God Is Nothing To Love

God Is Nothing To Love February 12, 2016
Francis in the Light of Glory: Photograph by Henry Karlson
Francis in the Light of Glory: Photograph by Henry Karlson

As we seek God, the closer we get to him, the further it seems we are from actually knowing him. This is because the great, transcendental nature of God is such that he is beyond anything which our minds can comprehend – try as we might, we end up following the words of the Psalmist, by saying, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (Ps.139:6 RSV). The ways of God, likewise, transcend us. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’” (Rom. 11:33-4 RSV). And yet we know of God because God comes to us in a form which we can apprehend: robed in glory. “The LORD reigns; he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength. Yea, the world is established; it shall never be moved; thy throne is established from of old; thou art from everlasting” (Ps. 93:1-2 RSV).

Through grace, we might, like Moses, find ourselves seeing the glory of God, not face to face, but from behind (see Ex. 33:18-23). If we do, we must understand, it is not really God, but the robe of glory which we see. It gives to us the presence of God, and makes that presence known in a way we can comprehend, but in the end, we must not confuse that which we receive for God as he is in himself, for being God, as Pseudo-Dionysius properly made clear:

Someone beholding God and understand what he saw has not actually seen God himself but rather something of his which has being and which is knowable. For he himself solidly transcends mind and being. He is completely unknown and non-existent. He exists beyond being and he is known beyond the mind.[1]

This principle is well known and attested by those who study theology, but it is not just meant to be known in theory but in reality. Theology is about the expression of God, but this comes out of, and from, our experience and speech with God. And those with greater experience of God realize all the more how much greater God is than they know. Indeed, they have come to see God shed all kinds of robes, all kinds of veils, allowing more and more of his glory come to them, each time seeing that the experience of God has become that much greater while the fullness of God remains hidden from them. Whatever is spoken of God should come from such experience. Theology, in order for it to be correct and not turn into a form of idolatry with words, must always accept this caveat, this realization, that whatever is said of God truly does not present God as he is, but only as he is experienced in his actions toward us. God is beyond all such words and so he is to be said to be no thing – nothing, so long as we understand that nothing itself is a word which is to be negated and transcended as well.

Sadly, for many, the difficulty in coming to know God leads to a crisis. Because anything and everything we end up suggesting as a way to talk about God, as a way of doing theology, ends up deficient, some end their pursuit for God and become, as it were, atheists. For they come to correctly see the problems behind any definition they give for God. But they do not do not understand the problem lies with us, and our ability to comprehend God. That the definitions are not univocal, but at best, analogous to what God is. We want that which we can comprehend, that which we can dictate and define, because it becomes something which we can control. But God is not to be tamed by us, especially by our definitions. Atheism demands God not to be God by its attempt to put definitions on God, and so instead of seeing the definitions are what should be denied, instead of emptying them from God and seeing him as transcending all things as no-thing, they turn him into a thing which they can deny. This caveat, therefore, is a necessary perquisite for talk about God. Paradoxically, it is by such denial that we affirm God for through it God remains God. He is affirmed only when we understand him to be beyond all things and see him as the no-thing he is. We can talk about him, and explore what we know and experience of him, once accept him as this no-thing which overturns all definitions: our God-talk is not definitive but conventional, and in understanding that, we can even say our talk is true while not absolute, logical but not definitive of the reality of God.

Thus, in the negation of all that we can say of God, we end up negating the negation, because it is yet another form of transcendence. We can speak of God, as long as we keep in mind he is not a thing. We are free to speak so long as we do not try to use words as limits to control God but as ways we represent his actions towards us. “The names which are denied of him are denied because of his transcendence, not because he lacks anything, which is why we deny things of creatures. And so his transcendence defeats all negation, ”as St. Albert the Great put it. [2] God is not a thing, but he establishes things, and so he establishes robes of glory for himself to make himself known to us. If we do not confuse his covering for him, we will not use them as limits to define him, and so will not fall into the mistake which leads to atheism. They are the means by which he shows himself to us, they are of him and from him, and one with him, but they are not him in his essence.[3]

This is why the atheist will never speak in a way which can truly be used to deny God, for like the idolater who assumes that which is less than God to be God, so they also take what is not God, use it to define God and create, as it were, a strawmen to reject. This is not entirely their fault, for most people, left untrained, fall into such an error; they have to be reminded that for God, his transcendence is the key, and as Bulgakov explained, it is only in and through it other dogmas can be properly understood: “The transcendence of Divinity or its sublimity is the basis of Judaic monotheism as well as of Christian dogma which is inseparably linked with it and develops it further.”[4]

We, therefore, should find ourselves reaching out, reaching to that which is beyond us, which is beyond all comprehension, beyond all created intellect, beyond all conception or words, to the nothing which is God. As Blessed Henry Suso noted, in doing so we find ourselves somehow mysteriously one with that nothing, finding that however much we have done so, it is greater than us and its darkness, its depths, will be forever unfathomable to us no matter how much we journey within it:

Here on earth a man can reach the point that he sees himself as one in that which is the nothing of all the things one can conceive or put into words. This nothing is called by common agreement “God” and is in itself a something existing to an incomparable degree. Here a person sees himself as one with this nothing, and this nothing knows itself without the activity of knowing. But this is mysteriously hidden further within.[5]

Or, as Tauler expressed it:

Whoever arrives here has discovered what he has been searching for far and wide. His spirit will be led into a hidden desert far beyond his natural faculties. Words cannot describe it, for it is the unfathomable darkness where the divine Goodness reigns above all distinctions. [6]

God as God transcends even the word God, but we use it, knowing it is but a pointer to the great, transcendent glory which is beyond all names. God is no-thing, and that is why God is great. God is no-thing, and it is why we seek and love him. God is no-thing, and so is not limited as things are. God is no-thing and so is able to take in and love everything without limit – for God is great, and only in the proper realization of that greatness will we be able to have God.


 

[1] Pseudo-Dionysus, “Letter One” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987),263.

[2] St. Albert the Great, “Commentary on Dionysius’ Mystical Theology” in Albert & Thomas: Selected Writings. trans. Simon Tugwell, O.P. (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 198.

[3] In the Eastern Christian tradition, these forms of glory are often said to be his divine energies, which is what we know – and comprehend—of God. As we take them into ourselves, as we comprehend them, they join in with us and give us a share of the glory of God.

[4] Sergius Bulgakov, Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations. trans. Thomas Allan Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 159.

[5] Bl. Henry Suso, “Little Book on Truth” in Henry Suso: The Exemplar with Two German Sermons. trans. Frank Tobin (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 318-9.

[6] Johannes Tauler, Sermons. trans. Maria Shrady (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 59.

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