Who or What is God?

by Bishop Kallistos Ware (PhD, Oxford)*

“What or who is God? The traveller upon the spiritual Way, the further he advances, becomes increasingly conscious of two contrasting facts—of the otherness and yet the nearness of the Eternal. In the first place, he realizes more and more that God is mystery. God is “the wholly Other”, invisible, inconceivable, radically transcendent, beyond all words, beyond all understanding. “Surely the babe just born”, writes the Roman Catholic George Tyrrell, “knows as much of the world and its ways as the wisest of us can know of the ways of God, whose sway stretches over heaven and earth, time and eternity.” A Christian in the Orthodox tradition will agree with this entirely. As the Greek Fathers insisted, “A God who is comprehensible is not God.” A God, that is to say, whom we claim to understand exhaustively through the resources of our reasoning brain turns out to be no more than an idol, fashioned in our own image. Such a “God” is most emphatically not the true and living God of the Bible and the Church. Man is made in God’s image, but the reverse is not true.

Yet, in the second place, this God of mystery is at the same time uniquely close to us, filling all things, present everywhere around us and within us. And he is present, not merely as an atmosphere or nameless force, but in a personal way. The God who is infinitely beyond our understanding reveals himself to us as person: he calls us each by our name and we answer him. Between ourselves and the transcendent God there is a relation­ship of love, similar in kind to that between each of us and those other human beings dearest to us. We know other humans through our love for them, and through theirs for us. So it is also with God. In the words of St Nicolas Cabasilas, God our King is

more affectionate than any friend,
more just than any ruler,
more loving than any father,
more a part of us than our own limbs,
more necessary to us than our own heart.4

These, then, are the two “poles” in man’s experience of the Divine. God is both further from us, and nearer to us, than anything else. And we find, paradoxically, that these two “poles” do not cancel one another out: on the contrary, the more we are attracted to the one “pole”, the more vividly we become aware of the other at the same time. Advancing on the Way, each finds that God grows ever more intimate and ever more distant, well known and yet unknown—well known to the smallest child, incomprehensible to the most brilliant theologian. God dwells in “light unapproachable”, yet man stands in his presence with loving confidence and addresses him as friend. God is both end-point and starting-point. He is the host who welcomes us at the conclusion of the journey, yet he is also the companion who walks by our side at every step upon the Way. As St Nicolas Cabasilas puts it, “He is both the inn at which we rest for a night and the final end of our journey.”

Mystery, yet person: let us consider these two aspects in turn.

Unless we start out with a feeling of awe and astonishment—with what is often called a sense of the numinous—we shall make little progress on the Way. When Samuel Palmer first visited William Blake, the old man asked him how he approached the work of painting. “With fear and trembling”, Palmer replied. “Then you’ll do”, said Blake.

The Greek Fathers liken man’s encounter with God to the experience of someone walking over the mountains in the mist: he takes a step forward and suddenly finds that he is on the edge of a precipice, with no solid ground beneath his foot but only a bottomless abyss. Or else they use the example of a man standing at night in a darkened room: he opens the shutter over a window, and as he looks out there is a sudden flash of lightning, causing him to stagger backwards, momentarily blinded. Such is the effect of coming face to face with the living mystery of God: we are assailed by dizziness; all the familiar footholds vanish, and there seems nothing for us to grasp; our inward eyes are blinded, our normal assumptions shattered.

The Fathers also take, as symbols of the spiritual Way, the two Old Testament figures of Abraham and Moses. Abraham, living still in his ancestral home at Ur of the Chaldees, is told by God: “Go out from your country, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Accepting the divine call, he uproots himself from his familiar surroundings and ventures out into the unknown, with­out any clear conception of his final destination. He is simply commanded, “Go out…”, and in faith he obeys. Moses receives in succession three visions of God: first he sees God in a vision of light at the Burning Bush (Exod. 3:2); next God is revealed to him through mingled light and darkness, in the “pillar of cloud and fire” which accompanies the people of Israel through the desert (Exod. 13:21); and then finally he meets God in a “non-vi­sion”, when he speaks with him in the “thick darkness” at the summit of Mount Sinai (Exod. 20:21).

