God With Us: The Shattering of the “Idea of God” and Discovery of His Presence

“My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? … And most are offended by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.” CS Lewis[1]

Last night we finished a course on the Holy Spirit through PBI, and each of the participants (all seasoned pastors and theologians) described experiencing (at some point in their lives but reappreciated in our time together) something on the order of what Lewis describes as the shattering of former ideas and the realization of God’s presence in the realms of marriage, fatherhood, friendship, prayer and ultimately every order of being. The class brought home the recognition that centering, contemplative prayer opens a continual awareness of divine activity pervading our world. We are so attuned, in this secular age, to a disenchanted mechanical universe (the “God-forsakenness” of the world in Charles Taylor’s description) that it takes conscious effort to wake up to the endless iconic nature of the world. In continually looking for God to show-up, it may be we have missed the still small voice beckoning through friendship, contemplative prayer, and married love. The ordinary course of human suffering and love, the questions of a child, and even a rescued cat (continually present in class), testify, we realized, to the divine presence. The recognition requires a relinquishing of settled (limited) notions of God which then opens us to the unsettling realization of the pervasive presence of the Spirit.

The seeming tension between a settled idea of God and continually attempting to conjure up God’s presence are not opposed but consist of the same failure. To divinize an idea is to miss the enfleshed manner in which God comes to us. An “idea” is not enfleshed, it is not felt, it has no presence, and it gives no comfort but at the same time it offers no threat. Isaiah pictures Immanuel (God With Us) as shattering human ideas, human religion and human plans, precisely because they depend on death, darkness and absence. If the music is intense enough, the lights and smoke adjusted just right, and the medium is appealing, it may be that “whisperings and mutterings” may seem to conjure up God’s presence, but Isaiah warns the real thing shatters this conspiratorial belief system.

Mathew announces that Christ as Immanuel brings about this shattering presence of God, and it is Israel and her institutions who will stumble over God With Us. But is Jesus the same one who “will sweep into Judah” and “fill the breadth of your land”? Is God With Us on the order of water which “will overflow and pass through” reaching “even to the neck” and is it his metaphorical wings which will cover the land (Isaiah 8:8)? Mathew also quotes Isaiah to say the Messiah is one who will cause no disturbance: “He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope” (Mt 12:19–21, ESV). How will he bring about a revolutionary justice and provide universal hope without causing a disturbance? How is it that from the womb of a humble peasant girl, as a baby in a manger, working in a carpenter’s shop, teaching a few disciples for three years, and dying on an implement of torture reserved for slaves, Christ changes the world order?

God With Us in the womb, in ordinary life, on a cross, and in the resurrection has, in Irenaeus image, recapitulated all things, so that the world is opened to Trinitarian fellowship. Hans Urs von Balthasar describes Christ as convening a “cosmic liturgy” as he has opened up the world to divine love: “the essence of all being has become visible in Jesus Christ” who reveals the Father, as “a wellspring of reciprocal love.”[2] The fellowship of friends, the love of marriage, the birth of a child, and quiet meditation bear the presence of Immanuel. As Julian of Norwich pictures it, “everything is penetrated, in length and breadth, in height and in depth without end; and it is all one love.”[3]

Many of us have tended, perhaps due to the combined influence of modernity and patriarchal religion, toward a settled idea of God. A static God, a stale theology, a world emptied of the grandeur of God, passes over the unsettling dynamic of God With Us. The incarnation opens to us the interdependent relations of the Trinity, and the fact that Jesus displays the dependence of an infant upon his mother, the dependence of a child on his parents, dependence upon other people’s generosity (e.g., the wealthy women who provided him support), and just the basic human dependence on culture, demonstrates an interdependent reality on a continuum that extends into the Trinity. To be dependent on God and others or to be an interdependent part of a community is part of the mediating reality of knowing God. In Jesus we see the divine in every area of human life: his healing touch, his thirst, his sorrow at death, his love of children, and his tiredness, are mediating realities in which he is known as “I am.” This relational understanding of God revealed in Christ is not a departure from the “I am that I am” revealed to Moses, but its completion; the fulfillment that goes ahead into Egypt and the world.

