The Problem of Knowing God

There is a big problem in our society and it is God. No, God is not inherently a bad thing—but people’s interpretation of God causes a lot of trouble. When people insist that their own particular view of God is the only correct one, the only real one, they alienate everyone else. Huge amounts of controversy exist over this—and for no good reason.

People who have studied faith development have claimed that the less developed believers hold more literally to the God description put forth by their own religious tradition. They tend to have adopted the exact religious concepts handed to them by the authorities in their church, and may never have seriously questioned any of it. They bought the whole package without ever sorting through all the contents. Because the words of their religious tradition say God is so and so, they accept all that in its most simple form. But this is not the final word – or at least it should not be.

It turns out being willing to question one’s beliefs is a critical step in forming a mature faith. Anyone with a PhD in any field has had to take the available knowledge in their field, subject it to some form of questioning, and contribute something new to that discipline. They have been expected to expand the available knowledge in some small way. Well, the same concept can be applied to the road to spiritual maturity.  Just accepting what the authorities told us about God is like ending our education with just a high school diploma. At that level, we are just memorizing what the teachers—who obviously know more than we do—say.

Being willing to study the issue further is like going to college. There they kind of still tell us stuff, but they also expect us to begin thinking things through on our own. Many people who take this step with regard to religion will decide that religious concepts, as taught to them by their religious authorities, do not hold up to rational inspection. Some of these will decide that the God their church told them about does not exist. Considering some of the improbable, magical things some religions tell us, this is not surprising.

But not all who question wind up nonbelievers. Some people stay with the program and study the issue further. Many of these will come to know God in a very different way than how they were taught in Sunday school.

Just as those in a PhD program are expected to produce new and original knowledge in their field through their research, a person who passes through the questioning stage must find a new way of “knowing” God. He cannot just mirror what the church teaches. He must develop something creative and original about his faith. People who go through this stage usually tend to come up with quite different answers than what their preacher told them. They may use the word God, but chances are high that their god is not the totally separate Supreme Being explicitly preached about in Church.  Knowing God at what is called the post-critical level means “knowing” that no God who was good could possibly have a chosen people to the exclusion of all others. It means knowing that a good god would extend his blessings to all creatures, and would not require them to blindly accept doctrines for which there is no proof. It means trusting that whatever it is that happens after death, it is not to be feared. Rather than a separate being who would reject huge portions of mankind who never had a chance to hear his word, the God of post-critical faith is something more general, something more inclusive.

People who have put honest, critical, personal work into their beliefs have mostly realized the exact descriptions offered by the religious authorities do not represent the literal truth. It seems these most mature believers have found a way to reinterpret the teachings of their church in a way that transcends and surpasses the literal meanings.  Most importantly, they have learned the value of remaining open to further truth, instead of encamping themselves in rigid, insular pre-set beliefs.

So the problem with assuming we know exactly who God is, and what “he” “wants,” is that it limits our understanding to that which our churches teach – and that God almost certainly excludes some of what is considered to be his own creation. When you think about it, this cannot really be. If we are to allow ourselves to fully explore the truth in an open and honest fashion, we must realize that God (or god) is something way beyond anything our limited human brains can understand. Admitting that we may not have the capacity to understand something so all-encompassing shows a much greater degree of humility, and brings us closer to the Truth.

About Margaret Placentra Johnston

Author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind, Margaret Placentra Johnston writes in hope of challenging both religious believers and nonbelievers to consider a broader perspective.

A practicing Optometrist, Margaret also loves helping people see better in the physical world. She lives in Virginia with her husband and has two grown sons.


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