Abraham journeys from his familiar home into an unknown country; Moses progresses from light into darkness. And so it proves to be for each one who follows the spiritual Way. We go out from the known to the unknown, we advance from light into darkness. We do not simply proceed from the darkness of igno­rance into the light of knowledge, but we go forward from the light of partial knowledge into a greater knowledge which is so much more profound that it can only be described as the “dark­ness of unknowing.” Like Socrates we begin to realize how little we understand. We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progres­sively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder. Quoting Psalm 8:1, “O Lord, our Lord, how wonderful is thy name in all the earth”, St Gregory of Nyssa states: “God’s name is not known; it is won­dered at.”5

Recognizing that God is incomparably greater than anything we can say or think about him, we find it necessary to refer to him not just through direct statements but through pictures and im­ages. Our theology is to a large extent symbolic. Yet symbols alone are insufficient to convey the transcendence and the “oth­erness” of God. To point at the mysterium tremendum, we need to use negative as well as affirmative statements, saying what God is not rather than what he is. Without this use of the way of negation, of what is termed the apophatic approach, our talk about God becomes gravely misleading. All that we affirm con­cerning God, however correct, falls far short of the living truth. If we say that he is good or just, we must at once add that his goodness or justice are not to be measured by our human stand­ards. If we say that he exists, we must qualify this immediately by adding that he is not one existent object among many, that in his case the word “exist” bears a unique significance. So the way of affirmation is balanced by the way of negation. As Cardinal Newman puts it, we are continually “saying and unsaying to a positive effect.” Having made an assertion about God, we must pass beyond it: the statement is not untrue, yet neither it nor any other form of words can contain the fullness of the transcendent God.

So the spiritual Way proves to be a path of repentance in the most radical sense. Metanoia, the Greek word for repentance, means literally “change of mind.” In approaching God, we are to change our mind, stripping ourselves of all our habitual ways of thinking. We are to be converted not only in our will but in our intellect. We need to reverse our interior perspective, to stand the pyramid on its head.

Yet the “thick darkness” into which we enter with Moses turns out to be a luminous or dazzling darkness. The apophatic way of “unknowing” brings us not to emptiness but to fullness. Our negations are in reality super-affirmations. Destructive in outward form, the apophatic approach is affirmative in its final effects: it helps us to reach out, beyond all statements positive or negative, beyond all language and all thought, towards an imme­diate experience of the living God.

This is implied, indeed, by the very word “mystery.” In the proper religious sense of the term, “mystery” signifies not only hiddenness but disclosure. The Greek noun mysterion is linked with the verb myein, meaning “to close the eyes or mouth.” The candidate for initiation into certain of the pagan mystery religions was first blindfolded and led through a maze of passages; then suddenly his eyes were uncovered and he saw, displayed all round him, the secret emblems of the cult. So, in the Christian context, we do not mean by a “mystery” merely that which is baffling and mysterious, an enigma or insoluble problem. A mystery is, on the contrary, something that is revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively be­cause it leads into the depth or the darkness of God. The eyes are closed—but they are also opened.

Thus, in speaking about God as mystery, we are brought to our second “pole.” God is hidden from us, but he is also revealed to us: revealed as person and as love.

In the Creed we do not say, “I believe that there is a God”; we say, “I believe in one God.” Between belief that and belief in, there is a crucial distinction. It is possible for me to believe that someone or something exists, and yet for this belief to have no practical effect upon my life. I can open the telephone directory for Wigan and scan the names recorded on its pages; and, as I read, I am prepared to believe that some (or even most) of these people actually exist. But I know none of them personally, I have never even visited Wigan, and so my belief that they exist makes no particular difference to me. When, on the other hand, I say to a much-loved friend, “I believe in you”, I am doing far more than expressing a belief that this person exists. “I believe in you” means: I turn to you, I rely upon you, I put my full trust in you and I hope in you. And that is what we are saying to God in the Creed.

Faith in God, then, is not at all the same as the kind of logical certainty that we attain in Euclidean geometry. God is not the conclusion to a process of reasoning, the solution to a mathemati­cal problem. To believe in God is not to accept the possibility of his existence because it has been “proved” to us by some theoreti­cal argument, but it is to put our trust in One whom we know and love. Faith is not the supposition that something might be true, but the assurance that someone is there.