The Bible knows nothing of the Unmoved Mover but pictures God in dynamic interpersonal relationships such as deliverer, father, mother, husband, beloved, companion, friend, advocate, liberator, king, and judge. God is interpersonal relatedness and this reality extends to his relationship to the world. The God of the Bible gets his hands dirty shaping earth (adamah) into his likeness. Rather than God being unmoved, unoccupied, and settled he is pictured as a shepherd, farmer, laundress, construction worker, potter, midwife, physician, baker, artist, writer, nurse, and homemaker, busily going about the tasks which occupy people and in which we can recognize his activity. Far from an uninvolved patriarch or distant king, God is pictured as giving birth, nursing the young, and is particularly concerned with children, the poor and the weak. The world is alive with the activity and grandeur of God but it may be that the idea of God blinds us to the reality. The Bible points to the constellations, the wonders of nature, the constancy of the seasons, as bearing the fingerprint of God. A she bear protecting her cubs, a mother hen hovering over her chicks, the work of ants, the stealth of the badger, the fragility of birds or even inanimate objects such as running water, light, fire, rocks, or clouds point us to his presence and activity.[4]

Elizabeth Johnson lists the variety of names in the Mishnah as a further example of the dynamic identity of God. In this post-biblical Jewish usage he is the Living God, Friend of the World, Mighty One, Searcher of Hearts, the One who knows the thoughts of all, Lord of Consolations, Height of the World, Eye of the World, Life of the World, Beloved, the One who dwells in hidden places, the Heart of Israel, the One who understands, the One who spoke and the world was, Justice of the World, Home of the World, Rock of the World, the Holy One, Holy Spirit, the One who hears, Peace of the World, Strong One, Merciful One.

In the spirit of Paul on the Areopagus referencing an idol to the “unknown god,” God may also be approached through the myriad of names and activities found in traditional religions: Alone the Great One, the Powerful One, Wise One, Shining One, the One who sees all, the One who is everywhere, Friend, the Greatest of Friends, the One you confide your troubles to, the One who can turn everything upside down, the One there from ancient times, the One who began the forest, the One who gives to all, the Rain-giver, Highest of the Highest, Unknown, Queen of Heaven whose glory shines in mist and rainbow, Great Spirit, Great One of the Sky, Protector of the Poor, Guardian of Orphans, the Chief, the Almighty, Watcher of everything, Owner of everything, Savior of all, the One who loves, who gives birth to the people, who rules, who makes children, who embraces all; the One who does not die, who has not let us down yet, who bears the world, who has seen many moons, who thunders from far-off times, who carries everyone on her back, who is heard in all the world; the One who blesses. The world knows something of the God revealed in Christ, and just as Christ reappropriates and gives new meaning to the Hebrew names for God, he appropriates and fulfills human expectations of an ultimate interpersonal reality.

There is not one settled concept which is adequate for God but what is required is an inexhaustible variety of names and concepts which allow for a dynamic unfolding of the divine reality. Even “Abba,” the name revealed by Christ, does not sum up or amass the Truth in one stroke. As expressed in the metaphor of Henri de Lubac, one can only keep afloat in knowing God in the way that a swimmer keeps afloat, through a continuous stroking of the water. As Johnson puts it, referencing de Lubac, “They are forever brushing aside the representations which are continually reforming, knowing full well that these support them, but that if they were to rest for a single moment they would sink.” As Aquinas notes, if you imagine you have understood God, then what you have understood is not God. [5]

