Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Communicating God

Today I am full of the futility of trying to explain God. I am so easily sidetracked, so easily led into justifying God's existence. Who am I to say that God is? My very choice of words and expressions seem to limit him, to conform him to my perspective, and reduce him to my understanding. His utter reasonableness is lovable to the human mind, but he is not fully comprehended in reason.
Can love be sorted and counted? Can the vast glories of nature be measured and regulated? Even the natural laws we have been thousands of years attempting to plot and graph through scientific study - magnificent study, that! But after all, we are forced to admit that the the complexities of nature, while full of logic and something even beyond logic, somehow transcend our grasp. No one who has studied astronomy or biology can say we live in a simple universe. Even that which we can confidently say that we "know" is with regularity interrupted by the "black holes" that appear in even the best organised of our understanding.
He is, that is all. But the "all" is the ground of morons unless the "is" - who and how such a God is - is somehow comprehended.
What brilliant mind dreamed up the God of the Bible - a God who is at once fierce and lovable, the one from whom earth and heavens flee, and the babe lying a manger, him whom to look at is to die, and the one who takes note of a sparrow's fall - ? What alliance of creative energy produced even the idea of this God - the one who speaks worlds into existence, laughs at those who waste themselves in opposing him, dwells in light inaccessible... and accepts responsibility for our choices, at the cost of his own pain?
The great thinkers of our history - Plato and da Vinci and Confucious and the Buddha and Einstein and Marx - those magnificent ones are flea brains by comparison to the authors of such a God! Tell me who they are -let me just bow at the feet of the being or beings who are wise and deep and noble enough to as much as imagine such a God - were he a fiction, I would worship even them!
And still, the great challenge of those who have seen him, heard him, touched him, is to communicate him - not that he is, but who he is, in the feebleness of words and lives. The Word, God and with God, was wrapped in swaddling bands at his birth. His story was written largely by uneducated laymen. If my life be one long struggle to know and communicate him, though I fail, I die satisfied.
Oh, he is - enough. What else ever can be?

Sunday, 14 January 2007

The God who is Love

Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (I John 4:8)
Two things quietly demanded my attention when I read this verse last night. God is love. God = Love. The normal grammar construction for a statement like this is noun-(to be)-adjective, or "God is loving". This phrase is special because it uses a noun-(to be)-noun construction, which offers us an equation. How interesting the Bible is! I would simply have written, "God loves", but John says that God not only loves, he IS love.
The second surprising thing about this verse is that it links loving with knowing God. While the second "love" is a noun, the first "love" is clearly a verb. Loving (action) comes from Love (noun) = God. Those of you who have encountered love have encountered something of God. I worried for years how the people without a Bible in their own language could ever know God. If you believe this verse, they could know him without even knowing his name! Could the Bible be saying that your response to love is your response to God? Let me take this even further. Is it possible that we could come to know God by loving?
Oswald Chambers (my favourite writer!) says in his book "The Shadow of an Agony" that a human being's response to her own conscience is her response to God. He points out that conscience varies from person to person - what you consider wrong is sometimes something that seems okay to me and vice versa. He defines conscience as the highest and best that a person knows.
Loving is arguably the most painfully difficult thing we can do. Oh, I know, falling in love can be as soft and wonderful as a cotton candy cloud. But loving - ! That is another quantity altogether. It requires all your energy, creativity, understanding, determination. Who has loved much and suffered little?
Love has been defined as "the giving up of self for the sake of another".
I've been awash with great and lovely thoughts of deep emotion, passion, loyalty, friendship, comfort. Suddenly, I realise how gritty love is at its core, how un-storybook-like, and how un-glamourous! And how little I really love!
It's a concept that is not culturally defined, but basic to the human experience. It fits into everything we know, although we can't see it, can't touch it, can't measure it - but every human being longs for it. To shut ourselves off from love is to shut ourselves off from life, beauty, meaning, peace.
Do you long for love? Maybe you long for God = Love. Maybe you didn't know his name. Or, maybe you ONLY knew his name.