Because faith is not logical certainty but a personal relation­ship, and because this personal relationship is as yet very incom­plete in each of us and needs continually to develop further, it is by no means impossible for faith to coexist with doubt. The two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps there are some who by God’s grace retain throughout their life the faith of a little child, ena­bling them to accept without question all that they have been taught. For most of those living in the West today, however, such an attitude is simply not possible. We have to make our own the cry, “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief (Mark 9:24). For very many of us this will remain our constant prayer right up to the very gates of death. Yet doubt does not in itself signify lack of faith. It may mean the opposite—that our faith is alive and growing. For faith implies not complacency but taking risks, not shutting ourselves off from the unknown but advancing boldly to meet it. Here an Orthodox Christian may readily make his own the words of Bishop J.A.T. Robinson: “The act of faith is a constant dialogue with doubt.” As Thomas Merton rightly says, “Faith is a principle of questioning and struggle before it be­comes a principle of certitude and peace.”

Faith, then, signifies a personal relationship with God; a relationship as yet incomplete and faltering, yet none the less real. It is to know God not as a theory or an abstract principle, but as a person. To know a person is far more than to know facts about that person. To know a person is essentially to love him or her; there can be no true awareness of other persons without mutual love. We do not have any genuine knowledge of those whom we hate. Here, then, are the two least misleading ways o! speaking about the God who surpasses our understanding: he is personal, and he is love. And these are basically two ways of saying the same thing. Our way of entry into the mystery of God is through personal love. As The Cloud of Unknowing says, “He may well be loved, but not thought. By love can he be caught and held, but by thinking never.”6

As a dim indication of this personal love prevailing between the believer and the Subject of his faith, let us take three exam­ples or verbal ikons. The first is from the second-century account of St Polycarp’s martyrdom. The Roman soldiers have just ar­rived to arrest the aged Bishop Polycarp, and to take him to what he knows must be his death:

When he heard that they had arrived, he came down and talked with them. All of them were amazed at his great age and his calmness, and they wondered why the authorities were so anxious to seize an old man like him. At once he gave orders that food and drink should be set before them, as much as they wanted, late though it was; and he asked them to allow him an hour in which to pray undisturbed. When they agreed, he stood up and prayed, and he was so filled with the grace of God that for two hours he could not keep silent. As they listened they were filled with amazement, and many of them regretted that they had come to arrest such a holy old man. He remembered by name all whom he had ever met, great and small, celebrated or unknown, and the whole Catholic Church throughout the world.7

So all-consuming is his love for God, and for the whole of mankind in God, that at this moment of crisis St Polycarp thinks only of others and not of the danger to himself. When the Roman governor tells him to save his life by disowning Christ, he an­swers: “Eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King, who saved me?”

Secondly, here is St Symeon the New Theologian in the eleventh century, describing how Christ revealed himself in a vision of light:

You shone upon me with brilliant radiance and, so it seemed, you appeared to me in your wholeness as with my whole self I gazed openly upon you. And when I said, “Master, who are you?” then you were pleased to speak for the first time with me the prodigal. With what gentleness did you talk to me, as I stood astonished and trembling, as I reflected a little within myself and said: “What does this glory and this dazzling brightness mean? How is it that I am chosen to receive such great blessings?” “I am God”, you replied, “who became man for your sake; and because you have sought me with your whole heart, see from this time onwards you shall be my brother, my fellow-heir, and my friend.”8

Thirdly, here is a prayer by a seventeenth-century Russian bishop, St Dimitrii of Rostov:

Come, my Light, and illumine my darkness.
Come, my Life, and revive me from death.
Come, my Physician, and heal my wounds.
Come, Flame of divine love, and burn up the thorns of my sins,
kindling my heart with the flame of thy love.
Come, my King, sit upon the throne of my heart and reign there.
For thou alone art my King and my Lord.9

God, then, is the One whom we love, our personal friend. We do not need to prove the existence of a personal friend. God, says Olivier Clement, “is not exterior evidence, but the secret call within us.” If we believe in God, it is because we know him directly in our own experience, not because of logical proofs. A distinction, however, needs here to be made between “experience” and “experiences.” Direct experience can exist without necessarily being accompanied by specific experiences. There are indeed many who have come to believe in God because of some voice or vision, such as St Paul received on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1 -9). There are many others, however, who have never undergone particular experiences of this type, but who can yet affirm that, present throughout their life as a whole, there is a total experience of the living God, a conviction existing on a level more fundamental than all their doubts. Even (hough they cannot point to a precise place or moment in the way that St Augustine, Pascal or Wesley could, they can claim with confidence: I know God personally.

