I’ve been a regular visitor to your site for several years but am sometimes puzzled by what I read.
For instance, you recently commented that God is neither an object nor a concept, which left me wondering where belief comes in, because belief must have an object and this is always an idea. Would it not follow that belief in God is necessarily idolatrous, in which case why is Christianity so concerned to encourage it and why are those who don’t subscribe to it – atheists – looked upon with disapproval?
The only candidate I can come up with for a God that is neither concept nor object would be something like the present moment or ‘just this’ as Zen folk might say. But this is far removed from the worshipped Christian God, who is typically portrayed as a supernatural being wholly other than creation, accessed through belief in revelation, and thus both object and concept.
Is this why Eckhart spoke of two Gods, as different as heaven and earth, one of whom he sought to take leave of for the sake of the other?
I’m sorry if this is a difficult question but I’m genuinely confused and would appreciate your comments.
Thank you for asking a difficult question. There could not be a more difficult question than one about God. To talk about God is to stretch the rules of grammar and syntax beyond their breaking-point. This is bound to lead us into strange territory, but the traditions of Christian theology tell us to expect that. (By the way, a similar question was asked here in June 2008: see ‘Transcendence and immanence’.)
Here’s a sample of theological writing from someone whose influence has been immense through all the centuries since his own, the 6th, even though he was wrongly identified for centuries with the Dionysius in Acts 17:34. He still goes by the name of Dionysius the Areopagite. It would be difficult to exaggerate his influence on the subsequent tradition. Thomas Aquinas, for example, quoted him around 1700 times. “We should set down the truth,” Dionysius wrote, ‘not in the plausible words of human wisdom but in demonstration of the power granted by the Spirit’ (1 Cor 2:4).”
He is not attempting to express what God is, but to initiate us into God. “Trinity! – higher than any being…! Lead us up beyond knowing and unknowing… where the mysteries of God's Word lie simple, absolute and unchangeable in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.”
This “surpasses speech and knowledge,” he wrote. And yet he wrote some very lengthy tracts! They are very different from philosophy, as you can see even from such brief quotes. He has an eye for the transcendental: “One can say of St Paul,” he wrote in a letter, “that he knew God, for he knew that God is beyond every act of mind and every way of knowing. He says too that ‘inscrutable are God's ways and unsearchable His judgments’ (Rom 11:33), that His ‘gifts are inexpressible” (2 Cor 9:15), and that “His peace passes all understanding’ (Phil 4:7), for he found Him who is beyond all things and he knew, in a way surpassing any conception, that the cause of all surpasses all.”
The influence of Dionysius ensured that Christians would be forever reluctant to talk about ‘grasping’ God. God is not an example or an instance of anything, or “a being” among beings, even if we add the word ‘supernatural’ to it. There are lots of objects in the world; God is not an additional one, not even if we were to write it with a capital O. God is not part of any series. If God were such, it would be possible to encircle God – to catch God, so to speak, in our nets of language. Theologians would not agree with you that the object of belief or faith is always an idea. They would say that faith “terminates in God,” not in any concept or idea we might have about God. If it did not, it would be idolatrous, as you say. But how can it ‘terminate in God’, you might ask, if it just doesn’t reach?
Picture it this way: you are standing at the edge of the sea; over the horizon is a great ocean liner. You cannot see it, but you can point in its direction. A long tradition assures you of the direction in which to point, and you yourself have had lots of hunches and intuitions that confirm it for you. Language about God is very tenuous. It isn’t helped at all by the thumping certitude that some preachers pretend to have. The rational mind often behaves like a control freak: wanting to have everything on its own terms, standing its ground, and leaving nothing for the other faculties to do. But this tenuous knowledge that Dionysius spoke of, this knowledge that is different in kind from ordinary knowledge, draws us beyond ourselves – into the ocean. That's what makes theology more akin to poetry than to logic.
St Augustine (5th century) was a great intellectual genius, but he was equally a great poet, even though he did not write in verse. Speaking to God, he wrote: “You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke through my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for you. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me and I burned for your peace.” It is one of the most frequently quoted passage in Augustine. Notice that he uses all five senses! The search for God is not a search for a concept or an explanation to satisfy the rational mind…. It is a search that involves us in our entire being: body, soul, and spirit, and every faculty.
Yes, you are right: Meister Eckhart spoke of ‘God’ and ‘the godhead’, and prayed to become free of God! His language was typically dramatic, but the point he was making was quite traditional: he was praying that his ideas about God would not get in the way of the real God – that they would not become idols.
Finally, David, if you can get your hands on St Augustine’s Confessions, you can find the full context of the quote above. The reference is Book 10, 6.