesus did. And it was a scandal for both Jews and Greeks—who reveled mostly in a transcendent God—to be told that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
The Incarnation and Jesus' talk about God suggest that there is more than one way to blaspheme—that is, to be irreverent and impious. That would be to so exalt the transcendence of God that there is no room left in the imagination for the scandalous Emmanuel, God with us.
As early church theologian Irenaeus put it, Jesus Christ "gathered together all things into himself … he took up man into himself, the invisible becoming the visible, the incomprehensible being made comprehensible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering, and the Word being made man, thus summing up all things in himself."
Today there are many who strive to protect the reputation of God. They are, so to speak, on "blasphemy alert." At their best, they remind us whenever we suggest that God is anything but holy, immortal, and almighty. In an age such as ours—which can be so casual about things divine—I'm glad there are such people around.
But the interesting thing is that God does not seem all that concerned about his reputation. He is the one who inspired people to think of him as an inert rock (Deut. 32) or a common shepherd (Ps. 23), and who came to us not in a flashy show of glory and power but as a baby in a trough wrapped in rags. He apparently isn't offended when he is mistaken for a simple gardener (John 20).
The incarnation is God's permission to talk about that which, really, we don't know that much about—God Almighty! He's even willing for us to tread on the border of blasphemy if it will communicate something true about him.
To be sure, we are wise to not transgress that border. But that job is made easier when we realize that all our talk about God is partial, that there is no word picture that can do full justice to his being, that there is always something greater than the arresting image we might fashion—and that there is a divine source that can keep us both humble and balanced in our God-talk.
I like the prayer of a writer known as Psuedo-Dionysius, which recognizes both God's mystery and how he nonetheless he makes himself known:
Trinity!! Higher than any being, any divinity, any goodness! Guide of Christians in the wisdom of heaven! Lead us up beyond unknowing and light, up to the farthest, highest peak of mystic Scripture, where the mysteries of God's Word lie simple, absolute and unchangeable in the brilliant darkness of hidden silence. Amid the deepest shadow they pour overwhelming light on what is most manifest. Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen they completely fill our sightless minds with treasures beyond all beauty.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker).
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
Divine Drama Queen |But I'd secretly rather have a God who is a non-anxious presence. (July 15, 2010)
The God Who Became Blood | What my dysfunctional prostate taught me about Jesus. (June 24, 2010)
The Lord Who Acts Like It | Where did we get the idea that the church should be a place that makes people feel comfortable? (June 10, 2010)