The moment anyone begins to speak of God, he or she embarks on a journey into the unknown. I’m more at fault than most on this count, as my profession requires that I talk about God. Oh, the hundreds of thousands of words I have poured out onto paper and thrown into the air behind a lectern! Have they all been meaningless? No, but they have certainly been inadequate.
The quintessential example of this is the ancient Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant. Encountering the animal for the first time, one reaches out and finds the elephant’s trunk. He concludes an elephant is like a snake. The second man touches the elephant’s tusk and decides the creature is a spear.
The third in the group grasps the massive leg and can only deduct that “an elephant is like a great tree!” The last one, feeling the tail, describes this new animal as a rope. All four are wrong, but how could they not be? Without sight, and with limited experience, they could only grasp at the elephant and for the words to describe it.
That is the lesson when it comes to our speaking about God! Our sight is impossibly dim; our reach, terrifyingly short; and our language to describe what lies beyond our understanding is woefully inadequate. Even the word “God” is merely a handle on a suitcase: It’s the word we use to described what cannot be described. As William James said a century ago, “God is the name we use for the stupendous, wondrous More.”
So, when we speak of God, there is always more than what can be perceived or communicated. We may boldly confess faith, but we do so through a “glass darkly,” as the Apostle Paul described it. We are ignorant – not in a stupid, willfully idiotic way – but in a childlike, uninformed, unaware way, for God is beyond us.
So, beware of the one who says he has God figured out; that God is contained in a single book, or fully expressed in a particular religious confession. You can rest assured that such a person does not understand God at all. Instead, he has a tiny idol, a domesticated pet; a tamed, neutered, impotent imposter, pinned down on a dissection tray. For any God that can be sufficiently explained is no God at all.
After all, our words and ideas, our thoughts and doctrines about God, are not actually God. It’s not that we don’t need these things; they are well and good for as far as they can go. They simply cannot go far enough. We are left with a life of faith, falling into the Unknown and Infinite, acutely aware of our limitations.
But with this awareness comes a newfound freedom. Left with nothing more to explain and nothing left to prove – our hearts filled with question marks and an overwhelming sense of amazement – we can reach for the “stupendous, wondrous More,” that is the mystery of God.