By Thomas Palanza, Jr.
There is a cliché in the theology world, “God is always Greater,” which – despite being a cliché – succinctly describes a fundamental belief of the Christian faith. St. Anselm’s said it a little differently, God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought;” a definition which is as famous for its delicate beauty as it is infamous for its logical vulnerability. This simple description is actually rather remarkable; it requires us to hold that God plus all of creation, all of the contents of all of the cosmos, past, present, and future the we do and do not know about, that exist in our dimension of reality or not, all of this is still not greater than God alone. God loses nothing at all if all those things that are not God do not exist; which makes the god of the children of Abraham rather unique among the deities/forces that humans believe in.
This idea the foundation of apophatic or negative theology; you cannot say God is something because God so transcends that thing you use to describe God. Thus, you can say God is greater than whatever you want to say He is greater than and be right. Obvious things come to mind: death, sin, evil, suffering. Then there are less obvious things: definitions, images, desires, hopes. Then there are things you might not think of: Goodness, Being, Power, Love. God is greater than all of these; yes, even love. Does that surprise you?
It surprised me when I read it in Alphonsus Liguori’s feast day Office of Readings. While describing the love God has for us, Alphonsus says, “By giving us his Son, whom he did not spare precisely so that he might spare us, he bestowed on us at once every good: grace, love, and heaven; for all these goods are certainly inferior to the Son.” Alphonsus is utilizing an apophatic method here – if God is always greater, then everything else is always less. Isaiah says it in another way, “who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or instructed him as his counselor? (Isaiah 40:13).” That’s biblical sarcasm for you. But the point is the same each time; you cannot tell God who God is because God is greater than you are.
So how does one say anything about God? How can we even claim that God is love if God must actually be greater than that? We’ll steer clear of that event horizon, but suffice it to say that one way we can be sure we are saying true things about God is by saying what God tells us about himself (Revelation). One of those things God told us about himself is that God is love (thanks to all the authors of both Testaments and all the faithful of all time and most especially Jesus and the Spirit for communicating that with us). It is very safe – I dare say true – to claim that God is love, along with many other things. Yet, I think Alphonsus’ reminder holds true even still; God is greater than love.
Just before John’s epistle tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8) it tells us that “God is greater than our hearts” (1 John 3:20). I think this is simply saying that God is not equal to the love we experience in life. God is not the love of living with a spouse, not the love of having a child, not the love of living in community, not the love of serving the poor, not the love of administering the sacraments, not even the love of dying to save a friend’s life. God is not the love of any human experience; all those things fall short of the reality, like true reflections of God. No love that fills our hearts now, however truly God like it might be, is the love that God is. For it is not the love that we know and experience that lives in us, that has made us a new creation in Christ. Rather, at the center of our hearts lives the Spirit that we do not know and teaches us new things. As Jean-Louis Chrétien describes in his book, the unforgettable and the unhoped for, the divine is the unknown that constantly surprises us. It is always a surprise precisely because it is greater than we are and we cannot foresee what gifts it will give us. So too is God greater than Love, and we must be ever ready to be surprised by what the Spirit chooses to reveal to us.