A while back, I was in an Eastern Orthodox church that had two large depictions of Jesus. The first was an enormous depiction on the ceiling, showing Christ in glory. The second was along the back wall, behind the altar: it was a depiction of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child in her womb. The priest explained that the ceiling was depicting Christ in His transcendence, while the back wall depicted Him in His imminence, and the Virgin Mary was a sort of Jacob’s Ladder by which the Almighty and Transcendent God came to Earth to dwell among us.
I bring this up, because it is a good reminders of the two major (and seemingly-contradictory) ways that we tend to misunderstand God. We either: (1) imagine a God that’s personal and small denying His transcendence; or (2) imagine a God that’s large and impersonal denying His immanence. In this post, I hope to show how those errors are really two sides of the same coin, and provide an illustration pointing towards the way out of misunderstanding God in this way.
The first of these two is probably the most common misapprehension about God these days. We make Him too small, and imagine Him as a creature. While this happens in our understanding of the Father, I would suggest that we are most guilty of this in our understanding of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. For Christians, this means imagining God as basically, a bigger, nicer, holier version of ourselves. He’s friendly, but kind of harmless. We might depict Him sort of like this depiction of Christ as the Good Shepherd.
|Bernhard Plockhorst, Good Shepherd (19th c.)|
There’s nothing wrong, per se, with this depiction. But it is incomplete. If this is the limit of how we understand Christ, we’re missing out. What’s missing in this depiction is any sense of the transcendence of God, outside of a faint halo. Remember, we’re talking about the God who made the entire universe.
He isn’t good in the way that we are. He’s Good, in the sense that He is literally the fullest definition of what “Good” means. In fact, He’s the meaning of “Being.” It’s what God means when He reveals Himself as “I AM WHO AM.” He is the source of all Being, and isn’t a creature.
Christians are hardly alone in misunderstanding God in this way. As Fr. Robert Barron explained in the book Church and New Media, this misunderstanding of God is at the heart of many of the atheist arguments against Christianity:
In his Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton recalled the first time he read Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and encountered a philosophically sophisticated understanding of God as ipsum esse (the sheer act of being itself). He was flabbergasted because he had assumed that God was, in his words, a “noisy and dramatic” mythological being.
Again and again, in my dialogues on YouTube, I encounter the characterization of God as a “sky fairy,” an “invisible friend,” or my favorite, “the flying spaghetti monster.” This last one comes from the militant atheist Richard Dawkins, who insinuates that there is as much evidence for God as for this fantastic imaginary creature. [Actually, while Dawkins popularized this mockery of God, it was a student by the name of Bobby Henderson who created this faux-Creator.]
Almost no one with whom I dialogue considers the possibility that God is not one being among many, not the “biggest thing around,” not something that can be categorized or defined in relation to other things. Throughout his career, Thomas Aquinas insisted that God is best described, not as ens summum (highest being), but rather as ipsum esse (the subsistent act of being itself). As such, God is not a thing or existent among many. In fact, Aquinas specifies, God cannot be placed in any genus, even the genus of being. This distinction – upon which so much of Christian theology hinges – is lost on almost everyone with whom I speak on YouTube.
One of the best indicators of this confusion is the repeated demand for “evidence” of God’s existence, by which my interlocutors typically mean some kind of scientifically verifiable trace of this elusive and most likely mythological being. My attempts to tell them that the Creator of the entire universe cannot be, by definition, an object within the universe are met, usually, with complete incomprehension.
Once you understand what Christianity (and good philosophy) teaches about the transcendence of God, you will see that a whole slew of popular atheist arguments as simply nonsensical.
The second misconception seems to be the exact opposite. In some cases, we will affirm the philosophical concept of God as ipsum esse (the sheer act of being itself), but our resulting view of God will be wholly impersonal. In technical terms, we end up denying His immanence.
|Antonio Tempesta, God Creating Heaven and Earth (c. 1600)|
Nor are Christians (or Deists) the only ones to misunderstand God in this way. Luke Muehlhauser, in his blog Common Sense Atheism, claims that “None of the usual arguments for the existence of God even try to prove the existence of a God whose existence would matter to me.” So, for example, he argues:
The design argument? It aims to prove the existence of an intelligent, powerful, supernatural Creator. The design argument doesn’t say anything about whether this God cares about morality or humanity or which scriptures you prefer. Do I care if such a God exists? No. It makes not a bit of difference to my life or yours.
The cosmological argument? In its most robust form, it aims to prove the existence of a supernatural, personal Creator. Again, the argument doesn’t say anything about whether this God knows about humanity or has any moral commands to give us. Do I care if such a God exists? No.
So even as Muehlhauser pays lip service to the God of the Philosophers being a “personal” God, he’s treating Him as remote and impersonal. And this is a common mistake, and by no means a new one. The pagans commonly fell into these two traps as well, imagining their gods either as mere super-humans, or as impersonal and uncaring beings. Put differently, we tend to make God either microscopic (near us, but very tiny), or telescopic (enormous and far away).
While on the surface, these two errors – the superhuman God and the impersonal God – seem opposed, they’re really two sides to the same coin. In both cases, we’re applying human limitations to God.
|Girolamo da Santacroce, The Adoration of the Three Kings (c. 1530)|
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.