Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Knowing God…

Recently, a spiritually curious and thoughtful buddy asked me a good question. “When people say they ‘know God,’ what do they mean? Can anyone know…God?!” We were playing a board game at the time, so I had trouble answering fully. I mean, can you do that question justice while demolishing your opponents? So here’s my more considered response. (Btw, I lost the game…bummer)

Firstly, I said that no serious religious thinker claims to fully ‘know God,’ not without serious qualifications. Even as brilliant a Christian thinker as St. Thomas Aquinas admitted the ultimate limitations of human thought. But he developed a strategy for ‘knowing’ God that I’ve found helpful, which may seem thick at first, but truly, it’s good stuff.

Aquinas said that all knowledge about God is analogical, i.e. we don’t know God as God is, but only through analogy to our experience. Sure, we ‘experience’ God, but way different than we experience eating. So the first thing to remember when saying, “I know God is…” is that we don’t know eternal facts about God. God is much greater than our experience!

Still, God is also not not like some things we’ve experienced. For instance, many call God Father, though God isn’t our biological pops. Still, God’s also not unlike a father, in some respects. We call God caring, loving, wise, kind, and fathers (should) share those characteristics. Thus, God’s is not not my father, even though God’s not John Isaac.

Hence, Aquinas says, God is a father by analogy, or God is like a father in critical respects. Again, that may sound too complicated by half, but consider two reasons this idea’s important. #1, by starting with, “God is not, ultimately, a father,” we recognize that every analogy for God is incomplete. As father-like as God seems, God’s also very mother-like. Plus, many had terrible and abusive fathers. To say, then, God is a father, without leaving wiggle-room, makes God sound unsafe or oppressive to folk those with bad dads. The point is we ought never pretend our analogies about God are facts about God. That equals idolatry, because God is always greater!

#2, by accepting analogy as a way to ‘know God,’ we open ourselves to constantly new ideas about God. When I first accepted that Mother was as valid an analogy for God as Father, I discovered vast troves of powerful divine knowledge. My mother is creative, compassionate, giving, and through that knowledge of her, I’ve learned about God my divine Mother.

Of course, some analogies for God are inappropriate. For instance- God is like a chair. A few years back, as an ironic critique of intelligent design theory, some claimed God was a Flying Spaghetti Monster. I found this satire of bad science funny and compelling. Spiritually speaking, though, God-as-Flying-Spaghetti-Monster falls flat.

So how can we decide between useful divine analogies and foolish or oppressive ones? Well, for Christians, I believe, it begins with Jesus. We confess- by faith- that the baby born in Bethlehem is our starting point when seeking knowledge of the divine. Put differently, for Christians, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God we know. Thus, we know Jesus was born a poor peasant. So we ‘know’- by faith- God is like a poor, vulnerable babe, i.e. God values all people, especially the most vulnerable. We know Jesus taught compassion, justice and forgiveness. So Christians ‘know’- by faith- God’s like a loving, just and merciful leader. God, of course, isn’t just the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. Before he was born, God was. After his death, God remained. But God- for Christians- is not not the historical person Jesus. Rather, God is like what we saw in him. In fact, we believe God is more like Jesus than any other person or thing. However, because there’s much we don’t know about Jesus, we must be open to other metaphors, ideas and analogies if we’re to know God better. Nevertheless, if ever we wonder whether an idea’s appropriate, we can ask, “Does this contradict what we know about Jesus?” Then, perhaps, we gain greater knowledge about the God we worship and serve.

Sorry Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Grace and Peace,

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