"For in him we live and move and have our being."
— Acts 17:28
A rainbow is a curious thing... it is the light we take for granted fragmented into a spectrum of dazzling colours, a familiar yet ever enchanting display.
I was contemplating this during the long drive to my parents’ farm this Easter when it occurred to me that one could propose an intriguing analogy for God by looking at a prism.
Theists describe God as “all-knowing, all-present, and all-powerful.” We may also use terms like "infinite" and "eternal".
Us humans, we are none of those things. Contained within our little bodies, which are born at a certain point in history and eventually die, it is impossible for us to know everything or to be present everywhere at all times—much less have total control over those things which we do see and understand. Everything we can possibly comprehend is limited to a kind of box, outside of which we have words like "eternal", "infinite", and "nothing"—concepts we don't fully understand.
For example, we may think we grasp what infinity is, but try this: imagine that a single atom was infinite. This atom has no edges. There is nothing beyond it because there is no “beyond”. There is nothing else in existence, not even empty space, for that would mean that the atom was not truly infinite. You can’t do it, can you? In our minds, that atom can become huge, even bigger than the known universe, but within the constraints of time and space, it still requires one thing: limitation. Without limitation, it would not even be an atom at all.
Beings, human or otherwise, are like the colours of a rainbow. We are distinct and finite. Each being is existentially unique; red, by its very nature, is not blue—just as you, by your very nature, are not anyone else. We are most certainly not infinite—yellow alone does not make a rainbow.
What colour is God?
The God that many people, both believers and sceptics, often talk about is really a supreme being—a "special" colour in the rainbow, you could say. He knows everything, can do anything, and is everywhere. The problem with this idea of God is that it puts him in competition with his creation—the purple that cannot also be green or orange, or the infinite yellow isn't actually infinite.
Surely if God were a being—even a super-powerful one—we could find proof of him somewhere. It makes sense that atheists would demand evidence of this "special" being—and rightly so do they reject this idea of him as science pushes back the boundaries of our knowledge, leaving less and less room for an invisible deity. We don’t need a magical god to make the stars shine if we know that they are just giant balls of burning gas.
And that is why St. Thomas Aquinas made the very important distinction that God is not a being—one extra-special colour in a spectrum of colours—but rather, Ipsum Esse Subsistens: The subsistent act of to be itself.
God is more like the white light that makes a rainbow possible at all. A rainbow, as pretty as it is, makes no sense without white light. Remove the original light source and you lose the display of colours. God is not something within the world, but rather the condition for the possibility of the world. The reason there is something rather than nothing.
(I would also like to point out that the rainbow—visibile light—is actually a very small fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum1, just as the universe is an infinitesimal fraction of God's creative power.)
Now, that's a cool analogy and all, but there's a catch. How can we, on this side of the prism of time and space, possibly come to know this "ocean of existence from which the world in its entirety comes"? We literally cannot fathom God, for to try is to reduce him to a mere idea (or an analogy involving rainbows) once again.
But it turns out God does want us to know him, and he did make it possible: in the person of Jesus.
Jesus, who is fully divine yet fully human, is the way by which we can come to know God.
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." — John 14:6
The incarnation is arguably the greatest mystery in all of history—that the same God who, by his very nature, is infinite, eternal, without limitation, became a person whom we can actually know.
And get this: not only did he walk among us two thousand years ago so that people could see and touch and hear him, in the most bizarre turn of events God made himself yet even more available to us in the guise of simple bread and wine which we can still receive at any Mass.
Furthermore, Jesus, who became like us in all things but sin, assumed not only a human nature but also a human heart, complete with all its aching desires. In Jesus, the God who has no need of us chose to need our love.
"'I Thirst.' Those words express it best. Indeed, Jesus feels not just a desire but a burning thirst for love from those for whom he gave up his life."— 33 Days to Merciful Love, p. 155
This mutual desire is what makes an authentic relationship with God possible. For the sake of friendship, his heart experiences not only joy but also sorrow, the same ache to be one with another. With our love, in letting him love us and save us, we console Jesus.
The last few weeks I have had a word resting in my soul... It is that God is love, not an argument. Analogies are helpful, but they are nothing if we do not know God in the person of Jesus. Pray, read scripture, receive the sacraments—and love, love, love. Hearts will be changed not when we provide the perfect argument but when they encounter in us the God who is Love.
About This Painting
With this analogy on my heart for many weeks, I knew that I wanted to try painting an image that incorporated a rainbow. I so thoroughly enjoyed painting Bound that I decided to try painting hands again—and I wanted to make it a challenge.
The thick glass in our ensuite throws the pretty ribbons of light that you see in this painting. I must have looked hilarious with my tripod perched in the tub, a desk lamp clamped to the side, and myself crouching between its spindly legs trying to position my hands just right to catch the most amount of light in the few seconds that the sun peeked from behind the clouds.
I've been informed that this painting is "a little weird" (who holds their hands like that?!), but I don't mind. Hands, like faces, continue to fascinate me for their many subtle shades and tints.
God continued to work in my heart throughout the painting process... I realized that my life, like my painting style, is such that I am able to continue working on the details (sometimes over and over and over again) until I get it right. God does not demand perfection of me in my first brushstroke—and perhaps not even my second or seventeenth brushstroke. He asks only that I accept his mercy time and again, so that he may free me to love anew each day.