Thank God You Don’t Know God

We all hate doubt and uncertainty in our lives. What we want in our lives 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 desire about that thing.

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

But of course: Ourselves!

In order to feel as secure as possible about ourselves, we all need to have every last bit of mental and emotional certainty that we can possibly muster about these three things:

1. The Big Picture. God; no God; which God, etc. Everybody needs (and in one way or another everyone invariably establishes for themselves) 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 three concerns boil down to are these: 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 everything anyone really cares about at all.

And what supplies complete answers to all three of those critical, lifelong concerns?

Religion! A person who believes in the core tenets of a religion automatically has comprehensive answers to virtually all three of the biggest areas of concern in their own or anyone else’s life.

And that, right there, is why ninety-five percent of people cleave to one religion or another. (The very definite belief system of atheism is also predicated upon pure faith—but we’ll let that go.) Religion comforts people, in every big and important way that we all need comforting.

We Christians say that we’re saved. And that’s exactly what we mean, too: 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.

And what a beautiful, beautiful thing that is.

Except here’s where things begin to go a little askew. Because, saved or not, what happens is that we take our persistent, instinctive drive to be absolutely, one hundred percent certain about everything, and then superimpose it over whatever it is we believe about God.

We must be certain about God, after all. If we’re not, then our whole precious matrix of certainties begins to fall unravel.

Taken altogether, what this means is that we don’t really want a God who is mysterious. Because there’s no way we’re going to be comfortable being wholly dependent upon something the very nature of which is profoundly mysterious. That’s just not going to work for us. It never has. It never will. It can’t. A God who can’t be readily grasped is a God who leaves on the table too much that’s too important to us.

And so time and time again we naturally find ourselves telling ourselves that we don’t just think we know who God is, but that we know who God is.

And that’s actually quite fine, and even true: as a Christian, I believe that I do know who God is. But I think it’s terribly important that at least every once in a while we Christians also remember to stop and at least acknowledge that for us 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:

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.

Mysteries all, right?

And those are just the ones 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 also periodically remember to admit to ourselves that, no matter how inspired or full of God’s grace we might at times feel, at best it’s like trying to understand the sun by looking at a shadow.

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

I think we should consider modifying our worship services. I think that one Sunday a month, everyone in every church in the world—including (if not especially) the pastors—should file into the sanctuary, 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 founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. 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.

  • R Boyer

    In my most truthful moments, I refer to “God, for lack of a better word, as I don’t understand that.” It works for me.

    • Diana A.

      Love this!

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

        Thanks, Diana. Coming from you that means a lot.

        • Diana A.

          You’re welcome!

  • http://wilkinsonweb.com Dan Wilkinson

    Love this post. Especially the last paragraph.

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

      Thanks, guy who’s totally helping me with my aborning website and who totally for free built the website for ThruWayChristians.com AND the awesome online forum for that same group, Dan Wilkinson! (Speaking of … webby weirdness: Dan, check out how all the comments in my … comment boxes are now, suddenly, out of nowhere, starting yesterday, appearing in italics! And check this out: at the same time they started doing that here, all the comments to my current post up on Huffington Post Religion ALSO started appearing in italics!!!! Isn’t that the craziest thing. Well, maybe not THE craziest thing, which for sure is Madam Truffaunt’s Wax Museum. But still. Pretty crazy!

      • Diana A.

        You know, that italics thing is actually pretty crazy–especially if it’s also happening in HuffPost.

        (Cue the Twilight Zone music!)

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

          Right?!

        • Don Rappe

          Copying here something from the post which is part italics and part not, just to see what happens: “nature of which is profoundly mysterious”. Here in the comment box, none of it is italics, so I guess I know whats going to happen. nature of which is profoundly mysterious

          • Don Rappe

            Evidently, the comment process removes all symbols which control this type of thing and puts in a default which has “mysteriously” been changed. :) I’ll bet a magic yellow face will appear in this.

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

            Hi, Don. Yeah, I have ZERO idea how or why this started happening. None. I could no longer manually have done this than I could accidentally perfectly fly and land a helicopter. It’s just so bizarre. And, as I say, now all my comments on HuffPo are in italics, too.

            I guess it’s obvious what’s happening: God wants everything that’s said around everything I write to enjoy great emphasis.

            (Hey, thanks for your very well said defense of my atheism comment.)

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

            Fixed!

  • Jeremy

    I’m just curious why you say atheism is based on pure faith. I’m pretty sure my atheism isn’t based on faith: it’s based on thinking it’s unlikely that any god exists. Is there another post on this somewhere?

