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.