By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
God, as I understand him, is not very well understood. A colleague of mine, now deceased, was fond of saying that. It’s a wise comment.
Anyone who claims to understand God is deceived because the very first dogma we have about God affirms that God is ineffable. That means that we can know God, but never adequately capture God in a concept. God is unimaginable. God cannot be circumscribed and put into a mental picture of any kind. Thank goodness too. If God could be understood then God would be as limited as we are.
But God is infinite. Infinity, precisely because it’s unlimited, cannot be circumscribed. Hence it cannot be captured in a mental picture. Indeed, we don’t even have a way of picturing God’s gender. God is not a man, not a woman, and not some hybrid, half-man and half-woman. God’s gender, like God’s nature, is intellectually inconceivable. We can’t grasp it and have no language or pronoun for it. God, in a modality beyond the categories of human thought, is somehow perfect masculinity and perfect femininity all at the same time. It’s a mystery beyond us.
But while that mystery cannot be grasped with any rational adequacy, we can know it intimately, and indeed know it so deeply that it’s meant to be the most intimate of all knowledge in our lives. It’s no accident that the bible uses the verb “to know” to connote sexual intimacy. There are different ways of knowing, some more inchoate, intuitive, and intimate than others. We can know God in a radical intimacy, even as we cannot conceptualize God with any adequacy. And that’s also true of all the deep realities in life, we can know them and relate to them intimately, but we can never fully understand them.
So where does that leave us with God? In the best of places! We are not on a blind date, struggling to develop intimacy with a complete stranger, with an unknown person who could be benign or malignant. God may be ineffable, but God’s nature is known. Divine revelation, as seen through nature, as seen through other religions, and especially as seen through Jesus, spells out what’s inside God’s ineffable reality. And what’s revealed there is both comforting beyond all comfort and challenging beyond all challenge.
What’s revealed in the beauty of creation, in the compassion that’s the hallmark of all true religion, and in Jesus’ revelation of his Father, takes us beyond a blind date into a trustworthy relationship. Nature, religion, and Jesus conspire together to reveal an Ultimate Reality, a Ground of Being, a Creator and Sustainer of the universe, a God, who is wise, intelligent, prodigal, compassionate, loving, forgiving, patient, good, trustworthy, and beautiful beyond imagination.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, once, in a mystical vision, saw all of this hidden inside the eyes of Jesus. Staring at a painting of Jesus on a church-wall one day, Jesus’ eyes suddenly became transfigured and this what Teilhard saw: “These eyes which at first were so gentle and filled with pity that I thought my mother stood before me, became an instant later, like those of a woman, passionate and filled with the power to subdue, yet at the same time so imperiously pure that under their domination it would have been physically impossible for the emotions to go astray.
And then they changed again, and became filled with a noble, virile majesty, similar to that which one sees in the eyes of men of great courage or refinement or strength, but incomparably more lofty to behold and more delightful to submit to. This scintillation of diverse beauties was so complete, so captivating, and also so swift that I felt it touch and penetrate all my powers simultaneously, so that the very core of my being vibrated in response to it, sounding a unique note of expansion and happiness.
Now while I was ardently gazing deep into the pupils of Christ’s eyes, which had become abysses of fiery, fascinating life, suddenly I beheld rising up from the depths of those same eyes what seemed like a cloud , blurring and blending all that variety I have been describing to you. Little by little an extraordinary expression of great intensity, spread over the diverse shades of meaning which the divine eyes revealed, first of all penetrating them and then finally absorbing them all.
… And I stood dumbfounded. For this final expression, which had dominated and gathered up into itself all the others, was indecipherable. I simply could not tell whether it denoted an indescribable agony or a superabundance of triumphant joy.”
God cannot be deciphered, circumscribed, or captured in human thought; but, from what can be deciphered, we’re in good, safe hands. We can sleep well at night. God has our back. In the end, both for humanity as a whole and for our own individual lives, all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of being will be well. God is good.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)