“He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou, And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing thou art. Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless Thou in magnetic mercy to thyself divert Our arrows aimed unskillfully, beyond desert; And all men are idolaters, crying unheard To a deaf idol, if thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great, Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.”
Yesterday, a friend asked if I believe in God. It’s a necessary question, but peculiar in that it’s relevance is somewhat detached from me much in the same way that whether or not the earth is flat or whether quantum mechanics is bunk are irrelevant questions. Nobody really believes in God, at least not most of the time. Belief in god is easily affirmed or denied.
I do not believe in God.
Lewis so eloquently describes how what we call god is not, in fact, God. By our own definitions, God is transcendent to any conception, so try as we may, we can only ever speak of an idea of God, an idol. To speak of God, we necessarily suspend our belief in transcendence. We speak as atheists; every theologian is paradoxically an atheist in his moment of brilliance. To be faithful and speak of god, or to speak of god’s ideals for the world, carries a necessary betrayal of the very God we are trying to wrap our minds around. We speak as a/theists.
I do believe in God.
This lays the groundwork for humility in our theologies and philosophies. We must become comfortable with the fact that when we speak of/for god, we are at least partly wrong 100% of the time. No eye has seen; no ear has heard. Our Scriptures set an example with irresolvable inconsistencies in the poets’ and prophets’ pictures of God. The late Jacques Derrida wrote that Justice was the only nondeconstructable idea. From Justice, all blessings flow. We affirm this, and we call it Gospel. The Scriptures did not so narrowly define our theologies for us; they did not intend to. At best, the prophets could only narrow a definition of God to powerfully simple ideas: Love, Justice, Mercy, or Reconciliation. We affirm that real belief in God looks like these things. To move beyond simplicity is the essential work of theologians; to put them into practice is the essential work of the Church; to move these things into an inerrant, unquestionable system is the work of the idolater. Embrace and excommunication is our tragic history of sorting these things out.
I am called to be a theologian, and it is what I will spend my life doing. But I always feel this nagging suspicion that God is far less concerned with endless debates about what the Bible exactly is; he laughs at our foolishness, and she weeps at our often destructive misunderstandings. I assume God is far more concerned that we suspend our questions and do the things God hopes to see. We prioritize humility and Justice. There is a time for debate, but it is always a good time for Reconciliation.
This is true belief, true faith in the Divine: it is only when I do not obsess conceptualizing god and instead unconsciously, as second nature, act out god’s dreams for the world that I truly believe in God.
I hope to one day believe in God.