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God’s Self-Understanding

For my money you can’t do much better than this in talking about the Christian doctrine of God. This is long, but I couldn’t bear to cut the quote off. It’s just too good:

Jesus is God’s word, God’s idea of God, how God understands himself. He is how-God-understands-himself become a part of our human history, become human, become the first really thoroughly human part of our history—and therefore, of course, the one hated, despised, and destroyed by the rest of us, who wouldn’t mind being divine by are very frightened of being human.

In Jesus, says the Christian, we do not understand God but we can watch God understanding himself. God’s understanding of God is that he throws himself away in love, that he keeps nothing back for himself. God’s understanding of God is that his a love that unconditionally accepts, that always lets other be, even if what they want is to be his murderers. God’s understanding of God is that he is not a special person with a special kind of message, with a special way of living to which he wants people to conform. God’s understanding of God could not appear to us as someone who wants to found a new and better religion, or recommend a special new discipline or way of life—a religious code laid upon us for all time because it is from God. God’s understanding of God is that he just says: ‘Yes, be; be human, but be really human; be human if it kills yous—and it will.’ The Law of God is a non-law; it has no special regulations. The Word just says: ‘I accept you as human beings; what a pity you can only like yourselves if you pretend to be super-humans or gods.’ God could never understand himself as one of the gods; only as one of the human race.

Let us be absurd for a minute and try to imagine what it means for God to understand himself. I don’t mean try to think or understand it (of course we cannot do that). But let us try to imagine understanding that limitless abyss of life and liveliness, that permanent explosion of vivacity and awareness and sparkling intelligence and, of course, humour. And remember that in understanding himself God will thereby be understanding all that he has done and is doing, all that he holds in being, every blade of grass and every passing thought in your mind. The concept he has of himself in all this is his Word. This is what is made flesh and dwells among us in the human suffering and dying Christ.

And in contemplating his life in this Word, in this concept, in contemplating all he is and does, God has surely a huge unfathomable joy and immense excitement in all the life that is his and all the life he has brought into being. God takes immensely more joy in one little beetle walking across a leaf than you can take in everything good and delightful and beautiful in your whole life put together. If he gets that pleasure from one beetle he has made, think then what joy he takes in being God. This limitless joy is what we call the Holy Spirit.

To be able, through faith, to share in Christ, in God’s understanding of himself, to be in Christ, is to be filled ourselves also with this joy, this Holy Spirit. It is a joy so vast that we can only faintly sometimes it as our elation and joy—just as our sharing in God’s self-understanding hardly at all seems to us an understanding, a being enlightened. We have a life in us, an understanding and a joy in us, that is too great for us to comprehend. Quite often it has to show itself as what seems its opposite, as darkness and suffering. The Word of God is Christ crucified. But it is God’s way and the truth of God and the life and joy of God. And this is in us because we have faith. We have been prepared to go into the dark with Christ, to die with Christ. And we know that this means we live in Christ. And that life, the divine understanding and joy that is in us, will one day soon show itself in us for what it truly is. And we shall live with the Father, through the understanding which is the Word made flesh, in the joy which is the Holy Spirit for eternity.

~ Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters, 104-6.


  1. Charlie Collier wrote:

    James Alison puts McCabe’s theology to rather stunning use in a number of places, including a new essay just made available on his website: A sample: “I take it for granted that when we talk about God we are not talking about a god, a large and powerful member of the genus ‘gods’ who just happens to be the only one. We are talking, in the wake of the great Hebrew breakthrough into monotheism in the post-exilic period, of God who is not one of the gods. Of God about whom it is truer to say that God is more like nothing at all than like anything that is, because God is not a member of the same universe as anything that is, not in rivalry with anything that is. God is not an object within our ken; we find ourselves as objects within God’s ken. God is massively prior to us, and God’s protagonism is hugely more powerful than any possible action or reaction which we might imagine. Or, in the phrase my late and beloved novice master, Herbert McCabe, used to enjoy saying: God and the Universe doesn’t make two.
    “The question then arises of the relationship between everything that is and God who is utterly prior to it. Is that relationship something like a symptom, such that from things that are, including ourselves, we can glean something about the One who brings them into being and sustains them? And if that is the case, do we have any criteria at all for what is a reflection of God’s creative will and power, and what is a defection from it? And this for me is the central point in any discussion about monotheism and idolatry: what is the criterion by which we can learn the difference between idolatry and worship? The answer which the Catholic faith gives me is this: the reason why it is possible to be non-idolatrous is because God has given us God’s own criterion for what it looks like to be non-idolatrous. And that criterion, given that God has no parts or divisions, and in every movement towards us is One, is also God. The criterion took the form of a lived-out fully human life story, that of Jesus, whose meaning was the reverse of all the human criteria that are usually brought into play in such stories. God gave, as God’s own criterion for God’s own power, not the power of Emperors, legislators or Priests, but the ability to occupy the space of losing, curse, shame and death without being run by them, in such a way that that space and the whole anthropological structure of human existence that depends on it, is able to be relativised. Idolatry is seen to be an involvement in the human cultural reality of death from which God longs for us to be free.”

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  2. Cortney wrote:

    What an incredibly powerful quote. Now to relearn to accept the unconditional love of a Creator God that is full of joy, takes pleasure in his creation and desires his beloved to walk in freedom. Thus, altering the way one responds in worship, sacrifice, and service to the Creator and amongst the created.

