An excerpt from the chapter “Faith and Metaphor,” on the insufficiency of ordinary language in matters of faith:
There is an old story told of St. Augustine as he walked along the seashore contemplating the teaching of the Holy Trinity, which he was trying to understand. He observed a young boy digging a small hole in the beach and filling it with water from the sea. Augustine asked the young boy what he was doing and the boy responded that he was emptying the sea into the hole he had dug. Incredulous, Augustine asked him how he could expect to contain such a vast body of water in such a small hole. The boy responded that he would sooner finish his task than would Augustine be able to comprehend the mystery of the Trinity and contain the vast mystery of God in the mere words of a book. 1
Augustine understood the boy to have been an angel of God, sent to remind him to have a little humility. The story serves as an example of the futility of trying to comprehend divine mystery with human intellect. And it serves as a reminder that divine mystery cannot be fully contained in human words. Nevertheless, we keep trying to do exactly that.
Religions are full of words: scriptures, hagiographies, liturgies, hymns, devotions, sermons, meditations, doctrines, dogmas, canon laws, articles of faith, confessions, creeds, catechisms, edicts, bulls, fatwas, responsa, rabbinic rulings, talmuds, aphorisms, koans, commentaries, encyclicals, resolutions, theological statements, and press releases. The advice of the boy-angel to Augustine notwithstanding, we have very often tried to capture the divine reality in human words.
1 Story found in Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology : An Introduction. 4th ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007.