On God

The Christian understanding of God as Trinity is an incredibly meaningful vision of Transcendent Being with many layers of significance, the brilliance of which cannot be exhaustively explained or comprehended. One level of meaning contained in its theology relates to the three symbolic Personalities of the eternal Father, Son, and Spirit intimately bound together in one Being. Understanding the transcendent symbolism requires considering its relevance to the immanent, generational patterns between fathers and sons who are bound by a common spirit.

The eternal Father is the perennial representative of the old and existing order of things. The Father ideally trains the Son in the wisdom and ways of their ancestors for the purpose of raising the Son to full maturity. The Father provides the Son with a safe home to grow up in as the Son learns the Father’s ways. The Father also perpetually guides the Son in his development and life as the Son seeks help from the Father, even as the Son ventures beyond the Father’s domain. In evolutionary terms, the Father signifies that which continually conserves and supports present and future generations of life.

The eternal Son is the perennial representative of the new and changing order of things. The Son begins his journey as a child by learning the Father’s ways and faithfully reproducing them in his own life. The Son earnestly seeks to know the Father and obey his leading throughout the Son’s budding development. Once the Son has reached adulthood, with the Father’s supportive encouragement the Son eventually leaves the Father’s home, the known boundaries of safety and comfort, to endeavour into unknown and dangerous places for the purposes of confronting and conquering the forces of chaos for the good of the world. In evolutionary terms, the Son signifies that which continually recreates existing orders while also exploring beyond them into new domains for the benefit of present and future generations of life.

The eternal Spirit is the perennial representative of the indwelling and enduring bond that unifies the Father with the Son across geographies and generations. The Spirit actively indwells both the Father and the Son to eternally bind them together in a living union that outlasts each generation. The Spirit reminds the Son of the Father’s ways, instilling the Father in the Son’s heart, and connects the Son to the Father no matter where the Son may go, creating an unbreakable and living bond between them. In evolutionary terms, the Spirit signifies that which continually revitalizes and unifies old orders with new orders across the generations of life.

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This vision of God should influence our understanding of Christian life and community. Christian disciples are called to honour the Father while following the patterns of the heroic Son.  Any Christianity that rigidly resists change, development, and growth is a Christianity the denies the recreative role of the eternal Son, Jesus Christ. Such a “Christ-ianity” is not worthy of the name and should arguably find another label for its religious parody of the recreative Way of Christ. Some Christian churches are all Father to the exclusion of the Son and the Spirit. These communities and their members tend to become rigid, stagnant, and lifeless since they resist the movements of the Son and Spirit that would change and renew them.

In contrast, other Christian churches react against the tyrannical Father by forming churches that exclusively follow the patterns of a rebellious Son. These communities and their members sometimes have the initial attraction of being new and progressive, but they may risk becoming chaotic, shallow, and aimless if they evolve without being firmly oriented in the developmental history of their ancestral traditions. Sadly, it is exceedingly rare to find a Christian church that honours both the eternal Father in union with the eternal Son in a Holy Trinity of Being, perhaps because these Personalities exist in perfect relationship only in God. Elsewhere they tend to be dysfunctionally related.

Interestingly, a Trinitarian vision of Transcendent Being is also strikingly compatible with an evolutionary understanding of the dynamics and nature of living development. The vision of God as Trinity portrays the eternal Father, the eternal Son, and the eternal Spirit as living together in a loving unity of uncreated Being as they simultaneously work at conserving, supporting, creating, progressing, unifying, and revitalizing created being for the perpetual good of all life. Simply put, life thrives and flourishes when it properly honours the Holy Trinity of Being.