    • Don Rappe

      John has this question coming because even tho he put it in parentheses, he couldn’t resist saying it, Clearly he doesn’t mean it to be the subject of this post, but, we atheists, both active and recovering, are frequently nit-pickers. While picking them, I might mention that I can imagine a matrix falling or unraveling but not both. I believe John would make clear distinctions between words like faith. belief, knowledge and thought. I’m sure your thinking it unlikely that any god exists is correct. Your phraseology indicates you expect God to be an object of possible knowledge. When I have my religious hat on, I would never make that claim. I think of God as Uncreate. That also happens to be a Christian dogma, but, thats not the reason I think it. I believe thinking we know too much about God (including his “nature”, a blasphemous idea that the Creator of nature has a “nature”) is the subject of this post.

    • http://www.shadsie.deviantart.com Shadsie

      Just like my off-kilter, somewhat agnostic Christian faith is based upon my experiences and upon what I think is likely. A lot of atheists seem to make the mistake that anyone who is not one of them is so becuase they “don’t think” or “don’t think critically” when, much more often than they are willing to acknowlege, it’s quite the opposite. For some individuals, belief in God is a perfectly logical conclusion, believe it or not.

      I think what is being hinted at here is just how sure some atheists are that there’s no God – in the same way that believers are sure that there is one – ie. “Were you really *there* when the universe began?” People act like they’re so sure of one conclusion or another to things that are subjective/beyond reach and ultimately inconclusive.

      And if you say “Science!” I’m going to point out the simple fact that science marches on, always. Things we knew 50 years ago have been proven “wrong” by what we know today and what we know today is a drop in the bucket to what we’ll know 50 years from now if we’re still around. To me, “the God question” is more like “the Art question” than anything sciencey-anyway. – as far as I’m concerned, people who argue about God should know that they aren’t him.

  • Don Rappe

    Great post John. A really important subject for those who wish to understand the basis for their religion. And also for those who wish to understand the theological statement: ‘From “Only my religion is right.” it immediately follows that “all religions are wrong.”.’. Pardon the gross misuse of the punct.

  • Gayle

    Love this post, John. Great thoughts to consider. And I love your suggestion! Wouldn’t it be fabulous if, for this coming Sunday in celebration of Easter, every congregation across this planet celebrating the risen Lord would do so in utter silence, to contemplate in humble worship and adoration God’s mystery and limitless grace. The human race would be a kinder species…

  • Renee P

    Would you come preach at my church?! This is really fantastic and a message many people need to hear. I think certainty is one of the reasons fundamentalism is so appealing: your church or your pastor or your plain I-refuse-to-exegete-based-on-anything reading of scripture tells you everything you need to do and believe or NOT do/NOT believe. Therefore you don’t really have to think about anything, you don’t really have any choices because it’s all already been laid out for you, mysteries revealed, and therefore you are not liable for what you do/believe. It’s all very safe and cozy, me-and-Jesus buddy-buddy. The problems with this kind of “faith” are myriad, IMHO, not least of which is the lack of freedom to exercise one’s own skills of critical analysis and interpretation based on intellectual pursuit, experience, and revelation. In all three churches where I have served as a lay minister, I have implemented a children’s program called Godly Play. One of the most incredible aspects of this very-non-traditional form of children’s “Sunday school” is that we talk regularly about mystery and wonder, and the children learn how to wrestle with the unknown and unknowable. We “come close to the mysteries,” but it “takes a long time to get ready to enter or even come close to a mystery as great as…” whatever we happen to focus on that week. The language is fabulous. Again, thank you so much for your insight and profound wisdom. May your Triduum be holy and blessed. (None of this is in italics!)

  • Linda

    The mystery means everything to me.

    And, your last paragraph brings to mind my Quaker friends :)

  • http://www.BrianWendt.com Brian W

    John,

    I must say one of your best yet, when your writing rebukes me for things I need to keep or get right or correct, you have done well. Expound on this more and it would make a powerful sermon indeed!!

  • http://www.barnmaven.com Barnmaven

    The quiet part…I love that. Quiet is one of the things that draws me to being Episcopalian. I love the sanctuary when no one else is there. To just sit and contemplate. The recitation of the service from the book of prayer, the same words week after week, season after season, holiday after holiday, allow me the space in my head and heart to think about God and what my relationship with Him means.

