If You Think You Know God, Be Quiet

We all hate doubt and uncertainty in our lives lives. What we want is security. We need to know things are all right, not hope or wonder if they are.

And the more important something is to us, the more surety we want about that thing.

And what do most of us count as among those things about which we definitely need maximum certainty?

That’s an easy one: Ourselves.

In order to feel as secure as possible about ourselves, people need to have all the mental and emotional certainty they can possibly muster about these three things:

 

1. The Big Picture. God; no God; which God, etc. Everybody needs the Big Context.

 

2. Our relationships with others. Who likes us? Who loves us? Why? Why not?

 

3. The afterlife. What’s going to happen to us after we die, for God’s sake?

 

Those are life’s Big Three constant concerns.

And what those boil down to is: What was going on before I got here (the God question); what is happening while I’m here (the people question); and what will happen to me after I’m outta here?

The past; the present; the future. That pretty much wraps up all anyone ever really cares about.

And what single thing supplies complete answers to all three of those concerns? Religion. A person who believes in the core tenants of a religion automatically has comprehensive answers to virtually all three of the biggest areas of their or anyone else’s life concerns.

And that, folks, is why 95% of people on the planet cleave to one religion or another. (The very definite belief system of atheism is in effect also a religion—but for now we’ll let that go.) Religion comforts people, in every big and important way they need comforting.

What do we Christians say? That we’re saved! And that’s exactly what we mean: that we’ve been saved from fear; that Jesus was God who came to earth for the singular purpose of making sure that we really understand that we don’t have to live with fear and doubt about who God is, how we’re supposed to live, and what will happen to us after we die.

Saved!

Whoo-hoo!

What a beautiful, beautiful thing that is.

Except here’s where things get interesting. Because, saved or not, what happens is that we take our persistent, instinctive drive to be absolutely, 100% certain about everything, and then superimpose it over whatever it is we believe about God.

We must be certain about God—or everything else falls apart for us.

And what this means is that we don’t really want a God who is mysterious, because there’s no way to be perfectly sure about something mysterious—much less something whose very nature is mysterious. There’s just no way that can work for us. It never has. It never will. It can’t. A God who can’t be understood leaves on the table too much that’s too important to us.

That’s why we have to tell ourselves that we don’t think we know who God is. We must tell ourselves (and, usually, anyone who will listen to us) that we know who God is.

And that’s actually quite fine, and even true: we do know who God is. But I do think it’s terribly important that at least every once in a while we remember to stop and at least acknowledge that God has always been, and will always be, a mystery. We mustn’t be afraid to be more cognizant of the fact that we don’t know everything about God; that we can’t know everything about God; that we shouldn’t know everything about God; that we can no sooner hold God in our minds than we can flap our arms and fly.

And it’s not like it’s hard for us to be reminded of how completely unfathomable is God and our relationship to him. For instance:

We are rightfully proud to be God’s representative on earth. Yet we know pride to be one the Devil’s strongest tools against us.

We must be strong, forthright leaders. Yet we must be humble, broken followers.

We don’t want our religion reduced to rules—we want relationship, not religion! Yet we must systematize our faith so that we can effectively practice it, study it, and teach it the world.

Nature is the ultimate expression of God’s glorious handiwork. Yet the earth is God’s gift to mankind to use in whatever way we thinks best.

We should delight in our sexual relationship with our spouse. Yet sex is Satan’s weapon of choice against us.

We must evangelize to others. Yet people are saved by God’s grace, and God’s grace alone.

God has a plan and a purpose for our life. Yet God is self-sufficient; nothing can be added or taken from him.

Heaven is ours. Yet we still await God’s judgment of us.

Jesus was fully human. Yet he was absolutely sinless.

God is one. Yet God is three.

See?

Mysteries all!

And those are just the mysteries we know about.

It’s not that we’re helpless to understand or intuit the greater truths behind these sorts of dichotomies. It’s just that the very nature of our faith demands that we loosen up some of that which keeps us so certain that we fully understand God. We don’t. We can’t. We never will.

And thank God for that! Who wants a God they can fully comprehend? How deathly boring would that be?

I think we should consider modifying our worship services. I think that one Sunday a month, everyone in church—including (if not especially) our pastors—should come into the pews, take a seat, and, for the duration of the time the service usually lasts, remain perfectly quiet.