On God

A perennial story of humankind is the generational narrative of fathers and sons who are unified by a shared spirt.  This eternal drama has been playing and replaying, generation after generation, for so long that its looping (and transpersonal) themes have profoundly impressed themselves on our collective traditions, memories, and ways of life.  The Christian doctrine of God as Trinity partly represents the ideal roles of the archetypal Father in relation to the archetypal Son as they share intimate communion through a common Spirit that eternally binds them together in an unceasing mutual exchange of love.  There is a great deal of practical significance in the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, since Trinitarian theology at least partly signifies these perennial, archetypal Ideals.

fatherhood icon

It is important to remember these archetypes emerged in traditional societies that practiced traditional gender roles.  So it is easier to grasp the meaning of these ancient symbols by attempting to understand them in their original wordings within an ancient context.   Ancient mythology creatively uses gendered symbols (feminine and masculine) such as the Great Mother and the Great Father to communicate insights that often extend beyond gender categories.  This means the archetypal significance of gendered symbols is not necessarily exclusively relevant to only one gender.  The media and the meanings should not be too tightly conflated.  Nevertheless, erasing gender when interpreting ancient mythology would create unnecessary, anachronistic confusion.  Since I am interested in highlighting some of the archetypal significance of Trinitarian theology, I will use the symbolic language of the Father and the Son along with its corollaries.  But understand that the meaning of these archetypes are not exclusively relevant to men.

Fathers and sons have fulfilled important roles through history.  According to the Trinitarian Ideal, fathers have been responsible for raising their sons to know the ways of their people.  Good fathers love their sons dearly and desire the best for them as responsible members of society and contributors towards the common good.  Good fathers wisely judge and guide their sons in their budding development with the intention of bringing their sons to complete maturity, while allowing them to realize their full potential.  Good fathers provide security and order and standards for their sons that support their growth.  Good fathers teach their sons the boundaries and expectations of the family and adult society to prepare them for entering into adulthood.  Good fathers instil their spirit within their sons to be a guiding light and helpful presence throughout their sons’ lives.  And good fathers eventually allow their sons to bravely leave behind the comforts and securities of their fathers’ households, and move out into harsh and treacherous lands to actively conquer threatening forces of the unknown.  In other words, good fathers teach their infant sons the ways of their forefathers, and then encourage their adult sons to venture out on their own, beyond the familiar boundaries of their fathers’ territory, heroically exploring new lands and advancing the known domain of their ancestors.  Good fathers therefore allow their sons to evolve in this perennial, heroic, generational adventure, as sons revitalize the ways of their forefathers for the good of those living today and tomorrow.

Good sons love and honour their fathers throughout their childhood development.  Good sons listen to their fathers and learn the ways of their people from their fathers who act as generational representatives of their forefathers before them.  Good sons obey and respect their fathers’  authority, trusting that their fathers are genuinely concerned for their wellbeing.  Good sons deeply internalize the traditions of their fathers and carry them in their hearts wherever they go.  Good sons cherish their traditions so dearly that they refuse to let them die with their forefathers.  Good sons intimately learn and know their fathers’ ways for the sake of regenerating and reincarnating the living spirit of their fathers for present and future generations.  When the time has come, good sons bear the responsibility of adulthood, and intelligently carry their traditions forward in response to the new challenges of today and tomorrow.  Good sons engage in this process by moving beyond their fathers’ domain of safety, while still carrying their traditions in their hearts, and actively assimilating new experience and information from unknown territories with the known ways of their fathers, thereby participating in the perennial pattern of creatively updating the past for the present and future.  In other words, good sons make all things new.

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Fathers may fail their sons if they do not adequately or correctly teach their sons the ways of their forefathers or the ways of society.  Fathers may also fail their sons if they rigidly oppose their sons’ desire to heroically venture beyond the security of home and become transformed by encountering that which remains new and unknown.  Fathers who expect their sons to strictly adhere to their cultural traditions without any freedom to adapt whatsoever risk crushing their sons’ exploratory spirit of sonship and stunting their growth.  Overly obedient sons may learn to present themselves as identical copies of their fathers before them, but they will have become spiritually dead inside in exchange for choosing the path of strict conformity.  Permanently shackled to the heavy burdens of dead tradition, they will have paid the high but necessary price to receive approval from their tyrannical fathers.

