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Of God, Shells, and Language

Altar Panel with Saint James Major
from Flugelaltar
by Hans Klocker
Sunday evening my pastor was preaching on 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 and the inaccessibility of God's wisdom without God's revelation. He raised the question of why much Christian art displays shells and then went on to recount the famous story of Augustine and the seashell.

Augustine was writing his treatise The Trinity (conveniently available on Amazon centuries later). Any treatise involving the Trinity or the nature of God is arguably a mentally arduous undertaking. So struggling with what to say and how to say it one day, Augustine took a break and went out to the Mediterranean Sea. As he trudged along the shore trying to clear his mind, he saw a boy playing with a seashell. The boy was going back and forth from the sea to a small hole in the sand, filling the shell with water and emptying it into the hole. Augustine asked the child what he was doing. The boy said that he was putting the sea into his hole.

Augustine and the Boy with the Seashell
Thus Augustine's big "duh" moment: he was trying to do to God, with his mind and writing, what the boy was trying to do to the sea, with his hole and seashell. God will never fit in the human mind.

I can't help thinking, of course, that one of the main limitations of the finite human mind is language. Analogous to the boy's seashell, language can be beautiful, even exquisite. It is a gift from God, an amazing tool that enables communication. Yet how do you capture everything about God with language? A very basic example: There is one God, but three persons. Yet what do we mean when we say "persons"? They are not all three human persons. But what other options do we have? "Entities" is definitely way too impersonal. "Beings" sounds too . . . Greek. Or existentialist, if like me you are more familiar with Sartre than Socrates. And that is only one example; what about the word "God" itself?

So ultimately, language does not capture everything about God, thus why we speak of God's incomprehensibility and even unknowability. This does not mean we should not keep trying to understand more about God, however. We should certainly not stop seeking to know him better. Despite the fact that we will never fit the whole ocean into a hole, even with a really, really big shell, we can certainly make progress. We can always find out more about God even if we cannot find out everything.


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