Describing God: The Great Unnamable


Funny the things you remember. In the waning weeks of my ministry at Church of the Crossroads in Honolulu, an older couple in the congregation, Kimiko and Bunichi (more than half the congregation were Japanese American), took us out to dinner.

Kimmie had a question that she wanted to ask, but doing so was a little awkward for her. Her question was, “Tony, how do you describe God?” Or maybe, “Tony, how do you think of, God?”

I suspect she felt awkward because her question seemed so basic. The kind of question we may think of as “a stupid question.” So we don’t ask. But it turns out that often the basic questions, even those we might dismiss as possibly “stupid questions,” are some of the best questions of all.

If Kimmie had a hard time asking, I reciprocated by having a hard time answering. Which is also okay. I had no pat answer. I fumbled around a bit until I said the word “foundation.” “For me,” I said, “God is the foundation, the foundation of everything, of all that is.”

It may not have been a great answer, but it wasn’t a terrible one either. I thought of that dinner and conversation recently when I read a couple of columns by a psychologist/theologian, Richard Beck, whose work I like.

Beck draws on Christianity’s mystics to say — paraphrase here — “If it exists, it isn’t God.” God, by definition, can’t be an existing object in the universe, because God is Existence from which all that exists comes. God is Being from which all being comes. So my “foundation” wasn’t far off.

Here’s Beck in a piece provocatively titled, “Atheism is Impossible.”

“There is a crude form of atheism. A simplistic version. This version of atheism assumes that God is some object in the universe like Odin, a giant teapot, or a flying spaghetti monster. In these versions of atheism, God is assumed to be some piece of furniture in the warehouse of the cosmos. A being among beings, a noun among nouns, an object among objects. And this version of atheism denies the existence of that object, that being, that noun. That if you searched the universe God will not be found. Therefore, God doesn’t exist. And this is true. Christians agree with atheists on this point. However, as I pointed out in my prior post, this vision of God’s relation to existence is a confusion. God doesn’t exist as objects exist.”

While Beck calls what he describes above “a crude atheism,” I suspect it is the atheism of many who identity as “atheists.” Having discovered that no one bumped into God in outer space, or that God is not an Old Man with A White Beard in the Sky, i.e. that God doesn’t exist as an object in the universe, they conclude that therefore, God doesn’t exist.

More from Beck:

“In my ‘How to Think about God’ lecture I introduce my students to one of the great insights of the Christian mystical tradition: God belongs to no genus. God is a member of no class or category. God transcends all concepts.

“Consider, I said to my class, the category ‘Things That Exist.’ We can list members of this category: dogs, cats, chairs, people, planets, computers, cars, quarks, black holes, even the universe. But then I write on the board ‘God.’ Can God be included as a member of the class ‘Things That Exist’? Recall, the rule is ‘God belongs to no genus.’ So, no, God cannot be a member of the class ‘Things That Exist.’ Which quickly brought my class to the apophatic conclusion: God doesn’t exist.

“By ‘God doesn’t exist’ we mean, of course, that God doesn’t exist the way objects exist, the way dogs or planets exist. God isn’t a noun. God isn’t a being among beings. God is, rather, the Existence that gives rise to existence. The Being that creates beings. God exists, but not in a way we can understand or fathom. God Exists but doesn’t exist.”

This is why biblical faith is so strenuously opposed to making graven images, statues or any other object or representation of “God.” Moreover, no one sees God. In the Bible, Jews do not even utter the word, “God.” God is unnamable. “God” cannot be reduced to something that we can grasp, control, or get our minds around. If we could wholly grasp, explain or understand it, then it wouldn’t be God.

While there is, and always will be, this essential unknowability about God, the biblical God is at the same time a God who reveals God’s self. God, we believe, is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, Mary’s boy, who was put to death by the allied powers of state and religion. But Jesus, too, is hard to pin down, as those authorities discovered on Easter.

Two final comments: if you find it hard to describe or explain God, don’t feel too bad about that. That may not be a failure on your part nor an indication of a weak or absent faith. It may actually be an expression of faith. The reticence of reverence.

Second, that there is that which is beyond our explanations, descriptions, comprehension or control is, to my mind, very good news.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. Tony, don’t worry about it. If there is such an entity as God, he, she or it is just fine. If not, that’s fine too. Atheism is a clunky word. It’s a word that says we have to deny something or someone that may or may not exist. You sound like a Godist. Fine. Not an agodist. Or an atheist, words that assert a denial.

  2. This elides the more difficult aspects of the biblical God. The biblical God shows intent. It demands to be worshiped. It is interventionist. It imposes a moral framework for humans and decides who gets to move on to heaven after this life, who needs to be punished for a while, and who suffers eternal damnation.

    It’s one thing to say that God can be beyond humans’ limited comprehension, but you can’t just hand-wave away it away as “the Existence that gives way to existence” if it supposedly acts with intent in our world. What the atheists are saying is that by defining God as a being beyond human comprehension, your reasoning becomes circular and entirely dependent upon faith in a greater power that can never be understood by humans as a foundational axiom. The atheists are saying that such a belief is not justified by the facts as we know them and, according to Occam’s razor, is not the most likely explanation for the existence of the universe and ourselves.

  3. That’s pretty damned neat. One may believe in god, but not disbelieve, because then you’d have to assert a quality of existence that believers aren’t required to. Ha ha.

    “Atheist” means “not theist”. It doesn’t imply any believe about existence or non-existence of anything. I personally don’t find “does god exist” very interesting, for just the reason you present — we’d have to agree on a suitable definition, and that isn’t realistic. Theists all presumably believe, but atheists don’t have to even consider the question.

    But everyone knows more or less what “soul” means (*), and if you can’t rid yourself of that belief, you’re going to be at least mighty susceptible to theism. If it needs to be about belief vs. disbelief, I’d look at “soul.”

    (* I am aware that authorities on Buddhism deny that it has “soul”, but in terms of what I’m talking about, that’s a semantic dodge. They certainly have something that gets reincarnated, and it’s a key feature. If you believe there’s a mystic part of your self that has another fate after your death, there you go, however close its theological trappings may come to other religions’ souls.)

  4. “God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived.…”
    St. Anselm opened the faith door for me decades ago.
    Still an open door.


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