Project Canterbury

Problem Papers
Holy Cross Press
This piece was originally published in 1940 As Problem Paper No. 2 at West Park, NY

What is God Like?

It is no wonder that so many people take the idea of God as a problem. In these days, it is very much a problem as to what anybody means when using the word "God." It is not so much a case of a clear idea of a being, with questions about whether this being exists or not, as we have a clear idea of whether there is extra-terrestrial life, for instance, and argue on whether it exists or not. Rather in reference to God, it is a problem about what the idea "God" is, and what reality it corresponds to. People give the name "God" to such different realities. Some give the name of "God" to whatever-it-is that gives them "religious experiences." Some attach the name to whatever-it-is that pleases man in this mixed-up world. Some attach the name "God" to whatever-it-is that is the uttermost reality of all things, on which all else depends.

So, you can’t be sure, whenever you run across the word "God," that the other party means anything like the same being that you mean.

But there is one great general meaning, and there is a rather distinct and concrete Christian meaning, of the word "God." In general, I think practically all people regard the word as meaning the most important being (whatever else you may call him). The Christian meaning is fundamentally the same . . . "God" means whatever-it-is, that is most important in the universe. But it goes on from there. There is a lot of rich variety in the Christian idea of what God is like. Let us look over some of the contrasts and see if the unity as well as variety will not reveal itself to us.



From the earliest times that we know of, men have had experiences, which they could tell about only by means of theological (or "thinking about God") language, even if it was the most rudimentary sort of theological language. Strange powers came upon them, or into them, strange visions loomed up out of their ordinary environment, strange voices seemed to speak unearthly messages to them. They could not account for these experiences by the laws familiar to them, and yet the strength of the stimulus was often so great that they could not doubt their reality. Taken together in a loose sort of collection, these were thought of as manifestations of the divine.

God, or the gods, made many different kinds of impression upon people. But generally the impression was of a quite distinct being, not at all abstract but very concrete, not a great general idea, like Goodness or Holiness, but a very special good being, or holy being; always special and concrete, though not necessarily good and holy. And these beings were generally powerful, though not necessarily all-powerful. And again, these beings were generally mysteriously awe-inspiring, not to be readily understood as familiar figures in one’s scheme of things, but strangely different. The awe they inspired had a curiously two-fold effect on men: it made them feel like hiding away, and yet exercised a thrilling fascination upon them, so that they wanted to come near, after all.

Now this sort of idea of God, one of the most primitive ideas, develops into maturity as the race develops, without being lost. That is, it is not outgrown by the race generally, and the most mature spiritual and intellectual religion keeps a place for it, though many individuals have made a point of getting rid of their awe, disregarding the "numinous," as Otto calls it, and saying in their heart, there is no God in this sense of the word. Children have this idea of God as a quite distinct and definite personal being, who is near at hand sometimes, awesome but fascinating sometimes, a little greater than a large adult is. Then they may outgrow the idea, or the idea may grow with them as it has grown with the race.

It grows into maturity with the race, in many forms, which are quite familiar to us in these days. Many people have experiences which they can describe only as the touch of God invisibly present, or the vision of God who cannot be touched, or the voice of God invisible and in- tangible. Many can say "He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own." Many picture God as "the good Father" in very human form. It is quite regular for worshippers to go to special places, sanctuaries, rendezvous, where God will meet them as a friend. Many think of God only in the lineaments of our Lord Jesus Christ in His humanity.

Such is the idea of God that depends upon "religious experience." And much is to be said for its validity, so far as it goes. It is quite necessary for religion as we understand religion. (Of course, there are people about who say that no idea of God is necessary for religion, for there can be, and often is, religion without any God in it at all.) We take religion strictly as a relationship between beings, real beings, ourselves and a higher self or selves. Abstractions will not satisfy religion as so conceived. Neither will humanity serve as object of religion so conceived. The God who touches us in religious experience, as a real being outside ourselves, above ourselves, not only is needed for a strong religion: He meets that need. He gives in religious experience strong signs of His reality and presence.

