Conversations about “God” often discuss Him as though He were a concept, and idea that can be isolated, studied and considered. Of course, the word “God” can often be little more than a cipher for something whose meaning everyone thinks they know, but whose meaning may vary a great deal. This can especially be true when modern popular culture speaks of “God,” and we read the same word in a translation of the Fathers (or the Bible). True theology never begins at the level of popular culture. In Orthodox theology, consideration of God begins with affirming that we don’t know Him (even that we cannot know Him). Of course, having said that, we immediately wish to leave such a negation and see how quickly we can move to saying something more!
In this post, I want to stop and dwell on the don’t-know.
Further, I want to stop short of isolating God from creation. I am certain that when my mind leaves the consideration of things it knows (creation), it all too quickly and easily moves to things I imagine. Whatever God is, if He is, He is not my imagination.
So, in this post, I want to consider the God-whom-I-don’t-know-in-Creation.
There are a number of aspects of Creation (by which I mean everything that exists except for God) that astonish me: order, beauty, beginning, end, meaning, providence. They astonish me in large part because I would not necessarily expect them to be there.
The universe has an order to it – it is not mere chaos. I understand that with the “laws” of physics things come to have a certain order. Electrons fit in “shells” and are not just randomly arranged around a nucleus. I also know, from physics, that the universe in which we live has a very delicate existence. The slightest variation in certain “laws” and nothing would be as it is. Such a statement may only be stating the obvious, but it still seems astonishing. My own existence is a wonder to me.
The order that exists has another quality that baffles. Creation is not only ordered, but is beautiful. I will ignore all of the the cliched observations that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The fact that this statement has any meaning at all is itself proof that there is common agreement that beauty itself exists. You may find that you like one example of beauty more than another, but you do not deny that there is something we commonly call beautiful. This “call and response” between human beings and the beauty of Creation is a wonder as well. We not only perceive beauty but are drawn to it. Human beings have a drive to express beauty, to capture it, to replicate it and make new examples of it. Human beings are not only kalopathic but kalopoetic.
For much of recorded human thought (at least in Western Civilization) we have thought of the universe as infinite and eternal. Ancient Greeks (Platonism in particular) thought of the universe as having no beginning and no end, either in space or time. It is easy to look out on the night sky and agree. In early Christian thought this eternal, infinite universe was embraced by the theologian Origen. He carried a great deal of Platonic thought into his Christian speculations. He considered God and the universe almost as co-equals – certainly as having a co-existence. God, for Origen, was supremely thought of as Creator. As the Creation was infinite, so God was infinite. As Creation was eternal, so God was eternal. In those aspects, God did not differ from His Creation.
But this thought was rejected by the Church – both in the century following Origen’s work – and, finally, in a formal council several centuries later. Despite the conceptions of popular culture, the Church affirmed that the universe was finite, both in time and space. It had a beginning and had an end. Whatever God is, He is other than His Creation, existing independently and transcendently of both time and space.
This theological affirmation was problematic for much of Church history. Science itself considered the universe to be infinite and eternal (Steady State Theory) until somewhere in the 20th century. The idea of the “Big Bang” was put forward in the 1920’s, and largely confirmed in the 1960’s. It is now generally agreed that the universe, as it exists, began around 13.75 billion years ago from a single point, and continues to expand. Thus, there is a beginning of Creation and an end, beyond which there is nothing (not anything, not empty space, just nothing). It could be said that there is no “beyond which.”
I don’t think it is obvious that a finite universe would be as hard to imagine as an infinite, but, for me, it is even harder. For the imagination knows no limit, but Creation does.
This character of Creation, that it has a beginning and an end, is additional cause for wonder. To look on a night sky and think of it as infinite is to have a sense of wonder at the grand character of everything – to feel reduced to almost nothing. But to look on the night sky and think of it as finite, as going so far and no farther can be to encounter an existential angst. How can there be an end? How can there be a beginning?
Christians easily point to these aspects and announce the existence of “God.” I see these things and announce the existence of wonder. For though I can infer something before and beyond, I cannot do more than wonder.
On a smaller, more intimate level, I am also struck by the perception of meaning. It seems to be true that human beings are constructed in such a way that we like for there to be meaning in things. Sometimes we see meaning where none may exist (cf. conspiracy theories). Nonetheless, we perceive meaning. The universe, ordered and beautiful, seems to have story. We look at the night sky and cannot help but sing. Some peoples have sung about Orion and the Pleiades, and the wandering of great giants. However fanciful the constructions of our stories, they give an expression to an innate wonder that haunts human thought. The order and beauty seem to mean something.
This same meaning becomes quite personal in our perception of providence. That which exists has meaning, but its meaning also seems to include the minutiae of my own life. The coincidence(s) of my existence have an order and beauty of their own that call forth a song, sometimes of praise, sometimes of agony. But we sing.
All of these things together belong to a certain edge of our existence. Order and beauty permeate the universe and stand at the edge of our perception. Even in the most brutal and malignant situations, order and beauty remain. On the body of a priest who died in Stalin’s Gulag, was found a hand-written copy of a hymn of praise. Its words bear witness:
How often have I seen the reflection of Thy glory in the faces of the dead. How resplendent they were, with beauty and heavenly joy. How ethereal, how translucent their faces. How triumphant over suffering and death, their felicity and peace. Even in the silence they were calling upon Thee. In the hour of my death, enlighten my soul, too, that it may cry out to Thee: Alleluia!
The-God-Whom-I-don’t-know is the One whom I praise in the wonder of all things -in the order that negates chaos and the beauty that nurtures my soul. I perceive Him at the very edge, at the suggestion that I encounter when I consider the beginning and the end – the sense of story that unites me with the movement of space and time and touches even the moments of my life banishing randomness in its wake speaking of the One-Whom-I-don’t-know.
The sudden leap made by too many Christians is from the God-Whom-they-don’t-know to a fully imagined story of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They all too quickly forget what they don’t know, and fill in the blanks with a mythic structure that overwhelms non-believers and disguises itself under the name of faith.
The best of theology, when it ponders these things with a self-awareness of our own limitations, never abandons the wonder or what we do not know. The boldest claim of the Christian faith is that the God-Whom-We-don’t-know became flesh and dwelt among us – that in Christ Jesus we see the Order, Beauty, Beginning and End, Meaning and Providence to Whom we sing.
This proclamation is itself worthy of consideration, without the baggage of the God-Whose-Backstory-I-learned-in-Sunday-School. I sing the song of a frozen priest in the depths of a Siberian wasteland, lost in the labyrinth of a madman’s evil vision. Glory to God for all things!