God’s Clothing

In the last post, I suggested that having knowledge about God is impossible.  Keeping this impossibility at the forefront of my mind is essential to my personal religious experience.  Yet, impossibility belongs to man not to God.  Now, I would like to suggest that God’s incarnation is humanity’s only pathway to God.  Yet, I would like to use incarnation in three distinct ways.  First, God the Son clothed himself with a body and was called by the name Jesus.  Second, the Divine Logos clothes himself with words and thoughts.  Third, the Holy Spirit indwells the elect.

In this post, I offer a preliminary exploration of the three types of incarnation.  In order to do this, I would like to share part of Saint Ephrem the Syrian’s Thirty First Hymn on Faith (translated by Sabastian Brock).

Let us give thanks to God
   who clothed Himself in the name of the body’s various parts:
Scripture refers to His “ears”
   to teach us that he listens to us;
it speaks of His “eyes,”
   to show that He sees us.
It was just the names of such things
   that he put on,
and– although in His true being
   there is no wrath or regret–
yet He put on these names
   because of our weakness.

Thus, God anthropormorphisizes himself, in order to teach humanity.  As early as the 6th Century B.C., Xenophanes of Colophon criticized the anthropomorphic depiction of God saying that if horses and cows were physically capable, they would fashion their gods in their own form.  Now, modern Christians shy away from anthropomorphic descriptions of God. Yet, Ephrem suggests that God himself put on these names, for our sake.

Ephrem continues:

Blessed is He who has appeared to our human race under so many metaphors.

We should realize that,
  had He not put on the names
of such things,
  it would not have been possible for Him
to speak with us humans.
  By means of what belongs to us did He draw close to us:
He clothed Himself in language,
  so that He might clothe us
in His mode of life.
  He asked for our form and put this on,
and then, as a father with his children,
  He spoke with our childish state.

God has clothed himself in words in order to draw near to us.  He draws near to us clothed in the name “father” and teaches us about “sees” and “hears”.  Yet, these words are clothing and can be taken off.  Yet, I worship God while He is clothed “in what belongs to us.”  Theology is not merely a set of propositions about God, it is an ecstatic experience.    In the next post, I will suggest that ecstatic Theology is an erotic experience.

Saint Ephrem sewed by Kim Scott, 2009.

Ephrem continues:

It is our metaphors that He put on–
  though He did not literally do so;
He then took them off– without actually doing so:
  when wearing them, He was at the same time stripped of them.
He puts on one when it is beneficial,
  then strips it off in exchange for another;
the fact that He strips off
  and puts on all sorts of metaphors
tells us that the metaphor
  does not apply to His true Being:
because that Being is hidden,
  He has depicted it by means of what is visible.

Slightly later in the poem Ephrem writes hu hwa w-la hu hwa, which Brock translates as “He became, but did not come into being.”  Although I would not like to disagree with my Syriac hero, the literal meaning of the words seem to fit well with the context: He/it is and He/it is not.  The metaphors apply to God and they do not apply to God.  He is simultaneously clothed and stripped.  His true being is hidden.  As one reader suggested in the comments on the last post, this seems to be the divine darkness.  Yet, I am not sure this is identical with what came to be known as apophatic theology.  This is not the negative way, where we speak of what God is not and we know God through the negative space.  This is the “IS and IS NOT.”  G.K. Chesterton suggested that at the heart of Christianity there is a paradox: “the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing.”  Throughout history theologians have argued over the meaning of the incarnation.  Early Muslims were shocked by the obvious implications of the incarnation: God defecated and urinated.  I think that these Muslims understood God’s transcendence better than most modern American Christians.  Christians should be shocked by the bowel movements of God!  I have tried to keep this short and coherent.  Here, I have only hinted and suggested at how Man can know God.  Obviously, this is not apologetics.  I am not trying to prove that these things are so.  I am trying to show how the elements of my faith are connected (sometimes logically and sometimes mystically).  In the next post, I will offer a few more hints and suggestions on how we can know God.

4 Responses to “God’s Clothing”
  1. Jim Beukelman says:

    While I would completely agree that the Incarnation makes it possible for man to know God personally, is it really true that God is completely unknowable outside of the Incarnation? Are there aspects of God that can be known by man through His actions? In the same way that an ant may know me as the giant bent on destroying his home (it is impossible for an ant to understand me in any other way as I am an outsider to his world outside of that existence), can not feeble man know some attributes of God through his creations and their nature. In the same way that I do not personally know Rembrandt, the name still paints a picture in my mind because of the things he painted. I can posit personality attributes based on the subjects he chose to paint. Can we not know some of God’s qualities using the same method?

    • isandisnot says:

      Thanks Jim. This is why I started this blog, so that I can get people to think along with me and then challenge me. Certainly, your position is in line with every major theologian I have read. Therefore, I fear to disagree with you. As you know, this is what has come to be known as general revelation. Perhaps, we can know something of God through general revelation, but nature is a poor teacher. I am not sure I agree that nature can “teach” us anything about anything. Perhaps, we apply meaning to nature. As for me, I do not say that God is “loving” or “just”, because I recognize his actions in this world as such. Rather, I recognize God as categorically different then the objects of this world. Thus, it seems to me, that human speech and thought about God must be metaphorical. Not because God is less real, but because we are.

      Nevertheless, I am torn, because I think that what you say is valid in some sense. Perhaps, I will address these issues in some detail later. In order to properly address this question, I would have to give an account of human speech in general…and epistemology…and discourse analysis ….and communication theory. For now, I will offer a cop out and say what you say Is and Is not true.

  2. Turbo says:

    St. Gregory Palamas deals with the question at hand when he articulated the patristic/Orthodox understandig of knowing God through his energies (for he is present within them) but never in his essence.
    This is a cornerstone of understanding and practice for the Orthodox; as well as, being a point of seperation (theologically) between western Christians and eastern.

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