But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” (Exodus 3:13-15)
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?” (Job 38:1-11)
Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (I John 4:8)
What is Your Concept of God?
What is your concept of God? A man with white hair, a white beard and flowing white robes, like the Ancient of Days in the Bible? Or perhaps a giant being that dreams the universe into existence like the Hindu god Vishnu? Theologians and philosophers have speculated about the nature of God, God’s being, and God’s essence for centuries. Their writings cover the spectrum from a having a personal relationship with an intimate being to an absolute impersonal entity that is better described as energy or consciousness.
Perhaps we want a god outside of us that we can see, that we can observe, and that we can choose based on what we see God do and say. We want God to be everything; in the moments when we want a clear response to our questions, we want God to be something or someone that is objective, one that we can easily identify with and understand.
Other times we want God to be subjective, feeling, and aware of us in the moments when we don’t want an explanation and we prefer a presence. We like unity, we like knowing that we cannot be separated from God, we like knowing that we are of the same substance and essence— even if we are just a drop of water compared to the infinite ocean of God.
Once we begin probing into questions about the nature or essence of God, we understand why some teachers have chosen to tell us about God by saying what they believe God is: love, truth, cosmic consciousness, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise. But, we also have a hard time describing what God “is” without using the same words that we use to describe ourselves. At the other extreme, God can be seen as “angry” and “jealous,” very human. When the description feels too human-centric, we might choose to describe God from the perspective of what God is not: God cannot be imagined, God cannot be understood, God does not have shape or form, God cannot be controlled, God cannot be seen. Then we have to ask of those who would make God inaccessible: Does it make sense that God would not want to be understood or experienced?
We sometimes fall in love with words or ideas, and when they serve us well we have a hard time letting go of them, even when new evidence points in other directions. We also have a hard time understanding things that are not part of our experience. It is easy to see why our understanding of God quickly becomes so relative that we fear not being grounded in something absolute, something that we can cling to as the truth. We crave certainty, we desire truth that we can turn to in times when we feel we have lost our purpose or lost the compass we have used to guide our lives. We want a truth that we can carry with us, a truth we can own, and a truth that we can use.
All we have to work with are concepts, even when we understand the limitations of those ideas and concepts. One of the problems of concepts is that they trap us in a dualistic world. There are things we can see and things we cannot see. There are things we decide are good and there are things we decide are evil. It is easy to become skeptical, and we search for clever rules to follow. For instance, for those who get so sure they understand or know God we say, “Those who say, don’t know; those who know, don’t say.”
The more words we use, the more words contribute to the problem. Words, ideas, and concepts represent something, but the words, ideas, and concepts are not the very thing we are trying to understand. Our thinking process, our reasoning, seeks resolution, seeks ways to harmonize all the evidence before us. Yet all attempts fall short of a comprehensive understanding.
Perhaps we can know even if we cannot describe or prove our understanding to someone else’s satisfaction. Perhaps we should consider that the part of us that wants to know is not the part of us that can know in the ways that are most familiar to us, and somehow putting that into perspective changes everything.
How Do We Know?
How do we know what we know? To answer that question, and to talk about the part of us that wants to know God, we need to look carefully at our growth and development as human beings.
Information about ourselves and about this world is served to us every moment of our waking lives through our relationships with our family of origin, through media like television and our educational systems, through our friends, and through our experiences. In the early stages of life, we don’t have much of a filtering system. We are so curious to learn and explore the world we are born into that we take everything in. We don’t ask if what we are told is true or reliable; our experience confirms it for us through pain and pleasure, through trusting that we will be cared for, through gaining the approval of those around us. The consequence of all this information is that we begin to form an understanding of who we are. We learn how to behave to get what we want, and we learn to avoid things that threaten our ability to get what we want. A very strong self-concept develops that psychologists call the ego. When we are developmentally immature, this self-concept is almost indistinguishable from our identity. Our identity and our ego are so closely aligned that a threat to our self-concept—that is, a threat to the ego—can feel like a life- or-death threat, which it is to the ego. As the ego develops and becomes stronger, it takes on the task of filtering information. Things that confirm the self-concept are kept and things that threaten the self-concept are filtered out and stored in a different part of ourselves. We keep all of the information. The parts that don’t confirm the self-concept are stored in a less accessible location like our subconscious or unconscious mind. The ego desires to learn, acquire, and use information in a way that protects itself.