If we ask ourselves why we believe in anything as real, instead of imaginary, illusory, we shall probably notice that one test of reality is the strength of the stimulus it gives to our receptive apparatus. That is not the only criterion of reality, but it is an important one. If we are quietly paying attention to our own business, not expecting anything to happen, and suddenly a great flash of light dazzles us and a great explosion bursts out, we don’t doubt that something real is there. Again and again in religious history something comparable to that has come to a man, and he could not possibly believe that he made it up out of his own inner consciousness: he can only believe that God has invaded his ordinary commonplace way of life. The Bible records many such experiences: you can easily recall any number of them.

That aspect of the reality of God, His knocking at the door of our minds, gives warmth and intimacy, and cogent force, to our religious belief. That aspect of God is the chief one that appears in James’ famous "Varieties of Religious Experience" (certainly his "varieties" all belong to the same species), and in H. G. Wells’ earlier enthusiasm for "God the Invisible King." It contributes what strength there is in the modern gospels of a finite God, who strives, works, suffers, and perhaps even sins, shoulder to shoulder with us men.

So belief in God is made vivid and vibrant with life, on this basis of an idea of God as an active person among us, who comes to be perceived by us in religious experience. But if God is no more than this, many of us will be somewhat disappointed. There are serious limitations in the idea of God as simply one powerful and interesting being among many, simply a God, a Spirit up there, however much He may surpass other beings.

For, if one test of the reality of anything is the strength of the stimulus upon us, which attests its presence, it is not a complete test. It needs to be confirmed by the test of agreement with all of the other experiences that we have had. If a very striking experience is completely out of harmony with our whole system of experience (whether religious or not), we distrust it as somehow illusory. Every experience that knocks at the door of our mind has to be introduced to the whole household within, and if it is congenial to that household, it is admitted; otherwise not. So every notion of a God has to meet the test of universality. Thus all polytheisms tend toward a universal monotheism. The "lesser gods" tend to be thought of as partial manifestations of the one supreme God. I may be loyally devoted to a being, whom I call "my God," and say that whatever all the rest may believe, as for me and my house, we will hold to this God. But unless "my God" is the God of the universe or a manifestation of Him, my very loyalty to Him may be a sectarian thing, a violation of a greater and deeper loyalty.

To what is this greater and deeper loyalty due? From very early times, another idea of God has held men’s minds, sometimes alongside of, or even in opposition to, the idea of Him as a real being near at hand, a concrete individual among other individuals. There are many ways in which this has been expressed. The universal God has been thought of as "Father of Gods and Men," maker of the world, world-ground, that on which everything in the universe depends for its very existence, supreme being, ultimate reality, the infinite, self-existent, absolute cosmic source, first cause, unmoved first mover, etc.

These are sonorous words, say some earnest souls, but they leave one cold. My religion, they say, cannot flourish in such a rarefied atmosphere, an air so bleakly metaphysical that it makes me shiver whenever I hear of it. It seems so aloof and indifferent to me and my burning needs, indifferent even to right and wrong and to heroic crusades to make the right triumph over wrong. And it is true, theology answers, that if this idea of God were the whole of the truth, religion would be reduced to a dumb gazing upon ineffable majesty and mystery. It is not the whole of the idea of God, but it certainly belongs to the idea, if the idea is true. It is fundamentally sane, too, to mean absolute reality when you say "God." We may make errors, but we keep sane, if our steadfast intention in worship is to "face up to reality," behind all appearances and through all intermediary, secondary, real things. And this aspect of God, His creatorship, despite all impression of cold aloofness, is the basis of a deeply satisfying religion. When we remember our creaturely relation to God, and place ourselves in His presence as quite infinitesimally small bits of an infinitely vast order, or rather members than bits, our very nothingness, along with our glorious inheritance as members of God’s cosmos, the Kingdom of God, lets us understand what St. Paul said, "having nothing, and yet possessing all things." Self-renunciation and eternal glory meet together in worship of God the Creator and Ultimate Reality of the Universe.

They meet together thus because God the Creator has them together in His essential nature. God the infinite loves the finite, (else how and why could there be any finite?) and focuses His infinite presence in little things, sanctuaries, sacraments, the hearts of His faithful people. It is His nature to be both universal and concrete. The Incarnation is the supreme revelation, in act, of the harmony of the two ideas of God that we have been considering-God as a vividly felt active living being near at hand, and God as the one supreme source and reality of the whole universe.

