MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Speaking of God

with 2 comments

Photo: TrueLight Expressions/Flickr

As we begin talking about God, I need to sound an important warning: We must be careful how we speak of seeking God. It is not the same as seeking some object, say, a new car or a new house. We must not reduce God to the status of an “object” or a “thing,” as if God were something that could be grasped or possessed in the way we possess riches or knowledge or some other created entity. Nor must we seek God outside ourselves…

For God is not an “object” or “thing.” God’s infinity, as the word implies, knows no boundaries; hence we cannot “define” God as we define things in the world… If we are to line up all the beings that exist or ever have existed, God would not be one of them. This is to say God is not one of the beings God created. Rather God is the Source from which all beings derive and the ground in which they are continually sustained.

In a letter to a young Indian student in Cracow, Poland, Merton writes of the naive atheism of nineteenth-century scientism:

“They think that religious people believe in a God who is simply a ‘being’ among other beings, part of a series of beings, an ‘object’ which can be discovered and demonstrated. This of course is a false notion of God, the Absolute, the source and origin of all Being, beyond all beings and transcending them all and hence not to be sought as one among them.”

As soon as we verify God’s presence as an object of exact knowledge, God eludes us.

Now if God is not to be sought among the beings we know in this life, it follows that we cannot know God as we know created things. This makes sense does it not? Yet at the same time it is true that what we know about God we can know only through created things. For created things, insofar as they are real, participate in a limited way in the qualities and perfections of the One who alone is Absolutely Real. There is, as it were, “something of God” in every creature that exists. In experiencing creatures, we experience that “something of God.”

The words we use to describe creatures, therefore, can serve as metaphors or symbols that enable us to have some knowledge of God. As I write this, I can look out the window of my office and through that window I can get some very limited understanding of the universe. Compared to the immensity of the universe, what I know by looking out that window is practically nothing. Even if I looked through many windows and in different directions, the knowledge of the universe I would attain will be skimpy at best. Modern technology has made it possible for astronauts  to see the earth from out in space. Even that is meager knowledge compared to the entire universe, and while their knowledge increases quantitatively (they see more), it decreases qualitatively (they see less clearly). They cannot from their place in space see the earth in detail that I can see through my window.

The ideas, the concepts, the images, the symbols, the metaphors we use to describe God are like those windows through which we look out through the universe. They are images of created things  which, because there is “something of God” in them, can tell us something about God. Thus, in the image we have of a person we call “father” we can see something of God and hence can speak of God as “father.” (though some people have poor experiences of  “father” and for this reason find it difficult to describe God as “father”). In someone we call “mother” we can also experience “something of God” and, therefore, we can use the name “mother” to describe God. And there are many other images we can use, lover, spouse, guide, helper, to name a few. In a certain sense we can say “the more the merrier,” since each image, each concept, can give a different insight into God we can never know in any total sort of way.

Our language about God, then, is always inadequate. One way of putting this is to say that our experience of God is continually outstripping what we are able to say about the experience. Listen to Merton:

“As soon as we light these small matches which are our concepts: ‘intelligence,’ ‘love,’ ‘power,’ the tremendous reality of God Who infinitely exceeds all concepts suddenly bears down upon us like a dark storm and blows out all their flames.”

At the same time we must not underestimate the value and importance of the rich imagery that the Bible and our culture offer us. The richer the imagery, the more deeply will we be able to know about God through God’s creation. But let us be very clear: there is a huge difference between knowing about God through God’s creation and knowing God as God is in the divine Self. Knowing about God is “mediated” knowledge, that is, we know God through an intermediary. This normally is what we think of when we speak of God. And some would say: This is enough. Short of heaven and the beatific vision, we can only know God through the medium of creatures God made.

But there is a long tradition, the contemplative or mystical tradition – a tradition that was most congenial to Thomas Merton’s approach to spirituality – which claims we can know God immediately. This is to say that we can know the divine reality as It is in Itself, and not simply through the medium of images, metaphors, ideas, concepts. But to do this we have to turn off the lights of our mind, that is, we have to go beyond concepts and ideas. This means going into darkness. For when you turn off light you are in darkness. It also means going beyond words that would try to describe God. But to go beyond words is to go in silence. In darkness and silence the only light we have is faith, whereby we grasp God or rather we are grasped by God. Thus, when all of our concepts and images admit that they cannot truly know God, love cries out: “I know God!”

To put this another way, in contemplation we come to know that our very being is penetrated through and through with God’s love. God is the hidden ground of love in all that is. Hence as Merton puts it:

“Our knowledge of God is paradoxically a knowledge not of God as the object of scrutiny, but of ourselves as utterly dependent on his saving and merciful knowledge of us… We know him in and through ourselves in so far as his truth is the source of our being and his merciful love is the very heart of our life and existence.”

Knowing God in the darkness of a love that goes beyond all that human reason can know is the greatest joy and happiness  possible in this life.

~ William H. Shannon

Advertisements

Written by MattAndJojang

March 12, 2012 at 12:35 pm

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. This article had too many words for me – it’s not a bad article, just not a good “fit” for me right now. I know Shannon’s just doing the job of the theologian, but I always giggle a bit at the ones who say, “You can’t capture God!” and then proceed to give it a try anyway. 😉

    On the other hand, the image is marvelous. It evoked St. Paul’s words about “seeing in a mirror dimly”. It’s just lovely, a reminder that if God as an object can’t be captured, God as an experience still can be found.

    shoreacres

    March 12, 2012 at 9:21 pm

  2. I understand, Linda – the article is kinda wordy ( and too theological, too). 🙂 But what I like about it is what the article implies: God is a Mystery. ( I really don’t like it when I hear people talk about God as if they had a handle on Him, as if their idea of God is the only one that is correct – and the worse part of it all is when they try to impose their beliefs on other people). I just felt it articulated some of my intuitions about God which I’ve been struggling to express. In the end no concept, no idea, no metaphor can capture God “as God is in the divine Self.” All we can do is stand in God’s presence in awe and wonder and allow ourselves to be grasped by His love…

    ~ Matt

    MattAndJojang

    March 13, 2012 at 8:08 am


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: