On God

God is not a problem that needs to be solved but a person that needs to be known.  But what does it mean to know God? Knowledge has a supremely significant role in the Christian life.  But what kind of knowledge exactly?  Unfortunately the kind of knowledge that is so important in the Christian life is often misunderstood or taken for granted, sometimes even especially among Christian groups that highly value orthodoxy.  The irony is that it is possible to be obsessively concerned with learning all of the “right doctrines,” and yet still not know God in a truly biblical sense.

There is more than one way of knowing.  For example, there are personal, relational ways of knowing and impersonal, abstract ways of knowing. The ways we go about getting to know another person differ from the ways we go about knowing information.  Both forms of knowing involve our rational capacities for critical engagement.  But relational knowing often demands more of our whole selves—our rational, emotional, and volitional capacities.

Personal, relational knowledge also involves taking risks, remaining open, being vulnerable, embracing uncertainties, and surrendering some control.  It involves mutuality and reciprocity.  It therefore always has the potential of challenging and changing us at a deeply personal level.  It is not merely a matter of adding a few extra facts to one’s mental storage vaults.  A true relational encounter has the potential to affect us at our innermost depths.  Impersonal, detached knowledge can be appealing, in contrast, since one can accumulate it while remaining dispassionate, closed, in control, and relatively unchanged.  It rarely threatens to disturb and subvert our comfortable lives, unless we allow it to.

This is the difference, at least in part, found in Martin Buber’s classic distinction between I-Thou knowing and I-It knowing.  While these two kinds of knowledge are not necessarily incompatible, they are quite different.  When we treat God more like an idea than a person, we easily make the mistake of attempting to grasp and comprehend God in the same way we would try to understand an abstract concept.  God is treated more like a math problem to be solved or an theory to be mastered.  Nothing could be more misguided and disrespectful than attempting to reduce a person—human or divine—to an idea to be mastered.  But an I-It approach to knowing God remains seductive because it allows one to maintain the illusion of being in a position of power and control, the illusion that it is possible to objectify and comprehend God completely.

It is easier to recognize that this way of impersonal knowing and relating can be both disasterous and disrespectful on the level of human affairs.  It occurs when we naively imagine we know everything about someone, when we think we have someone totally figured out, when we stereotype and label and pigeonhole others, since this selective way of knowing is cognitively tidier than what is involved in a fully human relationship.  There are no surprises, no excitements, no mysteries, no room for real changes when human relating devolves into an exchange of this kind of narrow-minded, impersonal, manipulative knowledge.  So many small and largescale conflicts continue unabated because we prefer to interact with one another according to uncomplicated labels and stereotypes.  We so often choose to relate to others in these ways since it does not require much risk or vulnerability, not to mention a genuine willingness to change, which are all involved in authentic, personal, mutual relationships.

We often discard and reject other people according to inadequate stereotypes and labels.  Likewise, we often discard and reject God according to inadequate stereotypes and theologies.  Any attempt to know God through some impersonal epistemology is doomed to failure, for God can only be personally known through a relational epistemology of love.  This is why faith—or trust—has such a significant role in Christian discipleship.  God can only be personally known through loving faith.  This is one reason why Gods existence can never be definitively proven or disproven exclusively by some deductive syllogism or by impersonal, inductive inquiry.  These methods of inquiry, while valuable, are inadequate when it comes to the task of relational knowing.

Just as knowledge is gained in a human relationship, we know God by what God chooses to reveal to us and by how God chooses to interact with us.  Indeed, all personal, relational knowledge comes by revelations and interactions.  This means that it is impossible for one person to fully know another person as they are in their essence.  Unknown depths and mystery exist at the core of every person.  Likewise, it is impossible for one person to fully know God as God is in God’s essence.  Truly relational knowledge is always partial and incomplete.

Many mystics have emphasized the role of unknowing in the process of coming to know God more fully.  They point out that knowing God often requires us to unlearn and unknow God in the familiar ways we have become attached to, so that we may be open to knowing God in new and surprising ways.  For mystics, the process of “unknowing” also refers to letting go of the images and concepts of God that we hold,  since our ideas of God can ironically become barriers that prevent us from actually encountering God.  Healthy, balanced Christian theology, then, always has room for cataphatic (or affirmative) theology and apophatic (or negative) theology.  “Negative theology,” which has historically remained prominent in Eastern churches, places an emphasis on the ineffable, infinite, unknowable, and mysterious characteristics of God.  Negative theology assumes that it is impossible for any human image or idea to completely capture all of the qualities of God.  This overlooked tradition can provide some helpful counterbalances to the sometimes overconfident, maximalist Christian theology that some espouse.

