The Greatest Thing We Can Say About God Is Nothing

The Greatest Thing We Can Say About God Is Nothing May 9, 2023

Lukas Bornhauser luboco: Silent Prayer In The Night / Wikimedia Commons

Nothing. God is so great, no matter how sophisticated our words are, no matter how nuanced they are, they will always fail to comprehend God and God’s essence. They can serve as relative, conventional presentations of the truth as long as we accept that the ultimate truth lies beyond what is said, that is, when we recognize that they serve as pointers to the great, transcendent majesty of God. It is in this fashion that they help us apprehend God, and that they do this best when they are used to describe God in accordance to the ways God interacts with and engages the world. That is, we name God in accordance to God’s operations, not in relation to God’s essence. Nonetheless, we must understand that behind all such descriptions, behind all the great and glorious theological reflections, God will always be greater than what we say. Even the ways God is at work with us are mysterious, because God’s transcendent majesty means God is at work in ways which we do not know or understand. Thus, our words have value, but we must understand that value is relative. We should never try to force God to conform to the way we interpret them and the logic which becomes imposed by their use. God’s fullness transcends all such words, all such logic; God will always remain a mystery. It is, in part, this mysterious nature of God which attracts us, so that we will find our interaction with God will always be exciting, always leading us to desire to engage God more so that we can know more and more of who God is and what God is like. The more we come to know, the more we will know what we do not know, and the more we do not know, the more we will want to know. As a way to express this, as a way to remember the limits of our words, our words often have to give way to silence, for nothing we say about God can equal what is presented in and through such silence. For when we rest in that silence, we stop ourselves from trying to construct an image or created essence for God, and so we find ourselves open to experience God, not as we think God is, but how God is:

If a word is labor with respect to those things transcending human ability and nature, then what can we say about the Word or the Father of the Word? Any lofty, eloquent words fall speechless if the true significance of what we seek is taken into consideration. This [silence] alone is true speech about God because if a person capable of generating all kinds of thoughts fails to include thoughts proper to God – even though his voice is deemed worthy – still his speech is not a word. Man cannot speak. The sight of visible reality cannot behold what pertains to the soul; rather, we who are always looking see nothing while we ignorantly receive sense perceptions. [1]

This is why, though we can and should speak of God, giving God all kinds of names based upon the ways we encounter God and God’s works in our lives, we should not limit God to those names. We must accept that they are mere apprehensions of a greater truth, a truth which transcends us and our comprehension. To get to know God, we must accept the apprehensions provide us relative truths while negating them, that is we must affirm the way they point to the truth while denying all attempts to confine or limit God through such labels. We negate them, understanding that nothing in creation can be used to comprehend God.  Nothing we say comprehends the divine glory.   And so, we must find our way to silence, not as a way to nihilistically deny the value of words or the way they point to the transcendent nature of God, but to make sure we do not become limited by them. We want them to lead us beyond themselves so that we can truly encounter the ever greater, transcendent God. By such negation or silence, then, we silence our thoughts and the ways they can limit our experiences with God. We leave ourselves open to God so that God is free to come to us, to share with us all kinds of grace, helping us become one with God, not by nature, but by grace. Then, we will apprehend God and God’s work in our lives even more, giving us new ways to describe God while understanding the limits of such descriptions. And the more we do this, the more God will work in and with us, perfecting us, so that the more we are embraced by God, the more we find ourselves embraced by love and becoming one with that love, so that in the end, our lives become full of love and joy:

When the intellect performs negation of all created things as if they did not exist, it then, receives, by contemplating in truth and in Spirit, the unutterable manifestation of That which Truly Is beyond noetic energy and union, infinitely superior to every kind of divine contemplation about existing realities. And then the intellect becomes unified, or even, so to speak “one”, and is ineffably overcome with speechlessness; it becomes full of love and joy, and not at all of a common sort, but the love and joy that comes from the energy of the Spirit, a delight fit for angels. [2]

Nothing, then, can serve as a univocal representation of God. God transcends all things so that God can be said to be nothing. We must not understand this nothing in the wrong way, that is, as a substantiation of nothingness, of the vacuum which negates being, but rather, as the transcendence of all things. That is, this nothingness is the source and foundation of beings so that all things emerge from and arise in it. It is a transcendent nothing, while nihilism, with its nothingness, tries to undermine it and take its place by equivocation. For just as evil tries to pretend to be some good and uses that pretense to corrupt the good, so nihilistic nothingness tries to take qualities of the transcendent nothingness upon itself; it tries to make us believe it is the true transcendent nothingness. But the difference is the nihilistic nothingness is destructive, seeking the destruction of all being, while the transcendent nothingness of God is affirmative, producing, establishing, preserving, and deifying being; nihilistic nothingness wants us to equivocate its nothingness with the transcendent nothingness, but then, if we accept this equivocation, it leads us to accept the destruction of all beings as the point of such transcendence. This is also why, though the great nothing is best presented in silence, it is still capable of being apprehended and affirmed through words. The negation promoted by the transcendent nothingness is not one which denies our engagement of God’s operations and the ways we describe them, but rather, makes sure we do not confuse them as being all that God can be. Indeed, it affirms their value, even if it is a relative value, so that through them, we can point out God to those who have yet to encounter or understand God’s transcendent nothingness:

Wherefore he is most truly expressed by negations ; since you may state what he is not, but not what he is : for whatever positive statement you make concerning him, you err, seeing that he is none of those things which you can say. Still, because a hidden principle of the Deity resides in all things, on account of that faint resemblance the sacred writers have endeavoured to indicate him by the names of all objects, not only of the better but also of the worse kind; lest the duller sort, attracted by the beauty of the fairer objects, should think God to be that very thing which he is called. [3]

[1] St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on Ecclesiastes. Trans. Richard McCambly. Ed. John Litteral (Ashland, KY: Litteral’s Christian Library Publications, 2014), 26. [Homily 1].

[2] Saint Kallistos Kataphygiotes, “On Union with God and The Contemplate Life“ in The Philokalia. Volume 5. Trans. Anna Skoubourdis (No location, Australia: Virgin Mary of Australia and Oceania, 2020), 249[ Greek terms used in parenthesis in the translation have been removed].

[3] John Colet, “Celestial Hierarchy” in Two Treatises on the Hierarchies of Dionysius. Trans. Joseph Hirst Lupton (London: Chiswick Press, 1869), 13.


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