The ineffable God


Is it really possible for finite beings to describe God's infinite nature?

God is often described as an ineffable presence, a sacred mystery, beyond full comprehension or explanation. "Ineffable" is an interesting word. According to an online dictionary, the word "ineffable" means

Incapable of being expressed in words; unspeakable; unutterable; indescribable.
The word "effable" is the opposite of ineffable. But there doesn't seem to be a verb "to eff", except as a shorthand for a common English language obscenity. That's a shame, because it might be interesting to describe the "effing" of God, but the connotation of that expression takes us somewhere else than we we want to go.

The sacred mystery, the deepest meaning of life, can be experienced mystically, but then what do you do when you try to capture that mystery and explain it? You are forced to use words, symbols, myths, and the other tools of the human imagination. And that is where it gets tricky.

That is because as soon as we humans try to capture the essence of God's nature through words and symbols, we immediately lose something in the translation. It is impossible for that not to happen. Our finite language is woefully inadequate for describing God's infinite nature. It will inevitably be incomplete. It gets even worse when we try to elevate our description of God into a creedal affirmation. Then we run the risk of a kind of idolatry--because we also run the risk of no longer worshiping God, but rather our conception of God, and it is that conception of God that is limited and therefor a kind of idol. The ancient Jews understood the danger of idolizing our language about God. As Richard Holloway puts it,
In religious discourse, God is the ultimate symbol. This little word connects us to all the questions we ask, and all the longings we have, concerning the ultimate meaning or its absence. This is why the symbol 'God' is one of the most ambiguous of human inventions. The Hebrews were so aware of the unbridgeable gap between this symbol and what it was intended to connect with, that they were afraid of using it and constantly pointed to its dangers. Since, by definition, God could not be what mortals said God was, they preferred to speak in circumlocutions or descriptive analogues rather than try to name God. This was the reason for their radical fear of idolatry, which is the identification of God with an object, either physical or conceptual. (Doubts and Loves, Richard Holloway, pp 55-56).
How this applies to Christianity is where we get into very specific, detailed creedal affirmations of the nature of God as he or she relates to the life of, and testimonies about, Jesus. When talking about the relationship of Jesus to God, Christian orthodoxy provides us with the doctrine of the Trinity, and in my view, it illustrates a clear example of this problem. Here we have a very specific and detailed set of ideas about God's nature. But that is only half of the problem. The deeper problem is that many Christians believe that this dogma is God's own revealed truth about His nature, and thus is irrevocable and must be guarded against any challenges from those who are labeled "heretics" or non-believers.

The idea that any doctrine is God's revealed truth is a dangerous one, and it is one that I never subscribe to. Any doctrine about God is necessarily colored by the time, the culture, and the prevailing cosmology of those who formulate it. It can never be otherwise. I try, in my own limited way, to understand God's nature as I believe it makes sense to me. I incorporate what I believe to be a modern, rational understanding of nature, and a modern cosmology, into my theology. I don't claim that what I believe is an absolute truth, that it is irrevocable, or that it is anything but my human attempt at understanding God. I know that it is limited by the very nature of my finite, limited language and symbols.

Similarly, the doctrine of the Trinity was an ancient attempt by Christian orthodoxy at capturing the nature of God and placing it into a creedal affirmation. Unfortunately, it is one that is has been presented over the centuries as a Divinely Revealed truth, not subject to question lest one be labeled a heretic. Even more unfortunately, it continues to this day to serve as the bedrock of much of modern Christianity, and Christian worshipers in many denominations must affirm their belief in it as part of the worship service. Instead of being ineffable, God is has been rendered "effable" by a creedal formulation in Christian tradition, seen through the lens of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Given that Jesus is the central figure in Christian orthodoxy, I might start with the proposition that the Trinity hinges on the idea of the divinity of Jesus--who is asserted by Christian orthodoxy to be "fully God and fully human". The idea that any human being can also be a person in the Godhead raises serious questions in my own mind. It does not jibe with my understanding of the divine nature. In any case, the creeds say that Jesus is indeed full divine. The Nicene Creed affirms that Jesus is "the Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made." It further asserts that the Son "came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man".

