The great French philosopher of the early 20th century, Étienne Gilson, wrote these words about the world’s greatest minds trying to make sense of God:
“The divine Being eludes the grasp of our concepts. There is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to Him. Every denomination is a limitation, but God is above all limitation, and therefore above all denomination no matter how exalted it may be” (Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, 1936, 56.).
His statement is not at all controversial. God “eludes the grasp of our concepts.” Do any of us really believe we know everything about God? Do we believe any of our categories or concepts are sufficient? There is so much mystery in play anytime human beings speak or even think about God.
We’ll all acknowledge this. But in my experience, our acknowledgement of the mystery of God does not usually come with the humility that ought to accompany such an acknowledgement.
If God is indeed mysterious, then why are we not more humble about our limited perspectives?
Gilson says that every denomination is a limitation. Isn’t that so? Denominations are not inherently bad. But they are inherently limited. At the heart of every denomination is the insistence that God is like this, not like that. Differentiation is good, categorization is helpful, and absolute truth exists. To be human is to be limited. To form a denomination is to embrace specific limitations. This is not the problem. The problem is our tendency to take the box we draw around our denomination or camp or position and then insist that the box accurately represents God is his fullness.
There is mystery when we talk about God! Does this not require us to be humble in our statements about God? Should we not acknowledge the limitations of our perspectives? Should we not be open to hearing others speak about God in ways that sound foreign to us?
Many of our denominations are good. None of them is sufficient.
Think of the people who are part of your church. You worship and serve regularly with people who hold a variety of views about who God is and what he does. God is bigger than what any one of you thinks about him.
But what about the person in your church with whom you have firm theological disagreements? Or the person in the other church or denomination whose theology you can’t accept? Is it true that “there is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to God?” I’m not suggesting we treat wrong as right. I don’t endorse going against God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. I’m suggesting that our understanding of God is limited, and that perhaps we should view each other in this light.“There is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to God.” – Étienne Gilson
Gilson goes on to say that “the only adequate expression of God would be God.” I love that. Anytime we break down some part of God and try to explain him, we’re inherently mistaken—not necessarily through inaccuracy, but through incompletion.
Flannery O’Connor said this about writing fiction: “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction” (Mystery & Manners, 73). She quotes John Peale Bishop: “You can’t say Cezanne painted apples and a tablecloth and have said what Cezanne painted.”
In other words, we have a tendency to want to summarize art, but it doesn’t work like that. She says: “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making a statement about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully” (96).When speaking about God “our poor human words express only a part of that which has no parts.” – Étienne Gilson
What Flannery O’Connor says about art also (mysteriously) applies to God. As Gilson says, when speaking about God “our poor human words express only a part of that which has no parts.” This is okay, because this is the way God has designed it. What’s not okay, however, is when we discard the humility that necessarily accompanies mystery. When we do this, we’re not being theological, or helpful, or godly, or biblical, or faithful. We’re being jackasses.