How NOT to Talk About God
This is part one of a two-part series, adapted from Stephen Bullivant's new book, The Trinity: How Not to Be a Heretic (Paulist Press, 2015).
Here’s a cheerful thought: imagine that the only food you have ever eaten has been bought from a McDonald’s. All your knowledge of eating and drinking, and all your taste experiences have come from Big Macs, McNuggets, McFlurries, and those little carrot sticks you can get with Happy Meals. Every word or concept you have to think, talk, or dream about food is patterned on fries, McShakes, and those strangely alluring oblong apple pies that come in a cardboard sleeve. “Happy are they...” (Psalm 1:1).
Now suppose that, one day, you are whisked away to the restaurant of one of the world’s greatest chefs: Heston Blumenthal, for example. In dish after dish you are introduced to flavors you had never dreamt were possible. Beetroot jelly, bacon-and-egg ice cream, salmon in liquorice, snail porridge...nothing in your previous culinary life could have prepared you for this. You are overwhelmed by these strange, astounding new experiences, like nothing you have ever tasted before. More to the point, they are like nothing you could ever even have imagined tasting.
The meal is wonderful, almost too wonderful in fact. Your senses have been overloaded. You are spent from striving to keep up, from trying to make the most of each new surprise. The coffee at the end of the meal therefore comes as a blessed relief. Chef Blumenthal makes excellent coffee, but so too do McDonald’s. Finally: something you can get your head, and taste buds, around without feeling exhausted.
But here comes Heston, suddenly appearing before you, dressed all in white: “Did you enjoy it? I put a lot of effort into these dishes, and it’s important for me to know how people find them. What was it like?”
The meal was truly amazing, perhaps the peak experience of your life so far. Naturally, you want to tell him what it meant to you (and later, you’ll want to tell everyone you know just how great it was too). However, when you start working out how to put it into words, you realize you’re in trouble. After all, all your ways for thinking and speaking about food come from your experience of the McDonald’s menu.
One thing you could do, of course, is attempt to describe the meal in the terms with which you are familiar. You might say, “That bacon-and-egg ice cream was like a cross between the greatest ever Egg McMuffin and the most perfect McFlurry known to man.” Or you could say the snail porridge was as though “someone had distilled the tastiness of a trillion McChicken Sandwiches into every bite.” Or perhaps you would compare the liquorice salmon to “all the wonderfulness of a Filet-O-Fish sandwich, times infinity, and to the infinite power.”
It strikes you, however, that perhaps Heston may not take kindly to such a compliment. Even expressed in these superlative-laden terms (“the most perfect,” “infinite”), you are still comparing his Michelin-starred cuisine with everyday fast food. You are saying, in fact, that the difference between them is only one of degree. His food and McDonald’s food are effectively in the same league: it is just that Heston’s food is a million (or an infinite number of) places higher up. No matter how delicious McDonald’s food is, Heston might still consider having his food described in terms of it—even in such maxed-up terms—false and insulting. But what else can you do?
Well, you could try changing tack entirely. Rather than likening Heston’s meal to McDonald’s food, why not do the opposite? For instance, you could answer him by saying “That meal was nothing at all like a Supersized Extra Value McNugget Meal,” or “Your snail porridge was the perfect negation of the entire McDonald’s menu.” In stark contrast to your first attempt at describing the meal, this drives a clean wedge between it and your previous food experiences: the two are in no way alike. You don’t have the words or concepts accurately to describe the meal. And yet you still want to say something true about it. So the best you can hope for is to say what it is not.
However, once again, it occurs to you that this might not go down so well either, and understandably so. He has slaved away in a hot kitchen for hours on end, lovingly crafting a mind-bending array of delights, and all just for you...and the best you can do is say “well, it wasn’t like a McBacon Roll.” Seriously?
Now you really are in trouble. Heston Blumenthal stands before you expectantly, puzzled by the pause. You have no words to describe what you have just experienced. You could barely take it all in while you were eating it; you haven’t a hope of talking about it meaningfully and satisfactorily now. And then, suddenly, you realize that that might be the answer.
“Mr Blumenthal... I... I... I’m lost for words.” An awe-filled, reverential silence replaces the awkward one of seconds before. Heston smiles.
You say it best when you say nothing at all.
More Than Words
This parable tells us much—though not quite all—of what we need to know about talking, and not talking, about God.
The basic problem is this. The great bulk of our words, and thus our means of thinking and imagining things, are patterned on everyday, mundane, physical objects-in-space. As such, we find it reasonably easy to describe stuff in straightforward, literal terms. (“The black laptop I am typing on is sitting on a desk. To the left of it are a red pen, an open Bible, and a yellow USB stick,” and so on). However, as soon as we try to talk about more abstract things like ideas, concepts, feelings, or emotions, we swiftly begin to struggle. How often, for example, have we answered a question about how we feel about someone or something with “I’m not quite sure,” “I can’t quite explain it,” or “I find it difficult to put into words”? Certainly, I should find it impossible to fully describe what my wife and children mean to me in literal, direct words. Although I am, undoubtedly, the world expert on my own feelings about my own family (as you are about yours), I simply don’t have the right words to come close to communicating them.
