The Unknown God

Who Is God?

Our lives as Christians are meant to be built upon a personal relationship with God. Our Lord Jesus came down to earth to reveal to us the nature and personality of God in a way we could accept, and to dwell among us without destroying us with His unbearable glory. Daily we pray to Him. We strive to run our lives according to His commands and we seek to do that which pleases Him. Ask anyone in church, even the naughtiest of kids, “Do you love God?” and with even hesitating, a confident “yes!” will be the response.

Yet, who is the God we love? St Augustine repeatedly asks this question in his Confessions, giving some beautiful answers, but I am trapped in the 21st century, in the age of logic and reason and the scientific method. Can these tell me anything about God?

I think so. Let’s see how far it can take us…

I mentioned in a comment following a recent post that the theory of a Big Bang forces the 21st century seeker for truth to admit there must have been a beginning to the universe. Some have begun to look for ways around this, but to my mind (and that of many others, including atheists) none of the attempts are worth taking seriously. If you must have a beginning, then you must have a beginner, a First Cause that is itself without a cause. Thus, cosmology plus a little basic logic leads to the conclusion that the uncaused First Cause, whom we call ‘God’, is actually essential, is necessary, if anything is to exist at all. And we think we exist, since we are here, asking the question (cogito ergo sum*).

But beyond that, it is surprisingly difficult to really know anything specific and with certainty about God. Without ‘special revelation’, that is the Bible and the Church traditions we have recieved via the Apostles, ‘general revelation’, that is, what we can see in our universe, reveals only faint hints, glimpses, as it were, “in a mirror, dimly” (I Cor. 13).

We deduce that God is great from the hugeness of this universe that surrounds. We further deduce that we are but a tiny, tiny part of that creation, making the fact that God loves us little specks of dust even more incredible. But how big is God? The answer is, He isn’t. He is neither big, nor small. He is neither short or tall, wide or thin. The usual description we use is that God is unlimited in space, yet this is, strictly speaking, not true either. As far as we can understand, God cannot be measured using the three dimensions of space we are used to, for He created that three dimensional space, and He Himself existed when it was not, and exists now “outside” of space, whatever that may mean. If you try to characterise God using the language and concepts of three dimensional, or even n-dimensional space, you cannot succeed.

Neither is it possible to define God in terms of time. How old is God? We usually say that God is eternal, and clarify that by saying that He has no beginning and no end. But that inevitably implies that God exists ‘inside’ time, He is actually on the timeline, so to speak, and differs from everything else in that they have a beginning (and sometimes an end) whereas He does not. But this is wrong. God made time. He exists without time. He existed ‘before’ time began, whatever that may mean. Any description of God that involves time will therefore be inadequate and inaccurate. And we have no language that does not depend on the concept of time. Try it now. Try to make a sentence that describes God (or anything else) without using a time-dependent word or concept.

“God is love”?

‘is’ denotes the present, as opposed to the past or the future, and is thus a time-dependent concept.

What kind of being is God? We usually call God, “He”. In recent times, the feminists have taken great umbridge to this sexism and Bibles have been published referring to God as “She”“Our Mother who art in heaven”, and so on. Traditionalists are outraged by this modern editing of a text over 3,500 years old in some places. Who is right? Strictly speaking, neither. Gender is a characteristic of physical living beings – animals and birds and reptiles and fish. Humans have gender because they need to reproduce, but angels have no gender. Thus did our Lord answer those who asked who in heaven would be the husband of the woman who had married five men during her life by saying, “They neither marry nor are they given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven”.

Sure, we use masculine words to express God’s superior strength, or feminine language to communicate His gentle nurturing love, but all these are human words applied to One who is far, far beyond humanity, infinitely far, in fact. ‘He’ and ‘She’ are thus woefully inadequate. ‘It’ sounds downright rude, lowering God to the level of a senseless stone or a coffee table. We have no other pronouns in our language! Perhaps we should invent one, to be reserved especially for God and for Him alone? ‘Thee’ perhaps, echoing the Greek root word for God, theo?

I could go on.

