Images of God

August 18, 2023 in Uncategorized

BILL TONER SJ :: A little girl has learned a new word – ‘ingredients’ – and her mother is telling her what is needed to make Irish stew. She tells her, ‘lamb, onions, potatoes, salt, pepper, parsley…”. The little girl says, “and a pot”, and her mother says “Yes, you need a pot, but a pot is not an ingredient”.

Most of us make a similar mistake when we think about God. When asked to list some things that exist in the world, a religious person might say, people, houses, trees, motor cars, God. But God does not ‘exist’ in the same way as other things exist. Like the pot, God is necessary, in this case to create the world and keep it in existence, but he is not a ‘thing’ or a ‘creature’. For this reason, some saints have said, You can’t say that God ‘exists’. God is the basis of all existence, but if you say that he ‘exists’ you are putting him in the same category as all the things he has created, when in fact he is completely different. If you say that God exists in the way that other things exist, you are open to the question: But who created God?

Mystics and saints have pondered the question for centuries: How can we know what God is like? And all have come up with the same conclusion: that God is incomprehensible. St. Thomas Aquinas went so far as to say, “About God, we cannot say what he is, but rather what he is not”. Late in life he had some kind of mystical experience and would hardly speak at all after that. On his death bed he pointed to the theology books he had written, and said, “After what I have experienced, all that is just straw”. We apply words like ‘good’, ‘just’ and ‘merciful’ to God, but these are all words from our human experience. Can they be applied to God in the same sense as we use them?

This is important for our spiritual lives, because as Fr. Anthony de Mello puts it, “the final barrier to the vision of God is your God concept”. Christians have been mocked for imagining God as “an old man with a beard in the sky”. But it goes deeper than that. For instance, some people imagine their relationship with God to be similar to some human relationships. This could come down to something like “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”. People may say something like, “God, if you land me this job I will go on a pilgrimage”! Or they give money to the Church, and say many prayers, and expect that God will reward them for living good lives. Then they fall seriously ill, and wonder how God could treat them like that. But perhaps God does not think in those terms at all. As Job said in the Bible, when he suffered great misfortunes, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord”.

There is one mysterious characteristic of God that we can be sure about, because it is so central in scripture. That is the absolute gratuity of the gifts by which he shares his divine life, gifts like generosity, faith, love, a forgiving heart, an impulse of grace, and, ultimately, redemption. We have debased the word ‘gratuity’ so that it means a ‘tip’ for a service rendered. In fact, it would be true ‘gratuity’ if we were to walk past a line of beggars and give one of them, at random, a fifty euro note for absolutely no reason at all. Mostly unnoticed by us, God does that kind of thing all the time.

In the Gospel story of the Prodigal Son, the young man wasted the money that was coming to him from his father, but then, when he fell on hard times, he ran back to his father with his tail between his legs. Instead of being sent packing he got a great welcome. Jesus tells the story to show that God does not give his grace as some kind of merit badge, but often to the ‘undeserving’. His justice is not comprehensible in human terms.

As the prophet Isaiah puts in the mouth of God, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts”; sentiments echoed hundreds of years later by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans: “Oh, the depths 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 counsellor?”