On Christmas Eve, we may be going out late at night, and we look up and see how the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork; and without forgetting that, we go into a little sanctuary and contemplate the little Baby who is the God-made-man. And each of these glories is so nearly all embracing and all-suffering, that the greatest marvel of it all is that it is one God all the while.



In one of the desperately realistic plays that ran a short course a couple of years ago, one of the characters makes his big speech in the form of an address to God, something like this: "God, you make things very hard sometimes. Sometimes I think I hate you." That is a possible sort of belief in God, God as real as anything can be, as the cause of all that happens to us, or as a powerful and mysterious force or person in the midst of the forces of this universe, but not good. We are not accustomed to this idea; but there have been many who believed that this world is dominated by a real being, ruler of all our destiny, inexorable in His might and majesty, to whom we have to make what adjustment we can, whose ways are not as our ways because they are worse than our ways. He is the potter, we the clay; and we can expect no satisfaction when we ask why He does what He does; we should not even raise the question whether He is good or no; His transcendence is beyond good and evil.

We are apt to think of such views of God as distinctly primitive. We associate them with fearsome sacrifices, offered to God as an inducement to Him to stay away and let us alone. Or if not actually primitive, at best they seem to be a perverse holdover from primitive dreads, or infantile terrors in our own lives. So in some measure they are. At least it is true that progress in the world’s thought of God has in general meant a growing refusal to attribute evil to Him. Not this simply and solely: some of our development has consisted in (reluctantly at first) ceasing to expect of God a constant supply of sweets, successes, and victories, such as the senses can enjoy. But in the long run, as soon as we have concluded that anything is really wrong, we have ceased to ascribe it to God. Indiscriminate slaying of multitudes, the good along with the bad, came to be disapproved of as radically unjust; and when the disapproval was certain enough, men could no longer believe that God would act thus. So again, much later, when men saw that no decent father would give his child a stone when he asked for bread, it was time for Christ to call on men to believe that God the Father would certainly not disappoint His children’s prayers. Later still, much of what was said about the eternal punishment of those whom God had predestined to damnation seemed so wrong that many people could not believe that God was like that--the doctrine of God was again developed in the direction of goodness. And actually in our own generation, which sets so high a value on hilarity and a sense of humor, Chesterton ends one of his stories with a vision of God’s most mysterious and awesome attribute--His mirth! On the whole, the development of our idea of God, as the ages have gone on, has involved a growing awareness of that which is truly good, and a sure ascribing of the best to God.

So whatever ideal we have, we ascribe to God. Thus in modern times, an extreme, one-sided view of God arises consisting entirely of ideals; where God is defined wholly in terms of value: for example, "the sum of the altruism in man" (Galsworthy); a synthesis of "hypostatized values" (Murry); or some other expression for the same thing, which amounts to saying that God has only moral attributes, and no cosmic omnipotence or reality, such as we considered in the preceding section; nothing but a series of nouns ending in "-ness" (made from adjectives). This would mean that goodness, beauty, wisdom, etc., are real entities dwelling in a (more or less Platonic) higher realm, above and independent of concrete good things, good people, beautiful things, or wise persons; but most of us do not believe in such a sovereign state. More likely, the thought of God as goodness-only, without the consequences always coming clear to us, will result in God’s being taken as the goodness of things, the beauty of things, etc., in which the "things" would be quite real without "Him." God thus becomes a great adjective, or an all-inclusive combination of adjectives of approval, an aspect of the world, a favorable aspect, a collection of qualities that we like in things and people, but "Himself" not a thing or a person at all--just an abstraction. It does seem, from the way some people speak, as if God was to them only a sort of luminous halo around the real world, a sort of "faint perfume" (cf. Zona Gale) pervading real life, or a sort of personification of ideals, but not a real being at all.

Now this sort of idea, that God is nothing but the goodness of the universe, though it contains some very important elements of the Christian revelation of God, is certainly very far from its fullness. Such a God is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our Creator and Lord and Father.