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is co-founder of The NALT Christians Project and founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here). His blog is here. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • bmcg61

    - "The very definite belief system of atheism is in effect also a religion"

    Do you have any idea what the definition of Atheism is? Obviously not. What you are asserting is really just a recent mis-interpetation of a recent court opinion that, as far as the legal system goes, atheism must be treated under the heading of "religion". That doesn't mean it is a "belief system" or a religion. Atheism is a lack of belief. Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Christian: Funny!

    bm: Calm down. All I meant was that atheism, just like any religion, offers to its adherents a conscious construct—a consistent paradigm, an unchanging model—by which to understand the Big Picture. If you're an atheist—or at least as that word is most commonly understood—you DO believe there's no God. That's not objective/empirical knowledge. That's as an assumption, a guess—it is, ultimately, a hope.

    Be respectful in your reply, or I'll delete it faster than you can say, "Screw you, Bible-thumper."

  • Roger C

    A former pastor of mine use to say "Who wants to serve a God they can explain? By definition He should be beyond our understanding."

    Good job, John.

  • Greta Sheppard

    John, as usual, this was and is an enjoyable read….I marvel still at your ability to express your musings on God as succinctly as you do….am copy/pasting this into my file on 'God…who is He'?

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Thank you, Roger.

    Greta: Thank you so much. (And I sent you an email.)

  • http://www.sharpiron.org Christian Beyer

    Amen. Good stuff.

    We actually do what you suggest in our church – not substitute the scheduled service but have regular times (a couple times a month) in which many of us come together for silent reflection.

    I had to stop going though. They said my snoring was distracting.

  • http://megaloi.blogspot.com Redlefty

    Roger, did your pastor say that quote right before his weekly sermon explaining God?

    ;)

  • brdonaldson

    I totally agree. I'm convinced that we should practice that same silence a home much more often. That way the group silence will be that much more intense…

  • Jeffrey Job

    The need to cultivate silence in order to hear His still small voice has been recognized by Jews and Christians for centuries.

    I think the earliest Christians who started going out to the deserts and living in caves were called hermits.

    Problems began when other less intense believers heard of these guys and sought them out for spiritual advice. There went the whole idea of solitude!

    Catholics and Orthodox have had cloistered monks from the beginning.

    Their intent is not to run away from the world but to run toward God on behalf of the world.

  • textjunkie

    To truly worship, we must be Quakers. Cool. :)

  • Karen Holmberg-Smith

    People don't like it when I preach exactly what you've said here, John. They don't like being told that there really are no answers to all of their "whys," and faith means learning to be okay with God being beyond our understanding. I tried longer pauses in worship once, and that wasn't a hit, either, but probably because that service was radio-broadcast. I keep trying, because that is what I'm called to do. Thanks for your support (knowing or not-knowing) of my work!

  • Brian Westley

    "All I meant was that atheism, just like any religion, offers to its adherents a conscious construct—a consistent paradigm, an unchanging model—by which to understand the Big Picture"

    But you're still wrong — all atheism itself does is eliminate god(s) from someone's "conscious construct—a consistent paradigm, an unchanging model—by which to understand the Big Picture."

    Atheists can believe in an existence after death; or not (some atheists in India subscribe to reincarnation, for example). Atheists can believe in ghosts, or not. Atheists can be materialists or non-materialists. etc, etc.

    If someone is an atheist, the only thing you can correctly conclude about their worldview is that gods are not involved.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Karen: Good stuff. Thanks.

    Brian: Yes; it was to cover these more subtle definitions that I wrote, "If you’re an atheist—or at least as that word is most commonly understood …. ." I was just being general, see? That's what I meant with those words I've here italicized.

  • Pat

    Hi John – great post. But, isn't part of your point here that just being Christian (or Muslim or Buddhist or etc. ) doesn't actually immediately give you an answer to your big three questions, and really is just giving you a framework for addressing these questions? That is, it's easy to think of versions of Christianity that have answered questions 2 and 3 at least in very different ways, and of course even individuals remain uncertain. And, it is better to have just a framework and a vocabulary rather than a set of concrete answers, because the former (hopefully) increases the potential for reflection and discovery, whereas the latter decreases it.