Thursday, 11 January 2007

On Faith

I hesitate to use this word, faith. It has been mangled and strangled and left, weak and whimpering, decidedly beyond the pale of respectable rationality. It is the last, desperate appeal for those who are too tired or too lazy to look any further. It is a smug euphemism for the self-satisfied who feel no need to substantiate the validity of their own thinking.
Let me tell you what faith as the Bible uses it most assuredly is not. It is not an excuse not to think, nor is it an exemption from the responsibility of drawing clear links between beliefs, knowledge, rationality, and experience, at least within our own minds. It is not the obstinate clinging to what I wish to be true despite all evidence to the contrary.
I will begin from the Bible, for the simple reason that I have found in it above all a consistent presentation of the reality I know, and of the person and claims of God, in relation to whom "faith" is traditionally understood. The "faith" I am interested in is the Biblical idea. I believe this idea of faith has been historically, routinely, and universally misused and misrepresented. The concept of faith as the Bible presents it is quite simply, "reason to expect" a certain thing.
Nowhere does the Bible encourage ignorance or disregard for rational evidence, either sensory or logical, in favour of fuzzy feelings or a certainty which is based on the strength and value of "my belief". Readers of the New Testament will note that the apostle Paul, when he was questioned about the veracity of Jesus rising again, never said, "Relax, guys. Just have faith." He told those asking the question to go talk to some of the hundreds of people who had seen Jesus after he rose from the dead. Sound like the popular version of faith? It sounds a lot more to me like he was suggesting they use their brains and their eyes.
The Bible clearly and reasonably defines the term, which is so central to its thesis, as "the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen." Nothing airy-fairy about that. It is substance; cold hard evidence. Let's think about this. What is the usual evidence for knowedge which is unseen? Umm, like the existence of DNA or electricity, for instance. I personally have never seen either one of them, but they make sense to me. The very same concepts may well have seemed like pie in the sky to someone in my situation about 500 years ago. What makes the difference? They didn't have certain other important pieces of information with which to form a rational body of knowledge. However, there is another evidence for "things not seen" - experience. Had it been possible for them to observe the working of a flashlight or a CD player, there are many things they might have been able to understand and perhaps infer about "electricity" even if they didn't know its name. For example, turn on the flashlight. Light! Turn of the flashlight. No light. Take out the batteries and turn on the flashlight. No light. Put the batteries in and turn on the flashlight. Light! A few repetitions of this demonstration would likely satisfy even a skeptic of the rationality of a concept like electricity. The results of DNA might also be readily evident to them were its viewable results linked with a unified explanation.
Rational, consistent explanation and experience are, in our world, the generally-accepted forms of evidence for things that are known but not seen. I expect that the flashlight will light up when I turn it on because I have a general understanding of the working of electricity AND because it has done it before, repeatedly. When it has failed to turn on, there have been reasonable explanations that have also been consistent with my experience of flashlights and batteries. I know a little how electricity operates, and it is reasonable. My knowledge, combined with my experience of flashlights, has given me "reason to expect." I have faith in electricity, although I don't understand it fully and I have never seen it.
By the Bible's definition, faith is no leap in the dark. It is something substantial - something that appeals to and requires the participation of the whole person, body and mind and spirit. It requires experience and it requires reasoned understanding. You cannot have faith of any quality in a God you do not know, whether that God exists or not. My faith in God depends on my understanding and experience of a God whose person is rational and consistent.