Likewise sons may fail their fathers (and their children) if they carelessly and rebelliously ignore their fathers’ wise instruction, making a mistake that will ripple through the generations after them.  Sons may also fail their fathers (and themselves) if they do not voluntarily embark on the hero’s journey by harnessing their youthful spirit of sonship towards bravely advancing beyond their fathers’ familiar domain, creatively regenerating their fathers’ spirit and traditions in themselves for the future benefit of their sons and their society.  Fathers fail their forefathers when they unsuccessfully teach their traditions to their sons or rigidly discourage their sons from advancing beyond them.  And sons fail their future sons when they fail to learn their fathers ways or if they fail to heroically leave their fathers house to be transformed by the unknown.

These archetypal themes appear throughout the biblical story surrounding the activity of God as Trinity, particularly in the drama of the Incarnation of Christ.  The Apostle Paul describes some of the Son’s heroic journey in the following hymn from his letter to the Philippians.  He introduces the hymn by encouraging his readers to be of one spirit and one mind as they are united in Christ and committed to patterning their behaviour after his example:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

The Son’s heroic journey of descent becomes his pathway of ascent to the most exalted realms.  It is this Christlike pattern of behaviour that Paul encourages his readers to practice in their own lives and relationships. Paul, at least in part, is encouraging his readers to adopt the courageous and transformative Spirit of Sonship as their own—the Spirit that inspires us to voluntarily venture towards life’s most incredible challenges with an intimate love and trust in the Father in hopes of becoming transformative agents of recreation.

trinity crucified

Christ voluntarily left behind the securities and comforts of his heavenly home to assume the new form of a human being.  He continued loving and serving his Father as he acted as a heavenly ambassador in a foreign land, sent by his Father to represent his Father’s ways to estranged people.  Christ faithfully followed the leadings of his Father’s Spirit within, daily seeking direction from his Father in solitude and prayer.  Carrying and honouring his heavenly Father’s Spirit in his heart, Christ reinvented and revitalized the traditions of his earthly forefathers, challenging and changing them where they had become dangerously rigid and dead, thereby fulfilling the perennial task of the eternal Son.  Christ demonstrated his heroic spirit of Sonship most clearly in willingly facing down the threatening and unknown forces of suffering, evil, and death in his crucifixion, and conquering them while becoming transformed in the victory of his resurrection.

The Father, Son, and Spirit clearly need one another to form an interdependent Living Reality that continually contributes towards the good of all people and the revitalization of the world.  The Father and Son without the Spirit cannot share a common bond or power of life, which causes them to become relationally estranged and impotent to renew historical traditions.  The Son and Spirit without the Father cannot be solidly grounded and oriented within ancestral wisdom, which leaves them vulnerable to developing historical amnesia and disordered identities.  The Father and Spirit without the Son cannot proactively explore beyond what’s already known and heroically adapt in the face of new experience, which dooms them to a future of spiritual ossification and extinction.

Future progress always belongs to the children of every generation.  It is up to the Son to intimately know the ways of the Father and creatively embody them in his way of life.  The Son must continually learn and regenerate the Father with the help of the indwelling Spirit for each successive generation.  It is up to the Son the learn his Father’s ways and reform his forefathers traditions to meet present circumstances without betraying their original Spirit.  The Son, with the help of the Spirit, is the perennial source of fresh creativity, vitality, newness, and transformation, the perennial explorer of new territories previously unknown and unconquered.

Any society that persistently fails to honour the Holy Trinity, either willfully or by foolish neglect, will suffer and eventually perish if it stubbornly continues in unrepentance.  This isn’t just true for explicitly “Christian” cultures for the archetypal symbolism of the Trinity I’m referring to here is a universal process that all healthy, thriving societies have practiced throughout history.  The Father, Son, and Spirit also symbolically parallel the perennial evolutionary processes of ongoing conservation, ongoing creation, and ongoing regeneration, which need to be coordinated for stable adaptation.  Together they form a powerful and eternal Living Reality that must be respected if we truly desire to flourish.

