As Bishop Barron explains in this excerpt from his book, “And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation”, we humans cannot speak of God, and yet we must speak of God. We can’t help naming and describing God, and it’s through that exercise that we move into right relation with him, transcending our ego and encountering our true center.
It is the rock, the storm, the lion, the flood, the desert. It is the bear, the leviathan, the whirlwind, the barely audible whisper, the voice, the silence, the city strongly compact, the mother with abundant breasts, the tearful father. There is a mysterious reality, at the borders and at the heart of our ordinary experience, suffusing and yet transcending all that surrounds us, a reality that can be evoked with a thousand names and that cannot, finally, be caught by any name. This mystery judges us and energizes us, frightens us and gives us incomparable peace, overwhelms us and captivates us. Like Melville’s white whale, it surges up from the depths and sinks our ships, and like Jonah’s whale it draws us into itself and gives us protection. It is as high as the heavens are above the earth and as low as the caverns of Hell; it is as dark as a pillar of cloud and as luminous as a pillar of fire; it is the burning bush that is not consumed, and it is the water from the rock. It is the sheer act of Being itself, and it is nothing at all; it is what is hardest to see, and it is what is most obvious.
Every great mystic, prophet, or theologian knows that this mystery cannot be spoken of adequately, that, like a wily fish, it escapes all the nets of thought and language that we set for it. Thomas Aquinas—the most talkative theologian in the tradition—simply stopped talking at the end of his life, convinced that all he had said of the mystery amounted to so much straw. And yet, as my catalogue of traditional names suggests, we talk, almost compulsively and manically, of this power, pushed by some inner drive of the spirit. We cannot speak of God, and we must speak of God. It is as simple as strange as that.
We are compelled to theologize precisely because we are who we are: those strange beings already described in this book, sinner open to metanoia, change of mind. God must be spoken of because we are alienated from the Mystery that alone can give us life, and we know it; God must be engaged because we are wired for the Mystery and nothing short of the Mystery can give us peace. We are not so much rational animals (as Aristotle thought) or productive animals (as Marx would have it) as we are those animals who speak of God. Time and again, in the course of the centuries, various philosophers and social reformers have predicted that we would grow out of our debilitating and embarrassing tendency to engage in God-talk, but they have all faded away, and God-talk remains. The preoccupation with the Mystery is in us, and it can’t ultimately be wished or thought or threatened away.
All of this suggests, of course, that the naming of God is a vitally important exercise and not merely a game of the mind. To name the divine with something approaching adequacy is to foster a right relation with the Mystery, to undo, to some extent, the effects of the originating sin that has placed us at a remove from God.
It is my conviction that the God-talk of our tradition (though tainted by sin) is a consistent and largely successful attempt to undo the effects of the Fall by orienting us to the God who is really God and not the fantasy of the sinful soul. The theology, art, literature, architecture, drama of the Christian heritage constitute an attempt to name God, not as the pathetic rival to the ego’s phantom unconditionally, but as the power in which the fearful ego can find itself through surrender. God is that reality which, thankfully, can be neither manipulated nor avoided, neither controlled nor hidden from, and, as such, God is that which effectively invites the ego to give up its fearful and finally illusory place at the center of the universe. In naming God in the wildly diverse ways that it does, the Christian tradition attempts to doctor the soul, to frustrate the myriad moves of the grasping or self-concealing ego.