To Explain God as Unexplainable

A winding, uncertain path

“Quia de deo scire non possumus quid sit, sed quid non sit, non possumus considerare de deo, quomodo sit sed quomodo non sit.”

This is St. Thomas Aquinas’ introduction to his whole Summa Theologica: “Since we cannot know what God is, but only what God is not, we cannot consider how God is but only how He is not.”

At different points in my life, I’ve been pretty sure that we can know exactly who and what God is. We could define him quite precisely. We could come up with a list of attributes. We could name a bunch of names written in an old dusty language: “Jehovah Jireh,” “Adonai,” or “Yahweh.” Of course, we had only a vague idea what those words meant, yet we felt quite confident using them. We pulled out the good book and felt we had not just a good handle, but a definite handle on who God was and what he was like.

Yet the further I travel on the road of faith, the more I learn about the divine mysteries, the more I realize it is just that: mystery.

Anthony de Mello recounts how the great Karl Rahner, in one of his last letters, wrote to a young German drug addict who had asked him for help. The addict had said, “You theologians talk about God, but how could this God be relevant in my life? How could this God get me off drugs?” Rahner said to him, “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, inklings; we make faltering, inadequate attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.” And talking to a group of theologians in London, Rahner said, “The task of the theologian is to explain everything through God, and to explain God as unexplainable.”

De Mello concludes: “Unexplainable mystery. One does not know, one cannot say. One says, “Ah, ah…” That is what is ultimate in our human knowledge of God, to know that we do not know.”

It is a strange comfort, this unknowing. It is threatening, to be sure. But also comforting.

This is what the mystics are perpetually telling us, notes de Mello: “Words cannot give you reality. They only point, they only indicate. You use them as pointers to get to reality. But once you get there, your concepts are useless. A Hindu priest once had a dispute with a philosopher who claimed that the final barrier to God was the word “God,” the concept of God. The priest was quite shocked by this, but the philosopher said, “The ass that you mount and that you use to travel to a house is not the means by which you enter the house. You use the concept to get there; then you dismount, you go beyond it.” You don’t need to be a mystic to understand that reality is something that cannot be captured by words or concepts.”

To know reality, de Mello states, you have to know beyond knowing.

Perhaps Jesus was on to something when he stated in Mark 10:15: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” We must become as little children. Because children are in a place of wonder, and see things afresh. We see things and think we know. And sometimes, our knowing is what gets in the way.


6 thoughts on “To Explain God as Unexplainable

  1. The title was captivating and the summary even more mind boggling, i must say i am impressed and really understand what you mean sometimes we are so busy trying to understand God that we forget who he is, and thats God. i love the way you explained it sometimes we have to really be like children or better yet we should always be like children when it comes to matters of God before our over thinking and endless investigation draws us away from him


  2. Reblogged this on multicolouredsmartypants and commented:
    I like the way the JB Phillips translation says it:
    “Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is, in fact, the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen.
    For if there are prophecies they will be fulfilled and done with, if there are “tongues” the need for them will disappear, if there is knowledge it will be swallowed up in truth. For our knowledge is always incomplete and our prophecy is always incomplete, and when the complete comes, that is the end of the incomplete.

    When I was a little child I talked and felt and thought like a little child. Now that I am a man my childish speech and feeling and thought have no further significance for me.

    At present we are men looking at puzzling reflections in a mirror. The time will come when we shall see reality whole and face to face! At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth, but the time will come when I shall know it as fully as God now knows me!”
    I could spend the rest of my life just contemplating these few words.


  3. Philosophers doing ontology understand that questions about the nature of a thing are necessarily bound up with questions about its existence. Whether there are such things as minds (or moral properties, numbers, free will, propositions, possible worlds, etc.) depends on what minds are, on what is meant by ‘mind’. Would agnosticism about God’s nature entail agnosticism about God’s existence?


    1. Good question. I think they are connected, but not necessarily. I think this is one of those rare situations where one might be “fairly certain” that God exists (or something represented by that word), while being quite unsure about the specifics. (But obviously this would vary – and for some, as you note, it may well be closely related.)

      It is also worth noting that Aquinas and others who voice this via negativa approach will go on to describe all kinds of things about God, even while framing it all under the proviso that all such words and descriptions are merely pointers, not the actual thing.

      C.S. Lewis likens it to attempting to describe the color green to a blind person: they might ask, “It is hot or cold?” “Is it round or square?” “Is it soft or prickly or hard?” “Does it last for an hour or five minutes?” They wouldn’t have a very good frame of reference for experiencing (or understanding) what one is attempting to describe, and so one must approach by analogy, or by beginning with what it isn’t.


  4. Maybe, there should be a comma after God in your last paragraph, as the original language of the books of the bible were without commas, We add them where we are comfortable in translation, which alters the meaning.
    Maybe Jesus is stating that we will not enter the Kingdom of God, because will be fearful, like a child; like a baby.
    Maybe God in simply True Life Self; non-physical life and in order to enter the Kingdom of God, the physical must give up physical nature in order to become, that which it is not.
    Humbly and peacefully given to ponder.


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