 

On God

Meditate on this: the ancient Hebrew word for “spirit” was also a word used to refer to breath and wind.  Ancient Hebrews understood the Spirit of God to be closer than our next breath and as prevailing as the winds.  God was not primarily known or related to as some conceptual theological abstraction.  The sacred Spirit of Life was known, first and foremost, as the intimately present yet transcendently prevalent power-of-being, a living and wild reality that gives vitality to all existence.  The reality of God was seen as an existential fact.  And this close, in-bodied knowledge of God preceded any conventional or conceptual formulations of God into language or image.  Both then and now, our words and pictures of God are, at best, ever-insufficient attempts at abstractly signifying an ever-exceeding Reality.

For religious groups that have lost touch with their historic traditions of negative theology, much of modern atheism has served as an apophatic corrective to their theological overconfidence.  Many atheists, ironically enough, have helpfully exposed the inadequacies of believing in God-as-an-abstraction.  By ruthlessly questioning and examining our representational knowledge of God, they have actually revealed some its inherent limitations.  Without realizing it, they have done God’s work.  Atheists have done many churches a valuable favour, if the Christians could only see it.  But, little as some know, atheists and religionists included, apophatic theologians have been doing similar work for centuries.

That said, huge swaths of overly doctrinaire religion and modern atheism have not even begun to face the actual question of God-as-a-living-and-present-reality.  They battle things out in abstract forums without fully recognizing the representational relationship of theological abstractions to life back here on earth.  Many people, Christians and atheists, get hung up on confusing image with reality.  Analogy is mistaken for existence.  Buddhists say religion relates to the sacred like a finger pointing to the moon.  Our conceptual attempts to contain God in a word, an image, or even a religion will always be insufficient.  This is true.  But facing the limitations of humanmade abstractions and analogies does not force us to say, “therefore God does not exist.”  On the contrary, facing the inherent limitations of our representations of God, as painful as that may be, opens us to finally facing the actual question of God-as-a-living-and-present-reality.  It is when the modern mind comes back to earth that it may discover God where God has been all along: right under our breath.  Indeed, perhaps the most primal of all prayers is to remember God as we breathe, in stillness and gratitude.

On God

The human mind represents reality to itself with images.  I form images in my mind of other people.  And other people form images in their minds of me.  I form images in my mind of myself and the world.  The mental images I form of you or me or life or reality are, at best, imperfect pictures of the reality they represent.  The Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote “No idea represents or signifies itself.  It always points to something else, of which it is a symbol.”  The same is true of our images of God.

When we discover our images of God are inadequate pictures of the reality of God, sometimes we rush to assume God therefore mustn’t exist.  But we rarely make the same conclusion elsewhere.  When I discover my images of a friend are inadequate, that my friend is far more complex and mysterious than I had previously imagined, I don’t conclude my friend doesn’t exist.  Or when I find out my self-images are rather idealized, that there are unowned or discomforting parts of myself that vary from my preferred images, I don’t automatically assume I don’t exist.  To do so would be to confuse image and reality.  The uncomfortable realization that my images of reality are inadequate primarily says something about my images, not reality.

The mathematician George Box wrote, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”  The point of Box’s statement is no model can comprehensively contain whatever real world system it relates to.  The complexity of life and activity in the real world always exceeds what our models describe or explain.  All models, then, are ultimately false.  They are close approximations of part of reality at best.  This is true in math, science, philosophy, and indeed religion.  The apophatic theologian would likewise say “All images of God are wrong, but some are useful.”  Our models or images of God are ultimately false.  We can only speak of God and think of God by analogy.  To think otherwise would surely be the height of intellectual arrogance.  But some images are still useful.  Some may still be significantly true, even if not absolutely so.  It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.

