I often ponder the Scriptural phrase “God of gods.” It refers, naturally, to the Lord’s creative powers and sovereign prerogatives. God is the Maker and the Ruler of all things, “doing whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3). He is the Source and the Potentate of reality, giving and guiding life by the pleasure of His perfect will.
“For the Lord knows all knowledge,
and has beheld the signs of the world,
He declares the things that are past,
and the things that are to come,
and reveals the traces of hidden things.
No thought escapes Him,
and no word can hide itself from Him.
He has beautified the glorious works of His wisdom:
and He is from eternity to eternity,
and to Him nothing may be added.”
Most interestingly, this peculiar phrase distinguishes the God of Israel from the innumerable pagan deities, not simply in terms of character (who) but in terms of nature (what). YHWH is not one among many. He is the very ground of being: “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14).
God is unoriginate, so He defies our categories, which are fit for ordering creation. We often find it easier to say what He is not. This is the so-called “negative way” of apophatic theology: we discern what is true about God by first deciding what is false about Him.
Here words fail. We cannot state that God “is” in the same way that we can state that the Vatican “is.” If the Vatican “is,” then God “is not.” That is why I heartily agree with atheists when they smugly declare the nonexistence of God. Indeed, He does not exist as you and I exist. (Although it is probably better to say that you and I do not exist as He exists, for He is the Existing One.) God is beyond being, super-essential. Saint Dionysius, taking this to the extreme, mused that He “transcends all affirmation by being the perfect and unique Cause of all things, and transcends all negation by the preeminence of His simple and absolute nature, free from every limitation and beyond them all” (The Mystical Theology, Chapter 5).
God is inscrutable. He is not object, but pure Subject. His very gaze holds the cosmos in existence “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 90:2). Without grace and Divine condescension, we could no more observe God than a thought can observe its thinker. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? That the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, faints not, neither is weary? There is no searching of His understanding” (Isaiah 40:28).
We fool ourselves into believing that we just are, that we possess some fundamental kernel of existence within our souls, fiery and inextinguishable. This is the great lie of heathendom: the divine spark. The philosophers of old ridiculed and feared the first words of Genesis: “In the beginning…” Surely, the universe is eternal! Surely, even the gods are products of some primordial chaos! Alas, science inevitably confirmed the truth of Scripture. When death strikes those we know, the illusion of independence and self-sufficiency is abruptly shattered. At our moment of passage, its falseness will be overwhelming, especially for those who remain estranged from the One Who Is. We are but “wind that passes away, and comes not again” (Psalm 78:39). “You know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). Without the mercy of God, we would melt into loam.
“God of gods.” Christian existentialists sometimes pictured God’s radical otherness in similar fashion. Paul Tillich, for instance, spoke of “God beyond god.” Too often, however, these efforts (Tillich’s included) terminated in the wasteland of Platonism, where God was rendered vague and flavorless, void of personality and free of any connection to history. These modernist Christians turned the apostolic faith into an academic farce, a quaint school of worldly philosophy, a sort of highly symbolic ontology. What of Saint Paul’s harsh cry: “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world” (I Corinthians 1:20).
The otherness of the glorious Three-and-One does not function as a prison, restricting His ability to act. In fact, God’s ultra-immanence is a dimension of His hyper-transcendence. He is both impossibly close and infinitely distant because He rises above the petty dualism of nature. Christianity realizes God in terms of both/and not either/or.
Saint Augustine was keenly aware that God dwells in paradox: “Most hidden and most present . . . stable and incomprehensible; unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, and never old; yet renewing all things; leading proud men into senility, although they know it not; ever active, and ever at rest; gathering in, yet needing nothing . . . You love, but are not inflamed with passion; You are jealous, yet free from care; You repent, but do not sorrow; You grow angry, but remain tranquil . . . Excessive payments are made to You, so that You may be our debtor–yet who has anything that is not Yours? You pay debts, although You owe no man anything; You cancel debts, and lose nothing” (The Confessions, 1.4).
“I am God and there is none like Me” (Isaiah 46:9). In a universe demystified by the physical sciences, we must struggle against the temptation to rationalize God. He rises above causality, so that where He treads there are causes without effect and effects without cause. Herein hides the secret of reconciling Divine providence and human will, which are in both tension and harmony: “A man’s heart devises his way: but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
Let us pray that we have no god but the God of gods, the One-and-Three, Whose glory is unfading and Whose love always endures.
“O Lord, You have searched me, and known me.
You know my downsitting and mine uprising, You understand my thought afar off.
You compass my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, You know it altogether.
You have beset me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.”