One of the first things we learn about God is that He is present everywhere.
It’s one of those things that are basic to what it means to be God. Just like the fact that He is all-powerful. In fact, the two seem to come hand in hand: the God who is omnipotent must also be omnipresent. The God who can spin a far-away galaxy while He counts the hairs on our head must be everywhere at once. Right?
Indeed. But the early Church Fathers took a different path to the same conclusion. Their reflections on this doctrine renew our appreciation for it, leading to greater wonder at the divine majesty.
Again, contemporary accounts of divine omnipresence usually seem to connect it with some other attribute of God, such as omnipotence or omniscience. A related argument is that God, as the Creator, who is the First Cause of all things must be present everywhere. Again, these are all absolutely valid points. But the Fathers laid more emphasis on God in His being as the reason for divine omnipresence.
The argument is first given its clearest expression by Irenaeus, the first systematic theologian. In Against Heresies, he writes:
He has fitted and arranged all things by His wisdom, while He contains all things, but He Himself can be contained by no one: He is the Former, He the Builder, He the Discoverer, He the Creator, He the Lord of all; and there is no one besides Him, or above Him (Book 2).
This becomes a refrain in Against Heresies: God is the one who contains all things but is Himself uncontained. This way of putting it turns the typical argument for omnipresence on its head. It begins with an observation of the often-overlooked obvious: What could possibly contain God? Could God be contained by heaven? Is he limited to the heavens and the earth? Or the entire universe? To paraphrase another early Father, Origen, in what place could God possibly be shut up?
The answer is, of course, nowhere.
One could illustrate this by way of analogy with the air: we can’t see it, or really touch it, but it is everywhere and—at least, under normal everyday circumstances—cannot be contained in any one place. The air I breathe in is, in a sense, the same air that brushes Mt. Everest and bubbles up from a submarine.
What’s interesting about the argument is that it emphasizes God’s omnipresence as a function of His very being. God, being infinite spirit, is uncontained, whether by a body, the earth, or the entire visible or invisible creation. Put another way: God must be everywhere by virtue of Who He is.
This is important because we don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that God’s omnipresence is dependent on creation. It’s hard to imagine omnipresence without created space, but the same holds true for time: God is no more bound by time than He is by space. So the fact that He is omnipresent throughout the universe no more confines Him to space or even necessitates the existence of a thing called space than divine providence binds Him to time or indicates that He is in need of time.
Inevitably, our language breaks down. The mystery that is the divine majesty can no more be comprehended by human words that it can be contained in time or space.
But in Book 7 of the Confessions, St. Augustine develops another analogy that takes our understanding a bit further. It comes in the course of a meditation on creation and its relationship to the Creator:
And I set in order before the view of my spirit the whole creation, and whatever we can discern in it, such as earth, sea, air, stars, trees, living creatures; yea, and whatever in it we do not see, as the firmament of heaven, all the angels, too, and all the spiritual inhabitants thereof. But these very beings, as though they were bodies, did my fancy dispose in such and such places, and I made one huge mass of all Your creatures, distinguished according to the kinds of bodies—some of them being real bodies, some what I myself had feigned for spirits. And this mass I made huge—not as it was, which I could not know, but as large as I thought well, yet every way finite. But You, O Lord, I imagined on every part environing and penetrating it, though every way infinite; as if there were a sea everywhere, and on every side through immensity nothing but an infinite sea; and it contained within itself some sponge, huge, though finite, so that the sponge would in all its parts be filled from the immeasurable sea.
This analogy has the advantage of both emphasizing God’s transcendence and omnipotence. Like the sea and the creatures that swim or float in it, God’s being is distinguished from our existence. Yet He is present to us just as the sea is present to the fish that flutters around in its depths. And the analogy extends further: the sea contains all sorts of creatures but it is certainly uncontained by any of them.
There are three implications that immediately suggest themselves.
First, there is nowhere we can run or hide from God. God the Father is indeed in heaven, but He is also on earth and everywhere else. To put this more in human terms, He cannot but be everywhere at all times. In the mind of this author, this is a great consolation.
Of course, the very thing that makes God omnipresent—his transcendent being—makes the divine essence invisible to us in this life. As Augustine puts it, God is both “hidden and most near” to us.
There is, thus, a bit of an apparent contradiction—a coincidence of opposites, if you will—implied in this teaching.
This brings us to the third implication. In the Incarnation, both God’s divine transcendent majesty and His intimate omnipresence are both radically reaffirmed. In Christ, God is present to us in a new, most extraordinary way without any diminishment of his divinity. As Athanasius put it in On the Incarnation,
For He was not, as might be imagined, circumscribed in the body, nor, while present in the body, was He absent elsewhere; nor, while He moved the body, was the universe left void of His working and Providence; but, thing most marvelous, Word as He was, so far from being contained by anything, He rather contained all things Himself.
In the Incarnation, then, the doctrine of divine omnipresence confronts us anew. We are comforted in knowing that God is near to us now and yet we also wonder that He continues to contain and sustain the entire universe.