I am reading a fascinating book on the otherness of God (The Otherness of God in Christian Theology by Barry D. Smith. Pickwick, forthcoming). It delves into the Hebrew Bible and Hellenistic roots of the classical Christian tradition that God is utterly unlike anything in creation.
God is literally nothing — no-thing. God is not an object in the world; not a being. God does not exist in a manner like anything else but in a fundemantally different, unique mode. Indeed, some orthodox strands of the Christian tradition went so far as to deny the category of existence to God because that would put God on the same level as creation. Etymologically “to exist” is it stand forth or to stand out (against some presupposed background) but such a category only applies to created things and not to the Creator. On this view
- God is not a being
- nor even The Supreme Being
For then God would be “like us but bigger.” But God is not simply a SUPER-super-hero.
But for the radicals God is not even “Being itself.” God is “beyond being,” and utterly transcendant. Literally nothing can be known of God-in-Godself.
Must confess that I find myself squirming at this point. It’s not simply that saying “God does not exist” is open to easy misunderstanding (Oh! So you’re an atheist!) but that the level of agnosticism (i.e., 100% agnosticism) about God does not sit easily with biblical revelation.
But those who took this view were also adamant that we do indeed know the works of God in creation — we are not agnostic about that. We know that God rescued Israel from Egypt, that God-made-flesh died on the cross for sin, and so on. We can know the Trinity in the divine economy of salvation. What we are agnostic about is not the divine acts in creation but the divine essence — not God-in-creation but God-in-Godself.
But I am still squirming. Of course, there is a high degree of agnosticism we must have about the immanent Trinity but if the economic Trinity is a real revelation of God it must tell us something about God-in-Godself.
So I am happy to say that “God is no thing” and that God is not “a being” and even that God is not “The Supreme Being.” I am happy to live in deep darkness when it comes to God . . . yet . . . I would prefer to retain the language of existence for God (while noting that God’s existence is a radically different mode of existence from the existence of created things: as non-composit God’s existence is identical with his essence) and I am keen to say that the revelation of God in the divine economy reveals true truth about God, even if only in a glass darkly.
(As an aside: on the doctrine of divine simplicity see James Dolezal, God without Parts. Pickwick, 2011. It’s a terrific book.)
So the church today, especially evangelicalism, needs a lot more agnosticism about God . . . but, at the other end of the scale, one can take the darkness of unknowning God to an extreme that threatens to unravel Christian theology itself. That, I fear, may be to saw off the branch we are sitting on.