Do I understand God? I guess that would be like asking if I understand my wife, my children, my parents. I know them well, better than most, but I cannot definitively say what they are feeling at any given time, what they think of my actions or the actions of others, with whom they choose to be in relationship.
Sure, I can guess, and my guess would probably be better than most. But know? Understand? Comprehend? Hardly.
Yet somehow, in my audacity as a pastor and communicator, I think I can say something definitive about God. The more I think about this, the more absurd it seems.
A dim reflection
Years ago, I took a seminary class about the “lives of Jesus.” I think that’s what the catalog said the class was called — probably why I registered for it. In one semester, we read a handful of books that told us who Jesus was/is. There was E. P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism and James Charlesworth’s response Jesus within Judaism (because it’s all about the conjunction, you know). We read Marcus Borg, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and several other biographies of Jesus I still own. Though I confess, I’d have to dig through a box in the garage to piece together a full list.
Along the way, my professor told us to note something I am still coming to fully understand. The liberation theologian sees Jesus as a liberator. The feminist writes about Jesus the feminist. The historian about Jesus and his times. The archaeologist writes of Jesus as a product of his culture.
“It’s as if they looked into this deep well of material,” he shared, “and in the end saw their own reflection.”
Projection onto God
When philosophers talk about early concepts of God, they note how societies often see the gods as exaggerated versions of themselves. A god is one like us but smarter, stronger. They possess the ultimate versions of the best of us: justice, love, and wisdom.
We see that on a macro/societal level, but the evidence around me seems to suggest we believe similar things on an individual basis. We look into the well, see our own reflection, magnify it and call it god.
But what if, hear me out, you and I don’t actually understand God? What if God is like my wife/kids/parents — one with whom I can be in relationship, but not really comprehend. Because of my relationship, I may have some good guesses about God, but I have to confess, I don’t really know God like I know 2+2=4.
We like to think we are like God, but maybe it’s closer to the truth that our god is like us.
A theologian of the late 13th-early 14th centuries said,
Thou canst understand naught about God, for He is above all understanding. A master [Augustine, I believe] saith: If I had a God whom I could understand, I would never hold Him to be God.God is above all understanding by Meister Eckhart
It makes sense, right? The minute you say you understand God, you cannot be talking about God. By definition, God must be bigger than our understanding.
The Bible makes this case about God as well. Think of all the times God refuses to be seen, named, fully revealed. Moses won’t look into the bush. Elijah only sees where God has just been (God’s back). Isaiah sees what he assumes is the hem of God’s robe. Jacob says, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it.”
Yes, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, but he spent his life inviting us into relationship with God through him. He never took the time to write God’s bio.
As those who have been called to follow Jesus, an invitation to a relationship is the best we can do. We cannot pretend to know the mind of God — what God thinks about this, them, or much else. All we can do is invite others to be transformed by the relationship that has transformed us.
If you want to know my wife, kids, parents, you don’t really need a description from me. You need an introduction and time, lots of time to build a relationship of your own.