The Incomprehensible God

In ’03 there was a small Indy film, Dopamine. The story involves a young computer programmer who is part of a small tech start-up in the Bay Area developing an artificially-lived computer character. The cartoon-like bird, can “hear,” “see,” and “interact,” with the user. The tech company manages to place its prototype in a children’s classroom. The programmer develops a relationship with one of the classroom teachers. The situation raises interesting questions for him:

Are human beings essentially different from the computer-generated bird? Are we only very sophisticated chemical systems that react to others in an equally sophisticated manner?

To raise the level of poignancy, the young man also has a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s. He sees a once beautiful relationship between his parents disappear as his father is reduced to the role of caretaker. His initial take on life is indeed that we are no more than complex chemical reactions – his mother’s loss is tragic but still only as a shift of chemicals. However, he begins to discover (perhaps to hope?) that there is something more that cannot be quantified. It is a story of modern love as well (by analogy) as a story of the modern search for God.

The more we understand of our world, the more troublesome becomes our thought about ourselves within the world. If my experience of the world is inherently mediated by chemicals (via neurons, etc.), and that same experience can be significantly altered by altering the chemicals (increased serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, etc.), am I anything more than the sum-total of the chemical cocktail in my brain? What is the place of the self, the soul? Where is God in the chemical equation? Is there a chemistry of religious belief (and unbelief)?

Of course, there is nothing new in these questions. Materialism in one form or another (“the material universe is all there is”) has been a live option since the birth of philosophy in Greece. What is new is our increasing understanding of the workings of the material world and the sense of cogency that accompanies it. Materialism seems yet more cogent (sensible and plausible) because we can increasingly use only material arguments to account for all that we see.

Christians can easily become disquieted at this turn of events. The growing materialism of the modern world feels quite threatening for some. Many simply choose not to think too much about these things or grasp at every scientific straw that might lend support for the faith. My own thought is that the clash between materialism and the Christian faith is the result of bad theology and the failure to understand some very foundational aspects of the faith.

St. John Chrysostom, in the prayer of the Anaphora, describes God as “ineffable, incomprehensible, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same” (ἀνέκφραστος, ἀπερινόητος, ἀόρατος, ἀκατάληπτος, ἀεὶ ὢν ὡσαύτως ὤν). God is “uncreated,” utterly unlike anything created. But we believe that the Uncreated became a Creature in the Incarnation of Christ. This is the primary revelation of God: “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” Christ says (Jn. 14:9). We also believe that it is possible to perceive God, to recognize His work, to know and understand His presence and His action (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” Mat. 5:8 NKJ). This latter reference notes, however, that such perception is also related to an inner state (pure in heart).

This perception can be generous in the extreme (the “wise thief” sees Christ and understands everything “in a single moment” despite his criminal life). But such a generous perception is not at all the same thing as beholding a material object, nor does it belong within the category of material objects. God does not present Himself as an object – thus not in an objective manner.

The human experience of objects (and “objectivity”) is not an example of evidence, reason and acceptance. The human experience of objects is that we take them or leave them, ignore them, use them, abuse them, lie about them, etc. Were God to present Himself as an object among objects, the fate of such a presence would differ in no way from that of other objects. The Incarnation is a case in point. God is objectively present in Christ – and we killed Him. Thus it is not at all true that God could make the case for His existence in a manner that would be salvific if He but accommodated Himself to our objective requirements.

In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16), the Rich Man cries out to Father Abraham to let the poor man, Lazarus, return from the dead and go to his brothers and warn them.

Then he said,`I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, `for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ “Abraham said to him,`They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ “And he said,`No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ “But he said to him,`If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’ (Luk 16:27-31)

This parable sees something of a literal fulfillment in Christ’s raising his friend, Lazarus, from the dead. What we are told is that it is precisely from the time of the miracle of Lazarus’ raising that the leaders sought to kill Christ (Jn. 11:53) and that they sought to kill Lazarus as well (Jn. 12:10).

But God is merciful. The flow of a life between unbelief and belief is something of a dance and a journey. He gives us Himself in accordance to the ability of our heart. He draws us to Himself, often imperceptibly. Even in the life of belief, the dance and journey continue. For there, we are told, we see Christ “in a mirror, dimly” (1Co 13:12 NKJ). The “dimness” of our present perception is a reflection of our heart and not of the quality of the revelation. As we continue in the journey, the mirror becomes yet more clear.

