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!
This is again a beautifully written and inspirational entry. This blog has transformed my own prayer life. Thank you Father.
A most beautiful meditation, Fr Stephen
Ancient Faith Radio podcast:iSermon-there is a God and I am not Him
One of my favorite quotes:
This is very well stated:
Everything about humanity is a story. Whether we are talking of grand things like the universe or an experience we had at the grocery store, all human reality happens between the ears in story form.
“Tell me a fact, and I will learn. Tell me a truth and I will believe. Tell me a story, and it will become a part of me.”
Again, very well stated.
It has always been interesting to me that it was a Belgian Priest, Father Georges Lemaître who proposed the theory of the big bang.
Psalm 118 (western numbering) esp verse 24: “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Of course the critical thing is what was there before the big bang? The point singularity that modern cosmology postulates since something has to come from something OR nothing except for the undivided and the infinite the community of the Holy Trinity who spoke and BANG out of nothing came something and from His infinite Word ‘things’ and being are still being created since “He is everywhere present and fillest all things.”
But us, He formed with His own hands and took on our form to enable us to participate in the greater mystery still, through his grace we can be and are re-created and transformed into who we really are so that we can dwell with Him in love.
This was a beautifully true post. For the vast majority of the ancient world (except the Jewish people, of course), God was known only through Creation. God’s unknowability, power, and immensity were discerned through, as Isaiah said, the light and the darkness. Yet also in nature they discerned beauty, order, and providence. For them, God/the gods was/were eminently real but also frightening opaque, the infinitely “other.” Even Moses entered a dark cloud, and God’s form could not be seen amidst the Holy Fire. When God spoke to Israel, they were so terrified they wished Him to remain Unknowable. He remains mysterious and unknown. True, the Logos/Angel of the Lord – if I may postulate – appears.
As a whole, I think Christians tend to forget God’s otherness precisely because we think we know God in the postmodern Jesus. In a sense, this is true; however, if we don’t start with God the Unknowable and Powerful like the pagans and Jews did, the immensity and glory of the Incarnation of the Word is lost.
Yes. We affirm all of that from within our community of faith. But it is important, I think, not stand at the “point singularity” and wonder, even though, by faith, we pierce beyond the veil and see the One who causelessly caused all things.
Yes! How very true – Thank you
We in our fallen state want the Relevant God – the accessible God – the rational and reasonable God
We reduce the words of the prophet ‘He shall be called Emmanuel – God is with us’ from a terrifying threat, ‘the one enthroned amongst the Cherubim will come like Fire’, to a cosy comfort blanket
As of old we want our comforting idols but we have pretty much dispensed with the Unknowable as we think we pretty much know it all
Lord have mercy on us all
January 25, 2013 at 5:09 pm
We are too anxious for closure and answers, thus the capacity of the Child for Wonder, is lost?
Perhaps this is one aspect of our Lord’s requirement of us that we become as children?
And this misunderstanding leads to such trivializations as:
calling God Daddy
seeing God as a sugar daddy
The-God-Whom-I-don’t-know is greater than, other than, the universe of which I can know only a small part. But that part is measurable and finite, so if the part is measurable and finite then the whole universe is also. It is very, very big, and yet it is measurable and therefore finite. But God is both immanent (He is everywhere and fill all things), and He is transcendent (He is also infinitely greater than and transcends all things). About all we can say about God is that He IS: the true God is the only One Who really EXISTS. His “IS-ness” is beyond all knowing. And yet, He became flesh and dwelt among us, so that can be filled with all the fullness of God. Awesome! I am overwhelmed with awe and wonder in His incomprehensible presence!
>”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.”
Thank you for this. This makes me think of the Psalms. There are incredible heights of exultation and also heart wrenching agony, but still the psalmist sings it all to God. I’d like to be more like that than I am now.
Fr. Stephen, I’m not sure what you mean? Can you restate?
Dear Father, thank you for another profound post. Your ministry to us, to help us clear away the mental clutter, is deeply appreciated. On this topic, the wonder of beauty, I have treasured a post from one of your readers:
posted by “Victor” on Glory to God For All Things, 6/18/2011
I beg his permission to repost his comment to you.
Michael, rereading my comment – I can see that I typed badly. I was urging that we stand and linger at that point of Creation somewhat, before too quickly passing it by (in faith).
