God is Beyond Understanding and that is Actually a Good Thing

-Boticelli
-Boticelli

Holy Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8

Psalm 29

Romans 8:12-17

John 3:1-17

Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the most important and brilliant theologians throughout all of Christian history, endeavored to write a comprehensive account on the Holy Trinity. He spent about 30 years working on a 500 page tome. After all that work from this giant in the faith, Augustine wrote this on the last page of his great work,

When the wise man spake of Thee in his book, which is now called by the special name of Ecclesiasticus, “We speak,” he said, “much, and yet come short; and in sum of words, He is all.” When, therefore, we shall have come to Thee, these very many things that we speak, and yet come short, will cease… O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of Thine, may they acknowledge who are Thine; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by Thee and by those who are Thine.

-St. Augustine, On the Trinity

http://www.logoslibrary.org/augustine/trinity/1528.html

To explore the Trinity is to attempt to plumb the very depths of who God is and Augustine acknowledges that anything he writes or says about God fall short of the fullness of who God is. In an apocryphal story, Augustine took a break from writing and took a walk on the beach. There he saw a young boy with a shell scooping ocean water into a small hole dug in the sand. Curious, Augustine asked the young boy, “What are you doing?” The young boy replied, “I am trying to empty the ocean and put it in this hole.” You can probably guess where this is going. Augustine tells him that such a task is absurd and patently impossible. The boy turns around and tells him that his task of exhaustively explaining the nature of God in the Trinity is just as impossible of a task and then disappears.

The point of the story seems to be about keeping our pride in check and watching out that we don’t believe that we can limit God to a set of rules- even if that rulebook is 500 pages long and took three decades to write.

If God is so big and mysterious why bother celebrating Trinity Sunday where we focus our music, our Scripture readings, our prayers, and our preaching on something that nobody understands anyway? The doctrine of the Trinity explains that God is distinctly three separate persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but somehow is still just one God. This declaration about who God is flies in the face of all logic and reasoning. God is big, mysterious, and “up there.” So what? What does that matter for us today who are bound by reason, logic, and are “down here?”

Isaiah encounters God face-to-face, something no one is permitted to do and still live. He looks up at God sitting on a throne in the Temple and he describes how the hem of God’s robe fills the entire Temple. Just the hem- that little part that is sewed up so that you don’t step on your robe, skirt, or pant leg and get a footprint on it. That little piece of garment is all it takes to fill the entire Temple of God. The Temple is said to be the place where one can find God’s very presence. One believed that this was God’s house, but Isaiah reveals a God who is so much bigger than that. This is not a God who is contained in a building, no matter how big, ornate, or special it is. The Seraphs floating around God know this as they proclaim to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole world is full of [God’s] glory.” They make the paradoxical statement that God is holy- separate and totally beyond our understanding, yet they also declare that the world is full of God’s glory- God’s presence and work are right here on this space we live on. God is so huge and beyond understanding that God cannot be limited to any one place. The realm of God’s transforming, life-giving, activity is available anywhere we can imagine and in places that we cannot comprehend.

The Psalmist spends 95% of their words describing the terrifying and awe-inspiring power of God,

The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;

The LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon…

The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness;

-Psalm 29:5, 7-8

After this lengthy description of the incomprehensible power and majesty of God, the Psalmist finally gives us the “so what?” of the Psalm. The reason it matters that God is so powerful and beyond human comprehension is that the LORD has promised to “…give strength to the people” and “bless them with peace.” (Psalm 29:11) God uses all that fiery, earth-quaking power to give strength to those who are weak and to bring peace in the world. Even when we can’t imagine how the weak could be strengthened and peace be brought into this world, God is with us and God is beyond comprehension. The Incomprehensible One can bring about peace and justice even when it seems incomprehensible to do so.

Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest who has served in the Los Angeles neighborhoods that have the highest amount of gang activity in the country. Boyle started Homeboy Industries which provides job training, tattoo removal, counseling services, and more to gang members who are trying to leave behind their gang pasts. In his work, Father Boyle has learned that in encountering others, one is continually encountering the “God who is greater than God.” We may have an idea of who God is and what God is up to in the world, but just when we arrive at that conclusion, God steps in and reveals that our understanding of who God is was too small.

