Knowing God

Reflections on what it means to connect with the divine

Growing up in the church, I was aware of the cerebral nature of my particular faith tradition – the Christian Reformed Church – from an early age. Whether it was memorizing Lord’s Day Questions and Answers from the Heidelberg Catechism, or being able to answer doctrinal questions before the council when I was preparing to make a profession of faith – these are what constituted the heart of the Christian faith, as I understood it for a long time.  In our circles, what mattered most to parents concerning their children was 1) that we stayed out of trouble; and 2) we memorized the catechism.    As long as those two things were happening, it was assumed we were good Christian (Reformed) kids.   Little was talked about in terms of an actual faith experience.  Our creeds and confessions and formalized answers seemed designed to protect us from anything that could be termed an actual encounter with the divine.

Today it seems that two (among many) of the various struggles that churches across the denominational spectrum have are: 1) how to reach young people; and 2) how to maintain a particular theological and denominational identity in a world that is increasingly pluralistic and post-denominational, and decreasingly concerned about theological particularities.

Perhaps it comes down to a question of ‘knowing’.  What does it mean to ‘know God’?  Is it primarily being aware of the historical and theological distinctions of a particular tradition and being able to regurgitate these facts on demand?  Or is it something else?

Personally, it was not in a catechism class that I first really encountered God.  It wasn’t in brooding over the theological nuances and complexities of election.  None of that penetrated my heart.  None of that impacted my soul.  It was all just a lot of ‘right answers’.  But what good are answers to questions you’ve never asked?  

Christian was a name I wore, and it gave me a vague sense of comfort, but that was about it.  Faith was something I could give a nice, tight theological formulation of, but didn’t really hold.  There was a sense in which I knew a lot about God, but didn’t actually know Him. And it seems to me that my church experience was geared to achieve exactly that.

For me, once I began to see and experience God in everyday life, once I realized that faith is a journey – one I had to experience myself – it seems I really began to know him. The more I encountered the person of Jesus, the more alive it became.  And in that moment, it really didn’t matter how you defined it, or what they said about such encounters back in the late Middle Ages in Germany, or during church councils in the Byzantine era. This was real.  This was now.

It seems to me that this kind of encounter was what captured the hearts and minds of the disciples and the early Christians in Jerusalem, Galilee, and various parts of the Roman Empire.  Knowing God had nothing to do with answering a bunch of questions about God.  It had to do with a transformative encounter. The ongoing impact and relationship with the man from Galilee was what fueled the movement, not a precise definition of a yet-to-be-articulated Trinity.  If you had asked our ‘essential’ doctrinal questions in the late first century to a collection of disciples, they likely would have responded with quizzical looks on their faces, shrugged their shoulders, and gone about the business of living and declaring the kingdom of God.

Knowing for the early believers (in their Hebraic context) meant personal knowledge.  It meant they were in a relationship rooted in an ongoing transformational encounter.  It could be summed up in one word:  love.  That is how 1 John 4:8 can say, “Whoever does not love does not know God.”  This kind of knowledge is not the same as other kinds of knowing.  A physicist can be a terrible neighbor and spouse, yet be a brilliant physicist with a terrific knowledge of science.  His moral life and actions do not impact this knowledge.  Yet knowledge of God is always transformational:  “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” A person with this kind of knowledge is not concerned primarily with defining God, but with living a life which God is defining.

And so I wonder if our continued emphasis on doctrinal and confessional statements derived out of theological feuds in the middle ages might ironically be the very thing that protects us from encountering God in the first place.  Much like an oft-repeated prayer can keep us from turning on our brains to have an actual conversation with God himself, so might our theological presumptions keep us from having to ‘know’ God in the biblical sense.  Knowledge of God is always partial.  One theologian notes that it is much like an infant who knows and loves her mother, yet has no way to articulate that knowing, other than to be grasped and known by the mother.  He rightly concludes, “It is ridiculous to imply that a baby can really only love her mother if she understands her.”

Now some will say, “But a child grows up and is able to articulate more things about her mother.”  Certainly.  Yet it is all centered around a relationship, around engaging with the mother in everyday situations.  That is the key.  The child will never sit down memorizing a list of dozens of questions and answers about her mother in the case that a quiz might be given.  The absurdity of it scarcely needs mentioning.

It is God who knows us, and in being known, we know (in part).  There is a world of difference between our understanding of God, and God as He really is.  And it is precisely in our continued pride over theological correctness that we find ourselves in opposition to other Christians (not to mention other religious traditions) and disconnecting from young people who couldn’t care less about theological precision but care an awful lot about questions of identity and purpose, and about the economic, political and social realities of their world.  They want to know what faith has to do with the world they’re actually living in.