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 7:03 pm | Permalink
  3. bruce hamill wrote:

    totally inspiring citation, Halden… I also find Alison enormously creative and inspiring thanks, for the piece Charles. You might want to check out a few typos in your original piece Halden, the main one I’m not sure of is the combination of ‘imagine understand’ – is the word understand meant to be there?

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  4. Deve wrote:

    Sometimes I struggle when I hear a quote that makes statements like “God takes immensely more joy in one little beetle walking across a leaf than you can take in everything good and delightful and beautiful in your whole life put together” It feels like we’re just making beautiful statements that I would like to think about God but I can’t say are true based on my relationship or understanding of him. That’s not to say that therefore it’s not true, but when I make a statement that I wish to be true because it is a beautiful poetic imagining of how I think God could be it then feels like I’m creating god instead of learning about him through our relationship.

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 8:39 pm | Permalink
  5. Eddy wrote:

    “… be human if it kills yous—…” Is God from Scranton?

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 8:49 pm | Permalink
  6. roger flyer wrote:

    Ha ha
    “Hey, Yous guys. He’s a wise guy.”

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 8:57 pm | Permalink
  7. Daniel Imburgia wrote:

    the link to James Alison and the whole quote is worth the time. I was in Israel at about the same time and can affirm his accounting, though it was more violent the year before with many wounded and one killed (an undercover cop it turns out). I would like to add something from further in the essay: “…in this sphere, as in all others, as a brake against our unwillingness to learn by suggesting that if we find ourselves gathering together in the name of God against some group of people, then the chances are we are being idolatrous…” obliged, daniel

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 9:40 pm | Permalink
  8. Rachel wrote:

    Maybe it’s just my inexperience with theological writing, but the “limitless joy” business kind of sounds like McCabe is personifying joy rather than recognizing the Holy Spirit as a distinct person of the Trinity. Or is he just saying that the Holy Spirit brings us joy?

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 10:13 pm | Permalink
  9. Charlie Collier wrote:

    Daniel, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to experience something like this in person. Alison’s point about the perverse ecumenism and interfaith unity made possible by fear of gay men and women is astute and troubling. No wonder Girard is theologically attractive to him—the scapegoating mechanism is more than an interesting idea.

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 6:04 am | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    I think if “God” can “be” “love” then it’s at least plausible that “the Holy Spirit” might “be” “joy.”

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 8:50 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Yes, I don’t think this language should be set in opposition to the Spirit’s personhood. McCabe clearly believes in orthodox trinitarianism. I think he’s more picking up on the idea of the Holy Spirit as described in Scripture, often in the terms of the agent of joy (cf. Acts 13:52; Rom 14:17, 15:13; Gal 5:22; 1 Thess 1:6).

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  12. roger flyer wrote:

    In this dance, then, Jesus might ‘be’ …?

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Grace? (2 Cor 13:13)

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  14. roger flyer wrote:


    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Power and Wisdom…

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 9:39 am | Permalink
  16. kim fabricius wrote:

    I’m glad all you guys dig McCabe (and Alison). You should read him (in what I take was a sermon) on “Forgiveness” in Faith within Reason (2007). If I’d happened across McCabe before I ran into Barth, I may well have become a Catholic. “Forgiveness” begins:

    “It is very odd that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this, that God deals out to us what we deserve. It is not, I suppose, really odd that other people should; I suppose it is the commonest way of thinking of God, for God tends to be just a great projection into the sky of our moral feelings, especially our guilt-feelings. But I don’t believe in God if that’s what he is, and it is very odd that any Christian should, since there is so much in the gospels to tell us differently. You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like that at all.

    “Take the famous parable of the prodigal son …” – which is just what McCabe then does. Here is the penultimate paragraph:

    “Never be deluded into thinking that if you have contrition, if you are sorry for your sins, God will come and forgive you – that he will be touched by your appeal, change his mind about you and forgive you. Not a bit of it. God never changes his mind about you. He is simply in love with you. What he does again and again is change your mind about him. That is why you are sorry. That is what forgiveness is. You are not forgiven because you confess your sin… You don’t come to confession in order to have your sins forgiven. You come to celebrate that your sins are forgiven. You come to put on the best robe and the ring on your finger and the sandals on your feet, and to get drunk out of your mind, because your blindfold and your blindness have gone, and you can see the love God has for you.”

    And McCabe concludes: “God is just infinite, unconditional, unalterable, eternal love – and his love is for me and for all sinful people. That is the single statement that we make in the creed.”

    McCabe had nothing to learn from Protestants (who themselves often honour it more in the breach than the observance) about the sola gratia. Some Protestants, however, might have a thing or two to learn from McCabe about “get[ting] drunk out of your mind”!

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  17. roger flyer wrote:

    “…Never be deluded into thinking that if you have contrition, if you are sorry for your sins, God will come and forgive you – that he will be touched by your appeal, change his mind about you and forgive you. Not a bit of it. God never changes his mind about you. He is simply in love with you. What he does again and again is change your mind about him…”

    Hmmmm…sorry to bust another icon, Kim, but I hear echoes resounding from ‘The Shack’ ;)

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  18. kim fabricius wrote:

    No, no, no, Roger: in The Shack the divine pronoun would be feminine. ;)

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  19. roger flyer wrote:

    Who’s your mama?

    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 5:55 am | Permalink

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