Yes I see that. My point was that there is no intervening thing whether one calls it a point singularity or not. There was nothing other than God then there was stuff and then He specifically made us
There was no thing between God and we, His creatures until sin entered. The Incarnation re-opened the door.
The point singularity idea is part of the two storey approach, IMO.
Some wonderful comments to this post Father — most Eucharistic in shape!
On not to. Can’t think why my grammar sometimes fails me. Father, thank you for this post!
Wonderful post, Father Stephen. Much to ponder here.
One of my hobbies since childhood has been astronomy & now I am fortunate enough to be an amateur astrophotographer. Whenever I am floundering & struggling in my Faith, I spend extra time under the stars. As the light of day gives way to darkness & the busy-ness of the world to silence, the light & song of creation pierce through the darkness & silence with striking intensity & unbelievable clarity as I witness the story…even, history as light that has been travelling for millions of years through space & time is intensified, magnified & captured via my equipment to behold in wonder in this present time. I always end my sessions by turning off the equipment, laying back on a pillow & wrapped in a blanket as I try to absorb & remember what has just been revealed…it just seems the perfect time to be still & know God-whom-I-do-not-know…God-whom-I-cannot-know.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen for your most eloquent & insightful words 🙂
Father, one thing that comes to me is before we can even began to approach the unknowable and the un-created, we have to realize the finite and our own creaturehood. Is that something of what you are getting at?
That certainly has a ring of the Lord’s word’s in John 3 12: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly.”
Something that adds to the difficulty in imagining a spatially finite universe is the fact that one can never stand at the edge for, if the physicists are correct, wherever one stands seems to be at the center of a boundless expanse. Also, though the consensus for a beginning in time seems great, it remains to be seen, by whom I cannot say, whether there will be an end . Maybe the councils were half right in the scientific sense.
I don’t think our minds (or at least my mind) can really grasp either the finite or the infinite nature of the universe, or its beginning or end.
To consider the universe being finite or having an end, my mind automatically wants to say – and then what? Because I am unable to fathom absolute nothing.
And I also have no way to conceptualize absolute Being without matter or time to define it. Except as the God I cannot know – but Who can make Himself known to me.
I sometimes experience an existential fear when looking at a sky full of stars because I cannot imagine that such a God who could create this would be concerned about one so insignificant as me. (Thankfully, knowing of Jesus keeps me grounded and mindful of the fallacy of this way of thinking.)
I both marvel and mourn at the ‘loss of child-like faith’ which our culture breeds… It has reached the point where the same things that would help us in our re-orientation as eucharistic beings will now hinder us! I distinctly remember the natural awe at looking at the night-sky as a young adolescent, admittedly influenced by the secular thought of our times, yet still being reminded of God’s ineffable love through it all, while also, later on, reacting to that same view with that ‘Sartre-ian’ godless futility and desperation which the “Grace-less” expositions of astronomy (found in most modern scientific or rather atheist ‘scientism’ journals – believing themselves to be the only arbiter of truth) can breed…
What a world apart from (for instance) Elder Aimilianos’ first encounter with God’s Uncreated Light coupled with his gazing at the starry night in Meteora:
“I sometimes experience an existential fear when looking at a sky full of stars because I cannot imagine that such a God who could create this would be concerned about one so insignificant as me.”
Yes, Mary, I’ve had this experience numerous times. It is the natural condition of postmodern man, sadly: a queer mix of fear, disorientation, angst, and apathy.
Didn’t Elder Aimilianos have some sort of crisis of faith before his profound conversion experience?
Michael – I like that – it’s a good way of focusing.
yes, but to be clear and precise, I wouldn’t exactly call it a “crisis of Faith” though, but an unbearable blackness, a seemingly ‘fruitless’ fight with Him, like that of Jacob in the OT (a favourite story of Elder Aimilianos) – not dissimilar to Saint Silouan’s experience as a novice.
January 25, 2013 at 5:09 pm
Wonderfully put Father, thank you!
I think my experience in star-gazing emerges from an assumption that the great/immense could/should not have regard for the small and insignificant.
This assumption may come from how I regard the small, e.g. I do not have the ability or interest to attend to every little insect in my habitat. Thus, I disregard most of those little ants, gnats and mosquitoes around me and turn my attention to the “more important” things.
When I refocus from anthropomorphizing God, I can recognize that this analogy doesn’t work. One who is true Being and immense enough to bring this universe into existence certainly could be able to know and cherish every tiny bit of life within it.