If God is only abstract goodness one is subject to doubt whether He is even real. If we start with an ideal, we are always apt to be wondering whether the ideal has any real objective basis in the world over against us, or is just a product of our wishes, a projection of our emotions, an illusion. If you start with a strong feeling of need for a God of goodness and love, you will always be haunted by the suspicion that your God is simply an image created by your need. This is not a discovery of modern atheists; but certainly modern psychology has made the predicament more acute. It has given rise to an "emotional skepticism" (cf. Theology, Dec., 1934), i. e., skepticism about the emotions, a thoroughgoing distrust of our feelings, which makes some people feel that if they want anything (or find themselves longing after something) very much, there therefore can’t be any such thing in existence-"it’s all a matter of psychology", or subconscious projection. My God, conceived of as goodness, may be really a father-image or mother-image or understanding-companion-image (filling the lack of an adequate father, mother or companion); and it may be that the best thing that could happen to would be to get rid of the idea that I need or want any such being at all.

Is goodness real? The famous old ontological argument, that the highest conceivable being would not be the highest conceivable being if he were not real (it is notoriously difficult to do any justice to this argument), at least makes us see the urgency of the question whether goodness is real or not. We need to be reminded (and we are being well-reminded, e. g., by Sorley, A. E. Taylor, Abp. Temple) that goodness comes to us, not primarily from us, but with as strong an objective impact as any other element in our experience, and it comes with authority, with an imperative claim upon us (not a mere "if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like"), but with a right that transcends any and all of the forces that shove us around.

Yet it may be better for us not to start with God as goodness in all its forms, and then try to prove His objective existence, and then His supremacy over all existence, but to start with God as reality, and then, by adjusting ourselves to that reality and cultivating our acquaintance with it, even till our acquaintance deepens into a vision of God, find the goodness that really is there; not to demand that God shall be so-and-so or else we will not accept Him as God, but to ask Him to "teach us His ways," that we may learn what true value is; not so much to ask whether good- ness is real, but whether reality is good.

That way is sane and objective. It is outlook, rather than introspection. It is not so apt to clamor for what is "good for me," but is rather disinterested (in the right sense), not appropriative, in the valuation of what is good intrinsically, in itself and for all (including me). It involves, not a constant testing of God by our tastes in goodness, (we know how fickle our tastes are) but rather a patient training of our tastes to appreciate the truth of God.

Belief in God is essentially not belief that a perfect being exists, but belief that the ultimate reality of this universe is perfect. This belief is not a piece of self-evident knowledge, irresistibly forced on our minds. There are some experiences, which appear to put a different construction upon the case.

The goodness of the God of this universe is not obvious to us. But we believe that this judgment, that ultimate reality is good, gives the most satisfactory interpretation of the whole of our experience, despite contrary appearances.

"God" means the ultimate reality, and God is good. We are apt to think of His goodness moralistically, almost exclusively as goodwill in action, doing the right thing, combining justice, mercy, wisdom and love. There is another aspect of His goodness, however, which is well recognized in our authoritative formularies, but is scarcely ever brought forward in our popular religion: God is good, also, in the sense of being the altogether desirable. The Psalter (42) and the Hymnal (313), the Prayer Book (Collect for Epiphany) and the Westminster Catechism (first question), speak in terms of "thirsting" after God (even the "great King of Kings"), and "enjoying" Him forever. This means that God (among the various relations, in which we stand to Him) is the sum and climax and perfection of all that is desirable.

But is God enjoyable? The wording, perhaps, is not perfectly suited to our present usage. It was a little bit surprising to hear someone say once: "I enjoyed your friend so much!" But clearly any such enjoying could not be like enjoying a thing, certainly could not have the note of appropriation, or consuming, or using as a means, but always moves more and more in the direction of appreciation, in contemplation and self-forgetful loving union. So God is at the apex of our desiring, our seeking, and our enjoying; all the little desires and satisfactions that we have now are, if not disordered (but it is a big if!), on the way to the "fruition" of the glorious Godhead. They may be harmful if we give ourselves up to the enjoyment of them-in comparison with them, God is the only good. But in their place they lead us on; they are God's leading of us on to the attainment of our end, "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever," here in this world and forever in heaven.