Totalitarian minds see knowledge as all-or-nothing.  If a model does not explain all of reality, then it must explain none of reality.  The totalitarian mind foolishly imagines it can fully contain reality in comprehensible concepts, images, and models.  It’s possessive reasoning desires to master reality as something to be owned and conquered.  God, however, has traditionally been understood as Absolute Reality, the total, all-pervading, unlimited Power of Existence.  Across many ancient traditions, God has been understood as the Source of all that we call Life and Goodness and Beauty and Truth.  The Spirit of God is the Spirit of Life, Goodness, Beauty, and Truth.  God, traditionally understood, exceeds the symbols and analogies we use to describe God.  This is fundamentally why issues of idolatry are prominent themes in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Interacting with God-as-an-image is different than interacting with God-as-a-living-reality.  But this distinction applies beyond religion.  The same hold true in social life.  There’s a significant difference between interacting with a person-as-an-image and a person-as-a-living-reality.  Many social conflicts persist and escalate because, at the heart of them, one or both sides is fighting against an inadequate and distorted image projected onto the other.  Sadly we can become so arrogantly attached to our images of others that we refuse to update them whatsoever even when we are confronted by their glaring deficiencies.  Instead, we’d rather live and act as if our images are totally correct.  In a marriage, spouses can interact with internalized images of their past-spouse in such a way that they do not allow their spouse to change or become anything different.  When both become attached to hardened images of their past-selves, spouses can become totally stuck in painful patterns of conflict that revolve around the same recurring grievances.  The point being, human beings have a tendency to become strongly attached to their mental images of reality.

Eckhart wrote elsewhere, “The highest and loftiest thing that one can let go of is to let go of God for the sake of God.”  His paradoxical statement focuses in on the heart of the issue: that often we must progressively let go of our images of God if we wish to further encounter the reality of God.  When we recognize our images of God cannot contain the reality of God, we are recognizing something that has been long ago embedded into ancient wisdom traditions.  We are recognizing that the reality of God is unfathomably greater and grander than we could possibly imagine.  True theology begin in such a place.  True theology begins in humble reverence, where we tremble with fascination before the ineffable Mystery of Life.

On God

I don’t believe in a God.  I believe in God.  What may initially appear to be a petty grammatical difference without any real distinction actually has outrageous theological implications.  Think about this for a moment: when you hear the word “God” what is the first picture that enters your imagination?  Don’t overthink it either.  Just get your gut-reaction, even if just in the privacy of your own innerworld. Did you picture a mean old man?  An african women?  A loving father?  A light?  An ocean?  A dove?  A rock?  A lion?  A king?  A lamb?  A tree?  A shepherd?  An abyss?  A river?  A tribal warmonger?  A humble peasant?  Something or someone else?  Or did you draw a blank?  It is a fascinating question to consider, because the pictures we hold of God, whatever they happen to be, matter a lot.

David Bentley Hart, in The Experience of God, makes a seemingly subtle but truly massive distinction between conceiving of God as a being and conceiving of God as Being.  To imagine God as a being—even a really, really big and strong and powerful and super being—involves conceptually reducing God down to some discrete figure with limited boundaries and form, which also conveniently turns out to be something/someone we can rationally wrap our minds around.  Instead, Hart says that an essential aspect of a classical conception of God in Judeo-Christian traditions involves affirming that God is not simply a being.  Rather, God is Being.  Or, as Meister Eckhart puts it, God is Is-ness.  Incidentally, many popular debates [just search youtube] about whether God does or does not actually exist more specifically surround the question of whether a demiurge-style God—a God that is a being—does or does not actually exist.  And I have to admit, though I believe in God, I come down on the side of the atheist debaters when I listen to these conversations, at least concerning the conception of God that is implicitly under scrutiny.  These debates, however, are often tremendous adventures in missing the point.

