#1  God is Greater Than We Think, or Even Can Think

I DON’T FULL UNDERSTAND understand God. And unless you are greatly different from everyone else, you don’t fully understand God either. But that is OK, for as someone wisely said many, many years ago, “A comprehended god is no god.” (That statement may go back as far as John Chrysostom.[1])

Who God is and what God does is beyond our powers of comprehension. We are going to be mistaken about a lot of things unless we realize from the outset that God is greater than we think, or even can think.

In the Scriptures written long before the birth of Jesus, we are told that God exceeds our ability to understand: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (Isaiah 40:28).[2] And in the New Testament we read, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).

Most Christians, though, tend to think they know God and God’s ways pretty well. After all, they say, Jesus came to earth to reveal God to us. And he did. Jesus revealed more about God than most of us have been able to grasp. He did reveal all we need to know about God for our salvation and about how we should live as God wants us to live.

But Jesus didn’t, and because of our limitations couldn’t, reveal everything about God. So we should guard against falling into the illusion that we fully understand God. So I say it again: God is greater than we think, or even can think.

The God of Creation

One of the reasons why is God is greater than we think or even can think is related to the assertion that God is the Creator, maker of heaven and earth. If God is really the Creator, the source of all that is, for that reason alone we are not able to comprehend the greatness of God. Since we cannot even begin to grasp the size and nature of the physical universe, how could we possibly grasp the “size” and nature of God, the creator of all that is?

On October 29, 2009, Nature magazine published an article containing information about findings astronomers had made earlier in the year. In April they detected a gamma-ray burst that is now said to be more than thirteen billion light-years from Earth, the most distant known object in the universe seen to date. That is a long ways away! (You can read the footnote if you are not sure what a light year is. [3])

To say that God is the God of Creation, though, does not imply instantaneous creation and does not deny the fact that the universe evolved over a very long period of time. Most reputable scientists now agree that the universe began about 13,700,000,000 years ago, give or take a few years.[4] The God of unfathomable space, as indicated in the previous paragraph, is also the God of unfathomable time.

If God is understood as Creator, God can also be seen as being closely related to the whole evolutionary process—and is far more than simply a means for explaining the gaps in our knowledge about that process.[5] To say that God is Creator can certainly mean that not only is God the ultimate source of all that is, but also that God has been involved all along in the evolving of life in the world.

This latter assertion is stressed by those who affirm what is often referred to as “intelligent design.” But it is necessary to recognize that the greatness of God also includes the idea that God allows or provides for freedom within the ongoing development of the physical world. Thus, there is much in the physical universe that is not directly due to God’s intelligently designing it, and those who over-emphasize the idea of intelligent design are hard-pressed to explain all of the prodigious waste and nonsensical aspects of the universe. Indeed, some Christian theologians now reject the idea of intelligent design because of their faith in God, not because of any lack of faith.

Theologians often talk about the God-given freedom of human beings. But the greatness of God extends to God’s willingness to allow freedom in the world of nature as a whole as well as in the world of humans.

“God So Loved the World”

There is no Bible verse better known or perhaps more important than John 3:16. Probably most Protestants know it by heart: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Many of us first remember the words of the older translation we learned as children, though.)

However, the following verse has never, in my opinion, been emphasized sufficiently. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” we are told. And then verse 18 raises some problems, for it indicates that “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” The next verse indicates that Jesus is “the light” which has “come into the world.” Finally, verse 21 declares that “those who do what is true come to the light.”

This latter verse from the third chapter of John is interesting to think about in reference to that difficult verse in the first chapter: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (v. 9). Jesus, “the light of the world” according to John, has so often been confined only to the Christian religion and the historical particularity of that tradition, that the broader shining of that light has not been adequately recognized.

If God is really the creator of all, then all must be related to God in some way and there surely must be some awareness of God by the peoples of the world who had, or have had, no possibility of knowing about the historical Jesus. Native Americans naturally ask about the fate of their ancestors before they had any opportunity to hear about God revealed through Jesus Christ. People of the Far East—Chinese, Japanese, and others—naturally ask that same sort of question about their ancestors.[6]

God Has Many Names

One of the most prominent and most prolific religious philosopher and theologian during my lifetime is the author of a book titled God Has Many Names.[7] Because God loves all the people of the universe, all people have some intimation of God. Because of the various times, places, and cultures in which people have lived, their understanding of God and the name by which they know God vary greatly.

Most people are aware of the fact that “God” is somewhat of a “generic” name and that Judaism out of which Christianity developed had a personal name for God—even though that name was not spoken lest the holy name be defiled. From Old Testament times, the Jewish people have used four Hebrew letters to refer to God, letters given in English as YHWH (although sometimes rendered JHVH). There is a long tradition saying that when the vowels were added, God’s name was Jehovah. But it is now generally recognized that God’s proper name for the Jews was/is Yahweh.[8]

In the Muslim tradition, God’s name is more “generic” as it is in the Christian tradition: “God” is known as Allah, the standard Arabic word for “God.” Even Christians in some countries refer to the God they worship as Allah, for that is the word for God in their national language. There is a strong belief in one (true) God in Islam and Judaism just as there is in Christianity even though different terminology is used.

