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For many years, in both high school and college classes, I taught e e cummings’ poem “i thank You God,” and it was always a delight. In typical cummings’ style, the poem has very little punctuation and capitalization, changes adjectives into adverbs, takes words apart so we can better see how they work, and fractures traditional syntax. Cummings’ purpose, it seems to me, is to make us readers sit up and notice the bones of the language and see the richness that lies in an ordinary word or phrase.

After playing around with the poem for a while, many students came to love the poem. In fact, some fifty years ago, one of my former students asked me to recite it at her wedding, and I was happy to do so.

The poem begins, you may recall, with these lines:  

“i thank You God for most this amazing 
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky. . . .”

I am not going to analyze cummings’ poem here. Instead, I want to look at just one sentence, the last stanza of the poem, and then take off from there. In stanza 3 cummings asks: 

how should any tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no 
of all nothing–human nothing being
doubt unimaginable You?

This presents us with a paradox. If God is “unimaginable,” then the natural response would be to doubt him. But cummings implies that it is impossible on such a vibrantly gorgeous day to doubt the existence of God—even though God is “unimaginable” or, more likely, because he is.

We believe, of course, that for a few years God’s Son took the form of a man and came to Earth, but it was so long ago, and there were no cameras, no video recorders, just the written memories of a few working-class young men. Couldn’t God have given us a bit more?

God, though he speaks to us everywhere in a universe which “is before our eyes like a beautiful book,” cannot be imagined, says cummings, and I agree. Oh, we have always tried to imagine him. Scripture is filled with images of God, metaphors for God. But none of them adequately satisfies our imaginations.

For one thing, God has no physicality—God is Spirit. Secondly, God has always been; he is the great Present Tense, “I am.” God has been called Ancient of Days, older than the universe. But ancient and old have no real meaning for someone who lives out of time, who has always been. 

How do we picture this forever Spirit making a Big Bang that spawns billions of planets, only one of which, so far as we know, is home to human life? How do we imagine this Spirit making cells and molding them into living, breathing flesh and blood? Here’s my rambling attempt:

We can’t do it, God. You are Spirit, have no body, yet you are some . . . body? You can’t be seen, touched, tasted (though the psalmist tells us to taste your goodness), smelled, heard (though some bodies have heard you speak—and not just in thunder—but strong words in a frightening voice or quiet words in a still small voice). You even sing, we’re told.

You create from nothing. How can we build an image from so little? And yet we try. We fashion un-graven images with words that the ancient prophets said long, long ago, outlandish words. They said you are light, rock, fire, lye, king, dragon, leopard, moth, shepherd, rain, oven, mother, husband, father.1

What can we make of these?

As children, we made pictures in the spaces of our minds, saw you hovering above the table as we prayed—a king with a scepter, a smiling shepherd with a staff, a giant touching the earth with his finger 

to make trees and horses and smiling people. We gave you arms and hands and eyes and ears because, made in your image, we thought you looked like us.

Still you were unimaginable.

Modern science came along and imagining you, God, got harder. But still we try.

We imagine an immense, bomb-like explosion, a big bang that sends billions of galaxies each with trillions of planets tumbling through space and you are there. Outside of it all? In the middle of it all? 

And here we are on one small planet, Earth, among all those billions of galaxies and planets! Earth?

Why on Earth did you choose Earth? And now, today, you have blessed us with this “blue true dream of sky” and these “leaping greenly spirits of trees.” Thank you.

We (could it be like this?) imagine you in a lab coat hovering over a colossal computer.

You are not the computer but you program the computer.

And then, one day a “self-regulating organic molecule assembles spontaneously to form DNA, with its phosphate sugar backbone and intricately arranged organic bases stacked neatly on top of one another and paired at each rung of a double helix.”2

Over millions of years, you program (or do they just happen?) countless mutations until finally, on a sunny day in April, you touch a key and. . .Man! Woman!

That’s the best I can do, Lord, and I beg your indulgence for the failures of my imagination because I can’t even begin to imagine all those other planets perhaps with green skies and leaping bluely spirits of trees. I must confess that the images I draw from contemporary scientific writings do not provide me with much that sustains or comforts me.

A long time ago, I read a book with the title Your God Is Too Small. But here’s where I am now, dear God: sometimes you seem too large, so far away, so much more unimaginable than the God in cummings’ poem. Sometimes I wish you were smaller than this God of billions of galaxies and trillions of planets.  

And so I am drawn back to the word pictures the prophets and apostles and poets have given us. I am thankful for David and the songs he sings; I praise you God for Isaiah (and James Weldon Johnson) as they help me think of God as a mother bending over her child. I am thrilled as Hosea (and C.S. Lewis) show me God, as a lion, roaring to draw me back from the west. I am pleased to learn from St Paul that the armor of God is not the heavy gear of the military in any age but the truth and righteousness of the gospel.  

You are still unimaginable, Great God, but these and all those other wonderful old metaphors—fire, rain, shepherd, light, husband, father—are what help to sustain my faith in you, God, in this scientific age.

1 Years ago I found these biblical metaphors and many more in a Christianity Today (December 17, 1976) essay titled “Biblical Metaphor–More than Decoration” by Harry Boonstra.
 2 Collins, Francis.  The Language of God, p. 90-91.

David Schelhaas

David Schelhaas taught English at Dordt College. He is the author of a book on word histories called Angling in the English Stream, a memoir called The Tuning of the Heart, and three collections of poetry including his most recent collection Tongues that Dance. He lives in Sioux Center, Iowa.


  • R Z says:

    We all need this potent, refreshing dose of humility. Thank You!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This good. Thanks. Don’t we all have to come here?

  • Dale Cooper says:

    Deeply moving. And so obviously issuing from a heart brimming with gratitude and longing to trust and praise.

  • Nancy VandenBerg says:

    I worshipped Him as I read this. Thank you.

  • Bob Jordan says:

    What a treat this is to read and contemplate this morning. It reminds me of your WMCHS English classes (class of ‘72).

    • Bob Van Es says:

      Thanks Dave. This is very helpful today and forever. It is such a good reminder to keep searching and listening for the God in whom we live and move and have our Being. From Bob

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Thank you, Dave–and thank you Keith Mannes! This is a beautiful companion piece to Keith’s article today. Both are so well written, challenging us to think about our Creator with the reverence, respect, and awe too many of us Christians, even, have lost.

  • Tom Boogaart says:

    I often experience metaphors as a path that disappears in a deep woods and leaves me pushing aside brush and branches as I make my way forward. a path that leads me to the border of the Great Mystery.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you indeed. And then there’s the mystery in this materialty we now inhabit that, as images of God, the world is somehow to witness God’s presence, even if only as “an ember still burning,” as Harry R. Boer encouraged us to imagine and live. Thank you again and again.

  • Thea Leunk says:

    I remember that wedding well! June 17, 1977–almost 46 years ago, in fact.
    Thanks for awakening the ears of our ears and opening the eyes of our eyes with your reflection.

    • Dave says:

      Thea, I am so glad to hear your voice. I put that sentence in the essay, hoping you might respond . I have such good memories of you in American Lit. Dave

    • Dave Schelhaas says:

      I was hoping you would reply to that sentence, Thea. I hope you are enjoying your retirement—or are you still working? I have good memories of you—and your dad.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Always a treat to read your work and your fine musings, Dave!

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