This distinction between God as a being and God as Being raises an important question.  Where is God?  If God is just a being, then it would be possible for such a human-shaped (or pick your shape) ghost-being to be in one place and not another place in the cosmos, floating here or there as it/he/she pleases, but never being everywhere all at once.  Rob Bell points out that if God is like this then we can divide the world up into holy places and unholy places, sacred and common, not to mention divide people up into those who God is with and those who God is not with. But if God is pure unbounded Existence, then God grounds and sustains all that exists, including our own existence, moment by moment, breath by breath, always actively giving us the gift of life out a constant overflow of unconditional love.  If this God ceased to exist, even for a millisecond, then so would we.  This means that we are constantly in contact with God.  We are immersed in the Divine.  God, as it were, has always been right here, hidden in plain sight.  Because the curtain has been torn.  God pours sunshine on the just and the unjust.  Indeed, the whole earth is full of the radiance of God!

Consider a story in the Hebrew scriptures that describes an interaction between Moses and God.  Moses is going to travel to Egypt to confront the Egyptian Pharaoh, demanding that he release the Israelite people from slavery.  This is no small task.  And Moses is clearly afraid.  As he is working on mustering up the courage to go and do this, Moses asks God, “who should I tell them sent me?”  Moses, in other words, was asking God for God’s name.  What God says to Moses is really intriguing.  God says, “Tell them that ‘I AM’ sent you.”  In the ancient world, people named things and people and gods and so on so that they could isolate and identify one thing from another, one person from another, one god from another.  Naming necessarily involved making distinctions and divisions, separating one thing from some other thing.  And we still love to name all kinds of stuff today, as opening up any textbook containing technical language in science or medicine or philosophy or theology shows.  But this God’s Name totally obliterates the very categories and assumptions of Moses’ original question.  It exceeds the boundaries of what naming is supposed to be all about in the first place.  It’s as if God says to Moses, “You can’t name Me.  You can’t isolate me.  It’s impossible. For I can’t be fit into those boxes.”  Some suggest that this Name can also mean “I will Become what I will Become.”  A more mind-bending name does not exist.  This God is pure Being, pure Becoming.   The Name God gave to Moses was considered to be so holy that ancient Hebrews developed the habit of substituting the “Lord” for the actual Name in their speaking and writing.  For God’s Name was thought to be too holy to even speak.

Followers of religions that ascribe personal qualities to God—fatherliness or motherliness or capacities for intelligence, intention, or relationship, for example—sometimes mistakenly project additional human qualities onto God—such as physical-esque forms of a body, a face, hands, feet, and so on—if even only in the privacy of a particular believer’s imagination.  The mistake is understandable from a human perspective: if God is like a father, then it seems only natural to imagine that maybe God looks something like my father.  And some biblical writings do even ascribe human-like features to God, like hands, feet, a face, and so on (though theologians going back to ancient times have frequently affirmed that it would be a mistake to interpret these writings as implying God has a literal, physical, bodily form).  Nevertheless, when we imagine God to be a being of any form, it’s easy to consequently imagine that this God created the cosmos in such a fashion that it essentially exists and operates independent of it’s/his/her own existence, like a machine would.  God then shows up for the odd intervention or repair here and there, from time to time, as a mechanic would with a car.  [As a side note, this concept of God also neatly fits with the mechanistic-style view of the cosmos we’ve inherited from Newtonian physics—which is increasingly recognized as being an insufficient total-picture of reality.]

“If you comprehend it, it is not God.”  So wrote Augustine.  Similarly, if you can draw a picture of what God looks like, whatever you have drawn is surely not what God looks like.  The closest drawing would be no drawing, which is to say a blank page.  For God is Spirit, meaning that God’s Being transcends the limitations and divisions of physical, space-time forms.  Some Christians may object to these suggestions.  They may say, hasn’t Jesus shown us what God looks like.  Jesus is, after all, “the image of the invisible God.”  This raises some excellent questions.  Does Jesus display what God’s literal body or eyes or hands or feet or face look like?  Or does Jesus, as the image of God, display the character of God’s love and intentions and heart (figuratively speaking) for all people?  If its the former, then we have a problem, because there aren’t any extant mugshots of Jesus of Nazareth, nor are their any detailed physical descriptions of him in the gospel writings.  Thankfully though, it’s the latter.