I am simplifying and generalizing about a very complex process just to make the following point: The part of us that wants to know certain kinds of information, the part of us that wants to control and use that information for our own benefit, is our ego. Other ways of knowing, not connected to the ego, can get pushed out of the way, especially if they don’t confirm our self-concept and protect what we believe to be true about ourselves. Possibly one of the worst aspects of the ego’s filtering system is that its understanding of love is built around confirming one’s ego-developed self-concept. It is not uncommon for us to seek out partners who we think will love our ego, instead of seeking partners who can see through the illusion presented by the ego, and get a glimpse of our true identity.
Our growth and development as human-spiritual beings accelerates when we begin to realize that there is another part of us that seeks expression. This other part of us also has the capacity to receive information and grow in wisdom and love. This other part contributes to our well-being, especially since its highest function is connected to our spiritual essence and our true identity.
When we talk about concepts of God, in most cases we are talking from an ego-centric place where the mind tends to keep and hold our process of knowing. Our whole concept of knowledge in Western cultures tends to see knowledge as mind-based. In a mind-based system, our ideas about God and our concepts of God are controlled by the ego. Different ideas about God, different concepts of God, different pathways to God, and our understanding of how God interacts with the world, when controlled by the ego, become life-and-death struggles. With all the struggles between egos going on in the world, it is no wonder that we find it difficult to “know” God. This ego part of us that wants to know, cannot, in the end, know God.
We make a huge step developmentally when we realize that much of what we believe about the world and God was told to us or given to us; it is not the result of our own spiritual learning or process. Many of the things we believe to be good and true are actually constructed in ways that make us conform to an understanding that is based on the values and principles of someone else, and that someone may be using those values and principles in ways that control us or make us conform—conform to what is considered acceptable by our family of origin or acceptable to the culture in which we grow and develop. This is both natural, or normal, and tragic. It becomes tragic when we cannot grow spiritually because we spend our lives pleasing others or working to get approval from someone or something, rather than discovering the wisdom and spiritual capacity that is our essence.
But, as I have suggested, there is another part of us that also takes in information. This other part of us is key to knowing and experiencing God. This other part of us does not have to solve all the mysteries or reconcile all of the paradoxes. This other part of us welcomes mystery, welcomes paradox, and ultimately helps us open the door to a very deep and intimate part of our own being, a part of us that is connected to the innermost and intimate parts of God. This innermost part of us is key to our relationships, our ways of knowing and understanding other human beings, and is key to our well-being and the well-being of those we love.
Eventually, through growth and development, through spiritual work, we find ourselves with a more comprehensive understanding of God. Paul Tillich (1957) pointed to this by saying, “God is called the being as being or the ground and the power of being” (p. 10). God is an omnipresent reality that is simultaneously everything in the universe and transcendent to the universe (which is for us, still a concept, even though we have physical evidence that suggests its physical enormity). God knows no limitation and is therefore absolute in every sense: truth, perfection, wisdom, and love. The laws of nature are just as much a part of the realm of God as divine law and moral law. The laws of physics, mathematics, and the material world in every dimension are descriptive of the physical presence of God, just as the mystic’s vision is descriptive of the spiritual presence of God. God’s qualities, or God’s essence, are understood and experienced as energy, but more than just physical energy, this essence is energy with awareness and consciousness such that we understand God as omniscient and omnipresent. We might “think” of God as a “first cause,” but God, being eternal and present, is, and by God’s essence all existence manifests within God out of God’s being.
There is a tension that always exists in “knowing” God because we are intimately connected to God and yet we are not able to know God fully. We receive our life, love, and everything good and true from God. No matter how extensive our description of God or how extensive our knowledge of God, our concepts of God are limited and express in limited ways the unknown, the mysterious, and the mystical connections between God and human consciousness. When we understand this we begin to recognize the transcendent nature of God that is beyond the limitations of our material mind.
God of presence and being, we acknowledge the limits of our understanding. We are sometimes unable to see through the illusion of this world to the fabric of all creation. May we find ways to enter into conversation with you; may we find ways to align ourselves with divine law; may we realize within ourselves the part of us most intimately connected to you, the source of all life and being. When words are difficult for us, let us rest in your presence and being. May we act in ways that deliver compassion and truth to every moment of our lives. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
From The Readings
2012-107 As one gets closer to God and Christ there is sometimes a mixture of feelings. There is a nostalgia and a sense of sadness about the illusion of separation and the brokenness. This feeling comes to be associated with brokenness, and as things differentiate in the universe, as they become more discreet, there is a sense that things are farther apart. There is distance with all the space in between, but this is an illusion because there is not really anything like an emptiness. In between all discreet objects, there is a fabric that holds all things together; and like all of creation, the substance and energy is God.