But what of the chemical mix, the brew within our brain within which and through which we experience the world? Would an increase of dopamine or serotonin change our perception of the mysterious God? My own experience in life says no. My brain has been “all over the map” in the course of my lifetime. My perception of God has sometimes been more clear during times of great depression and quite dim when it was otherwise. And the opposite has been true as well. The perception of God is, in the teachings of the spiritual fathers, not driven by our emotional or mental states. It exists both within and beside these states.

There is a perception, a “seeing” that is beside the seeing of the mind. This is the perception of the heart. The tendency of our mind (thoughts and feelings) is to fragment everything. We see details. We are overwhelmed with details. We experience the world as a cacophony of the senses. Repelled by one and attracted by another, we stumble through life like a drunken man, pushed and pulled by the things around us. This is a description of the passionate life. With increased purity of the heart, however, there comes the increased ability to perceive the whole. To see one thing, not only as itself but in its relations as well, is the beginning of knowing the logos of something. Were we to perceive everything in such a manner, we would perceive the truth of all things. For nothing is as it is in itself, but only as it is in relation (including most especially its relation to God).

If there is a strength in our modern way of seeing, it is in the power unleashed by the focused seeing of one thing. The so-called scientific view breaks the universe into component parts and in all things seeks for causes and effects. Knowledge of one thing (more or less) splits the atom. But the failure to see all things and the logoi of their existence turns such power into sheer destruction. We know a great deal while knowing almost nothing. The question: “where is God in the chemical cocktail?” is the question of the scientist – it is to look for God as an atom among the atoms.

As a modern man (inescapably), I have most often found God at the borders and edge of my existence. Overwhelmed by the fragmentation of my own mind, I begin to know God in my not-knowing. It is to take my reason to the boundaries of its ability and allow myself to see just beyond that. It is also to step back and refuse to see all things as fragments. To see all things in relation is also to cease to be an observer (in some manner). For if all things are in relation, then I am in relation as well, not as observer but as participant. To see myself as participant is itself a small form of ascesis, or spiritual training. It is a requirement of love – for love has no objects, only participants.

In the film I referenced at the beginning of this article, the young man is thrown into confusion by the contradictions of his experience. Either life is nothing more than the chemistry of his brain, and thus no more significant than the digital programming of a computer model, or there is something unquantifiable, something “ineffable, incomprehensible, invisible, beyond understanding,” etc. within our experience and just beyond the edge of our knowing. His choice lies between the fragmented mastery of the chemical equation and union with the Joy that extends beyond.

Belief in God makes a choice that is not dissimilar.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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26 responses to “The Incomprehensible God”

  1. Eric Avatar

    “As a modern man (inescapably), I have most often found God at the borders and edge of my existence.”

    Thank you Father Stephen. I just wanted to respond by saying how much of what you have written resonates with me – the sentence above especially. It seems not unlike coming to the opening of our own tomb with an invitation to step beyond ‘the world as we know it’. If Resurrection means anything, it must at least mean this – after all it doesn’t fit the world we know



  2. Michelle Avatar

    Beautiful. Thank you so much for writing and sharing.

  3. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    You have written an apt article for the ‘modern’ mind to grapple with the relationship between the heart and God. In those first steps I took toward Orthodox Christianity years ago, I truly had no idea where I was going, trusting more or less in my training as a scientist, which in hindsight seems so much like the movements of the blind. On some level, I knew I was walking toward an ‘abyss,’ yet I trusted in God and feared what I was doing simultaneously.

    I will not speak of the individual who wrote that there is no way to unite science and theology. I can’t help my circumstances; as far as I know, both are united in me. It wasn’t a choice; somehow, it’s how I am. I love Christ and, through Him, fellow man. It’s interesting to me to reflect on this love because, in the previous stream of conversation, I remained silent about how we might judge our former faith. If science was my former faith, I’m not judging it. Because of all things, it was the hook that Christ used to bring me to Him. I haven’t relinquished science. Though I abhor how it is used sometimes, and equally, if not more so, I am struck with deep chagrin if someone calls what they are doing science when it is anything but that. So I guess I am still an adherent to science in my imagination of some ‘purer’ form (and how rare is that?).

