Growing up, when my brothers and I found ourselves in one of our minutiae-obsessed, pop-trivia-fueled discussions and a question came up about a fact pertaining to whatever it was we were discussing, one of us always seemed to know the answer right away. You may want to read that last sentence again and notice the word seemed. A better word might be acted. One of us would consistently turn up a for-certain answer to even the most bizarre questions, and they usually sounded like we were just making them up. If I was suspicious that one of my brothers was doing this, I would press him for details about where he got his information. His response usually went something like, "It just is."
"But how do you know?" I would say.
"I just do. It’s just common knowledge."
And when I was lucky, I would dig at him until I discovered the truth—that he was making an assumption that sounded very much like it could probably be true, but that may or may not actually be true. In other words, it sounded right. It made sense that it could be right, but it was only something that he had decided on for himself with little foundation in actual fact.
Spending as much time in church as I do, I see a lot of people who are very certain about God. Not just that He exists, or that His Biblical truths are, in fact, true—most everybody agrees on those things. What I’m talking about is a certainty about who God really is; a surefire interpretation of the person, personality, sense of humor and political affiliation of the almighty, omniscient Being who thought us up in the first place. How the sculpture could ever understand the artist is beyond me, but somehow we seem to have gotten it all figured out.
It has always fascinated me how everybody has a different interpretation of God. To some, He is an old, white-haired, deep-south Republican. To some, God is a hippie (what with His whole "love everybody equally" thing). To some, He is little more than Santa Claus. To others still, He is a narcissist, a madman. And all of these people are 100 percent sure that their convictions and interpretations are right, and that God is who they say He is.
And let’s not stop with the most extreme examples. Let’s remember that some people also like to claim to know exactly what style of music God prefers, and exactly how He’d like us to dress. They know exactly who is and who is not in God’s favor judging by the simple criteria of whether or not these people listen to Christian music and read the right translation of the Bible.
And in all of this, I have trouble with one seemingly simple concept: understanding exactly who God is. Sometimes I get the feeling that God is like that old friend that I haven’t seen for a while, and who I remember as acting, talking and thinking a certain way. But when I run into my old friend and talk to him again, I realize that the way I remember him is only a stylized version of his real self. I realize that his true personality is much more layered and complex than my memory of him, and that I don’t really know him that well after all.
To come to a clearer understanding of the person of God, we have to consider that perhaps we have made God out in our minds to be something that He is not. We have filled in the gaps in our understanding of Him and compensated for our lack of a physical God model by constructing Him in our minds as someone who looks, acts, thinks and believes just like we want Him to—just like us. If people in our past have manipulated His word to justify murder, racism, misogyny and innumerable other sins, how much more easily can we manipulate it to fit our political, theological, philosophical and personal beliefs?
Our problem with understanding God has to do with our size when compared to His. He is enormous. He made us. All of our words and thoughts and methods of understanding things—even Him—come from Him. We can do nothing apart from His presence. So then it stands to reason that because of this, our understanding of Him will always be incomplete. We can understand the concepts of this world, the tiniest details of science and math that we live among, because we are separate from them. Between us and those things there is a distance that gives us power over them. We can grab an atom out of thin air and split it. We can set up workstations in space. We can transplant live organs from one human to another. But we can never understand God in the same way that the things we create can never understand us.
The sadness in this situation is that rather than accepting His superiority over us, we have to use what we know from our own experience to understand Him. And that experience will always be incomplete and biased. The truth, as they say, is out there. God is who He is regardless of what we think of Him. If only we could let go of what we want to believe and get our heads around the fact that we will never figure Him out completely, and that the journey is as important as the destination.