Early in his career, Boyle traveled to Bolivia to preside over the Mass for a small Quechua village. Boyle’s Spanish was minimal and his Quechua was non-existent. The village had not had a priest in many years, so this would be the first time the mass was celebrated in many years. Boyle arrived at the village only to find that he had forgotten his Spanish missal and would have to preside over the Mass without any written words to guide him. He fumbled through the service sputtering out a few phrases that he had memorized, but mostly made up the liturgy as he went along. He felt terrible. He felt as though he had let down all of these people who wanted to celebrate the Mass. He felt disgraced and embarrassed. As Father Boyle was departing the village, an old man approached him and said, “Thanks for coming.” Boyle continues,

“I think of something to say, but nothing comes to me. Which is just as well, because before I can speak, the old campesino reaches into the pockets of his suit coat and retrieves two fistfuls of multicolored rose petals… so he drops the petals over my head, and I’m without words. He digs into his pockets again and manages two more fistful of petals. He does this again and again, and the store of red, pink, and yellow rose petals seems infinite… Finally, he takes his leave and I’m left there, alone, with only the bright aroma of roses.”

He explains how this was a “God who is greater than God” moment, “…the truth of God seems to be about a joy that is a foreigner to disappointment and disapproval.” (1) God’s mercy and love are always beyond what we think we can endure or that we think we deserve.

God is three distinct persons, yet remains one substance. The Triune God is known by the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is one of the greatest mysteries of faith. Well so what? What difference does that make in my life? Why should we care about the philosophy meant to explain what God is and looks like if it is describing something that is beyond description? God’s being is so great that we cannot understand it fully- not even if we were one of the greatest Western Christian theologians of all time, if we spent 30 years of our life diving into the mystery, and then wrote a 500 page tome on the subject.

That is the Good News for us. God’s bigness and beyond-our-understandingness is important because of what God does with that bigness. God doesn’t sit far off in a cloud someplace looking in a mirror admiring how cool and mysterious she/he is. God is here. God fills the earth with glory, walks with human feet on the soil of the earth, and breathes new life into the lungs of every person on earth. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Through the prophet Isaiah, the God who can’t be contained in the house made for God proclaims a message of repentance and hope to a wayward people. The Psalmist proclaims that the God of terrifying tempest and flame will use that authority to bring strength to the weak and peace to the world. In the Son, we meet the God who “though was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to exploited, but emptied himself“so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” In the Lord’s Supper we encounter the incomprehensible grace of God and when our lips touch the bread and wine, we receive forgiveness just as Isaiah did when his lips touched the Seraph’s coal. The Holy Spirit was poured out on all nations so that we might all cry out to the God who has all authority over heaven and earth beyond our wildest understanding as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a child does to her always present, gentle, and loving parent saying, “Abba!” or “Daddy!” or “Mommy!”

(1) Boyle, Gregory. Tattoos on the Heart, 38-39, Free Press: New York. 2010.

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2 thoughts on “God is Beyond Understanding and that is Actually a Good Thing

  1. Oy Vey, Daniel! There is nothing prideful about attempting to understand God. Understanding God is what science is all about. Understanding God is what philosophy is all about. Understanding God is at the heart of every human endeavor, yours a mine included. We are here in existence to understand God. To say that understanding God is impossible is to thwart the effort aborning. The Trinity is not too complicated to understand. The Trinity is like a diamond. From one angle, a diamond is a unique arrangement of carbon atoms. From another angle, a diamond is a valuable gem. From yet another angle, a diamond is a symbol of love. The only question I have about the Trinity is “Why only three?” Can one encompass God in only three points of view? The Muslims have 100 synonyms for God (“God is merciful. God is beautiful…”) That’s something the Christians ought to consider Arthur C. Clark wrote a novel in 1953 entitled “The Nine Billion Names of God.” I think that’s a reasonable number.

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  2. I don’t think that the people of God ought to say, “Meh, God’s big, who cares?” We should continue to do our best to explore who and what God is- precisely because God uses that bigness to lovingly care for us (and all creation). I don’t think scientists, philosophers, and Augustine waste their time as they dive into the mysteries of God’s being and God’s creation, but we just won’t understand it all. Maybe the depth of God’s love is the bigger mystery- even more than the power to create the cosmos and the nature of the Trinity.

    Psalm 8 comes to mind for me. The psalmist goes on about how God created the countless stars of the universe with just God’s little finger. Whoa, big stuff. Then what I am I to God if I am just a tiny speck in this vast nearly infinite (perhaps infinite… I missed the quantum physics class in seminary) realm of space-time? But God, the creator of everything that ever was, is, or will be regards us with honor and glory. That is a mystery I could really bask in.

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