Taking God out of the Box

Articulating my thoughts on God has been difficult for me for a long time, so I was relieved to learn that having a clear and sure understanding of God was never the goal of religion.  In fact, religious teachings were meant to deconstruct our cozy notions of the Divine and remind us that there is no surety and no easy answers.

Karen Armstrong, explains in her book, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts, all the ways that religions have pointed to the indescribable and elusive Divine.

In Hinduism, God is known as Brahma, something that “could never be defined or described because it was all-encompassing: human beings could not get outside it and see it whole.  But it could be experienced intuitively.”  This reminds me of the story about the fish asking everyone to explain what water was, not knowing it was surrounded by water.  I wonder if God is like that, completely surrounding us and we don’t even realize it.  

In Judaism, Chirsitianity and Islam, God is personified.  His depiction as a male deity can be easier to comprehend than an “all-encompassing substance”, yet Armstrong points out how baffling and inconsistent this western monotheistic God can be.  “Indeed, the whole of the book of Genesis could be read as a systematic deconstruction of the conventional, reassuring depiction of the creator in Chapter one.”  

When read critically, the Biblical God does seem rather unpredictable when he goes from this loving creator God walking and talking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to a wrathful God who kicks his creation out of paradise, arbitrarily rejects Cain but not Abel, (amongst other rejections) floods his whole creation in disgust and then pretty much vanishes from daily life.  

Yet instead of reeling, I feel reassured by this perplexing creator in that I am not supposed to fully comprehend God.  Afterall, “God works in mysterious ways.”  

In Confucianism and Daoism God is understood as “The Way of Heaven”.  It “never became a wholly personalized “god” and always retained its status as an omnipresent cosmic potency.”  The opening of the Daoist Dao De Ching clearly states that “the Dao that can be known is not the eternal Dao.” The Daoists don’t even try to have it all figured out.  Immediately “The Way” is placed in the realm of mystery.

Consistently, religions have revealed the limitations of language when describing the Divine,“scripture could tell us nothing about God–indeed, its task was to make us realize that God was unknowable.” The famous Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas, claimed, “Man’s utmost knowledge is to know that we do not know (God).” 

Some of the ways religions have described the Divine are:

  • An indescribable essence of reality that pervades all things
  • Reality that lies outside the realm of speech
  • A transcendent impersonal force
  • A reality that is inseparable from our deepest selves. 
  • That which is unnameable and unknowable, dynamic, endlessly evolving, inherent in all things that exists, and the reality that “rolls through all things”

God was never meant to be understood clearly.  When we put God into a box and develop our neat and tidy doctrines about who and what the Divine is, it restricts this big, ineffable presence into something small and manageable. Why have we made God so small? 

It’s our nature to categorize and label things. Religious scholar and professor Reza Aslan, describes religion as “the language we use to express faith. It is a language made up of symbols and metaphors that allows people to express to each other (and to themselves) what is, almost by definition, inexpressible.” We can’t really get away from language, and as much as the religions of the world have tried to express that God is inexpressible, we still have to somehow communicate this concept of the Divine.


Featured Image by Ebberhard-Grossga Steiger