Orthodox thinking doesn’t pair adjectives with the word “God”.
As I watch a spokesman for a group of fundamentalists talk about how “God is not a condemning god”, I realize that a simple way to express our apophaticism is to respond: Orthodox thinking doesn’t pair adjectives with the word “God”.
God is incomparable, indescribable, beyond understanding, not susceptible to analogy, and even these words cannot be considered attributes of God, but only descriptions of our unknowing.
The temptation in the culture is strong, to personalize and customize God, to make a god that does not worry or scare us, a god we understand, that fits our ideas, and fits our expectations. But there is no such deity. As surely as a stone idol, the god of our imagination is just that – imaginary. In regard to that, we can only be atheists.
People feel uncomfortable not being able to say “God is loving” or “God is just”, despite the fact that their own scriptures contradict them constantly, because they are referring to created concepts that exist only in their minds. But God cannot be expressed in Dixie Cup sayings or Hallmark sentiments.
The word “God” is not a name, but refers to our inability to know – to the impossibility of attaining to knowledge of God. The word “God” is a confession that there is something that doesn’t even share what we think of as existence. If God exists, then we do not, and vice versa.
If God could be contained in created human concepts, then he would be a small “god”, less than the concepts that contain him – he would be a homonculus, not God. But we reject as heresy the very attempt to approach knowledge of God through religious philosophy, which can only sculpt idols from ideas that were once carved out of wood.
God is so unknowable, that we cannot even refer to God as unknowable. God is so beyond the possibility of human knowledge, that if God were there, real, existed (all words we cannot use of God), it would be irrelevant to our understanding.
In fact, the only way for God to be known is to make Himself known, on his own initiative, and then to be known, since God cannot be contained in human thoughts, God would have to become man, and indeed make possible the union of God and man without the reduction of one or destruction of the other: The Incarnation, which only the Orthodox hold to in its fullness. Even then, we would have no understanding of God’s essence, but rather union with God through the person of the Incarnate One. We would know love, as God’s uncreated energy, which is God, but we would not know the essence. Rather, we would know love through the person, through Christ. The same is true of justice. And mercy. And so on. We would know God by grace, through grace, and in a particular person, Jesus Christ.
We would no then claim to “know God” the way it is common to do among the heterodox, proceeding to describe God’s attribues. We would, however, recognize the activity of God toward us, through Christ. God loves us, God has mercy on us, God chastises us, and so on.
This is why when many heterodox begin a conversation with “Do you believe God exists?” or “Do you believe God is a loving God?” or “Do you believe God is love?” I say “no”. Given what and how they’re asking, I prefer to swear off the wrong thing so we can talk about the true thing. Even when we Orthodox write that “God is love” we do not believe this refers to God’s essence, nor is this the name of a person. Rather, we refer to the energies of God, in humility, believing even then our understanding is neither comprehensive nor perfect. And any significant knowledge occurs only by interaction – synergy – and deep knowledge comes only to very advanced ascetics.