Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Incomprehensibility and the Image of God

In theory, could human beings come to know everything about the universe? Putting aside the kind of human arrogance that thinks all is possible because they think they are God, is it at least theoretically possible to know and understand, to comprehend, the universe?


It’s too big. OK, agreed, probably a bit big. But, in theory, what would be encountered on the other side of the universe, could such phenomena be investigated and understood?

No, it is too complex. OK, but if we did have the right tools and equipment, the right technology, would it be possible? In theory, yes. Our intelligence seems mapped to understanding the reality around us. (If it were not so, it would be difficult to understand how and why the Western scientific method has been so successful.


And then, there is mystery. Mystery, in the Christian schema, is not the currently unknown, but that could be known under the right circumstances. In Christianity, mystery refers to the incomprehensible, beyond our understanding, even in theory. We can’t slice mystery into manageable bits, and we can’t wrestle it into shape and compare it to what we do know to therefore grasp it, at least partially. I’m talking about God. God can reveal Godself, in all God’s glorious incomprehension. God can become human in Jesus, but that does not mean we comprehend God. Jesus reveals the incomprehensible God, who remains incomprehensible. That is, God is not our plaything, and cannot be put to our use as we do with everything else we understand (even partially understand). When people of faith try to control God terrible consequences follow. Hence, the prohibition against idols and misusing God’s name embedded in the Ten Commandments.


And we are made in the image of this incomprehensible God. Attempts to identify the image in us with certain attributes or capacities abound. And whatever the benefits of such approaches, we should never think that somehow, we have made the image comprehensible. That would be to break the second commandment. Reductionism has its place in the study of our humanity, but the irreducible remains. Kathryn Tanner sees an imitation of God’s incomprehensibility in the plasticity of our nature. In comparison to other species, we are born with little hard wired in us. We grow, learn, change, exponentially so. Our nature is “in a sense unlimited, unbounded by a clearly delimited nature, in virtue, in the human case, of an expansive openness and initial indefiniteness.” This natural openness is a negative imitation in that God’s incomprehensibility is from complete fullness, whereas our imitation is a “lack, through an initial failure of predetermination, not by being anything in particular in any very concrete way to start.” (Christ the Key, p. 53)


If God is beyond our understanding, incomprehensible, what is an appropriate response to God? Awe, joy, bliss. Prayer, thanksgiving, faith.

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