What we often do instead is use figurative, metaphorical, poetic language to give some inkling of what it is we’re trying to talk about.
"Love is like a butterfly,
as soft and gentle as a sigh;
The multicolored moods of love,
are like its satin wings."
Fellow Dolly fans will agree that this does capture something of what love is, or can be, like: beautiful, fragile, and fluttery (although these are all still metaphors, of course). Nevertheless, “love is like a butterfly” is very far from being a direct description. Even as a simile (“x is like y”) the comparison breaks down very quickly: love is not, for example, what the Very Hungry Caterpillar turns into. Note also that this doesn’t just apply to feelings or emotions. The best science writing is full of metaphors and figurative images—unobserved cats in boxes, flies buzzing around cathedrals, computers made from meat, and so on—precisely because we find plain speaking and thinking such hard work.
If this is the case with things like food and feelings and atoms, what hope have we of saying something adequate about the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16)? If we struggle when talking about creatures and created things, how dare we speak of the “Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible,” himself?
“God is above whatsoever we may say or think of him”
Maybe there isn’t any problem here. After all, scripture is the word of God, written in human words. And it uses them to tell us about God all the time. Here are just three examples, out of thousands and thousands:
"God is love." (1 John 4:8)
"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty! Who was and is and is to come!" (Revelation 4:8)
"Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond all measure." (Psalm 147:5)
Even more to the point, God appears to be perfectly happy using human words to describe himself:
"For I the Lord do not change." (Malachi 3:6)
"I the Lord your God am a jealous God." (Exodus 20:5)
"No one is good but God alone." (Luke 18:19)
The problem is that our understandings of words like “love” or “almighty,” or “great” are again patterned on our earthly, creaturely experiences. We might have a rough idea of what it means to have a “great cat,” to eat a “great hotdog,” or to be a “great football player” (although there’s still huge scope for disagreement as to what counts as true greatness in any of these areas). Yet surely, whatever it means for a cat, hotdog, footballer, or any other created thing to be “great,” that must fall insultingly short of what it means for “the Lord your God” to be so too. So while we can be sure that God is great, with our finite created minds, and limited earthly experience, we can have little conception of just how God is great, or just how great God is. “God is above whatsoever we may say or think of Him,” as St. Thomas Aquinas once put it.
The danger comes if we forget this. If we imagine that God is great, or loving, or powerful, or jealous in pretty much the same way that, say, a human being might be those things. By doing this, we end up creating a God, or rather an idol or “so-called god” (1 Corinthians 8:5) in our own image. We put ourselves on a pedestal, supposing that God is just like us, but a bit better. Nor can we avoid this by saying that, unlike us, God is super- or omni- or perfectly or infinitely loving or powerful or whatever. This is, remember, exactly what we tried to do in the parable earlier, describing Heston’s food as being like McDonald’s, but infinitely or perfectly or supremely more so. We risk ending up with a God who differs from us mere creatures—“all are from dust, and all turn to dust again” (Ecclesiastes 3:20)—only by degree. It is as though we could simply take the goodness of Creation (Genesis 1:31), and by turning it up to eleven, somehow reach up to the goodness of the Creator himself. Of course, we cannot do that, and scripture itself warns us against thinking we can:
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)
"You say it best, when you say nothing at all"?
Since our thoughts and words are doomed to fail us, the highest, most fulsome praise we can give will always fall insultingly short of “the Most High” (Psalm 91:1). Can we then say nothing that is true or accurate about him?
Again, as we learned in our parable, there is something we can say. If all our words and concepts aren’t up to the job of describing God, let us just be honest about it. Why not just go through the dictionary saying what God isn’t? We can start with “God is not aa (a type of Hawaiian lava)” and end up with “God is not zymurgy (the study or practice of fermentation).” And if we get bored a few weeks in, we can even amuse ourselves by doing it Wayne’s World style for a couple of days: “God is a nonagon (a nine-sided shape)... not!”
On one level, this might seem like an improvement. For again, quoting St Thomas, “What God is not is clearer to us than what he is.” We’ve guarded ourselves against describing God in terms that are beneath him: well done us. Yet, on another level, all this feels very unsatisfactory. All we’ve done is given a long litany of God’s non-attributes. Talk about damning with faint praise. Is this really the best we can do?
Perhaps Alison Krauss—or for those of you with poor taste in music, Ronan Keating—was right all along. Maybe we do say it best when we say nothing at all. Rather than “heap up empty phrases” (Matthew 6:7), or tediously list what God isn’t, why don’t we just shut up?
“Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10)
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