God beyond words

Among the claims made by conservative theologians is the suggestion that all the truths of divine revelation can be articulated in human words. This is held alongside another common conservative claim that we need never go beyond the Bible text for our theology. Another way of describing this approach is to say that theology has to be propositional. Saving truth can only be articulated through propositions or statements. These will always use actual words, preferably drawn from Scripture.

I have been thinking about this dimension of conservative belief that stresses definition and formulae. I have come to realise that this is for me a somewhat impoverished way of handling truth. It occurred to me the other day that when I say I know someone, I know more than the physical details of their life – the things that appear on a CV. I am also familiar with the aspects of the person’s personality that he or she chooses to reveal to me. Even with this fuller knowing I still do not know anything of their inner experience unless they share it. Probably there are also aspects of the other person’s personality that they themselves are completely unaware of. Saying that we know someone is a knowing that combines objective and subjective information about them. But, however much we think we know them, there will be much that we cannot know. We are always left with a partial and incomplete understanding of the inner life of another person.

There is a well-known section in the Psalms which says: ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Many sermons have been preached about this saying. The attractiveness of these words for a preacher is that they allow an immense range of possible interpretations to be explored. The words invite us to let go of formulae and carefully constructed definitions to think about God as he reveals himself to us in the present. He is here inviting us to seek for him, not through words, but in stillness and silence where concepts have no place. Here ‘knowing’ is being understood in its inclusive Hebrew sense. It involves multiple aspects of knowing – understanding, longing, together with a desire for intimacy with the creator. As each person enters into the stillness of God’s presence, one or other aspect of his nature may come to the fore. There is no attempt to prescribe what is a correct relationship with God. Similarly, there is no formula that tells us exactly how we are to connect with another person. We simply come into their presence. In the setting of friendship, we are allowed with them to be just what we are. They also become what they are within the orbit of the relationship. The same thing happens as we seek to approach God. As Christians we believe, sometimes in an inarticulate way, that the deepest part of our being is revealed to us as we approach a God whom we can never fully know. It is this unknowability and mystery of the divine being which many Christians want to celebrate. I for one want to worship God that I do not understand or know in any final sense. In his stillness, we find ourselves approaching something infinite, inexhaustible and certainly beyond definition.

It is the poets who glimpsed through their skilful use of words that reality will always transcend mere words. That is a kind of paradox which I would like to think that Christians can rejoice in. Formulae and definitions seem to promise a degree of precision which are valuable in the formulation of scientific truth. When theological definitions seek to offer a similar sense of control over a reality under scrutiny, I find it unhelpful. Of course, there are some statements that one wants to make about historical events and the claims of doctrinal belief need to be expressed in words. Equally much theological language is not about defining anything; it is being used to help us to go to a place where we can glimpse mystery, incomprehensibility and unknowable glory. The nearest secular analogy I can think of to describe this way of using language, is when we talk about beauty. I have described in an earlier blog the way that, even in a secular context, the notion of beauty is beyond language. The words being used to talk about beauty ultimately fail in their description of this reality. If words are seen to be inadequate in this context, should we not also come to see that words may well fail in talking about God who is beyond our understanding.

I would claim that any suggestion that we can contain or even describe divine truth by the use of a few well-chosen words, is an attempt to control and bring God down to our level. Propositional ideas suggest that human language has a power which arguably it does not possess. It is one thing for a conservative theologian to say that the Bible contains all necessary truth; it is another thing to suggest that the reality of the Divine being can be contained in these words in some way. Words have the power to evoke meaning for us rather contain it. When people feel that they are losing something important if bible phrases are shown to be only indirect mediators of truth rather than actual containers, it is perhaps they sense a loss of control. So often the words of Scripture become talismanic and magical when used by a preacher, giving him a quasi-divine power. The reality of God will in fact always be greater than these words, indeed anything we can say or imagine. When we become still and perceive something of God, we also simultaneously realise that he is completely beyond our control or our human understanding. Any claim to possess him by using ‘correct’ words is irrational and probably harmful. Many churches are harming their members by restricting what is said about him to the old formulae. A releasing of congregations from this kind of control and censorship over what can be said or thought about God may be an important act of liberation. It may also give the congregation an opportunity to discover the height, the depth and breadth of the reality of God. To deprive people of this adventure is, we would claim, an abusive withholding of the spiritual food which every Christian should be able to access.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

3 thoughts on “God beyond words

  1. God couldn’t make Himself understood by spoken or written human words through the prophets, so in the end, He had to actually send His Son to show His people what He was like. They had to experience Him – meet Him, talk with Him, be taught directly by Him and be healed by His touch or His command. They came into direct contact with Him.

    That was to be the basis of the New Covenant He signed with His own blood – nothing to separate us, to prevent us from having a direct relationship with God.

    When Christians are determined that God is only to be found and understood in the Scriptures, is approached by formulae, no longer speaks to us directly or intervenes miraculously in our world, I think of those Pharisees who sat in a house with Jesus arguing points of law, ignorant, stubborn and angry, until some unlearned yobs broke open the roof and got their friend healed. The lawyers didn’t get it. They didn’t want God to be out of their control. They were prepared to deny the people the blessings of heaven in order to maintain their theology.

    Of course God cannot be comprehended, expressed or communicated fully by human words. If He could be contained by our mental facilities, He would be a God of our own making.

    Read the Psalms, how they struggle to express their thoughts and feelings. I’m glad God hears the cries of the deepest places, longings which cannot be articulated, and He answers in ways that human words can never adequately express, because He is so far above and beyond our limited humanity.

  2. Great post, Stephen. I agree with CS, too. I had never really analysed this tendency to try to limit God in words. Perhaps I haven’t encountered it much. I’ve seen lots of instances where people seek to limit God! I shall watch out for this in future. Thank you.

  3. ‘May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds…….’
    What you have written is so true. Thank you.
    Love and prayers,

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