I am not encouraging ignorance of, nor rejection of, our theological traditions.  Rather, I am advocating moving beyond our preoccupation with theological knowledge and correctness, so that we might become more open to being engaged by the source of all of our speculation.  And as He engages us, may we increasingly become the articulation of who He is to the world around us.  That is a definition that matters to all of us.

Rev. Bryan Berghoef is the pastor of Watershed, a faith community in Traverse City, MI.  He facilitates weekly Pub Theology discussions on Thursday nights at Right Brain Brewery, in Traverse City’s Warehouse District.   This article originally appeared in Traverse City’s Record-Eagle.


One thought on “Knowing God

  1. Here’s a taste of some of the response to this posting on facebook:

    Tyler Wagenmaker:
    Bryan, what you write sounds nice if, in your example, you are a baby relating to his/her mother. But you are a minister, not a baby, and are supposed to be way beyond being an infant receiving milk. I trust you are a mature believer who needs meat. And being a mature believer also means you aren’t a baby, but you are a child, a teenager, an adult. And children, teenagers, and adults ought to be able to tell me specific things about their parents. I don’t expect that from a baby, but I do from a mature child. Are you an infant Christian? If so, then why are you are minister? Are you a mature Christian? If so, then it is right and to be expected that you give mature answers about the God you are in a relationship with.

    Bryan Berghoef:
    Last I checked, being a minister doesn’t give me any better access to God than anyone else. The example is stating that compared to God, we are like infants, a notion Calvin himself agreed with:

    “For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.” (Institutes I.13.1)

    The point, of course, being that God is far beyond us and that what we are able to glimpse is but a small part. That is proper theological humility, the kind that is sadly all too rare. Too often we act like we have every aspect of God totally figured out. In that case, we would be the mother, and God the infant.

    Tyler Wagenmaker:
    Bryan, you wrote that “theology has its place”…so what place is that, exactly? What place does getting to know God by listening to Him speak in His Word, what place does that have? Theology is not about “nailing down the mystery that is God”…theology is letting God speak of the mystery of who He is, and then taking that seriously and to heart. You make it sound as if theology is what I say about God; that is a straw man. Theology is letting God speak about Himself, and then spending the time to take His Word seriously precisely because it IS the Word of God. To not let theology permeate every area of our life is to say that letting God speak to every area of my life is not vital. Do we want to keep the knowing of God (a.k.a. theology) just in a Catechism room, and that the rest of life is separate from this knowing of God? Is different from that? What a spiritual famine that would be!

    Bryan Berghoef:
    I agree with you that theology should and does address and impact all of life, both inside and outside a classroom. Absolutely.

    But I would say that theology IS in large part what we say about God, unless you’re putting our theology on par with Scripture (which can happen when we mandate the preaching of ‘the catechism’ or any other source other than Scripture).

    We all approach Scripture through various lenses (cultural, historical, doctrinal, etc.), and we are separated from the text in time, history, language, culture and many other things, so our apprehension of the Bible will always be somewhat limited. Otherwise we’d have one clear understanding of the Bible, and one unified church! But we all know that isn’t the case.

    A Jewish approach focuses on dialogue with the text in community, and a Jewish approach also acknowledges that the text has “70 faces”. This means there is depth and mystery in the text and it will constantly surprise you. A more Western approach says, “there is one meaning to the text, and we’ve figured it out.”

    Since the Bible was written in a semitic culture, most of it in a semitic language, almost entirely by Jews, I think the former approach is more faithful to the text itself. The reason we don’t like that is because it doesn’t give us control over the text – it allows the text (and God!) control over us.

    I’m not saying the meaning is up for grabs, rather that we never assume to have plumbed its depths, and that as we wrestle with the text with one another, we will find the Spirit actively at work among us.

    So the catechism and confessions should be a part of that dialogue, but we should not put them at the peak of the mountain and pretend Moses brought them down. That would make them sort of golden calf-ish.

    Tyler Wagenmaker:
    You write, Bryan, that the Confessions (and should we add in here also the Creeds?) “should be a part of that dialogue.” That brings up two important issues, however. The first is if there is ever anything in dialogue that is no longer open to debate, that can be talked about, but not re-opened for rewriting or repostulating. I, for one would hope not, that there are some issues that the Church has considered closed and not open to rewriting. That would include such doctrines as the Trinity, as the Incarnation, as the Resurrection, as the Atonement, as the Ascension, to name but a few. Talk about them, explain them as best we can, definitely…hold them open to being rewritten, definitely not.

    The second important issue is, on what level ought you to put the Confessions and Creeds? You wrote that they should be part of the dialogue, but how authoritative a voice ought they to have? As much as an authority as your voice? As mine? As an unbeliever’s?

    Bryan Berghoef:
    Great questions, Tyler. I’ll bring them to the pub tonight and get back to you. 🙂


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