Reductionism or Awe: Thinking about God

By: Brian Harris

It’s always good to think about God. What is less good is assuming we are always right and that we are on top of our subject.

Any description or explanation of God is at best a simplification or a reduction, and that is as we would expect it to be. After all, as Tom Wright has noted, when you look at the majesty of the Universe and see its astonishing complexity, and recognise how finely but perfectly tuned it is, you don’t assume that the Divine being whose imagination brought this all into existence is One who you can quickly understand. When you genuinely sense the greatness of all that God has done you can’t smugly say, “Got it. No problem. I fully understand what is going on here.”

It’s why one way of doing theology is via negativa or apophatic theology – an approach which is willing to state what God isn’t, but recognises that any affirmatives will be so limited that it is better to avoid them when talking of the perfect goodness who is God. In the via negativa approach God is a mystery who can never be adequately described in human words or in concepts comprehensible to mere mortals. After all, God is not of the same substance as we are so any analogies are precarious.

While partially agreeing with the essential point being made by apophatic theologians (how can mere humans adequately describe God), the counter argument is that the Bible’s revelation of God (and especially the revelation of God in Jesus) allows us to speak with assurance about God, or, to be a little Barthian, “Deus dixit” – God has spoken and therefore we can speak. If God had not spoken( or acted), we would have no basis on which to speak about God, but because God has spoken (and only because God has spoken) we have the confidence to talk about what God has revealed. True, we don’t assume that we know everything about God, but we are sure that what the Bible reveals to us is accurate and helpful. What we are able to say falls well short of all that we could say about God, but that does not make it invalid or inconsequential. When I say “God is love” I can be confident of the truth of the statement because it is one made so frequently in Scripture. What I can be less certain of is that I fully understand what this means. Or as Paul puts it in 1Cor 13:9 “We know in part…”

Most theologians are willing to acknowledge the fine dance between affirming what we know and what we recognise we can never fully understand. When it comes to God I both know and I don’t know. I must act on the basis of what I know, but I must move with humility, because at best my understanding is partial and limited.

Perhaps the discussion is misguided. In the end it is not about my attempt to grasp God, but to grasp the astonishing truth that I am known by God, and that the God who knows me loves me. And that the God who loves me has journeyed to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Calvary. Do I understand that? Not really. But I do know that it calls forth from me a posture – not one of tritely saying, “Thanks, got it, really appreciate what you have done God,” but one where, as Wesley said, I am “lost in wonder, love and praise” – not because I have got it, but because the tiny and reduced bit I do understand leads me to wonder and awe, not arrogance. And awe will not mislead me…

Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.

About the Author: Brian is a sought-after speaker, teacher, leader, writer and respected theologian who has authored 6 books. After 17 years as principal of Perth’s Vose Seminary, Brian is now founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.

Feature image: Photo by Adam Gonzales on Unsplash 

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