Such, then, is the basic “evidence” of God’s existence: an appeal to direct experience (but not necessarily to experiences). Yet, while there can be no logical demonstrations of the divine reality, there are certain “pointers.” In the world around us, as also within ourselves, there are facts which cry out for an explanation, but which remain inexplicable unless we commit ourselves to belief in a personal God. Three such “pointers” call for particular mention.

First, there is the world around us. What do we see? Much disorder and apparent waste, much tragic despair and seemingly useless suffering. And is that all? Surely not. If there is a “prob­lem of evil”, there is also a “problem of good.” Wherever we look, we see not only confusion but beauty. In snowflake, leaf or insect, we discover structured patterns of a delicacy and balance that nothing manufactured by human skill can equal. We are not to sentimentalize these things, but we cannot ignore them. How and why have these patterns emerged? If I take a pack of cards fresh from the factory, with the four suits neatly arranged in sequence, and I begin to shuffle it, then the more it is shuffled the more the initial pattern disappears and is replaced by a meaning­less juxtaposition. But in the case of the universe the opposite has happened. Out of an initial chaos there have emerged patterns of an ever-increasing intricacy and meaning, and among all these patterns the most intricate and meaningful is man himself. Why should the process that happens to the pack of cards be precisely reversed on the level of the universe? What or who is responsible for this cosmic order and design? Such questions are not unrea­sonable. It is reason itself which impels me to search for an explanation whenever I discern order and meaning.

“The Corn was Orient and Immortal Wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from Everlasting to Everlasting. The Dust and Stones of the Street were as Precious as Gold…The Green Trees when I saw them first through one of the Gates Transported and Ravished me; their Sweetnes and unusual Beauty made my Heart to leap, and almost mad with Exstasie, they were such strange and Wonderful Things…” Thomas Traherne’s childhood apprehensions of the beauty of the world can be paralleled by numerous texts from Orthodox sources. Here, for example, are the words of Prince Vladimir Monomakh of Kiev:

See how the sky, the sun and moon and stars, the darkness and light, and the earth that is laid upon the waters, are ordered, O Lord, by thy providence! See how the different animals, and the birds and fishes, are adorned through thy loving care, O Lord! This wonder, also, we admire: how thou hast created man out of the dust and how varied is the appearance of human faces: though we should gather together all men throughout the whole world, yet there is none with the same appearance, but each by God’s wisdom has his own appearance. Let us also marvel how the birds of the sky go out from their paradise: they do not stay in one country but go, strong and weak alike, over all countries at God’s command, to all forests and fields.10

This presence of meaning within the world as well as confu­sion, of coherence and beauty as well as futility, provides us with a first “pointer” towards God. We find a second “pointer” within ourselves. Why, distinct from my desire for pleasure and dislike of pain, do I have within myself a feeling of duty and moral obligation, a sense of right and wrong, a conscience? And this conscience does not simply tell me to obey standards taught to me by others; it is personal. Why, furthermore, placed as I am within time and space, do I find within myself what St Nicolas Cabasilas calls an “infinite thirst” or thirst for what is infinite? Who am I? What am I?

The answer to these questions is far from obvious. The boundaries of the human person are extremely wide; each of us knows very little about his true and deep self. Through our faculties of perception, outward and inward, through our memory and through the power of the unconscious, we range widely over space, we stretch backward and forward in time, and we reach out beyond space and time into eternity. “Within the heart are unfa­thomable depths”, affirm The Homilies of St Macarius. “It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.”11

In this manner we have, each within our own heart, a second “pointer.” What is the meaning of my conscience? What is the explanation for my sense of the infinite? Within myself there is something which continually makes me look beyond myself. Within myself I bear a source of wonder, a source of constant self-transcendence.

A third “pointer” is to be found in my relationships with other human persons. For each of us—perhaps once or twice only in the whole course of our life—there have been sudden moments of discovery when we have seen disclosed the deepest being and truth of another, and we have experienced his or her inner life as if it were our own. And this encounter with the true personhood of another is, once more, a contact with the koepeltranscendent and timeless, with something stronger than death. To say to another, with all our heart, “I love you”, is to say, “You will never die.” At such moments of personal sharing we know, not through arguments but by immediate conviction, that there is life beyond death. So it is that in our relations with others, as in our experience of ourselves, we have moments of transcendence, pointing to something that lies beyond. How are we to be loyal to these moments, and to make sense of them?

