Vapors— Jul 30, 2012
Words and sand and all that.
If anyone sees God and understands what he has seen, then he has not seen him at all but rather something of his that can be known. But he is transcendently enthroned beyond intelligence and beyond being, and only be virtue of not being known in any way at all and by not being does he exist beyond being and is he known beyond understanding. And this perfect ignorance, understood positively, is knowledge of the one who is beyond all that can be known.1
Theology, in its most fundamental form, is words about God. Of all subjects that pass before our mind probably none has so enraptured the thoughts, enlivened the pens and loosened the tongues than that of the divine.
Yet our words seem to turn to lead when they seek to loft into the rarified air that only angels breathe. More often than not they barely get off the ground, falling with a great crash that ends in little more than noise.
For from the beginning the very contours of that about which we would speak are fuzzy at best, shadows that flit across the limits of our existence, yet so tantalizingly beckoning beyond. Perhaps in our best attempts we get closer to even forming the question- forget about even finding an answer.
Theology tries to bring to conception that of which it realizes (in its best of days) it cannot hope to express. But we are best with concrete; trying to speak about the unspeakable is like trying to keep sand in your hands.
Well, I suppose even concrete is made out of sand.
The trouble with words is that they are a double-edged sword. The more words are used to describe, the further they get from what they are describing. Complicated things are easier to define- we can jump from part to part, stretching out the chain and tracing its movement until we reach an understanding. But the simpler a thing is, the harder it becomes to capture.
The inescapable fact of your existence, for example. What does it mean to be? Four simple letters, but all the words in the world could not exhaust the depths. Every further description will only carry you to another, every definition creating even more distance. In every concept and in every word an inadequacy will be discovered, requiring more and more words.
But as hard as to be is to describe, it is self-evident in your intuitive understanding of it, the inscrutable experience of existing. And not simply existence in the abstract but that I exist. This knowledge comes immediately in the truth of its actualization, but to attempt and define it apart from this intuition carries one mercilessly beyond and away, until it is not even a fading shadow of itself. Every layer of definition becomes weaker and weaker, dead and decaying shells of meaning wrapped around what cannot be expressed.
We cannot even describe what it is to be in ourselves, and yet we must also grapple with something further in and further out in God. What possible words could there be that could even begin to express the unfathomable? What language could be sought that would encompass even the tiniest portion of the divine, as if it could be split into pieces.
Indeed, as simple as to be is for us, God’s simplicity goes even deeper, into a unity that is inexpressible. In this indivisibility lies our failure to even get a glimpse, for while to some extent we can wrestle with the compositions that inhabit our world and reality, in God there is nothing that pokes out from the one, no fragment or splinter of being that can be examined.
We assign God attributes as if the divine could be cut into pieces, neatly organized into a systematic theology where this piece relates to this and this to that; this one in harmony with this or this in tension with that. But in the unity of the divine God does not have love like a nose or justice like a mind; God doesn’t have anything. As inscrutable as to be is for us to know, God really just is and knows it. The unfathomable depths of simplicity are not even deep or infinite, for we only generate those concepts in opposition to our experience of finitude, so its often better just to shut up.
This can be a cause for despair, but also for wonder. Theology in humility must consider realize that its concepts and categories cannot attain God, for these things are drawn from a world that cannot contain God. Indeed, our concepts cannot even attain this world. It’s like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, and then realizing that you’re not even playing with shapes.
Sandy hands and all that.
The path to think and speak about God must begin humbly, realizing that theology see in itself a straining after and seeking out that which is obscured, but gladly receiving in wonder that which is always turned towards it. We can speak and think only by analogy about God, but as we delve deeply into those images we come to their end. In this manner we find they are meant to be transcended; or rather, we are transcended. We begin in the seeking and end in realizing that the search was really about being found.
Beauty has a way of drawing one further in- and of shutting one’s mouth. It is easy to speak about a work of art- one can critique its colors and composition, its technique and its motifs. But in all these words the essence of thing can be lost, for beauty carries its being beyond the scope of words.
A true lover of beauty is beckoned by its song, and in the contemplation is understood more than words could convey. In the practice of contemplation is found a union of sorts, a communion that speaks in ways that words cannot. The lover and beloved know this all too well.
Theology ultimately must be more than just a theoretical exercise; it must flow from a heart that desires to know and allows this contemplation to pour over into every facet of life. Theoria must be united with praxis.
In the end, any theology that pretends to grasp or encapsulate God into its systems or its principles is clasping tight to an idol, and intellectual construction that may have little relation to the real thing.
The end of our words about God is not to know more, but to bring us nearer to God. For as we draw nearer to God, our experience of God becomes higher; our capacity for God, so to speak, increases. After all, it is only that which lies beyond our ability to grasp which can satisfy our souls.2