CERTAINLY the fundamental truth of things is not obvious. We can see and measure the appearance of things; but the forces that come together in them, the making of them, the meaning of them, the reasons why they came to be; these fundamental things are not obvious to us. If they were, we should not need to study about them so much, to get as far as we do towards understanding. Now when we say that the name of God stands to us for the most fundamental reality of all things, the ground of their existence, the beginning and end of their whole process, and the one Being who, if we could understand Him, would be the explanation of them all, we would say likewise that God is not obvious to us.

Yet this same idea of God as the most fundamental reality of all things, or as we say more familiarly, the idea of God as the Creator of all things, certainly suggests some sort of likeness between them and God. In homely speech we say that any maker is known more or less through his work. What anyone does is a manifestation of what he is; it is never a perfect manifestation, but it goes some way toward revealing the doer. The excellence of the things made reveal the maker more adequately than its imperfections do. The imperfections indicate that, in them, the mind of the maker did not express itself fully and completely, all at once. Some excellent things, it seems, have to be made slowly; a human being, for instance, takes times to perfect; and in the meantime imperfection shows a lack of completeness in the work, and thereby fails to show the perfection of the mind at work in it.

How does the natural world in which we live show us anything about God, its perfect Creator? We generally agree that God must be both like and unlike the things He has made and is making, because they represent His mind, but do not rep- resent it perfectly. But beyond this general agreement there is deep-seated disagreement. Some people emphasize the inevitable unlikeness. The perfect Creator, they think, must be so far above His works that they veil Him more than they unveil Him. The created world is so very imperfect that the perfect Creator must be altogether different from it. And so we get the idea of the "unnatural God," the infinite Stranger, who must be judged by contrast with everything we see; by looking at nature "we know not what God is, but what He is not." Such views are not necessarily permanently pessimistic: they may mean only that so far this crazy world does not at all show what its Maker is like. Then any knowledge we may get of God must come from far away, far above. He may reveal Himself occasionally, but then it is only by some strange act, some strange word, some altogether unexpected bolt from the blue, which we accept as divine, largely because it does not fit in with our familiar system of experience. There is from time to time an epidemic of deep distrust of nature, man, reason, even of what we call "goodness" in nature and man. There is such an epidemic in our present civilization.

That is one extreme. It has a lot to say for itself, a lot that is true, which it would be silly optimism to ignore. On the other side are the glad acceptors of nature and man, the liberals, the humanists and the naturalists, who also may run into an extreme. Human nature in its perfection, they sometimes say, is not only not the antithesis of divine nature, it is quite akin to it, congenial with it, or even (some few say) human nature in its perfection is divine nature in human form. Nature-mystics need only look at trees, lakes, mountains, etc., with wide-open gaze, to see right through them to God close behind them, under them, in them. Over against the unnatural God, may be set up the nature-God.

Well, in this as in so many things, Catholic Christianity lives not in a comfortable synthesis, without strain, of these two very much opposed views of the world and God, but in a tension between them. It is as if the truth were best expressed, not in a single nice and comfortable proposition, but in a conversation ("dialectic" is the technical term) marked often by "yes, but on the other hand-truth" and counter-truth and counter-truth again. It seems as if in many, many cases a statement is true if it follows some other statement, not true if it stands alone, or comes in a different order, a different place in the conversation. Perhaps a theological instance would be the statement that the Cross reveals God’s love, which is true if it follows the statement that God became man and was crucified for us; without that prelude it does not seem true at all. The harmony of a symphony orchestra depends upon the tensions of the strings.

Now in trying to apprehend the nature of God from our knowledge of His works, we find a very resonant tension. The conversation is well known in theology, and the essence of it is all-but-universal in Christian thought, even when it is not stated in black and white. Let us state it as sharply as we can. Take something in your hand, no matter what, if it has any good in it at all. Then, "God is like this" (because He "made it, keeps it, loves it"): "but not just like it" (because it has evident limitations, imperfections, defects, and we have no right to attribute its defects to its Maker); "He is ‘eminently’ and infinitely, what this thing is imperfectly." The first statement, "God is like this," represents the favorable view of nature noted above. The counter-truth, "but not just like it," represents the more unfavorable view of nature noted above; it is the negative way of finding God's attributes. It is often put more strongly: "God is not like it." The third statement, "He is perfectly what it is imperfectly," is the taut string that binds the affirmative and the negative together without weakening either. And you can play religious music on that string.

