God is ineffable. What that means is that God cannot be captured in our thoughts or pictured inside our imaginations. This truth is one of the first things that the church affirms in its understanding of God, defining as a dogma at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that God is so metaphysically different from anything we can know or imagine that all of our concepts and language about God are always more inadequate than adequate. God can be known, but never imagined or captured in a thought.
Why not? Why can we never form a picture of God or speak about God in adequate ways?
Because God is infinite and our minds are finite. Infinity, by definition, can never be circumscribed. That might sound abstract, but it is not. For example: Try to imagine the highest number to which it is possible to count? Instantly you realize that this is an impossible task because numbers are infinite and there is always one more. It is impossible to conceive of a highest number. This is even truer in terms of any imaginative picture we try to form of God and of how we try to imagine God’s existence. God is infinite and infinity cannot be captured or imagined inside of any finite thought.
This is important to understand, not to safeguard some theoretical point, but for our understanding of faith. We tend to identify a weak faith with a weak imagination, just as we tend to identify atheism with the incapacity to imagine the existence of God.
Imagine, for example, two different scenarios in your life: In the first instance, you have just experienced a religious high. Through prayer or some other religious or human experience, you have a strong, imaginative sense of God’s reality. At that particular moment, you feel sure of God’s existence and have an indubitable sense that God is real. Your faith feels strong. You could walk on water! Then imagine different moment: You are lying in your bed, restless, agitated, feeling chaos around you, staring holes into the darkness, unable to imagine the existence of God, and unable to think of yourself as having faith. Try as you might, you cannot conjure up any feeling that God exists. You feel you are an atheist.
Does this mean that in one instance you have a strong faith and in the other you have a weak one? No. What it means is that in one instance you have a strong imagination and in the other you have a weak imagination. Faith in God is not to be confused with the capacity or incapacity to imagine God’s existence. Infinity cannot be circumscribed by the imagination. God can be known, but not pictured. God can be experienced, but not imagined.
Nicholas Lash, in a deeply insightful essay on God and belief, suggests that the God that atheists reject is very often precisely an idol of our imaginations: We need do no more that notice that most of our contemporaries still find it “obvious” that atheism is not only possible, but widespread and that, both intellectually and ethically, it has much to commend it. This might be plausible if being an atheist were a matter of not believing that there exists “a person without a body” who is “eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything” and is “the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe.” If, however, by “God” we mean the mystery, announced in Christ, breathing all things out of nothing into peace, then all things have to do with God in every move and fragment of their being, whether they notice this and suppose it to be so or not. Atheism, if it means deciding not to have anything to do with God, is thus self-contradictory and, if successful, self-destructive.
Thomas Aquinas famously wrote that God is self-evident in himself, though not self-evident to us. An Oblate confrere of mine has a less-philosophical way of expressing this. He is fond of saying: “God, as I understand Him, is not very well understood.” That’s true for all of us, in ways much deeper than we imagine.
When the prophet, Isaiah, glimpsed God in a vision, all he could do was stammer the words: Holy, holy, holy! Holy is the Lord God of hosts! But we misunderstand his meaning because we take “holy” in its moral sense, that is, as virtue. Isaiah however meant the word in its metaphysical sense, namely, as referring to God’s transcendence, God’s otherness, God’s difference from us, God’s ineffability. In essence, he is saying: Other, completely different, utterly ineffable, is the Lord God of hosts!
Accepting that God is ineffable and that all of our thoughts and imaginative constructs about God are inadequate helps us in two ways: We stop identifying our faith with our imagination, and, more importantly, we stop creating God in our own image and likeness.