St. Symeon the New Theologian offered this description of what it is like to know God:

“We can know God in the same way a man can see a limitless ocean when he is standing by the shore with a candle during the night.  Do you think he can see very much?  Nothing much, scarcely anything.  And yet, he can see the water well, he knows that in front of him is the ocean, and that this ocean is enormous and that he cannot contain it all in his gaze.  So it is with our knowledge of God.”

Indeed, knowing God calls for some serious epistemological humility.  It also calls for us to take the risk of becoming open and vulnerable, as well as comfortable with ambiguity and “unknowing.”


On Spirituality

Virtually everyone is talking about spirituality these days.  The word gets used so often and yet so rarely gets defined that “spirituality” has become one of the fuzziest, most ambiguous words in our present culture.  So what is spirituality?  Is it a set of beliefs and values?  The sacred images, symbols, and stories that guide a person’s life?  Is it a utopian vision of the future to strive for?  Some source of meaning and hope?  Or is spirituality some special, subjective experience?  An interior moment of mystical bliss?  Or is it a practical way of living?  A set of ethics, rituals, and disciplines?  Or is spirituality some combination of these things?  Or—it must be asked—has spirituality basically become whatever any particular individual wants it to be?

The truth is that we don’t have to choose between many of these options.  A holistic understanding of spirituality is broad and inclusive, encompassing beliefs and values, stories and symbols, ethics and experiences, rituals and disciplines.  That said, Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing, argues that:

Spirituality concerns what we do with desire. It takes its root in the Eros inside of us and it is all about how we shape and discipline that eros…  Spirituality is about what we do with the fire inside of us, about how we channel our eros. And how we do channel it, the disciplines and habits we choose to live by, will either lead to a greater integration or disintegration within our bodies, minds, and souls, and to a greater integration or disintegration in the way we are related to God, others, and the cosmic world.

According to Rolheiser’s definition then, everyone possesses and practices some form of spirituality.  It is impossible not to since everyone possesses and directs their desires towards something, or more often towards many things.  What an individual chooses to give their desires to constitutes their spirituality.  This understanding also means that spirituality is not something esoteric, off in the clouds, but rather something that is eminently practical.

If spirituality basically concerns what we do with the desire, the eros, with the profound energies that course through us, then spirituality is also intimately connected to sexuality:

To understand the meaning of sexuality, one must begin with its definition. The word sex has a Latin root, the verb secare. In Latin, secare means literally ‘to cut off,’ ‘to sever,’ ‘to amputate,’ ‘to disconnect from the whole.’ To be sexed, therefore, literally means to be cut off, to be severed from the whole…  Were you to take a chain saw and go to a tree and cut off one of its branches, you would have ‘sexed’ that branch…  It would know in its every cell that if it wants to continue living and especially if it wants to produce flowers and bear fruit, it must somehow reconnect itself to the tree…

Sexuality is an all-encompassing energy inside of us. In one sense, it is identifiable with the principle of life itself. It is the drive for love, communion, community, friendship, family, affection, wholeness, consummation, creativity, self-perpetuation, immortality, joy, delight, humor, and self-transcendence…  One of the fundamental tasks of spirituality, therefore, is to help us to understand and channel our sexuality correctly. This, however, is no easy task. Sexuality is such a powerful fire that it is not always easy to channel it in life-giving ways. Its very power, and it is the most powerful force on the planet, makes it a force not just for formidable love, life, and blessing but also for the worst hate, death, and destruction imaginable… It is the most powerful of all fires, the best of all fires, the most dangerous of all fires, and the fire which ultimately lies at the base of everything including the spiritual life.

Healthy spirituality, then, involves disciplining and directing one’s disordered and dysfunctional desires for the sake of gradually growing in love.  It is quite simple in principle, but one of the most challenging things we can commit ourselves to in practice.