By Martha Woodroof
Public radio contributor
As people of faith, should we concern ourselves with God’s nature, relatives, ways and history?
I, for one, think we should not. It seems to me that we can’t really know anything about those subjects. If God is, then God is beyond us; and claiming otherwise corrals the great Whatever within the confines of human language and intellect. This means that society’s great chorus of conversation about God–all our debate, all our competing forms of worship, all our loud denials of God’s existence–is humanity noisily getting above our raisin’ by attempting to demonstrate we know something about that which is un-knowable. We “know” God only in the changes our partnership with the Almighty makes in ourselves and our lives, and through other people’s accounts of similar changes in themselves and their lives.
Oh my. There are few things in life I find more difficult to accept (or more uncomfortable to experience) than not knowing about something–not knowing what’s going on, what to expect, what to do, how to help, how to be right, how to stay safe, even what happened to Amelia Earhart (has she really, finally been found?). Yet, as I see it, any recognition and acceptance of reality (an obligation inherent in faith) must include a recognition that God is now, and shall forever remain, unknowable. In other words, as a person living in partnership with the great Whatever, I do have to accept down to my painted toes that God is an inscrutable, ineffable, unknowable mystery.
Furthermore, I may not allow religious language or practice to separate my recognition and acceptance that God is mystery, from my recognition and acceptance of the rest of reality. Dandelions are yellow; cement is hard; I will never be 40 again; God is mystery.
My husband, Charlie, came with a Blues collection, so it was through him that I first heard blues man Lightnin’ Hopkins introduce himself this way: “I am the man that is the Lightnin’ Hopkins.” This, to me, means that Lightnin’ Hopkins–according to Lightnin’ Hopkins–is not comparable or understandable as anything other than Lightnin’ Hopkins; i.e. once you start thinking about the man, you no longer get the man; Lightnin’ Hopkins can only be experienced, not explained. Ditto, I would submit, for the great Whatever. The mystery that is God is–period. End of philosophy. End of theology. My relationship with the great Whatever is an extra-intellectual adventure. It is truly expressed only in my habit of being.
Once we accept Mystery’s presence in our lives–once we give up any hope of understanding God in the way we understand other things–we also have to give up any hope of understanding the ways in which God works. We must accept that everything we, or anyone else, have to say about the great Whatever’s nature, ways and motives is perforce myth-based. However–and here’s the rub for a lot of people who reject organized religion–just because we can’t understand God’s nature, ways and motives, doesn’t make God any less real and available for partnership.
This I know from personal experience is a fearsome leap for a lot of people, and not just the religious. One time I was on a train, traveling from Charlottesville, Va., to New York City, headed for Book Expo to do a book signing for my first book–my take on how the Twelve Steps and my partnership with God had sent my addiction into remission. Behind me sat the dreaded blowhard with a carrying voice, and a doctor whom the blowhard had just met and was trying to impress.
I’m a reporter; I’m nosy. Since I couldn’t read, I listened. Their conversation got around to new drug therapies used to treat addiction. The doctor worked with smokers and was mystified by the fact some of them could quit and others couldn’t. It made no sense to her, she said, didn’t they know smoking would kill them? I took a deep breath and handed her my book–without saying it was my book, just that it was a book on addiction of which I had an extra copy. A few minutes later, the man handed it back to me saying that he had no interest in it. When I reminded him that I’d actually given it to the woman, all he said was, “Oh, she’s a doctor. She isn’t interested either.”
When he finally got up for a few minutes, I asked the doctor about her take on addiction. She said she thought being able to quit boiled down to the fact that some people either didn’t really want to or just didn’t have enough will power to quit–or that they weren’t truly addicted in the first place. She didn’t seem in the least curious about how anything that defied the confines of scientific study might help addicts. Such things were, to her, irrelevant to the recovery process, and that was the end of it.
I could empathize, for I, too, had once firmly believed I could think and will my way around my own addictions. That, however, hadn’t gotten me sober and something else had. I’ve accepted that I will never be able to explain that something else, but I can still recognize it and name it God–by which I mean it’s something inexplicable, un-quantifiable, extra-human as it were, that moves in me and in my life.
I did wonder about that doctor’s defensive incuriosity, why she was so uncomfortable with the possibility of mystery moving through another person’s life. I would suggest that her denial of the possibility of mystery shares a common motivation with religion’s explanations of it. We humans are flat-out fearful of sharing our lives with something we are drawn to that we can neither control nor explain.
As for knowing God’s history, it is so wrapped up in competing myths of Mystery moving through human history–competing religious writings–that it appears to me damagingly detached from reality to claim the validity of one set of myths over another. What we can recognize from these writings is that humans have been seeking a working partnership with something greater than ourselves for as long as we’ve been around.
Now, it’s your turn. What do you think?
Tell me at Faith Unboxed.
Martha Woodroof freelances for NPR and writes, reports, and blogs for public radio station WMRA in Virginia.