Here we immediately see how this doctrine was a product of its time. The suggestion that one of a supposed trio of persons of the Godhead "came down from heaven" reflects a three-tiered cosmology--where the earth lies between a heaven up above (where God resides), and a hell down below. The three-tiered cosmology itself holds certain notions about God--the idea of God as a patriarchal figure, living above the earth, who has miraculous powers and who can send a part of himself "down" to earth in a supernatural act. In fact, this heavenly magician was able to conceive a human child of a virgin mother! This represents an image of the Divine that defies a modern, rational understanding of the way nature operates. I simply don't believe in that sort of divine patriarch who violates the laws of science to perform magic tricks. I believe that the world is ordered and rational.

My point is that the three-tiered cosmology that lies behind the Nicene Creed has long ago been discarded, but more importantly, the idea that God works in this fashion is something that I reject out of hand. I cannot help but wonder how many potential church goers who believe in God are turned off like I am by the idea of a virgin birth or a bodily resurrection. The old cosmology of the God who intervened in nature in that way has been swept away by the scientific revolutions of the past few centuries. The idea of a physical ascension of Jesus into heaven may have made sense under the old cosmology. But, as John Shelby Spong has pointed out, our modern cosmology tells us that even if Jesus had ascended at the speed of light from the earth 2000 years ago, he would still be flying through space and he hasn't yet left our own galaxy. The modern world cannot possibly take literally old biblical myths like these. Yet the Nicene Creed, or something like it, continues to be recited in churches in the twenty-first century.

Stripped of such mythological literalism, what we are left with, I believe, is a God who is an infinite presence, One who calls out to us--not some external father figure who performs supernatural feats that defy physical laws or who "comes down" to place a part of his Godhead among us. My modern sensibility tells me that God does not send lightning bolts out of the sky or otherwise engage in this kind of miraculous activity; I believe that God works through nature, not outside of it.

So what do we say about Jesus, if he was not part of a divine Godhead? Was Jesus therefore not fully God? To answer that question, I would suggest to start with that the Divine, because she is an infinite presence, lives within all of us as part of the universe that we inhabit. I think that God exists within the world as well as outside of it--God is both immanent and transcendent, in other words. God is therefore everywhere, and eternally issuing calls to us to act in certain ways, and we in response all have the free will to listen to God's call and respond accordingly--or to reject God's call as well. This implies that Jesus was no different from any of us in that he lived as a human being within the world in which God is immanent. Jesus was especially adept at heeding God's call and responding accordingly, and as such he represented an example of divine disclosure through human activity. Did he perfectly express God's will at every point in his life? I don't know the answer to that question for sure, but I would suggest that the divine presence was very strong and evident in his life--so much so, in ways that remarkably affected those around him, that they refused to believe that he was gone from their lives after his execution. There is no inherent reason to believe that the only person in history who had a very strong Divine presence within him. Perhaps all of us, as human beings, have the potential ability to answer God's call just as Jesus did. Perhaps all of us have the potential ability to listen to the call of the God who inhabits the universe, and to disclose the Divine that inhabits us through the way we live our lives.

Am simply creating my own flawed description of an infinite, ineffable God when I describe my theology in this way? Am I just "effing" God when I say these things? Perhaps I am. But I also make no claim that what I am saying is a Divinely revealed Truth that must remain unchallenged for all of time. Instead, I am presenting my own finite attempt at describing the reality of God in a way that makes sense to me, given my own understanding of the natural world. This is the way that I can best describe the God-experience that I have.

The world is full of religions. Many of them represent different attempts at capturing the reality of the infinite, sacred mystery. Can many of them be true at the same time? How is it possible that light can be either a particle and a wave, depending on which way scientists happen to view it? If a scientist looks for wave properties in light, they see waves; if they look for particle properties, they see particles. Are we all like the blind men and the elephant, trying to capture different essences of the Divine nature?

At the same time, I believe that paradigm shifts within a religious tradition do occur, must occur in fact. The Hebrew scriptures tell us of how a people believed that God acted through history. The Babylonian exile, however, forced the Jewish people to re-examine their theology and the role that God played in the world. Later still, persecutions of Jewish martyrs led to the development of the idea of an afterlife. Paradigm shifts are necessary in religious thinking from time to time.