On God’s Ineffability

I scanned this image a few years ago, but I can't remember the source.


In my last post, I posited that God is real, but I am a shadow.  Then, I preceded to raise three questions that are going to be the subject of this blog: what is God? what am I? what is our relationship?  However, as one reader pointed out, my foundational premise seems to lead inevitably to the conclusion that my fundamental questions must remain unanswerable.  Now, I will make explicit what was only implicit in the last post.

I will start with a statement that many theologians have uttered in some form or another.  God is ineffable; he is unknowable; he is beyond thought.  Yet, this seems to imply that the discipline of theology is doomed to failure and the theologians who have raised this problem seem to have undermined their own discipline.  Furthermore, some of those who have uttered such statements have recognized that these statements are self-referential.  If God is unspeakable, how is it that we can say “God is unspeakable”?  And if he is unknowable, how can we say “he is unknowable”?

We can conclude that all these theologians were simple minded, but this seems to contradict their apparent strength of mind in other areas.  Perhaps, we can conclude that these theologians were attempting to create a paradox in order to be “cute” or “clever.”  Yet, I would like to suggest that we should understand the proposition as an infinitely recursive statement.  Thus, it is not accurate to say that we cannot accurately speak about God.  Nor is accurate to say that we cannot accurately say that we cannot accurately speak about God.  And so on.  Infinitely.  Thus, I will say that God is infinitely ineffable, infinitely unknowable, and infinitely beyond thought.

This explicitly means that my questions are unanswerable.  In other words, it is impossible for humanity to know God.  Within the context of this discussion, I will hazard to say that God is infinitely unknowable.  Yet, I have claimed to have faith in God and my faith is not without a sort of knowledge.  As Charles Wesley wrote: “His spirit answers to the blood and tells me I am born of God.”  Here, I have suggested (not argued) that God is infinitely transcendent.  In my next post, I will suggest a tentative solution to the problem by positing that God is “infinitely descendent” in his incarnation.  In other words, God transcends his own transcendence.  However, I stop here, because I think that even those who lay claim to faith should be shocked by statements of knowledge about God.

9 Responses to “On God’s Ineffability”
  1. I like what you are doing, but I am curious by the use of the word “God” are you assuming the Judeo-Christian statement? You may want to clarify this before proceeding. If you mean something other than YHWH or Allah, it should be stated lest we assume you are heading down a path and realize that we are talking in two different spheres. Thanks.

    • isandisnot says:

      Mike, good to hear from you! You are absolutely right. Part of my problem is that I was trying to be both specific and general at the same time. I was trying to use the term “God” in a generic sense, while specifically talking about my faith in Christ. I think my next post will clarify this issue somewhat, but not completely. Nevertheless, I feel I have somewhat of a boot-strapping problem. Where on earth does a theological discussion begin?!? It is like picking yourself up by the bootstraps. Any way, I hope you keep writing and adding your insight.

  2. Turbo says:

    What your heading towards is the divine darkness of apophatic theology.

    • isandisnot says:

      It certainly seems that way, doesn’t it? Do you have any thoughts on whether that is a good thing or not? I think the part of the tradition that I am most influenced by is Ephrem the Syrian (if he can be said to be part of that tradition and he predates many of the later developments).

  3. dion says:

    Colby, nothing shocks me. My own vile attempts at faith allow me to be merciful to those that also in curription seek.

    It is also good to think and question! would it be safe to say that we have knowledge about god as it has been revealed by our questions, his answers or what he has revealed about ourselves.

    It is interesting to think about general knowledge. Can I really know all knowledge? Seems impossible. Although impossible it seems like I can discover some truths that seem to be accept by most. There seems to be some absolute truths. like learning to build a car. seems unreachable to me but the knowledge is out there. And I could learn to do it. in the past it was unknown how to build a car but someone some how gained the knowledge to do so. God does seem beyond the reach and unattainable but perhaps we just haven’t been given all the knowledge or some how retrieved it. even building cars seems to not have been exhuasted yet. knowledge keeps growing.

    I have no idea what I am saying! I guess I am saying it is a process for us. a baby doesn’t know how to walk when it’s born. but it learns.
    and if we knew everything would we not be like god?

  4. wendy says:

    first, what’s apophatic theology? i really want to know.
    second, i’m looking forward to your expounding upon the relational piece here. the use of YHWH would seem to be the “rightest” to me, mostly because just using it recognizes as true the ineffable, unknowable and unspeakable thing. but our respective, real relationships with this presence seem to run counter to those statements. i guess that’s why the relational piece–as personal as it is for each of us–seems like the individual’s own, private lynchpin in their proof for God being.
    third, my favorite part: “God transcends his own transcendence.” it’s just so Him, isn’t it?

    • isandisnot says:

      Wikipedia has a decent article that covers some of the main themes of apophatic theology.
      Of course, like most summaries, it is an over simplification.
      I would say that I am part of the negative theology (apophatic) tradition. Yet, I am not sure I like the label, because it incorporates many different ideas some of which I am not sure if I agree with.
      hope you keep reading.

  5. Turbo says:

    To get a great insight to apophatic theology one should read vladamir lossky’s “mystical theology of the eastern church”.
    Colby, I am curious as to what points do you disagree with?

    • isandisnot says:

      I am not sure I disagree with any of it. It is such a large tradition that I didn’t want to identify myself with it without some reservation. Thanks for the book recommendation! The description on Amazon resonates with part of what I am saying here: “The term “mystical theology” denotes that which is accessible yet inaccessible those things understood yet surpassing all knowledge.” I have added the book to my reading list, which currently has about 200 books on it. So don’t expect it to be read soon. 🙂

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