    I find that the older I get the less I admit I know about God. I know what I HOPE He is, I know that I feel the draw of having relationship with Him, I know that He loves me unconditionally, but often I don’t understand WHY or HOW. And I’ve entirely given up on the question of WHEN. At this stage of my life I am perfectly happy to simply be where I am in my lack of understanding and take joy in the relationship.

    I’ve found so much freedom and joy in letting go of needing the answers. I don’t know when it was the need to define went away and I don’t know how long it will last, but I’m going to enjoy it all the while that it does.

  • http://www.shadsie.deviantart.com Shadsie

    I hear you on the need for security. I learned a bit about that recently.

    Just got my electricity back. It’s been cut-off from my apartment since Wed. I spent much of that time absolutely squirrely and imagining doing baaaaad things to the workers at the power company, because they took money from my bank account, but insisted “up to 72 hours” a wait to get the power back, and it’s nothing we could really contest since there was a matter of a somewhat late bill that had somehow slipped our notice. I worried about the basic things, like the food in the fridge, but mostly, I just wanted to be able to flip a switch and turn a light on because I’m *used to that.* Even if I’m out for a walk and not using my electricity, I want to have it – there – working when I want it to. I like the security of having things work when I want them to and availavle when I need or want them – all the time. Even this relatively small problem (I wasn’t homeless or a disaster victim), had me paranoid, squirrely, angry and antsy. I was talking about the need for a root cellar and a woodburning stove, lamenting how tied we are to electricity in modern times when it can get cut off at the whim of a company.

    It was the loss of a bit of my security that annoyed me most. I can live without Internet if I have to… not *well,* but I have books to read. And candles. I spent yesterday handwriting a short-story, but mostly pacing around being annoyed.

    Let’s just say that if I didn’t handle a power-outage well, I don’t know how or *if* I’d manage not having some kind of mental context for Life, the Universe and Everything, even if that context is vague.

  • Richard Lubbers

    One of the things I dislike about charismatics is their attitude of having it all figured out about God. Tammy and I left such a church because we continually found ourselves saying “The bible doesn’t say that.”

    What we appreciate the most about Rob Bell and the teachers at Mars Hill is that they don’t put God in a box. There is a strong sense of the goodness of God wrapped in awesome mystery. Nobody stands in the pulpit and says, “This is what you need to believe.” They trust the process of a loving God in each and every person who lives. They also firmly believe that we are the hands and feet of the risen Christ in the world, which is why they practice an active social gospel.

    Certainty and humility. I like that, John. A service of silence would be a wonderful way to remember that sometimes we just need to be still and know that we don’t always have the right words; that God is God beyond our comprehension.

  • http://www.considerateatheist.com Considerate Atheist

    OK, so nicely written, John, as usual. Being open to the mysterious allows us to be less dogmatic in our thinking in so doing we become more open to each other. I just wanted to clear something up. You wrote “The very definite belief system of atheism is also predicated upon pure faith.” I’m not trying to de-convert you, or say Christianity is evil or wrong. Not here anyway. But I do ask that you give a proper representation of atheists on your blog. There are some atheists who claim that there is no God. That, agreed, requires faith. But most atheists don’t make a claim one way or the other. So this would imply a lack of faith either way, and they lack of belief in something with no evidence makes them an atheist.

    I suppose I could say that all Christians believe in hell. Or think homosexuality is wrong. Or are narrow minded. But I know that’s not true, so I try not to make statements that pain all Christians with a wide brush. Plus I know you want to be properly represented. Well, we also want to be properly represented. Atheism is not a belief system, nor is it a faith. It is the inability accept anything on faith alone. I enjoy your writing, so I hope you don’t mind my simple critique.

  • tera

    Fantastic, John! This resonates with me big time. TY!

  • http://www.tamaraoutloud.wordpress.com Tamara Out Loud

    I love this, John– thank you. One of my favorite things about God– one of the things I take the most comfort in– is that He is more than I can understand and, I believe, infinitely better. I love the idea that some day we’ll all gather together around His throne and have a great laugh at all the ways we didn’t get it.

  • Rev. Kristofer K. Avise-Rouse

    So help me out… Jesus never sinned?

    Not even when he called the Syro-Phonecian woman and her daughter “dogs”?!

    Not even when he got angry and threw the furniture in the temple courtyard and MADE a whip and drove both people and animals with it?!

    REALLY?!

    • Rev. Kristofer K. Avise-Rouse

      BTW – GREAT post!!!!! Well said.

  • Mike Bruno

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

    “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” — Voltaire


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