All things considered, having images of God can be perfectly fine nevertheless.  We are embodied, visual people with fertile minds and imaginations.  Issues arise depending upon how we hold and relate our images of God to the Reality of God, not to mention to ourselves, whether they be physical icons or abstract ideas.  The second commandment Moses gave to the Israelite people was that they should not make for themselves any “graven images.”  Creating humanmade statues of gods or goddesses for worship was widespread at the time in the ancient world.  As such, the purpose of the commandment was to prevent people from confusing limited, lifeless, humanmade objects with the Unlimited Life that sustains all that exists.  In our rational age we have largely moved on from this particular cultic practice of identifying God with limited humanmade objects.  But we would be wise to recognize that the deeper meaning of the prohibition applies equally to limited humanmade abstractions.  Whether images carved of rock or wood, or images made by the mind and imagination, both are limited reductions that at best can point us to the Real God that exists beyond them, or at worst become false idols that never could and never can contain God’s Full Reality. The danger lies in fusing images with Reality.  What I am talking about is not atheism, either, though apophatic theology can have that vibe to it for those unfamiliar with its purpose and value.  Actually, apophatic theology (or “the way of negation”) has had a longstanding relationship with its paradoxical partner, cataphatic theology (or “the way of affirmation”), in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Some Christians have even suggested that, oddly enough, modern atheist movements have served to purify us of certain Christian idolatries in the way good apophatic theology does.

Some Protestant Christians I notice have traded idols made by human hands for idols made by human minds.  They assume they are free from idols so long as they can’t see them with their eyes or touch them with their hands.  But this is a tragically mistaken assumption.  Theological idolatry is much more pervasive than many assume.  As someone raised in the Protestant tradition, I must admit that my first reaction upon reading about conceiving of God as Being was that I thought it sounded unorthodox.  At the very least it didn’t fit within my existing mental concepts or categories for God.  So coming to terms with the notion has been a humbling, gradual process.  I was at first shockingly but then pleasantly surprised to discover that viewing God as Being is actually profoundly orthodox Christian theology, with strong roots in Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic traditions.  Apparently I was the one who had gone out on a shaky theological limb.  What I initially feared was unorthodox turned out to be thoroughly orthodox in the end.  Ironic, isn’t it?

What I am talking about is not a version of pantheism either, though it is much closer to pantheism than some Christians are sometimes comfortable with, at least in my experience.  The Judeo-Christian traditions and scriptures have historically affirmed the paradox of God’s transcendence and immanence.  To have one without the other would present only a partial version of historic Judeo-Christian theology.  For example, Divine transcendence without immanence tends to verge on deism, whereas Divine immanence without transcendence tends to verge on pantheism.  So while what I am talking about is not pantheism in its strictest sense, I am also not talking about deism either.  [N. T. Wright, incidentally, has cleverly distinguished between pan-theism (all is God), and what he called the-en-panism (God in all)]  I suspect that many of the concepts/pictures that religious westerners who believe in a personal God hold are closer to a deistic, Enlightenment-influenced demiurge than they are to classical conceptions of God.  I have no problem confidently admitting that I do not believe in that kind of God.  I’ve never seen such a god, nor have I encountered any particular evidence or argument that has persuaded me to believe in such a god.  I think that that kind of god happens to be nothing more than an abstract idol, an imaginary projection.  Now on the other hand, the God of traditional Judeo-Christianity—I happen to find that God incredibly compelling.  That God, some might say, is mind-blowing.  To which I say, exactly.

 

On God

Our knowledge of God is like a small boat floating in the ocean.  The small boat is supported and surrounded by the vast ocean.  The boat is in close contact with the water and the waves—indeed, it is enveloped by them—but it does not contain the whole ocean.  The ocean contains the boat.  So it is with our knowledge of God.

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.”