Monday, February 18, 2008

God Is Unknowable And Let Me Tell You All About Him

Invariably, people who are serious about understanding God admit up front that God is ultimately unknowable. Our human understanding is so limited that to define God via human understanding would make God a small, unimpressive deity. However, this admission is then quickly followed by words, paragraphs, books, volumes, and even libraries filled with descriptions of God, and why their way of describing God and thinking about God is better and more accurate than anyone else’s.

I’m not letting myself off the hook here – I do the same thing. Anyone who believes in a God of some kind, even a Hindu God-is-in-all-things-and-is-all-things, must have a conception of what they are talking about. It’s a paradox that God must be greater than our understanding, and yet we must ignore that inconvenient fact if we are to have any meaningful discourse with others, or a relationship to the divine itself.

So, the incomprehensibility of God should not prevent us from talking about God. But, we need to remind ourselves that we are merely two-dimensional line segments claiming to know what the Great Wall of China looks like, and what its purpose and significance is in the wider world. You would think this would provide us with humility about what we think we understand, and grace towards other religions that might have a completely different view. But you would be wrong.

This is one of the reasons I think behavior matters more than belief. We are probably all equally wrong in our beliefs, each in our own way. But behavior is easier to judge, because we can know whether it brings suffering or relief, whether it is constructive or destructive, whether it is selfish or selfless. Not that we don’t argue endlessly about behavior as well – it is just that the results of behavior are more knowable than the attributes of God.


John said...

There is a world of difference between defining and describing.

Dan S said...

I had to look that up. More evidence that my readers are smarter than I am...

Are you saying we can describe God, but not define God?

Robert Sievers said...

I certainly would never limit God from being able to describe Himself. Certainly He cannot do so fully due to our limited understanding. However, He also, if He is God, can impart to us understanding about some of His attributes with enough detail to be meaningful.

Anonymous said...

I understand that God reveals Godself through scripture, through church tradition, through our minds, and through our experiences.
I present them in the order most commonly held by the Methodist Church but I suspect the order of importance of revelation varies from tradition to tradition and from person to person.

For example, I do not experience a gendered God, or perhaps more accurately I perceive God to be able to be present in both genders. Whereas I notice your language limits God to a male presence.


John said...

I'm sure you can imagine the folly of assuming that such descriptions are definitive.

Ethnography is the process of writing about the observations of other cultures, with the full awareness that's what being described is fully subject to the cultural constraints of the writer. I think at the very least we should always allow the same critical caveats to religious description that we do in the writing and reading of ethnographic texts, as the scope of the cultural difference at hand is likely at least as wide.

Robert Sievers said...

Dear anonymous.

The language I choose to use for God is that which He chooss to use in reference to Himself within Scripture.

If you wish to do otherwise, you have that right.

Anonymous said...

Dear anonymous:

Don't try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.