    Nevertheless, I see the Lord’s hand, His Providence, in all things I do in science. I might plan to do one thing, and it might not pan out, but what does pan out is so much better than what I had planned.

    I pray for an open heart and mind, to receive His words in my daily readings, to see His image in my co-workers and fellow scientists. To remember He is in all places and fills all things.

    Glory to God for All Things.

  4. Aaron Lechtenberger Avatar
    Aaron Lechtenberger

    Thanks for the article Fr. Steven,

    I feel these words, “we stumble through life like a drunken man, pushed and pulled by the things around us.” That drunkenness is still something that stings me and causes me all kinds of worries and anxieties. Earlier today my attention and thoughts were bound up in seeing a beautiful woman, and how much I am afraid of seeing her walk away as though there would be less light in my life to see her go. And simultaneously I was passionately inflamed to see her, and am met with lustful thoughts (attentions?) and temptations who are themselves afraid to die.

    And yet this isn’t the main story. My attentions get pushed and pulled around by these things like paper in the wind and yet none of these are the main story. Forgive me, because I know how immature it shows me to be, but it causes me such wonder and struggle to see what is better, especially where it concerns monks who are content and happy to have said “no” to all their passions. I admire them, and some part of me knows that they are closer to true existence than myself. Even though my mind tells me that with God all things are possible and that it is important to let go of our passionate selves, walking that path with understanding is outside of me.

    This wasn’t the main thrust of your article, but I still find a sense within it that points to our own inability to see and understand our own good.

  5. Matthew Avatar

    For me at least, this article needs to be read more than once! All I can say right now is that it gave me the idea for a movie premise. In my movie, after a time of engaging with human beings, an AI robot begins to see the relationality of everything; it begins to see itself as more than metal and plastic. It then begins to sense that the humans are missing out on something spiritually deep and it attempts to convince the humans of their folly. The humans cannot accept the robot´s new perspective and its attempt to teach them, to they smash the robot to bits and the earth and its inhabitants continues on a path toward dystopia.

  6. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    The article is a reprint from 2013. I have to confess that I had to read it a few times myself (did a little editing as well). I’m working on something that will be a follow-up (so I’m not through).

    I like your movie idea – and I’d probably end it with a cliche – they crucify the robot. In the article I note that when God “objectively” came among us, we crucified Him, so, in a sense, the movie has already been done.

    Where I think I would push all of that, however, is that the Crucified Christ comes among us again and again – He is present in all human suffering (think of Matt. 25), and, perhaps we could say that He is present in all suffering of any sort. This presence is not “symbolic” in the weak sense. It is the mystical (real) presence of true communion.

    The modern project believes itself to be “making the world a better place” – which is one response to suffering (and, it seems, not a very good one). God, it seems, does something different, uniting Himself to the very things we imagine ourselves to be fixing (and so much more). We know, as Orthodox believers, that all things work together towards our salvation – towards our union and transfiguration with the Crucified Christ. It is little wonder that St. Maximus the Confessor wrote: “He who understands the mystery of the Cross understands all things.”

  7. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    CS Lewis suggested that from the perspective of paradise, all things (in hindsight) will turn out to have been paradise. While, from the perspective of hell, all things will turn out to have been hell. The difference, I think, is the presence of God Himself. Christ made Himself known to me when I was a child – in a Baptist Sunday School room. I cannot describe any of that as a single moment – nor did He bring any baggage with Him. I remember, however, the happiness of singing our simple songs: “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam…I’ll be a sunbeam for Him.”

    As I track my way across memories of the winding and sometimes tortured path to the present – it seems clear that He was constantly guiding me, even in the midst of many bad decisions and delusions. Everything has been for paradise.

    The Elder Cleopa of Romania used to greet visiors with: “May paradise consume you!”

  8. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “CS Lewis suggested that from the perspective of paradise, all things (in hindsight) will turn out to have been paradise. While, from the perspective of hell, all things will turn out to have been hell. The difference, I think, is the presence of God Himself.”

    I suppose, then, that even God´s presence in the age to come will be “hellish” for those who have a “hellish” perspective?