  • charity

    i thought it was very touching but it's just that I have a question..some of the words were quite big for me so if you can just look through your work and show me some of/all of the big words and explain them to me because i am only fifteen and some of the words I have never heard of and i really would like to know them so it would mean a lot to me and thank you so much for opening my eyes as love is as strong as death.. anway God will reward your labour in Jesus' precious name ooo…AMEN…xox

    • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

      Charity: Not to dismiss you, or anything, but surely you have a dictionary? Google will immediately point you toward the definition of any word you search on. Thanks for the very kind note.

  • http://cadoah.wordpress.com cadoah

    I must say… seeing posts like this can be slightly shocking sometimes…

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Why?

  • http://cadoah.wordpress.com cadoah

    Because, well, you're funny. Hilarious. Yet, profound. I'm usually laughing, or laughing and, well, reflecting, but when I read this post… I wasn't laughing. Slightly shocking.

    Well, I did smile a little, wryly, to myself. But I think you get my point… :-)

  • Brian Westley

    Brian: Yes; it was to cover these more subtle definitions that I wrote, “If you’re an atheist—or at least as that word is most commonly understood …. .” I was just being general, see?

    Then you should have said "as most commonly misunderstood," just as "schizophrenic" is commonly misunderstood to refer to split personalities (that isn't what it means).

    Atheism only indicates a lack of belief in gods, nothing else.

    • Matthew Tweedell

      If you want to be so technical in the definition, atheism is not merely the lack of belief in one or more god(s) or goddess(es) but rather a belief specifically exclusive of gods/goddesses. (The former is properly agnosticism—I thought I should let you know, since you seem quite fond of strictly proper definition :) A newborn baby, for example, is not an atheist. Such a belief is rather something later adopted. Yet why would such beliefs be adopted? It's in answer to the questions John listed before noting that atheism constitutes one of the systems of answers to them.

  • Brian Westley

    “If you want to be so technical in the definition, atheism is not merely the lack of belief in one or more god(s) or goddess(es) but rather a belief specifically exclusive of gods/goddesses.”

    Wrong. atheist means “not a theist,” just like asymmetrical means “not symmetrical.”

    “(The former is properly agnosticism—I thought I should let you know, since you seem quite fond of strictly proper definition)”

    Well, it isn’t. Agnosticism, from gnosis, addresses what kind (if any) knowledge of god(s) is possible. It doesn’t mean “lacks a belief in gods” because it’s possible to be an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist.

    “A newborn baby, for example, is not an atheist.”

    It isn’t? Then what god(s) does it believe in?

    • Matthew Tweedell

      No, you—wrong! Something is not asymmetrical unless it is such that it could possess symmetry and happens not to. Red is neither symmetrical nor asymmetrical; a million dollars in the bank—neither symmetrical nor asymmetrical. Now red is also not a theist, nor is red an atheist, Sherlock! A million bucks also is not a theist, and a million bucks is not an atheist—it most certainly does *not* mean “not a theist”!

      Agnostic is the opposite of gnostic—so it means having no claim to any mystical knowledge, thus precluding particular belief in regards to divinity.

      Of course a newborn baby doesn’t believe in any god *but* also doesn’t believe in *no* god (a good argument for why they aren’t condemned to hell if they die). A newborn baby simply has no belief whatsoever in this regard, rather like a grapefruit. Now, a grapefruit might be asymmetrical, but it can’t be atheist, any more than Theos is asymmetrical! But that’s a grapefruit—as for a newborn, how dare you call a child “it”! This is a human being, dude—get a soul! (And while you’re at it, get an education too—before you get to cocky about something, look it up!)

  • Mike Henry

    BM: You say that atheism is a lack of belief, but don’t you have to believe that you believe that there is no God. Whether you like it or not, if someone asks you if you believe that God exist and you say “NO”, you are in essence saying that you lack the belief that there is a God but that’s still a type of belief. It doesn’t even matter if you use a different word,( i.e. conclude, accept, credit) all of these words point to belief. Basically accepting something to be true. In your case your truth is that you believe God doesn’t exist and that my friend is a belief system, like it or not, the choice is yours.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      True true true true true.

      • Mike Henry

        By the way John, “Comma Sense” is the Bomb! I’m thoroughly enjoying it.