Intelligence is real and good in our created world. God must be like intelligence. But not just like; our intelligence is subject to the many limitations of psychological process; our rationality has too much of the psychological "rationalization" about it; and God’s intelligence must be so different from ours that it would be almost as true to say that He does not know as to say that He does know. God must be infinite intelligence, if any; and we give that the name of omniscience.

Personality is real and good in our created world. God must be like personality. But not just like it; for our personality is severely limited in unity and comprehensiveness, or integration; God must be infinite personality.

Love is real and good in our created world. God must be love. But not just like love as it is in us, not partial, sentimental, or amorous love. Spell it with a capital and say that God is infinite Love.

The religion of Jesus on earth was (dare we say so little of it?) real and good in our created world. God must be like that, not finitely, but infinitely. God must be somehow infinite sonship and fatherhood and unity of life in that relation.

This, you see, is not spinning attributes of God out of our own inner consciousness, our own imaginary ideals of what ought to be; it is raising the real excellence of real things to the infinite, and thus attributing them to the perfect Creator of all real things. The whole process of thought on this line depends on accounting God as the perfect Creator of all that is. It is not relevant to the idea of God as simply an awe-inspiring numinous being, or a "spirit up there," or simply a composite of all values. It is built on objective reality in nature, including human nature, including Christ’s human nature.

It may seem as if it were all too naturalistic. Our religion, like all strong religions, claims to be revealed religion. But revelation fits quite well into the scheme suggested above: it gives the high spots of it, in fact, but is consonant with the whole idea of finding God as like the best we know, but not just like it in its limitations, rather the infinitely good.

For revelation is surely best regarded as not just a matter of strange visions, voices, propositions, doctrines, words, somehow put into a few men’s minds on rare occasions. The occasional God is as disappointing as the unnatural God is. If God is really like the best we know, He will surely be always revealing Himself more or less, not so much in propositions about what He is like, but in His action. What we see is (more or less, again) direct acts of God. And the regular occurrences, the uniformities of nature, should be counted as His acts, not only the irregular, the miraculous. The everyday humdrum rhythm of our experience is as truly God-caused as the most astounding miracle that we have ever heard of. And being God-caused, it is God self-revealing. The miracle is only more emphatically God self-revealing, and thus significant to us, than the everyday action of God, which is our everyday experience. Surely we have a place in our scheme for inspiration, in which God quickens some minds to function more perfectly than usual in penetrating the meaning of events; but we do not reduce all revelation to inspiration. As Archbishop Temple says (in his Gifford Lectures), the primary place of revelation is the significant event, and the appreciation of it in the "inner life" is secondary.

Of the resurrection of Christ, we say that (in the same conversational manner as when we spoke of intelligence, love, etc., above), "this miraculous event is real and good, so God must be revealed in it; not perfectly and obviously revealed even so, for we know not exactly what happened; but rather a great sign has been given us, which (beside what it does to us and for us) shows that God is ‘the resurrection and the life.’"

We are living in the midst of God's activity. We are even a part of God’s activity. And we see something of what He essentially is, by seeing something of what He does.


A definite, simple concept of God is one of the most dangerous things one can have. It is as dangerous as making to thyself a graven image. Whether it is made of stone or mind-stuff does not matter so much. The danger is not so much in the spiritual hazard of trying to imagine what God is like; still less, I think, is the danger chiefly in the effort to use your reason for all it is worth when thinking about God. The danger is in making one image only. Images cannot possibly tell the whole truth about anything; and one single image is worse than a large collection of them, because one single image always has an air of completeness, finality and adequacy. And that is more deceptive than a multitude of variegated images could be. Nobody could suppose that each one of a lot of different images of the same thing represented the whole truth about it; but if there is only one image of it, one might suppose that to be the exact and entire truth, and that would be a disaster. (In like manner, heresy picks out one aspect of the truth and treats it as the whole truth.)

