This offering comes from my reading in Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things last night but I’m hoping others may share words they find inspiring as ways to keep the wonder inspired by God alive in the face of the deadening effect of language.
…Meister Eckhart says, ‘Since it is God’s nature not to be like anyone, we have to come to the state of being nothing in order to enter into the same nature that God is’.103 Of those who no longer know enough to experience what Einstein called ‘rapturous amazement’, Bohr reportedly said: ‘Thinking they know things when they know only words, they will not know their ignorance and will never wonder.’104 The space held open by words, in particular the un-word that is the divine name, must never be closed too tightly. Yet, paradoxically, without words we may, as a culture, if not as individuals, forget what everyday language obscures from our vision.
Maybe one from a more respected figure in the church will help:
The single most dramatic demonstration of the inadequacy of prose to speak of the divine comes from the life of St Thomas Aquinas, by common consent one of the greatest of theologians that ever lived. His massive analytical work the Summa theologiæ, the most comprehensive account of the Christian faith ever written, is a masterpiece of scholarship and philosophical thought, and he is often spoken of in the same breath as Aristotle and Plato. On the 6 December 1273, the feast of St Nicholas of Myra, he had a mystical experience while saying mass, after which, having written at a furious pace without ceasing for 35 years, he decided he could not continue. His secretary Reginald of Piperno naturally urged him to resume. Aquinas replied:
I adjure you by the living almighty God, and by the faith you have in our order, and by the love you bear me, that you never reveal in my lifetime what I am about to tell you … Everything that I have written seems to me like chaff compared to those things that I have seen and which have been revealed to me.100
He stopped in the middle of Part III of the Summa, at the point where he happened to be writing about penance, and never wrote another word.101
The greatest of the mediaeval mystics, Meister Eckhart, is associated with what has been called a ‘metaphysics of flow’. For him Being, which emanates from the loving God, must flow, because, like love, it constitutes a continual movement toward the Other. Moreover, it is a Becoming: according to Eckhart, God (in his incarnate form as Christ) streams forth from the Father’s heart endlessly into the God-loving soul: ‘he is being born anew unceasingly … And this same birth today in the God-loving soul delights God more than his creation of the heavens and earth.’ Eckhart is said to have said: ‘We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born’. According to him, then, God also depends on us for his Becoming. McGilchrist, Iain. The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (p. 1909). Perspectiva Press. Kindle Edition.
I fit many definitions of “theologian” and I even have a 3 year masters degree from theological seminary. My specialty is the metaphysical implications of contemporary physics.
Mostly I say God is infinite rather than ineffable. I would not deny that we can say things about God, but only that there is no end to the things people can say or learn about God. Perhaps this also says something about the insignificance of all we have learned or say about God in the sense that the percentage of the totality will always be 0%. On the other hand, I would not say the things we learn about God are insignificant, only that we would be foolish to pretend to any kind of expertise or mastery of the subject.
Always an interest of mine, although I would characterize as the limit of language rather than it’s deadening effect.
No, I don’t think it’s about that. It’s more like Ezekiel 1, where the prophet struggles to put into words what he saw. Over and over, we read about “what looked like…”, “the appearance was like…”, etc., etc., until the prophet finally culminates with “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” Have you seen the literal drawings of Ezekiel’s vision? They’re hilarious.
Maybe a better scriptural comparison would be the Spirit interceding on our behalf without words when words fail us, or the Psalmists’ inability to express the grandeur of God or of God’s creation.
It reminds me a bit of Bertrand Russell’s criticism of the Tractatus, “Mr. Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said…”
Although it may be a sad commentary about my musical tastes, my favourite music album of all time was released in 1987, called “Darn Floor Big Bite” by the alternative Christian rock band Daniel Amos. I drove around as an undergraduate student that summer playing it at volume 11 on the cassette deck in my car. The theme of the album is the ineffable nature of God. The band DA lost most of its early evangelical following, although whether because of the lyrics or the hard turn in their music is hard to say
The album title comes from a Gorilla named Koko who was trained in sign language. When the facility in California was hit by an earthquake, her trainers asked her what happened and she apparently signed “Darn Floor Big Bite”, unable to fully articulate what an earthquake was…
I am humbled by the infinite scope of God that my finite mind will never fully comprehend. On the other hand, I am struck by the tension from verses such as Hebrews 1:3 when referring to Jesus " He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…" The Greek “exact imprint” calls to mind the image of a signet ring pressed into the wax. This is no “vague and amorphous” picture of God, but one that captures and reveals every scratch and detail of the original, in some way. Obviously, while on Earth, Jesus did not display the full power, glory, and knowledge contained within the Trinity so we have many questions about the parameters of God. Yet, it seems that Jesus shows us an accurate picture of God’s essence -his character, and that I find reassuring, and a cause for devotion.
I would say that one of the classics on the ineffability of God is the Tao Te Ching.
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The Tao is also translated as “way.” But perhaps that is part of its understanding of God as a way to followed.
1. The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.
2. (Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all things.
3. Always without desire we must be found,
If its deep mystery we would sound;
But if desire always within us be,
Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.
4. Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.
As you can see by comparing these two, the Tao Te Ching is translated in many different ways. Here is 2-4 in that first translation:
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.
I guess the point is that although I have chosen the Christian understanding of God as the one I prefer. It is not the only one I have examined. And having chosen the Christian understanding doesn’t mean I see no value in these others.
FYI. Here are lyrics of D.A. for a song on the album I just referred to above called “Unattainable Earth”: As @Jay313 just mentioned, on the limits of language to describe God.
Earth too huge to grasp
Will too wild to tame now
I’ll be so bold to ask
Can I wear your name now?
Sign language is the best I can do
Learning to walk without gravity
And just when I think that I know you
And having chosen the Christian understanding doesn’t mean I see no value in these others.
Of course other religions are not without any truth. The thing is to understand where Christianity is true and the others are not. And that’s the part we’re all going to disagree about in one way or another.
I’m kind of learning to move on from those who say there is no real disagreement or the disagreement is really meaningless or ineffable. And yet they still make very direct statements about what God is and is not.