What Is God?

(The Nationalist, 18 May 2001)


A story is told about Saint Augustine that, one day when he was walking along the beach thinking quietly to himself and trying to understand something of the nature of God, he saw a small boy playing at the sea’s edge some distance ahead of him. Augustine stopped and watched him. The boy had dug a small hole in the sand and was running over and back from the hole to the water, each time pouring a container of water into the hole. Of course, the water disappeared into the sand in just a few seconds, but the boy kept at it. Puzzled by this, Augustine asked him what he was trying to do. The boy replied that he was trying to pour the sea into the hole. Augustine pointed out that this was impossible, but the boy replied, ‘I have a better chance of pouring the sea into this hole than you have of understanding the nature of God’. Augustine walked on, stunned by the boy’s reply. A little later he looked back over his shoulder, but the boy was nowhere in sight.

The story, of course, is a legend. That is to say, it is not historically true, but it contains a truth. It describes events which did not actually happen but which say something true and worthwhile. What does this legend say? Augustine tells us: ‘If anyone thinks that he understands God, then, whatever it was that he understood, or thought he understood, it was not God’.

In recent times, the Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, said to have been described by Pope Pius XII as the greatest theologian since Saint Thomas Aquinas, stated, ‘When I think of God, I blaspheme, and when I speak of God, I blaspheme twice’. My idea of God, or your idea, does not and can not correspond to the reality. Our images or ideas of God have become idols if we think they do.

The truth is that we cannot know what God is. We can only know that God is. Whatever ideas we have about God are certainly inadequate, probably inaccurate and possibly misleading. And “proofs” of the existence of God do not prove anything; they are useful for reinforcing the faith of one who already believes.

The mystics are as agnostic as the theologians about the limitations of knowledge in trying to understand God. Saint John of the Cross wrote, ‘To reach union with the wisdom of God a person must advance by unknowing rather than by knowing’. (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 1.4.6)

So, then, are we in complete ignorance? No. Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the self-revelation of God, God communicating himself to humans through one who was both divine and human, meeting us on our terms. The Word was made flesh, and the name of that Word is Jesus Christ. And he said, ‘No one can come to the Father except through me. If you know me, you know my Father too. I am in the Father and the Father is in me’. (John 14.7, 11)