This, I think, is where it becomes important to recognize my own finite creature-hood and the unknowability of God – lest I dismiss God because I have made Him too small.
This is beautifully written. It is worship in words. Thank you for dancing so beautifully around the edges of what is both intimate and unknowable.
You remind me of another favorite author of mine, Simon Tugwell.
Father bless! Christ is amongst us!
Please define “kalopathic-” kalopoetic-” I sought them on the Internet and all to vain. If possible, what are they in Latin and English? Thank you.
Indeed you won’t find them – I “coined” them. kalopathic means – “able to perceive beauty” (from the Greek) and kalopoetic – “able to make or fashion beauty.” Sometimes there’s just not a good English word for something. In such cases, it has been a common tradition in English (especially English theology) to coin a word – usually from the Greek. It’s an old habit from my academic days.
Let’s start a campaign to have them put in the next Oxford Unabridged Dictionary!!!
You have my vote. One way to get them in is to try to bring the words into common usage. I’ll start right now:
I am grateful to God that He has made me both kalopathic and kalopoetic. Praise Him.
I think it is most wonderful to so construct words – kalopoetic in and of itself
Thank you Father for adding to our lexicons
Kalopoesis. What JRR Tolkien does, also called Secondary Creation.
Kallista (Mary) Benton.
Yes, I rather like the sound of that :).
Profound and thoughtful as ever. Thank you Fr Stephen.
You might be interested in a discussion paper on the Big Bang Theory recently produced by the Coptic Apologetics Discussion Group.
Some sections of the Coptic Church have been heavily influenced by Young Earth Creationism, which is sad. But there is always hope for recovery!
Permission happily granted.
Pray for me a sinner,
Thank you, Victor. I keep your statement in my sketchbook,
and will happily pray for you with gratitude,
Fr. Stephen…..one of your best.
Why do you give God gender?
It is a grammatical convention – challenged by the academic establishment.
Father, I would say the ‘gender’ of God is a bit more than a grammatical convention. Whatever else He may be (and that whatever is the unknowable essence). He is to us, male. He interpenetrates His creation and even our souls to bring life and fecundity. He sacrifices Himself for the life of the world and through that sacrifice attains victory over His enemies (and ours).
This is true of all persons in the Holy Trinity so that even the Holy Spirit (the person most often thought of as feminine at least in modern thought)is He.
We receive. That is why we can all say with Mary: “Let it be done unto me according to your Word.” In the mysteries we then offer back all that we have received from Him so that He may transform and transfigure and make holy all that we have done with His gift to us but it turns out that He is both the offered and the offering.
Those that attempt to neuter God or make Him feminine are not Christian. The gender of God is not irrelevant.
Decades ago I remember reading a story in the Wall Street Journal about the ‘gender neutral language’ that was still relatively new at the time within the Episcopal Church. The Journal interviewed one lady and used her as a example of the effects of the trend. She said explicitly: “Before the gender neutral language, I was a Christian, now I am a pagan”.
No one ‘assigned’ God a gender. He reveals Himself to us that way.
Michael, it is certainly within the realm of the permissible to make such observations, but they are by no means observations of the Orthodox faith. C.S. Lewis observed that “with regard to God, we are all female,” following an understanding similar to your own thoughts.
But, following the fathers, gender (male and female) is not applicable to the Godhead. We make speak of Christ as male, because He is incarnate as a man. But we are not taught to infer “male” to the Son and to the Father because God has revealed Himself by those names.
God simply transcends these categories and they are not part of the revelatory language with regard to the Trinity. The fathers do not teach that God has revealed a gender. As I noted, you’re free to make such observations, but you have gone beyond the Church in doing so.
There was a time when everything was seen as having gender. Gender was a way of giving meaning and understanding to different things. This is reflected in the many languages that assign gender to animate and inanimate things-Spanish, German.
Chinese philosophy has preserved this ancient understanding using yin and yang. Yang is light, strength, male. Yin is darkness, passive, female. Conterintuitive to modern understanding, Chinese philosophy sees matter as yin, female, and spirit as yang, male. God is spirit. Spirit is yang. Yang is male. God is male.
Father– got you. Thanks for the correction. Never meant to imply that God was just He or that He was even adequate-just the way on which He usually experienced.
Given the spiritual environment though and the sexual anarchy that prevails; don’t you think it dangerous to not call God ‘He’ specially since we call Him Father?