Even when Thomas Aquinas was young, he was known often to ask, “who is God?” As he grew into one of the Church’s greatest theologians, he realized that it was much easier to explain who God is not. This might be a good place to begin today as well.
God is not just a more powerful being within the universe. He is not like Zeus, a human-like being with superpowers, bossing and bullying other creatures around. He is not an old man in the clouds that just looks in remotely to the world from afar. He is not a big teddy bear that doesn’t care what we do and can be taken advantage of. He is also not a flying spaghetti monster (whatever that is), some irrational being that we believe in to make ourselves feel better. In his divine nature, he cannot be seen, or touched; he cannot be put under a microscope or located anywhere. He is not within the universe, even though he holds it all in being and is everywhere. He himself is not a being at all. He does not have life, because he is life. He is BEING itself.
God, in himself, cannot even be named, as this would put a limit on him. God showed how radically different he is from our expectations or from other gods when Moses asked what he should call him:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13-14).
This refusal to be named, showing that God is not a being like all the other things we know, teaches us that no name could capture who he is. God does not have life; he is life. He simply IS! God is the only necessary one that depends on no other for his existence. He is the uncaused cause. No other creature has to exist, and everything that does exist depends upon him for its existence.
St. Anselm described the all-surpassing nature of God pretty accurately, speaking of him as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” There is nothing more that God could be. He is the fullness of every good, and we could not even conceive of anything greater than him. He cannot change because in him, there is no before or after, nothing greater or less, no potential for growth. He is not limited in any way. He does not have a body (apart from the Incarnation in Jesus Christ) and no emotions, as they arise from the body. He does not get angry, tired, sick, or old like we do. We cannot even say that he “has” things, like wisdom or power, because he simply is goodness, truth, love, wisdom, and beauty.
And yet, the God beyond all comprehension, who cannot be seen or even named, has been made visible, has become man: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). The great I AM beyond all naming has taken a name — Jesus, the savior. God fulfills the desire of our hearts by allowing us to look upon him, a seeing that brought death in the Old Testament. “You cannot see my face,” God says to Moses, for “no man can see me and live” (Ex 33:20). The revelation of God in Jesus fulfils our greatest expectation: “May the Lord cause His face shed its light upon you” (Num 6:25). In Jesus’ face, we see the face of God: “Whoever sees me sees the Father” (Jn 14:9).
Jesus makes his divine identity clear, pointing to the reality that he is the one without beginning or end and beyond all change: “Before Abraham was, I AM,” “I AM the bread of life,” and “I AM the light of the world” (Jn 8:58, 6:35, 8:12). Jesus makes eternity present in time, dwindles his infinity into food for us to eat, and sheds light on the true meaning of life. The amazing grace of knowing God through Jesus goes beyond a theoretical knowledge. The Cross, more than anything else, manifests the reality that God is love and has given everything for us. Jesus took our nature and all of our suffering and sin along with it in order to redeem it in his love. Jesus opens up God’s infinite life to us — inviting us to share in his own sonship as adopted sons and daughters of the Father.
To know God, we must break the idols of our own false conceptions about him. Rather than remaking him in our image, we have to listen to how he reveals himself. God might be beyond our comprehension — we can’t lift our minds up high enough to reach him — but we can know him through humility. In coming to know him, we also discover the goodness of our own lives. God did not need to create us. He was complete and perfectly happy in himself, but he wanted to share his happiness with us.
We can be tempted to doubt God’s goodness when we suffer, but even in those moments, we see that God stooped down to us and drew our suffering to himself on the Cross. It is good to depend on him and to accept our own littleness before him so that we can accept the gift he wants to give us of his own infinite life. We are less alive the more we move away from him and try to be the source of our own good and to define the meaning of our own lives. Like Eve found out in the Garden, this doesn’t work and proves self-destructive. Accepting God’s truth and love, however, makes us truly free and helps us to become more fully alive by sharing in the life of the great I AM.