These three “pointers”—in the world around us, in the world within us, and in our inter-personal relationships—can serve to­gether as a way of approach, bringing us to the threshold of faith in God. None of these “pointers” constitutes a logical proof. But what is the alternative? Are we to say that the apparent order in the universe is mere coincidence; that conscience is simply the result of social conditioning; and that, when life on this planet finally becomes extinct, all that humankind has experienced and all our potentialities will be as though they had never existed? Such an answer seems to me not only unsatisfying and inhuman, but also extremely unreasonable.

It is fundamental to my character as a human being that I search everywhere for meaningful explanations. I do this with the smaller things in my life; shall I not do this also with the greater? Belief in God helps me to understand why the world should be as it is, with its beauty as well as its ugliness; why I should be as I am, with my nobility as well as my meanness; and why I should love others, affirming their eternal value. Apart from belief in God I can see no other explanation for all this. Faith in God enables me to make sense of things, to see them as a coherent whole, in a way that nothing else can do. Faith enables me to make one out of the many.

To indicate the two “poles” of God’s relationship to us—unknown yet well known, hidden yet revealed—the Orthodox tradition draws a distinction between the essence, nature or inner being of God, on the one hand, and his energies, operations or acts of power, on the other.

“He is outside all things according to his essence,” writes St Athanasius, “but he is in all things through his acts of power.”12 “We know the essence through the energy”, St Basil affirms. “No one has ever seen the essence of God, but we believe in the essence because we experience the energy.”13 By the essence of God is meant his otherness, by the energies his nearness. Because God is a mystery beyond our understanding, we shall never know his essence or inner being, either in this life or in the Age to come. If we knew the divine essence, it would follow that we knew God in the same way as he knows himself; and this we cannot ever do, since he is Creator and we are created. But, while God’s inner essence is for ever beyond our comprehension, his energies, grace, life and power fill the whole universe, and are directly accessible to us.

The essence, then, signifies the radical transcendence of God; the energies, his immanence and omnipresence. When Orthodox speak of the divine energies, they do not mean by this an emana­tion from God, an “intermediary” between God and man, or a “thing” or “gift” that God bestows. On the contrary, the energies are God himself in his activity and self-manifestation. When a man knows or participates in the divine energies, he truly knows or participates in God himself, so far as this is possible for a created being. But God is God, and we are human; and so, while he possesses us, we cannot in the same way possess him.

Just as it would be wrong to think of the energies as a “thing” bestowed on us by God, so it would be equally misleading to regard the energies as a “part” of God. The Godhead is simple and indivisible, and has no parts. The essence signifies the whole God as he is in himself; the energies signify the whole God as he is in action. God in his entirety is completely present in each of his divine energies. Thus the essence-energies distinction is a way of stating simultaneously that the whole God is inaccessible, and that the whole God in his outgoing love has rendered himself accessible to man.

By virtue of this distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies, we are able to affirm the possibility of a direct or mystical union between man and God—what the Greek Fathers term the theosis of man, his “deification”—but at the same time we exclude any pantheistic identification between the two: for man participates in the energies of God, not in the essence. There is union, but not fusion or confusion. Although “oned” with the di­vine, man still remains man; he is not swallowed up or annihilated, but between him and God there continues always to exist an “I— Thou” relationship of person to person.

Such, then, is our God: unknowable in his essence, yet known in his energies; beyond and above all that we can think or ex­press, yet closer to us than our own heart. Through the apophatic way we smash in pieces all the idols or mental images that we form of him, for we know that all are unworthy of his surpassing greatness. Yet at the same time, through our prayer and through our active service in the world, we discover at every moment his divine energies, his immediate presence in each person and each thing. Daily, hourly we touch him. We are, as Francis Thompson said, “in no strange land.” All around us is the “many-splen-doured thing”; Jacob’s ladder is “pitched betwixt heaven and Charing Cross”:

O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee.

In the words of John Scotus Eriugena, “Every visible or invisible creature is a theophany or appearance of God.” The Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, sees God every­where and rejoices in him. Not without reason did the early Christians attribute to Christ this saying: “Lift the stone and you will find me; cut the wood in two and there am I.”

*Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (NY: SVS, 2002), pp. 11-23.

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2 Responses to Who or What is God?

  1. Pingback: Who or What is God? « Orthocath

  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Reblogged this on Eclectic Orthodoxy.

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