Believing that God exists is radically different from having faith in him. I have faith in my sister because I know her to be trustworthy, not because I believe that she exists. I believe that Tom Cruise and George Bush exist, but my faith in either one has definite limits! In the same way, whether he exists or not, I have no basis for faith that God will cure me of cancer, unless he has said that he will. Believing that he will is not faith. It is a lovely but unsubstantiated hope.
The Bible says "all things work together for good to them that love God". Since the Biblical concept of God includes truth, and my understanding and experience of that God affirms that he is, and that he is truthful, this allows me to expect that whatever God does do with me is ultimately good, by his definition of good. That is faith - matching up my reasoned understanding and my experience, and acting on my "reason to expect". Job, in the Old Testament, knew the God that I know. Sick and poor and in pain and alone, he was able to say about God, "Even if he kills me, I will trust in him". It wasn't because Job stupidly persisted in trusting a God who failed to bless him in the ways he hoped, it was because his understanding and experience had brought him into knowledge of a God who sees pain as a price to be paid; a God who gives pain when it is necessary - and when it is necessary, accepts pain himself.
What about people who don't believe in God? How then can we ever know a God who is not reachable through raw belief?
We must seek a reasonable and unified concept of "God". By this I mean a concept that is non-contradictory rather than one that is "natural". If the "God" is also creator he doesn't need to be wholly subject to the laws of nature, but his reflection in the creation must be either consistent with his person or another rational explanation must tell why it is not. The concept of God may be incomplete and imperfectly comprehended by us, but it is necessary that it be reasonable and consistent. When seeking scientific knowledge, we first offer a rational hypothesis, then we test it. If it fails, we adjust the hypothesis. However, if your hypothesis fails, that doesn't mean God himself doesn't exist - it just means the God you have imagined doesn't exist.
We can come to believe in God by beginning with reason and following with experience. This allows us to know God. It is only then that we will be reasonably able to put faith in God. Putting faith in someone you don't know is - excuse me - stupid. Religious people may expect it, but the God of the Bible doesn't expect it. He says, "You will know me when you search for me with all your heart." Notice it's not a reward for searching diligently. No, it's the searching, the reasoned thought, that is the way to know God - which necessarily comes before having faith in God. The "with all your heart" has tripped up many people. Their search has not been genuine. Neither was mine for a long time. I searched for "God", but I had already prepared a box that I expected him to fit into. This kind of narrow-mindedness is no different in the search for truth about God than it is in the search for scientific truth. Many discoveries have been delayed because people were unwilling to accept certain possibilities.
Some people do arrive at the right answer without understanding, but without understanding, we can't be sure it is the right answer. Just experience is powerful - lab rats depend on it all the time - but again, without understanding, we can't be sure the answer it gives us will continue to be the right answer. Then again, just understanding can be fatal if your understanding is even occasionally flawed. That's why student pilots have to log hundreds of hours of flight experience before they are certified - even if the theories are perfect, sometimes we aren't.
Lest I be misunderstood, I will assert that I am not trying to suggest that a knowledge of God is purely academic. What I want to say is that any real knowledge of truth must begin in the intellect. It is how we respond to our understanding of God that involves a moral choice, that deepest part of a person. Turning off the mind and trying to move straight to the moral decision has resulted in a gross ignorance, darkened understanding, and a terrible corruption of our world's concept of who God is.
For those of you who still cherish a small hope of finding truth, God, whatever it is that you call the thing that sometimes still fills you with longing from your deep heart's core; that greatness and dearness in oceans and mountains and trees and tigers and baby deer before which something inside you bows - let me offer the Bible, and the God of the Bible, as a beginning hypothesis. Read about him for yourself - you just may be surprised.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