Even the idea (image) of God as our Father, if it is the only image one has of Him, exposes us to the danger of a "father-fixation." So it is better to have some other images or symbols of Him besides. God is like a father, but He is also like the wind ("God is spirit"), and like a consuming fire, and like a little baby, and like electricity, and like a number of other things which are not much like one another. The remedy for being too literally obsessed with one image or symbol is not to get rid of the image altogether, but to have a lot more images or symbols. There is a certain rightness in a theology of mixed metaphors: they keep you reminded that they are metaphors.

On this principle, the attributes which best express the ideas of God that are revealed to us group themselves into a few great classes, the "essential," the "active" or "relative," and the "moral" attributes.

The first class, the "essential", "absolute", "metaphysical" or "quiescent", attributes image God as the infinite self-existent Being: infinite in the sense that He is not essentially limited by anything other than Himself, self-existent in that He is not dependent for His existence on anything other than Himself, and "being" in that He is not on the way to "becoming" something other than He is, but is perfect achievement or "actuality."

There is a mathematical infinity which means a quantity to which no limit can be fixed, as e.g., the number of points in a line an inch long. And there is an infiniteness sometimes spoken of in philosophy, which means being unlimited, unconditioned, unrelated, undetermined, in any way whatsoever-which sounds to most of us like an absolute nothingness. But the theistic "infinite" is neither of these. It has its essential meaning rather in independence, so that the Infinite is not dependent on anything else for what He is, nor hindered by anything else from being what He would be. It allows for what may be called self- limitation, in that His being good, for instance, prevents His being evil, and having done some- thing, He must recognize that that something has been done, and the universe can never be as if it had not been done. We do not suppose that even the infinite God can unmake ("de-happen") an event that has really happened.

The infiniteness of God is viewed by us specially from the point of view of space and time. We are conscious of being very much limited by space. There are myriads of things we can’t do because we haven’t the command of space that we might wish. We are here, and not in Florida, and it would take something out of us to go there. But we are also rather fond of space in some ways: we like to go places, we like room, we like beautiful and interesting forms (space-relations), majestic distances and magnitudes, and also microscopic bits of physical shape. We are fond of space, and fond of conquering its limitations too. We like the bigness of America, and we also like to go over its bigness in a few hours, or "annihilate space" by means of telephone, radio, television, the Internet etc. We like to have our cake and eat it too, to have our space and eat it up at the same time. Our highest experience with space comes (speaking more solemnly) when we conserve its values and transcend its limitations.

And that gives us a hint (an image, a symbol) of how God is infinite with reference to space. Surely He approves of space, has a value for it; it is real and good, yes for God. The infinite Author of space surely conserves all its values while He transcends its limitations. It is mere negation to say that He is merely spaceless, that space does not mean anything to Him. It is more in tune with the Infinite to say that the fullness of space (all space) is present to Him, present in all its rich variety of form and quantity, but that He is not hindered by it, not made absent by it, not Himself made small or large by it. He is immeasurable.

We can use like imagery about time (especially if time is just another dimension like length, width, and thickness). We like time: it is real and good. We like to take our time and have plenty of time to take. We wish to prolong some blessed experiences, and indeed our existence as a whole, forever and ever. And times and seasons, in their order and succession, rhythms in experience of all sorts, are valuable to us. In music, it is absolutely essential to keep time, essential to the beauty of the piece, not simply convenient for the player.

Yet we do not like to be hampered by time limits, to have to be on time, or to "do time," or to wait for a time to come or a time to pass. And we have our ways of rising superior to some of the limitations of time. We have some past time with us in present memory, and future-time in present planning. It takes some time to read a novel; but after we have read it we can think of it all at once in an instant; a long stretch of time instantly present to us. The piece of music with its total time-duration and its rhythmical fast or slow beat, all in time, after we know it, and especially if we have composed it, can be instantly present to us in its totality whenever we think of its name.

Something of this sort of transcendence of time-limitations suggests itself to us as one meaning of God’s infiniteness. We should not say that He is simply timeless, knows no time, doesn’t know the difference between a thousand years and one day, but rather that time in all its richness is perfectly present to Him. The music of the spheres is God’s metrical composition and performance, but He is not a slave to the metronome. Indefinitely prolonged time is not eternity; eternity rather means perfect possession of total time, all as present.

