Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Knowing God - Judy Anne Williams

The idea of seeking to “love God with our minds” raises a pretty basic question. How can we love what we do not know? And yet, how is it possible to truly know God, the infinite, the Creator, the Source of Life? On the one hand, Jeremiah tells us that God has said,

Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord.  (Jer 9:23-24).

Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek. (Ps 27:8).

But although we are told metaphorically to seek God’s face, it is clear that this isn’t our literal charge. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly and rather graphically assert that God’s holiness is so enormous and unapproachable that it is not meant for our human bodies. Nobody wants to burst into flames, people!
So the question then becomes, what is the nature of this knowledge of God that we are supposed to attain, how are we to do it, and how will it allow us to love God more dearly?
One simple way to know God, of course, is through His works. In the 19th Psalm, the poet says,
1 The heavens speak the glory of God;
   and the firmament
* proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day unto day pours forth speech,
   and night unto night declares knowledge.
  (Ps 19:1-2)
Having been raised without faith, my first inklings of the Divine were in my experiences of the natural world. “Majesty” is not a concept that Americans are very down with, but that was exactly the reaction that I had to encountering the beauty of Creation in its most natural state (often through trips “up” here to New Hampshire from my native land of Boston). I think many people have had that spiritual encounter, and some of them made their way to college up here in the North Country.
I do want to say that my early sense of the Divine in nature was more than just, “This is so pretty, there must be a God who created it!” I don’t personally need a concept of “intelligent design” to see the Divine in the Creation, nor do I have a problem with evolution, or geological time. Creation is the more beautiful to me in the infinitesimal time of its development, the endless turning of the earth’s crust, the cascade of random mutations over millions of years creating the chameleon’s swiveling eye. I don’t need a God with hands to have molded it all out of clay in some specific amount of time. The ancient light of the stars, the descendants of the Big Bang, are no less a testament, in my heart, to the existence of God.
I see the Divine in the Creation when I am pierced by its beauty, but also by seeing its overwhelming power. The primary sport in my family during my childhood was whitewater boating. If you’ve ever tried to pick up even a large bucket of water, you have a visceral sense of how surprisingly much it weighs. River flow is measured in CFS, or cubic feet per second, and whitewater is created when a great weight of water, powered by the undeniable force of gravity, hits the resistance of unmovable rocks. When you are in the midst of a churning mass of thousands of pounds of water, your mortality, and the limits of your human power, are very obvious.  It was humbling in a way that was sometimes terrifying, but also spoke to me, even before I knew what faith might be, about my place in a relationship with a force that was clearly far greater than me. By working in collaboration with that power, I could come safely to the end of a small, but intensely thrilling journey.
Like others before me, I also see God in my fellow human beings. I’m not just talking about the cool stuff that we sometimes create, although it can be impressive. If you’ve never seen the giant arch in St. Louis, it’s incredible, and as magnificent as a mountainside. But to me, the truest testament is our occasional ability to transcend our animal origins and our inherent sinfulness. I think the fact that we manage to love each other at all is miraculous. Look at me. I’m annoying! I talk too much, I’m a know-it-all, I’m impulsive and emotional and I can get really self-righteous. Somehow across the divides of all of our many faults, we manage to connect with each other. And not just connect, but love ,deeply and unconditionally. If there were not a loving Divine, how would this ever be possible? I think we might all have killed each other long ago.
I’ve been talking about a lot of personal experience, but there’s actually a scriptural basis, and Christian theology, behind these assertions, even if I might have come to them initially in a non-intellectual way.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’ (John 17:25-26). I usually use the NRSV, but I like the translation of this passage from Ephesians in the New International Version: ” 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” (Eph 1:13).
More “conservative” Christians than myself interpret the larger context of these passages as indicating the necessity of a specific belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. The message is that to be a true follower, and to receive the salvation that Christ offers, one has to profess a particular belief in Jesus’ role as the Son of God, the exclusive incarnation of the Father. Without this action of mind and will, access to the grace of the New Covenant is lost. It’s not at all difficult to see the Gospel of John in this manner, and I would never “argue” with those who base their theology in this approach.
However, I have chosen and pursued a different strain of Christianity in my journey, a more “liberal” (or even “radical”) denomination that focuses on opening doors and creating an inclusive community of “Seekers of Truth.” We look to the authority of our communities and of tradition, but we also emphasize a mystical relationship with God over Biblical literalism and scholasticism. Our sense is that our “knowledge” is grounded in the gift of the Holy Spirit, which has resulted from our “inclusion” in Christ’s closeness to and knowledge of the Eternal Father. Christ, the active, loving, Divine principle, which existed before the incarnation, has come to give us a new knowledge of God. He continues with us through the Holy Spirit.
When we embrace that knowledge of God, we are transformed, regardless of our attestations. In my experience, opening one’s heart to the Divine power through the Holy Spirit inspires a new level of clarity and unhappiness about one’s own sinfulness, and an urgent desire to live in the Way of Light and holiness. Every step of the Christian journey then proceeds from that process. Our Way is one of service, humility, and love. Or, as Paul names them in Galatians, the “fruits of the spirit are: “Patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23).
We will always be aware that our knowledge of God is imperfect, and incomplete. “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them – they are more than the grains of sand by the sea.” (Ps 139:17-18). We live with our smallness, our inability to fully know the Creator. The day when we may “see face to face” is not yet with us. But, through grace, we may still know and be known by God, in a way that does not require perfection of knowledge, or of ourselves, but only the simple choice to step forward, arms open, into the relationship with the infinite Divine.

Jesus said to us, “I will not leave you comfortless…But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:18, 26-27)
May God make you an instrument of His peace.

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