In Native American traditions, there was a belief in what is usually translated into English as “Great Spirit,” but perhaps “Great Mystery” is better. In the Lakota/Sioux tradition, the name was Wakan Tanka, but the concept was of a divine, creative power to which all people and all things were directly related.

This recognition of the fact that God has many names helps free us from one of the main problems of many religious people, Christians included. That is the problem of what is often called tribalism, the idea that one’s own “tribe” is inherently superior to all others. When any societal group is entangled in tribalism, which most groups have been or are, the people of that group generally insist that “their” God is superior to all other gods.

Throughout much of the Old Testament, it seems clear that the Israelites had a tribalistic view of themselves and of the God they knew as Yahweh. But it is also clear that the great prophets from the eighth century (B.C.) on propounded a much more universalistic picture of God who was related to the entire world. In Isaiah 6:3 we read these words proclaiming God’s universality:

Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.

This glimpse into the greatness of God is accented by the Apostle Paul, and those he cites, in the seventeenth chapter of Acts:

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring” (vv. 24-28).

Paul was connecting with the religiosity of the Athenians, who had erected an altar with the inscription “To the Unknown God.” In so doing, he proclaimed a concept of God who was far beyond any tribalistic view of God. He linked the Creator God to “all mortals.” He links God with the people of “all nations.” And he acknowledges that God is “not far” from every person on earth. Finally, he affirms the words of the Grecian poet who wrote that all of us humans “live and move and have our being” in God.

In the fall of 1966, just a couple of months after arriving as a missionary in Japan, I used that passage as the text for my first sermon. I didn’t understand then the full implication of these words, and even though I think I understand them more fully now, I doubt that I still have complete comprehension of all that they imply. That is partly because God is greater than we think, or even can think.

Why This Is Important

Why have I written that the first “true thing” that everyone needs to know now is that God is greater than we think, or even can think? This realization is very important because it allows us to be open to a fuller understanding of the physical world and to hold an attitude toward our fellow human inhabitants of this earth that will help us overcome many of the interpersonal problems that have been so prevalent in the past.

Christians often have such a limited or outdated view of God’s relationship to the physical universe that they find it hard to hold both to faith in God and to the affirmation of modern science. Further, those same limited or outdated views tend to drive wedges between Christians and those who are not, or who are no longer, practicing Christians largely because of the perceived conflict between faith and science.

I am contending that it is possible—and even imperative—to hold a view of God large enough that there will be nothing we can learn about the universe that conflicts with our belief in God. That is because every truth we learn about the universe is just more knowledge about God. As some Christian philosophers have wisely asserted, “All truth is God’s truth.”[9]

Too often Christians have been guilty of judging, rejecting, or criticizing the cultures and religions of other peoples because of what seems to be a conflict between the Christian understanding of God and that of other peoples. But when we truly understand that God is greater than we think, or even can think, we also more easily affirm the idea that God is the God of all people, regardless of how they perceive God or even regardless of whether or not they acknowledge God. God is the God of the atheists as well as of those who are religious. God’s existence and presence with all persons does not depend on affirmation of that existence or presence.

Christians are often guilty of having a “God in a box” mentality, that is, a view of God that is convenient and manageable—but erroneous because it is too limited. Failing to comprehend the greatness of God has inhibited an adequate understanding of the physical universe and the closeness of God to all people in all places in the world, past and present.

So, even though Livingston was probably right in saying that most people get “too soon old, too late smart,” and even though it may be rather late in life for some of us, let’s try to be smart enough now to comprehend that God is, indeed, greater than we think, or even can think.

[1] Chrysostom (c.349-407) was the Archbishop of Constantinople and a significant Early Church Father. He wrote a book that is translated into English and published under the title On the Incomprehensible Nature of God. Similar words are also found in the writings of Augustine (354-430). But often this statement is said to be that of Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769), a German Pietist.

[2] Unless otherwise indicated, Bible references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] It would be impressive enough if the source of the light the scientists saw was “only” thirteen billion years away. A billion, after all, is one thousand million. But a light year is the distance measured by how far light travels in a year—at 186,000 miles a second! There are 31,556,926 seconds in a year, so multiply that by 186,000 and you get 5,869,588,236,000 miles. Now multiply that by 13,000,000,000 and you get the distance of the light observed in April 2009. I can’t comprehend that number, can you? And if we cannot comprehend such distances, how can we possibly comprehend the God who created a universe with such vast distances?

[4] I guess it is just a coincidence that the farthest recording distance is thirteen billion light years and the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years. Even though the numbers are similar, what they mean is significantly different.

[5] I appreciate my friend Dr. David A. Johnson, professor of biology at Samford University, suggesting this idea in his comments on my blog posting of October 30, 2009.

[6] This issue has been raised by the Native American theologian George E. (“Tink”) Tinker and the Chinese/Taiwanese theologian C. S. Song.

[7] John Hick (b. 1928) first published this book in 1980.

[8] Respect for the name of God is so strong, that many in the Jewish tradition or those seeking to respect that tradition write the word for divinity as G*d or G-d.

[9] Christian philosopher Arthur F. Holmes is the author of a 1977 book with this title.