As I try to grasp the nature of transcendence and contingency I often toy with various mental images and metaphors. Below is one of those. Tell me if it makes sense and where it falls short:
Draw a big circle on a whiteboard. Make it big. Now look at that circle. Inside goes all that is created.
What is in the circle?
Start listing what is created. The Earth, the Sun, Moon and stars, in fact, the whole cosmos. Write it down in the circle. What else? People. Animals. Plants, and anything else that’s living. Write those down. Inanimate stuff like rocks and things. Write those down. How about natural laws? How about time and space? Dark matter, quarks, scientific theories? How about ideas, even thoughts? Write them down too. You could continue writing until the circle is so filled with words it is a solid color, and you could still keep writing. But don’t forget to include some things we might not think to include. Creation is not just the physical world, it also includes the spiritual realm. So write down Heaven, angels, demons, Hades, ghosts, purgatory, and anything else you can think of that exists and is created. Don’t forget to include sickness, disease, suffering and death. And write down life, love, joy, virtue, and truth. Some of these things are also eternal. That may be so, but if they exist in creation they are also created. So write down eternity too. And don’t forget to include you. This is not just a mental exercise. You are involved, including your body, your mind, your past and present, your desires and thoughts (they are part of this creation as well), and your soul. It’s true for all of us.
You see the list can get quite large. We can write down just abut everything we can think of, everything in all of this world and in the spiritual realms. It’s all created.
Now where is God? Write “God” outside the circle.
You now have a circle filled with words, and the word God written outside the circle. This is a rather simple exercise to frame the idea that God is transcendent. He is wholly other. God, as the transcendent, outside the circle, person is utterly unknowable. He is not unknowable because He is some kind of impersonal force like fate. He is unknowable because He is transcendent . . . unless He chooses to reveal Himself to us.
So now, inside the circle, write down Jesus. God, as any Christian knows and proclaims, came into creation as a created being, a man. So Jesus is created, at least his humanity is created. It sounds strange to think of Jesus as created because we also know him to be the Logos and pre-existent, but in one sense he is, in that to be fully human he had to fully be part of this creation, be a creature as we are. Thus, Jesus is, in one sense, created like us. One can think of an author creating a character in a story that represents the author. Jesus is not just a character, so to speak, but he does represent the Father to us at the level of non-transcendent creation. If creation is like a grand novel then Jesus is one of the characters, come into the novel to represent the author. The incarnation is a mystery, but it is God entering His creation as one of us and revealing Himself to us.
Also write down the Bible. If the Bible is inspired, as Christian believe, then it is another example of the transcendent God revealing Himself to us. Other things we might forget: The burning bush before Moses, the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire before the Israelites, manna in the wilderness, and other miraculous things. These are all examples of God revealing Himself to us. We cannot transcend the boundary between creation and non-creation. We are completely bound within creation, but God can move freely, do as He pleases, reveal or not reveal Himself to us. In fact, it is even tricky to write the word “God” outside the circle. The word God, written on a whiteboard outside a circle that represents all that is created, is fine as a simple mental exercise, but even it is too limiting, too much of a boundary for God.
But we are human. We have to work with what we’ve got.
Notice I am not saying very much about God. I am not claiming to tell anyone that I know God in some detailed or decisive way. I only have the same evidence as you. I believe the evidence, but I know that I can be very wrong in how I interpret and understand the evidence. Lots of people claim to know God and to speak for God. Because God has revealed Himself we can say some things about God, we can make some claims, but we must be humble. We do not reveal God. We do not pull back the curtain to reveal the creator. God is the author. He is the source. He makes Himself known.
We are only like Moses hiding behind the rock as God passes by on the other side, or as Job getting a glimpse of the awesomeness of God after all that speculating. In both cases God does the revealing as a frightening and overwhelming gift. If one is not brought low can one say that God is known? That is the point of the last several chapters in Job. I wonder if the book of Job is not really about suffering as much as it is about the limits of human speculation about God. Thinking about God, who He is, what He is all about, His attributes, His character, is good and worthy, but it must begin with falling on one’s face before God. He is not a topic of study, He is the I AM to be feared and worshiped.
Finally, with our circle encompassing all that is created and God outside the circle, there is the matter of contingency. You see, all that the circle represents, all that is created and what we know, can vanish in an instant if God desires. All that is created is contingent on God. All that is within the circle exists because God wills its existence. In other words, God continuously keeps the circle whole and functioning. We can do nothing apart from God’s will, and yet, as a mystery of human existence, we are given our own wills with which we are to freely choose.