Divine Uncontainability: The Greatness of God in a Disenchanted World

  It is sometimes said that there are three dominant worldviews that are competing for our attention today. First, there is naturalism, the view that the physical universe is all that exists and fundamental reality is reducible to the micro-parts of the universe. Second, there is postmodernism, the view that reality is socially constructed, and fundamental reality is reducible to the ideas, beliefs, and emotional response patterns of culture. Finally, there is theism, or for our purposes today, Christian theism. One idea, noted recently by the theologian and artist Jeremy Begbie from Duke University is that these secular worldviews, naturalism or postmodernism exert an enormous reductive pressure on our imagination. Consider naturalism, or what Begbie calls reductive naturalism. The idea is that this worldview presses us to ontological simplicity and the drive to explain all of reality in terms of one fundamental kind of things (say the atoms) and there is also pressure then to control or master nature. These reductive pressures, or as Begbie calls them, pressures of containment, exert a powerful force on our imagination. As such, for many today, it is difficult to Imagine a God that is, in a sense, uncontainable by our thoughts or attempts at control. Now Begbie’s book, called Abundantly More, is a book about the arts and how they serve as a counter-reductive pressure to these reductionistic impulses.[1] But it is also a book about theology, and in particular, how the generative and counter-reductive nature of the arts fits best, and is to be expected, on Christian theism. And the main reason why, as Begbie argues, is because God himself is uncontainable. So today, as we continue exploring the nature of God, we are going to consider Begbie’s argument, as discussed in his book, related to the uncontainability of God.

How do we try and contain God?

Let’s begin with the idea of containment. To contain something isn’t bad necessarily. It all depends. It is a good thing that we contain or box in our dogs with a fence. Otherwise, they’d bother the neighbors when they walk by. It is a good thing that we contain milk in the milk jug, otherwise, it would be hard to drink, and so on. So, somethings are meant to be contained. But there is a sense of contain that is more negative: there is a sense of containing that has to do with the “narrowing down or closing in or controlling” or something or someone that isn’t mean to be narrowed down or closed in or controlled.” The suggestion is that God is the sort of being that we ought not to narrow down or close or control in this way. So, we begin with a question: Why think that God is uncontainable? By way of answer, we can point to Scripture passages that suggest the uncontainability of God and also philosophical for thinking God is uncontainable. Let’s begin with Scripture and read one passage, a beautiful passage from Psalm 145:

I will exalt you, my God the King;
I will praise your name for ever and ever.
Every day I will praise you
and extol your name for ever and ever.

Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
his greatness no one can fathom.
One generation commends your works to another;
they tell of your mighty acts.
They speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty—
and I will meditate on your wonderful works.[b]
They tell of the power of your awesome works—
and I will proclaim your great deeds.
They celebrate your abundant goodness
and joyfully sing of your righteousness.

Notice a few things from this passage. God is ascribed worship. This observation is important: God is worship worthy. Second, notice God is worthy of praise because he is great. “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise.” So, God is great and this greatness is unfathomable. This is suggestive of maximal greatness. Moreover, notice that God’s greatness is revealed not just in his character, but in his works: his “mighty acts” as noted in verse 4, his “wonderful works” in verse 5, and his “awesome works” and “great deeds” in verse 6. In sum, Scripture portrays God as a personal being that is worthy of our worship. Or another way: Scripture portrays God as maximally great. And these Biblical insights point to the supremacy and ultimacy of God.

We arrive at this same conclusion from philosophy. Let’s consider Anselm. He famously suggested that any being that goes by the title of God must be maximally great. He defined God in his Proslogion as the “greatest conceivable being.”

Thus, both Scripture and philosophy affirms our central intuition about God: any being that qualifies for the title “God” must be a being who is great to a superlative degree – a maximally great being. Or to put this another way: God cannot be boxed in or contained in anyway.

I think there are as many ways we try to box in God as there are fallen human being. Maybe I’ll just speak autobiographically. For me, when I look in my own heart, I see attempts to box in God in at least four ways:

The first two are things I struggle with as a philosopher. One way that I need to be mindful has to do with my optimism when it comes to understanding God or the things of God. I begin (rightly) with the confidence that we can know God, but sometimes I forget that at the end of the day, there are certain things about God or creatures that I just won’t be able to comprehend.

The second struggle has to do with my workload and my tendency to (wrongly) put my identity in what I do instead of who I am in Christ. I tend to think, and this is something ingrained in me probably from childhood, that my worth is based on my performance. And this sometimes translates into me taking on too much, because I want to prove my worth to others, but probably also to God. I think, to summarize this temptation, it is the temptation we all have to play God in our own lives, instead of letting God be God of our lives.

A third way I sometimes try and contain God is by thinking (or even articulating) the idea that God endorses a particular cause or political party. If I’m not careful I’ll tend to manipulate and use God for my purposes, instead of seeking to trust him and give him glory.

Finally, a final way I struggle and sometimes seem to contain God is in thinking that I can control certain situations or family members to achieve some outcome. I usually learn pretty quickly, that I can’t control others, and when it comes to my kids, I need to entrust them to God in the same way I need to entrust my own life to God.

Begbie lists five ways that we see the uncontainability of God in creating and redeeming the world. 

  • First, God cannot be circumscribed by the finitude of this world.[2]

The idea is that God is not contained or limited or boxed-in in any way to the world that he has created. He is not spatially contained. He is not boxed in as a kind of prisoner of time, and he is not somehow dependent or co-extensive with the world when we come to understand who he is. God is a distinct substance, an infinite substance (in the sense of full and complete and perfect) that has freely created finite substances that are distinct from God.

  • Second, God is uncontainable in that he is incomprehensible (i.e., exceeding our cognitive grasp) and ineffable (i.e., exceeding the limitations of our speech).[3]

Now, I would push back on this characterization, or at least I’d want to be very clear. God is not, strictly speaking incomprehensible or ineffable. Rather, Begbie is here talking about the tension between the doctrine of the immensity of God and the knowability of God. The claim isn’t that we can’t know truths about God. Rather, the claim is that we can’t know all truths about God.

  • Third, God is uncontainable by the world’s fallenness.[4]
  • Fourth, God is uncontainable by any other agency.[5]

These two features of God’s uncontainabilty point to God’s essential goodness (something we’ll discuss in a later podcast) and his sovereignty or ultimacy. God can’t be controlled or manipulated by any being and God is not “infected” with sin or evil given the world’s fallenness. God is God and we are not. God doesn’t depend on anything for his existence or nature and all things that are not God do depend on God for their existence and nature. Moreover, God governs the world and does so in a way that takes into consideration the free decisions and actions of creatures.

  • Fifth, God is uncontainably faithful.[6]

God is faithful to me, even when I am faithless. God is faithful to keep is promises, even when I break them. God never gives us, and he gives all of himself in Christ, so that I can find wholeness and hope and life and forgiveness of sins. God is true to who is he and all he does perfectly reflects his wholly good and loving character. God is faithful in a way that I’ll never be, and yet he remains for me, and with me.

[1] Jeremy S. Begbie, Abundantly More: The Theological Promise of the Arts in a Reductionist World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2023).

[2] Ibid., 129.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 130.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 134.

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