BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (36) – Why is God so puzzling?

– Rev José Mario O Mandía

Both philosophy and Revelation show us that the things we see around us not only attest to the existence of a Maker but also reveal His attributes (cf Wisdom 13:1-10; Romans 1:18-20; Psalm 19:1). That does not mean, however, that we can completely understand God.

One of God’s attributes is his infinite perfection: God is beyond all limits and thus He is also beyond the limits of our poor human minds. Yes, we can know God, but not in a full way, not in the way He knows Himself. This is what we mean when we say that He is incomprehensible. It does not mean that we cannot understand him at all or that He is absurd or illogical. It just means that our knowledge of God is limited. St Josemaría Escrivá said that if we could fit God into our head, he would not be God.

These two points are important: that we can know God, but we cannot completely comprehend him.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8 8).

“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ (Romans 11: 33-34).

The fact that we cannot completely grasp God brings another consequence. As Aristotle had said (cf Bite-Size Philosophy 4), our spoken words are symbols of our thoughts. But since our thoughts about God – our knowledge of Him – are limited, our words are consequently not adequate enough to describe Him. God is ineffable. When it comes to speaking about God, words fail us. This does not mean, however, that we cannot use human language to speak about God. The point is that our language cannot fully express what God is. We can speak about God, but our language cannot fully express his infinite perfection.

The CCC (no 39) explains: “In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists.”

The words that we use to speak of God are human words taken from our experience of created things. We can use these words that we say of creatures (“one,” “simple,” “good,” “beautiful,” “just,” “merciful” and so on) to speak about God, but we use them in an analogical way.  “Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking” (CCC 40).

St Thomas, following the teaching of Pseudo-Dionysius (late 5th century) in De Divinis Nominibus (“On the Divine Names”), explains that the analogical way of speaking about God is threefold: affirmation, negation, eminence.

The Way of Affirmation. We can say: “God is wise.” “God is good.” “God is beautiful.” “All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures – their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures’  perfections as our starting point….” (CCC 41).

The Way of Negation. But earthly wisdom is not the same as God’s wisdom; it does not quite measure up to it. The same thing for earthly goodness and earthly beauty and so on. “God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God – ‘the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable’ – with our human representations” (CCC 42; cf 43).

The Way of Eminence. In fact, God’s wisdom goes far beyond earthly wisdom – God IS Wisdom itself. His goodness goes far beyond earthly goodness – He IS Goodness itself. His beauty goes far beyond earthly beauty – God IS Beauty itself.

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