Monday, 7 August 2017

How to describe the indescribable

We can’t! It’s impossible to describe God because he is so much greater than we are. It is impossible to fit something big into something smaller, so it is not possible for a human mind to fully comprehend God. We are sadly mistaken if we think we have understood him fully.
     It’s important to appreciate how the original culture of people in Old Testament times was so strongly dominated by men (we say it was ‘patriarchal’) so everyone’s references to God were expressed in terms of a male figure. For simplicity, the Church still employs this tradition, even though our own society has moved on since then. But although we call God ‘him,’ we do so knowing that God is beyond gender.
It is difficult to describe God because He is so totally different from us. For this reason, a variety of different ideas, models, images and metaphors have grown up to describe Him. The Bible uses a large number: most are straight­forward, but some are shockingly different from what many people expect. The following is a tiny selection:
  • God is spirit (John 4:24).
  • God is truth (John 4:24).
  • God is light (1 John 1:5).
  • God is mercy (Deuteronomy 4:31).
  • God is a consuming fire (Exodus 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29).
  • God is love (1 John 4:16).

None of these metaphors is particularly useful on its own though, together, they can offer an approximate idea of who He is.
      It’s impossible to accurately describe God’s nature and character. The usual ‘definitions’ that seek to describe Him fall into two broad categories. First are the definitions which emphasise how God is so large that he overwhelms any description relying on words alone:
  • God is everywhere (he is ‘omnipresent’).
  • God is all powerful (he is ‘omnipotent’).
  • God knows everything (he is ‘omniscient’).

In each of these example, the first four letters omni– is a Latin root meaning ‘all’ or ‘every.’ 
     By contrast, we sometimes need negative (and complicated) sounding definitions to emphasise how we cannot really know or understand God. In other words, we say what God is not:
  • God was not born and will not die (he is ‘immortal’ i.e. not mortal).
  • God cannot be seen by physical means (he is not visible; he is ‘invisible’).
  • God exists outside of time (he is ‘eternal’).
  • God cannot be described (he is ‘ineffable’).
  • God’s majesty and glory are beyond our wildest imaginings (he is ‘infinite’, meaning literally that he is beyond being finite. It also means we cannot measure him and therefore limit him in any way).
  • God cannot change or be changed (he is ‘impassable’).

The idea that God is so different we cannot describe him leads directly to another concept. God: he is holy

Christianity always teaches that God
is ultimately unknowable. He is
therefore indescribable. But if we
start by enfolding our ideas
about God with an honest
description of what we don’t
know about him, then we have
at least excluded what is untrue.
What is left must have some truth.


1 comment:

  1. Rather like a mathematical function where the result is undefined (e.g., division by zero), or given an assigned value (e.g., summing a divergent series) - sets parameters around our ultimate ignorance.