The disappointing fact is that God is just so far beyond our imagination, experience or comprehension that we simply cannot know Him. Everything we think about Him is bound to be inadequate, and thus, strictly speaking, wrong. The Ancient Fathers, especially in the east, recognised this, and some of them insisted that we cannot truthfully describe God using positive terms; saying what He is, but we can only use negative terms; we can only rule out what He is not. You might have noticed that St Gregory’s Anaphora lists a whole lot of negatives: “the ineffable; the unseen; the uncontainable; without beginning; the eternal ; the timeless; the limitless; the unsearchable; the unchanging.”

It is just as well, then, that God Himself chose to tell us about Himself. Of course, He must use limited language that we can understand, but when He does so, He highlights for us the things that are important, the things that matter. It’s a bit like your teacher highlighting the bits that will be in the upcoming exam for you so you don’t have to waste time studying the whole textbook!

And just what is it that God chooses to highlight? Is it e=mc^2? Is it the structure of the electron shells around the nucleaus of an atom? Is it how to accurately predict weather conditions? No, it is none of these. What He points out to us is…

“God is love”.

Our curiosity leads us to try to understand God with our brains, and by and large, we fail miserably. But perhaps that is not the important thing. Perhaps the important thing is to feel God’s love for us in our hearts, and to love Him from our hearts in return. Knowing about God is nowhere near as important as knowing God. The mind can tell us a little about the character of God, but it is in living with God daily, and minute by minute; in feeling that He surrounds us and dwells within us; in ‘touching Him’ when we live by His commandments and ‘meeting Him’ in every tiny act of kindness towards another; in these things do we come to know God.

Even if I knew nothing about God, just knowing Him would be enough.

“To the Unknown God” – the inscription on an altar, seized upon by St Paul to start preaching to the philosophical Greeks. A God Unknown, but Loving … and that is more than enough.

Fr Ant

  • * cogito ergo sum = I think, therefore I am: Descartes.
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    6 Replies to “The Unknown God”

    1. Thankyou Fr, Antonious, that was a beautiful summation at the end: ‘Even If I knew nothing about God, just knowing Him would be enough’.
      Can I quote this phrase please off of you, since it is so relevant that we should not forget the bigger picture in life just for the minor, insignificant details?

      GBU

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    2. Apophaticism, I think they call it. I was reading this book called “Eastern Orthodoxy Christianity: A western perspective” (by Daniel B. Clendenin), and it echoes lots of what you have written here- and I think you summed it very well. The book discussed the crisis in Russia, with Shestov’s rejection of rationalism (insisted by Kant).

      I found this quote interesting, though I must confess that I am not exactly sure what it really means:
      “We confess to doctrines profoundly mysterious by their nature- that a man should be God, that one God should be at the same time three persons, that we of corruptible flesh should also be temples of the living God. So we believe, but so we cannot comfortably think. For as “thoughts”, these are in essence mystery. Mystery is what many contemporary minds are hungry for; it is what they seek far afield, in the non-Christian realms and such Eastern, Asiatic sources as the Bhagavad Gita and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. We Christians in the West have not shared what we possess. We have mystery in plenty, yet our discourse averts it, avoids it as if in embarrassment. For mystery is what we have been taught through our education to extinguish.”

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    3. Beautiful 🙂

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    4. Hi Ragaei

      There is no copyright on this blog 😉

      Fr Ant

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    5. i was just thinking about what you said, and I wonder is that why we give Holy Communion even to toddlers and the mentally incompetent; even if they do not understand what it is all about? I know it is not knowing Him in the way you described in the post (hence, the question), but it seems you are suggesting (in my reading of it) that “the experience” of God we have in the breaking of bread would be more important than having a wholesome understanding of the Mystery (something I do not honestly believe I can comfortably think of). I mean, I have read stuff on the Eucharist, but that did not really change my experience in the long run of the Mystery- though I do feel its effect when I cease it!

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    6. Hi Tony

      I Agree – our experience of God in the Eucharist does not depend on our IQ, on how well we understand its mystery. I suspect that there are many little children for whom the simple joy of recieving Christ (to judge by their smiles) is a far deeper experience than any I have had as an adult!

      Fr Ant

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