Even the world (in all of its parts), which is open to understanding, seems to require infinite exploration and explanation. I spent some twenty years teaching scientists English in Tsukuba Science City in Japan, and among my students, one was spending his career studying the circulatory system of the silk worm, another was studying the genome of rice, another was a specialist in the human intestine. Several meteorologists passed through my classes and I discovered there are forest meteorologists, desert meteorologists, and those who specialize in ocean currents, but there was no accurate working model of world wide weather as the variables and factors are too great. Tsukuba boasted a small particle accelerator but it was well known that the subatomic world was proving bottomless and the only hope was for larger accelerators. There was no area of science, no matter how small its area of study, that was settled or finished. Just the opposite, the tiniest realm, to say nothing of the rapidly expanding universe, is proving to have infinite depth so that the world seems to consist of an endless number of, what Jason Baxter calls, finite infinities.

In Baxter’s explanation, there was a window between the 12th and 15th century, prior to the secular age but subsequent to the reign of Greek notions in which infinity was equated with incomprehension, in which beauty began to be experienced in terms of the infinite. Where classical philosophers strove to whittle down diffuseness to a tapered and simple whole (the One despite the plurality), the “Gothic aesthetic,” as Baxter dubs it, found a new point of analogy between the world and its maker in the infinite. Thierry of Chartres, for example, discussed how each creature potentially functioned as a mirror of God, with the world consisting of an infinite variety of mirrors reflecting one face: “Just as a single face, when casting its reflection off many mirrors, is still one” (Commentum super Boethii librum De Trinitate, II,48), so God looks at the world and history and sees his face reflected in an infinite number of mirrors. Nicholas of Cusa, in his treatise, On Searching for God, “tells a spiritual brother that the path to God is a paradoxical ascent accomplished by a descent into the world.” He deploys the mustard seed as an example, which grows into a tree which then drops thousands of seeds, each potentially becoming a tree such that “if its potential should be unfolded in actuality, this sensible world would not suffice, nor indeed, would ten or a thousand or all the worlds that one could count.” Nicholas then performs a thought experiment unfolding the infinity immediately available in the mind:

All capacity of the whole sensible word, and not only of this one world but also of an infinite number of worlds . . . How great a magnitude there is in our intellect! . . . through similar ascents, you will be able to ascend from the power of the millet seed and likewise from the power of all vegetable and animal seeds. The power of no seed is less than that of the mustard seed, and there are an infinite number of such seeds. Oh how great is our God, who is the actuality of all potency!

As Baxter notes, “That last part is important, because even if all the potentialities in every seed were unfolded into their infinities, the world would still be but a shadowy explication of God.” [6]

If we settle upon a static image, an idea, a limited whole, a distant and perhaps patriarchal notion of God, then we miss the iconic dynamic of God With Us in the boundless finite infinities. He is with us in creation, in history, in time, in the human circumstance, which mirrors his infinity. We can see him at work in the infinite depth of friendship, in the ever unfolding love of marriage and in the bottomless fellowship and relationship in the world all around us. Immanuel, in shattering the settled finite idols, offers up the infinite icon of the world as the mirror of his image.


(Thank you to Allan, Matt, David, Rob, Dan, Trenton, and Justin for exploring these possibilities together.)


[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber, 1966), 52.

[2] Theo-Logic, III, 438.

[3] Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 296-97; see Joan Nuth, Wisdom’s Daughter: The Theology of Julian of Norwich (New York: Crossroad Pub., 199 1). Quoted from Elizabeth Johnson, “Naming God She: The Theological Implications” (2000). Boardman Lectureship in Christian Ethics. 5. http://repository.upenn.edu/boardman/5

[4] See Johnson, Ibid.

[5] Henri De Lubac, Discovely of God, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: I?]. Kenedy, 1960), 120-2 1. Johnson, Ibid.

[6] Jason Baxter, “The Nine Billion Names of God” in Church Life Journal (December 8, 2021) https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-nine-billion-names-of-god/?fbclid=IwAR22nJYREsZNhrTDkBOusl2B6OjvVUK36tOFiBUKZl0bKD4qiIMrRxRgXbk

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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