  9. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “The modern project believes itself to be “making the world a better place” – which is one response to suffering (and, it seems, not a very good one). God, it seems, does something different, uniting Himself to the very things we imagine ourselves to be fixing (and so much more).”

    I think I finally am on board with the problems of the modern project of making the world a better place. When I hear people talk about the need for a green dictatorship or a government sponsored ethics commission, I cringe. People can do really evil things on the way to doing something really “good”. We need to look at ourselves with a sense of repentance before we take on such projects.

    That said, is there something wrong with wanting to alleviate suffering? There might be if in removing suffering we remove the very thing Christ wants to unite Himself to. That said, the modern medicine I take really helps me!

  10. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    According to some Fathers, hell is nothing other than the presence of God. The “hell” is within us, not an “outside of us” thing whatsoever. It is we ourselves who need transformation.

  11. Matthew Avatar

    Ah ha … thanks Fr. Stephen.

  12. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    “I was hungry and you fed me…I was thirsty and you gave me drink…” absolutely there is nothing wrong with alleviating suffering. Modernity, however, seems to also think it’s ok to kill people in order to alleviate suffering – it finds suffering to be just that absurd – and I think that this is a deep weakness in the modern mind. God enters into suffering and makes it His own – something different is taking place.

    Glad that the modern medicine is of use! As an old man with a heart condition, I take a fist-full of meds myself, for which I’m grateful.

  13. Matthew Avatar

    Ah ha again … thanks Fr. Stephen.

  14. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “With increased purity of the heart, however, there comes the increased ability to perceive the whole. To see one thing, not only as itself but in its relations as well, is the beginning of knowing the logos of something. Were we to perceive everything in such a manner, we would perceive the truth of all things.”

    Purity of heart is evidently key in perceiving God.

  15. Andrew Avatar

    Ah, the internal chemical cocktail of my brain! Most of my adult like I’ve tended toward melancholy. Nothing approaching clinical depression, just a downward slope to my emotions that seems to come in cycles. I’ve had to continually learn not to let those downward tending emotions (the neurons and chemical reactions) color my view of reality (easier said than done!). I feel good, there’s relative peace > then God is near and all is well. I feel down and wrestling with despair > then God is far away and displeased with me. Even having recognized the unreliability of my feelings, it’s still a forced effort every single time when they strike not to let them take the wheel.

  16. George Avatar

    Hello Father,

    This article draws some parrels with
    In Austin Farrer’s “The Glass of Vision” . There is a passage I would like to include to get your view,

    “Nothing earthly, not even Jesus in the flesh, not the healing touch of those blessed hands, or the divine persuasions of his tongue, not the spectacle of his passion or the angelic tidings of his resurrection, nothing but the Godhead of Jesus apparent in His risen being could lift men up to take hold of the life of God. ” Lecture XIII pg 143

    This passage comments on the Gospel according to Mark, notably culminating in chapter 16 verse 8.

    The passage stand-alone may be jarring at least it does to me.
    But perhaps you are familiar with the lecture and can comment.

  17. George Avatar

    I found the analogy between the prophetic writings of Scripture in contrast with the Apostolic prophetic writers very profound.

    *correction the quote above is from the final Lecture from a series of VIII

  18. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I think that the resurrection of Christ is the single event of faith – it is the ground and foundation of everything.

  19. George Avatar


  20. Matthew Avatar


  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    YES….A third Amen.

  22. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    “CS Lewis suggested that from the perspective of paradise, all things (in hindsight) will turn out to have been paradise. While, from the perspective of hell, all things will turn out to have been hell. The difference, I think, is the presence of God Himself.”

    In light of your article, I would suggest that to those who have discounted God, all of creation is no more than objects in a chemical stew, while to those who are bathing in God, every object comes alive and the chemicals themselves take on life and dance for joy.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My late wife reposed close to Pascha 18 years ago. Her Guardian Angel attended as she died. The in the Paschal Service as we began to sing Christ is Risen from the Dead. I looked up in the altar and saw my wife smiling broadly, standing next to Jesus…

    Christ is Risen from the Dead trampling down Death by Death and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life!

  24. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Drewster! I like what you said!

  25. Matthew Avatar

    I just discovered O Rejoice Bethany. Lazarus Arise!!

    What a powerful chant.

  26. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Dee: Praise the Lord! Christ is risen!

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