Comprehend the Divine

Nobody has ever seen God.

John 1:18

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) has something to say about God:

Quid ergo dicamus, fratres, de Deo? Si enim quod vis dicere, si cepisti, non est Deus: si comprehendere potuisti, aliud pro Deo comprehendisti. Si quasi comprehendere potuisti, cogitatione tua te decepisti. Hoc ergo non est, si comprehendisti: si autem hoc est, non comprehendisti. Quid ergo vis loqui, quod comprehendere non potuisti?

Augustine of Hippo

I am now reaching deep into the past to get access to my Latin from way back when that I learned it during my seven years of high school here in Switzerland, but have since used only sporadically. Latin does not work well with Google translate.

What are we to say about God, dear brethren? If you were to say, you had comprehended, it would not be God. If you even were able to comprehend, you have comprehended another than God. If you almost comprehend, your comprehension is deceiving you. So it is not him, when you comprehend: if it were so, you would not comprehend. How do you want to talk about something you do not comprehend?

This is usually shortened to a handy principle:

Si comprehends non best Deus–if you comprehend it, it is not God.

This has major implications. But I want to focus on another part of the text today: how are we to talk about something we do not comprehend?

The verse we are talking about today includes exactly this: nobody has ever seen God. But it goes on: Jesus made him known to us.

Other verses tell us that God used to speak through nature, the law, the prophets, and in the last days of the old covenant through his son. Jesus says: when you see me, you see the Father.

God wants to reveal himself. He is drawing near. He wants to meet us, even if we basically don’t have the capacity to understand him.

Our first reaction is to give up because we cannot understand God, but is overridden by God, making it clear to us that he wants to have a relationship with us.

In most languages and contexts, comprehendere is translated to understand. I would like to add more original translations of comprehendere, which probably fits much better in this context: to comprehend, to take hold of.

For us, understanding has the meaning of penetration, that is, something comprehensive.

On the other hand, to take hold of can range from first grasping to complete understanding. It describes a process from the first grasp to the full comprehension.

How does God meet us and how does he enable us to grasp him more and more?

He equips us with all the necessary skills and tools. And because he’s a God of growth, he makes it a matter of growth.

Can God be grasped and understood in a human life? Augustine contradicts exactly this. We will never fully understand God. We can’t even do it with our partners.

But that is exactly why God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He works across generations.

Isaac was able to benefit from everything Abraham had already learned about God, including the trust that Abraham learned to put in God. And Jacob benefited from Isaac’s growth and knowledge.

God spoke directly to Adam in Paradise until Adam became self-aware. Then he spoke to them through nature.

From Abraham onward, God spoke through the family, through the fathers, and later, through Moses, through the law.

Next he spoke through Jesus, and today through the church, his Spirit, and the Bible.

God knew at all times how much he could expect the next generation to do, what they were ready for, what new tools he could provide to help them continue on the path.

Have we understood God? Have we penetrated him, fully? Have we acquired the ability to do this?

Of course not, and whoever believes it is deceived.

Have we reached a state where God feels that we have understood him enough? A time when he doesn’t want to have a deeper relationship with us anymore? Rather not. Which father would be like that?

So will God reveal himself more and more, and will we develop more and more, based on the revelation status of earlier generations, that we can recognize him more and more?

I am convinced of that.

What is our job in all of this?

Here is a statement by Rabbi Tarfon from the ethics of the fathers:

It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.

Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:21

Similarly, we can say: it is not my responsibility to fully penetrate God, but I must not give it up either.

Rabbi Tarfon continues:

Do not be arrogant; do not think that you alone can finish the job. Trust in your children and generations yet unborn to take up the task. Know that you are part of the living chain of people who have dreamed [and] worked for a better world …

Rabbi Tarfon

We must not and cannot understand God, but we can grasp Him better than the generations before us, and we can prepare the ground for an even greater understanding in the generations after us.

Everything flows from the desire for a relationship on the part of God, and it is precisely this relationship that makes us grow, growing towards greater understanding and love.

Is this growth automatic? No, but it is God’s plan, and therefore it leads towards the goal.

There are setbacks. Let us just think of the Middle Ages. Or, let’s think of the refusal to grow by the church in general today that sticks to the old revelation and no longer allows growth for fear of rejection and condemnation.

There are detours, there are undesirable developments. This has to do with the high respect that God shows us.

But there still are possibilities.