Michael Jinkins: Incomprehensible theology

Dumbing-down our God-Talk has only made us dumber about God.

One of the benchmark doctrines of orthodox Christianity is that God is simple, by which St. Thomas Aquinas means that God has no physical parts.  Another fundamental teaching of orthodoxy is that God is incomprehensible.  St. Augustine of Hippo warns us: “If you think you comprehend, then it is not God you’re talking about!”

I remember as a young child asking my mother what it meant when Jesus said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Jesus was not only the Great Physician and a master storyteller, he was one hard teacher to figure out. But you know what? I’ve never forgotten that text or the conversation with my mother about it.

Last fall “The Economist” reported on new research by Daniel Oppenheimer, a Princeton University psychologist, which suggests that if you want people to learn something “make the text conveying the information harder to read.” “The Economist” comments that one of the perennial paradoxes of education “is that presenting information in a way that looks easy to learn often has the opposite effect. Numerous studies have demonstrated that when people are forced to think hard about what they are shown they remember it better.”

This may be why I can’t shake Louise Gluck’s intellectually challenging poetry, or Flannery O’Connor’s enigmatic short stories, or novels like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” They demand so much attention. I recall a conversation between Oprah and Morrison in which Oprah confessed she sometimes she has to go over and over a passage to understand it. Morrison said that the process to which Oprah was referring “is called reading.”

There’s a lesson worth learning for those of us who care about Christian education.

We have done our people a breathtaking disservice by trying to make theology (God-Talk) easier to understand. Dumbing-down our God-Talk has only made us dumber about God.

God is simple, metaphysically speaking. But this statement (“God is simple”) is not simple. It is a subtle, complex theological statement with a technical meaning. And why should God be intellectually simple? Though God is (in the sense in which Thomas Aquinas used the terms) “simple,” understanding God (the creator of a universe in which distances of measured in light years and galaxies number in millions) is anything but simple.

I am tempted as a theologian to say that God is so utterly incomprehensible that we can only speak of God by saying what God is not (God is not mortal, not visible, etc.). In the history of theology, this approach to speaking of God is known as “the negative way.”  But even that way of speaking of God is also outrageously simplistic nonsense, if we believe it renders God comprehensible.

This is the great adventure of theological education. I’m talking about the kind of theological education we do in our congregations, in Sunday schools, and in our homes, and not only the kind we do in graduate theological schools. It invites us to comprehend that which cannot be comprehended, to interrogate that which provokes ever new questions, to engage with our whole hearts and minds the God who created us out of nothing, though of course we have no real conception of what it means to say “out of nothing.” There’s no way to appreciate the fact that God numbers every hair on our heads without appreciating the endless expanse of a universe that is a Tinker Toy to God.

So, three cheers for the doctrines of divine aseity (the utterly mystifying doctrine that God loves us, but does not need us, which Thomas Merton credited with winning his heart to become a Christian) and perichoresis (the doctrine of Trinitarian theology that reflects the mystery of the mutuality and harmony and inter-relatedness of the three “persons” of the Trinty). And three cheers for every pastor and teacher who glories in Jesus’ parables of the kingdom that have no simple answer and no clear moral, and leave us scratching our heads or offended!  

And three more cheers for everyone who can’t shake the feeling that if we just chew on this idea about God a little longer then maybe, just maybe, we will understand something that makes sense of it all. This way wisdom lies.

“For those who have ears to hear, let them hear!”

Michael Jinkins is president and professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.