The Otherness of God

Reflected Tree

How knowable is God? How like God can we be? If we are in the image of God then why do we seem so unlike God much of the time?

As human beings, we are created in God’s image and designed to bear that image, somehow reflecting God to all around us. By our likeness to God we are to make God known to the world. In Christ we are to grow in likeness to the one who is the perfect image of God in man. But, is this a simple linear development? At what point do we stop taking on God’s qualities?

God is different from us. As well as being revealed to us in creation and most specifically in Jesus, God is at the same time also concealed from us. God is not a man, nor is God a physical entity like anything we know from our experience of the world. We can never fully understand or know God as our minds are just too small.

Theology is built on a great deal of analogy and expanded metaphor. God is said or shown to be like something we know, but then the boundaries of our previous knowledge are shown to be too small when we come to consider God. We can understand something of “love”, but when God is said to be “love”, this challenges our pictures of love. In what sense is the love of God like or unlike our experiences? There is both a sense that, yes God is like this, but God is also so much more.

Each metaphor, each analogy or image can help shed light on who God is. Yet, because they are limited not only by our humanity but by our cultures and even our personal thought processes they fall short. For example, God is like a loving father, but at the same time God isn’t a loving father in the sense that we have ever known. Likewise, God is like a king, but also unlike our ideas of what it means to be a king.

The potential danger behind the very useful side to Christian spirituality that speaks about us being like God and growing into God’s likeness further is that we think we’ve got God figured out too much. Little room may be left for mystery. It is problematic simply to take human concepts or attributes and assume that God is just a nice neat version of them. It is dangerous to assume that we can become so God-like that we no longer see the distinction between Creator and the created.

So, perhaps we might benefit from bringing a little doubt into our theology, allowing room to say “I don’t know” and space for God to move outside of the boxes we try to put everything in. Maybe we could say that as an image of God, we are a little like a reflection in a river. We will never be the real thing, but depending on how good the conditions are, we can bear a good resemblance.

Yes, the water will be disturbed sometimes and the reflection become less distinct. But, even when blurred, it is still a reflection of the reality that lies beyond. At the same time, the reflection may reveal much of the truth, but it will always be just a reflection. It is like but also unlike the original.

How happy are you with the idea of aspects of God being unknowable? Can you see how using metaphors and analogies brings clarity yet also leaves openness with unresolved tensions? Do you think that your ways of thinking about God are too limited, too human or do you perhaps worry that you stress the otherness of God so much that you feel you don’t know God at all?

© Joe Lenton, March 2013

(Image – “Reflected Tree” – used with permission –