On Knowing God

I sympathise with all you atheists. I too don't believe in the God you don't believe in. He's a tyrant and a teddy bear. He's stuffy and too desperate to remain fashionable. He's wishy-washy and bigoted. He's self-centred and falls in love with anybody. He's one thing on paper and wholly different in action. It seems like everyone's looking for him, and the only people who are finding him are the ones who have turned off their brains in favour of "faith" - more or less an excuse not to think, not to be all that we know ourselves to be.
Quite simply, I must agree with you wholeheartedly - to the extent that such a God exists, he is no God at all. We have proven it over and over again with the best of humanity's tools of understanding - science, logic, philosophy. We have wrapped up that ugly, inconsistent God in the stiff brown paper of reason, tied him into a tight, four-cornered package with the strings of conscience and consciousness, and tossed him bitterly into the wastebasket of thought. There he sits, covered over with crumpled bits of well-researched and defended resentment - resentment because he has failed to fulfill, and thereby stolen from us the dearest hope of the human heart. Deep down, don't we all long achingly for something? Something that might have been called "God"?
So some of you have sadly, bravely, or angrily chosen no answer rather than a cheap one that denies first what you know yourself to be. And yet there he sits still, the God who is no God, even in the term "atheist" calling out to you - mocking you for defining your thought in relation to him, and for having dared to hope for something more.
Could I offer you back your hope one more time? You've been disappointed so often - no, don't open your mental door and take it back just yet. Just let that faithful dog, Reason, outside to sniff carefully about one more time.
I am not going to give you any scientific or existential arguments for the existence of God. Let me just tell you a little, now and then, about who the God is who does exist. He'll never be proven through reason, but he never goes against it, either, so reason will protect you from what is not God. There are reasons for everything he does. He answers question asked sincerely. Everyone who searches for him finds him, even those who don't know that his name is "God". (Not everyone who searches for their idea of "God", but everyone who searches for HIM.) Indeed, no one ever knows him without searching. Let me just tell you who he is, so you'll know what to look for.
He is energy and force, but he is personal. He is as harsh and demanding and uncontrollable and beautiful as a snowstorm. He is as kind as a mother should be. He is as deep and strong and inexorable as the sea, as vast as a starry night, and warm and light and comforting as a curled-up cat. He is great and fine and dear. He is love. Not he loves, but he IS love, personified. It is he who created reason and understanding and a billion intricately interconnected natural laws. He is the one who thought up animals, with all their innocent ferocity. He dreamed up the rugged delicacy of the tree, the burning splendour of the sun. He, like the nature that reveals him, is both infinitely incomprehensible and undeniably reasonable. Look deep inside your heart. What is it, underneath the flotsam and jetsam of life, that you truly long for? This is God. This is the God who is.
I haven't always known him. Even after we met, after I knew that he was, I didn't know much about who he was. I spent a long time confusing Him with other things named "God". As a child, I was aware of God in nature and in my grandfather. I felt certain God was present in thunder and lightning storms, which I loved even while they terrified me. I also knew him as my grandfather's friend. If I couldn't see him, I was completely aware that my grandfather knew him even better than he knew me. As I grew older and realised the need and the responsibility of an adult to reconcile experience and thought, God seemed more and more distant. Analysis and measured understanding are the privelege and the duty of mature humanity. I couldn't always reconcile my understanding of "God" and my consciousness of the rest of the world. I almost gave up hope. Then I remembered my grandfather. I was sure he knew someone, whether or not that person's name was God.
I went in search of the God my grandfather knew. In case he could hear me, I asked him all the questions that sprang out of my philosophy classes and my rather imperfect knowledge of science, and the conundrums of humanity- the problem of pain, injustice, tragedy. I was groping desperately in the darkness, only given hope because I was convinced my grandfather had talked to someone real, someone who talked back. While I couldn't accept his experience, it gave me enough hope to keep looking. I started walking outside everyday alone, looking up into the sky and asking God, if he were there, to speak to me.
I met him. I found him in the Bible, as it turned out. I had read the Bible once before, but had failed to see him there. My mind was too busy trying to make what I read fit into the view I had already established about who God was and what the Bible was going to say. What a letdown, huh? You hoped I was going to give you some new information about a mystical experience with a fresh new deity, perfect for our modern world. Instead, just the same old dusty Bible and its dusty version of God. Not quite. Same Bible, different me. Turns out the dusty version of God was only in my head, because the one in the Bible is deep, dynamic, responsive, and absolutely trustworthy.
It was an incredibly painful experience, being forced to let go of my own "beliefs" about God and about myself, but it set me free in a way I never was before. I have never seen him with my eyes, just as I have never seen the wind. But I did become as lucidly aware of his evidence as I am of the wind. I have been in his presence. He has spoken to me as he did my grandfather. And he has answered every question I have dared ask him. I am not resting on some belief, some warm feeling of faith inside that allows me to believe in something without having to use my brain. I learned who he was by reading about him and engaging in linear thought. He has fully engaged both my reason and my experience. I didn't have to lower my expectations. I didn't "get religion".
I am convinced that the God who is meets people in their own way. After all, if he created so many varieties of personalities, cultures, and personalities, wouldn't it be inconsistent in him to insist on a "one size fits all" meeting? What is it that draws out your deep longing, your sense of something more? Science? Seek him in science. History? Seek him in history. Art? Seek him in art. A genuine search for truth will always lead a person to a God who is truth. He is more amazing than you ever imagined. He is knowable, on every level. He is.