The symbolism changes considerably when we turn from attributes of this kind to the active attributes, where all is relative, as between God and beings that are not God. Here instead of infinite we have almighty; we pass from immeasurable to omnipresent; from eternal to providential and purposive. The picture of the infinite Being yields place to that of the great active Creator and Governor. It is quite a different picture. But a sane theology must have different pictures of God.

Then again the picture changes when we turn to those attributes of God which are most nearly related to attributes of man, the "moral" attributes. (They were attributed to God long before the Incarnation.) The goodness, fatherhood, justice, mercy, and love of God make rather a contrast and tension with the metaphysical and cosmic Infinite.

But they are not a contradiction. All of these human traits, as we have seen above, ought to be ascribed to God only without the defects, which they have in us; without anything left in them which cannot be infinitized; especially without psychological process. So, He is like a father, but also like magnetism in an infinite field; like a "hound of heaven," but also like a great mathematician; like three persons, but also like one omnipresent spirit; like a compassionate, forgiving friend, but also like an undisturbed, blissful contemplation of all truth and beauty. (I say "like" so many times because at best our words are only revealed symbols, which cannot perfectly show forth the uttermost verity of God or anything else.)

It is beyond our scope here to set forth the ways of religious approach to God, or of opening the doors of our minds and hearts to His initiative, in response to (correspondence with) these and all other doctrines which our religion holds as based on God’s own Self-revelation. We can only urge that in all our meditations, aspirations, contemplations, or any other sorts of prayer we may use, we should start with the intention to face the truth and learn more than we now know of it; we should start with what comes to us as facts rather than with what comes from us as wishes; we should face many aspects of God’s nature rather than only one favorite image of Him; we should expect to find what the human race has always found, i. e., many surprises, and surprises in the direction of the better rather than the worse; and we should be very glad that we, little cell- members of God’s universe, are given some sense of the meaning of the organic totality to which we belong.

MARSHALL BOYER STEWART, D.D. Professor of Dogmatic Theology, The General Theological Seminary, New York City.


There are so many recent books about God that it is almost impossible to choose intelligently; but here are some that I value highly.

You can read on the extraordinary variety of modern ideas of God (by way of preliminary survey of what they are saying in Babel) in J. F. Newton’s collection, My Idea of God (by many people, each speaking for his own idea of God), or in Horton’s, Theism and the Modern Mood. Quick’s, Ground of Faith and the Chaos of Thought is the best thing I know for classifying the essentially diverse ideas of God. May’s, God and the Universe is very good in the same way. Van Dusen’s, The Plain Man Seeks for God is a beautiful analysis of different approaches to Christian belief in God. And another such is Rufus Jones’, Pathways to the Reality of God. The full content of Christian belief is suggested in Mackintosh’s, The Christian Apprehension of God, W. R. Matthews’, God in Christian Thought and Experience, Sheen’s God and Intelligence, and Alfred Noyes’, The Unknown God; Storr’s God in the Modern Mind, develops the weighty pronouncements of the 1930 Lambeth Conference. And you will have rich store of things to think about all your life if you keep company with Hocking’s massive The Meaning of God in Human Experience.


To enhance the value of this article as an educational tool, I have taken some editorial license. For example, I substituted a reference to the question of "extraterrestrial life" where Professor Stewart actually referred to the question of "men on Mars." Similarly, I replaced a reference to the telegraph as being an innovation that allows us to "annihilate" space with more current references to the Internet, telephone and television.

Finally, it is remarkable how unaccustomed we have become, at the turn of the Millennium, to reading long articles of conversational writing. In a few instances, in order to preserve the sense of Professor Stewart’s argument, I have tightened up his conversational style. The reader will note that the style of the piece remains conversational, and I have not changed the various contractions that he uses. But in a few instances a necessary conjunction or article has been added in order to preserve the sense of the argument.

I invite any commentary regarding this edition of this pamphlet. Please send me an email at

G. Robert Stephenson, Jr., M.D.
Duke University
Durham, North Carolina
A.D. 2000

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