Culture at the Crossroads
I Believe In One God
I have faith even in the face of intellectual doubts. It is perhaps the fact that faith and doubt are such close cousins in my life that I became a theologian. I have always been struck by the biblical image of Jacob wrestling with an angel: an image that has become for many, like me, the story of one's struggles to understand the very question of God. The lines from Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "The Man Watching" stay with me:
Whomever this Angel overcame
(who so often declined the fight)
He walks erect and justified
And great from that hard hand
Which, as if sculpting, nestled round him.
Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is this: to be
Deeply defeated by the ever-greater One.
(Translation by Edward Snow in The Book of Images.
New York: North Point Press, 1994.)
It is that image of being "deeply defeated" that I find so compelling. In the biblical story, Jacob emerges from the fight with a permanent wound, and a new name: Israel ("wrestles with God"). He is forever changed by the experience, and he and his descendants are forever marked by his struggle.
I was trained as an undergraduate in an interdisciplinary program rooted in the history of Western thinking—the very same in which I am now a professor—and I became fascinated with the question of God that lurked amidst Homeric epics, Athenian and Roman philosophy, ancient Near Eastern and Biblical literature, medieval art and architecture, and even modern and postmodern critiques of the tradition. I have read and taught all these works; I still engage with the ancient texts as much as I contend with the likes of Marx, Nietzsche, Joyce, Freud, and so many 20th- and 21st-century believers and skeptics. I am familiar with the usual arguments advanced both for God's existence and against it. And what has emerged in my mind is that all of them are inadequate, and that the God that we accept or reject on the basis of what we're able to grasp with our coolheaded thinking is very far indeed from whatever the pronoun "God" represents.
Don't get me wrong; thinking about God is fascinating, inasmuch as it can involve engaging with thinkers across cultures and across millennia. Thinking about God helps us to understand what cultures hold most important; it helps us recognize that our own gods (money, power, fame, sex, ourselves) are little different from the ancient gods Zeus or Thor or Ra. But thinking about God is limiting in the way that Nietzsche intuited: inevitably the god that emerges from our thinking is little more than a creation of our imagination. We create gods in our own image.
I choose faith in the God revealed in the life of Jesus, because I understand that faith to be a prerequisite for discerning meaning in the world, and even more importantly for acting in love. Unlike (say) Plato or Aristotle, Jesus' teachings are rather limited; he left nothing written in his own hand. Like Socrates, though, his life was his teaching, and his disciples simply attempted to tell his story. I don't want to worship (that is, anchor my life in and be ready to die for) a god that I can understand, nor do I want to engage in a conceit that there really is no god at all. For as wonderful as thinking can be, it is still a rather small tool. Plato understood this, as did other Greek, Jewish, and Christian thinkers from Qoheleth to Plotinus to Augustine. Reading them, I see reminders of a constant thirst for knowledge of God, and with it a stark realization that trying to know God is (to use an image attributed to Augustine) like trying to fit the ocean into a spoon.
Jesus reminds us that ultimately thinking is not the aim of faith; rather, living in love is, which he described with the metaphor of "the Kingdom of God." At the end of the day, when I put down books with ponderous titles, having wrestled with great thinkers who try anew to stretch our imagination and our knowledge of the world, I get up from my desk and am immersed in a world that is in desperate need of rigorously thought-through love. If love is real, and if anything we do in this vale of tears carries with it the possibility of meaning or beauty, then it is because God is present throughout it.
Read more from the Patheos Year of Faith series here.