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.