Everyone Can Teach Us Something About God

Everyone Can Teach Us Something About God June 9, 2023

Lawrence OP : The Divine Name / flickr

Many Christians say that anyone who has a different understanding of God than the one they have must worship or follow a different God. To make that point, they ask how could people believe in the same deity if they say different, indeed, contradictory things about God. This is a bad line of argument. If that line of reasoning was valid, it would end up leading to all kinds of similar conclusions, such as, historians who believe in two different, indeed, contradictory things about George Washington must not really be talking about the same man. We can believe something false about someone or something; in doing so, we are still talking about a particular subject or object, even when we end up being wrong about it. Similarly, if a different belief or conception about a particular subject or object means that it is ultimate a different subject or object being discussed, then, ultimately, there would be no way for anyone to be wrong when talking about various subjects.

If we must have the same conception of God to have the same God, no one will have the same God. Everyone has their own unique experience with God, and with it, all kinds of unique understandings about God which no one else will have. Our apprehension of God grows in relation to our experience of God’s work in our lives or what we see of God’s work in the world. Each of those works, in their own way, represents a way we can come to name God. Each of those names indicates a way we have come to know God (in a relative, not absolute manner).

God is transcendent. God’s essence must not to be confused with the energies or works of God, though that essence is proven to exist in and through those energies, which is why in and through them, we can know something about God and what we could call God’s character. Nonetheless, the more we apprehend God, the more we should realize how transcendent God is, and so, how much God transcends what it is we have apprehended. We must accept that the transcendental essence of God will only be comprehended by God – that is, “none know God with innermost knowledge save God.”[1] Only God will know God in the absolute sense, and so, if one must have the same, and correct, conception of God in order to believe in God, only God can believe in and know God.

Our experience, our lives, our ability to interpret that experience, can and will lead us to all kinds of interpretations of God. Some understandings will be better than others. Some, perhaps, will be quite terrible, especially if what they use to understand God is mostly the reified statements others make of God. And yet, behind all such conceptions of God, even those which are bad or even erroneous, there are apprehensions of God, apprehensions, if we can ascertain them, which will help us better understand God. Each apprehension of God, while it might need some purification to discern it, can be used together with every other apprehension of God, serving as complements to each other. Together, they can better point to the absolute truth of God (through a kind of triangulation). Thus, even those which seem to contradict each other, when misunderstood, can be seen to work together and help us approach God better. It is like taking two different people at different parts of the United States, one on the West Cost, one on the East, asking them where to find Chicago. They would point in different directions, and yet both would be correct. If we took the answer to lie in the pointer, and not where they were pointing to, we would have to claim there was a contradiction, but if we understood their response properly, we would be able to see how they work together and point to the same place. Thus, when studying and learning from others about God, we must understand the context to better appreciate what they have to tell us, but also, to see how different statements about God which seem contradictory could end up working together and end up being not so contradictory after all. Each discussion about God represents an attempt to come to know God, and though what is said can be different in each discussion, they can still end up talking about the same God, for they are all attempts to point to and represent the ultimate truth, the ultimate reality, which is found in and with God, indeed, which is God.

Thus, while the fullness of revelation is disclosed to us in and through Jesus Christ, we can still discern God’s work with others, and through them and what they tell us about God, learn about God. Even if we believe they are mistaken about many things about God because they have not engaged or believed the fullness of revelation of God which we received, that doesn’t mean what they are talking about is another God. After all, have we not, in our own spiritual life, found ourselves coming to know God differently, realizing many times we were mistaken about God? Did we believe in a different God when we did so? No.

God is one, and is always at work in the world. That is, God is at work with everyone. God is engaging humanity in its history, interacting with all the nations of the world, providing the means to each of them to interact with and learn from God’s engagement with them. We can find people within every culture, within every religious tradition, seeking after and engaging God, though each are doing so in a different way, some, obviously, better than others. If we ignore God’s work with them, if we try to make God exclusive to ourselves, that is exclusive to Christianity, not only will it be able to be proven we are wrong about God (as  Scripture consistently shows God is at work throughout all creation), our understanding of God will end up being deficient, as Roger Bacon understood:

For this reason the philosophizing Christian can unite many authorities and various reasons and very many opinions from other writings besides the books of the unbelieving philosophers, provided they belong to philosophy, or are common to it and theology, and must be received in common by unbelievers and believers. If this be not done, there will be no perfecting, but much loss. [2]

Indeed, it can be said that the philosophers from various cultural traditions helped their people come to a better understanding of God, making sure they got away from some of the errors found in their own cultural or religious traditions, especially the kind of errors which develop when cultural myths are misunderstood and overly literalized. The philosophers, and of course, the religious traditions which they inherited and refined, show us one way humanity has always been working with and seeking to understand one and the same God.  They also warn us not to reify our current understanding of God in such a way to put a limit on God, a limit which cuts God from divine transcendence. If we don’t do that, we end up falling for idolatry. The sin of idolatry lies in the way it transforms human apprehension of God to a claim of comprehension, and in doing so, ends up limiting and undermining the divine nature. That is, it turns God, who is the absolute, universal good into some particular, limited good. And the error which creates for such idolatry, as Henry of Ghent explained, comes by the way we predicate such limiting notions to God as being absolutes when we hear the name God invoked:

Hence, the fact that idol worshipers among the people claimed that God is something by his essence and in actuality, did not come from some knowledge that they had about God’s essence or existence, but from the faith they had in the philosophers, who knew that about God through arguments from creatures, as was stated above. They also had form them a notion of what is expressed by this name “God.” And, therefore, they erred in the determination of what they understood by the name. For each of them claimed that God is that which he preferred to other things –some the sky, others the sun, still others the moon – and in that way different people spoke in different ways, as Augustine says in book three of On Christian Doctrine. They would never have done this if they had truly known something about whether God is. For whatever of the divine nature is known to be, its being is not known except by knowledge that it surpasses everything that is found in a creature. [3]

It is important to recognize the transcendence of God, and to keep that transcendence at the forefront of our engagement with God. What we say about God can be said to be true when we keep it on the level of a relative truth based upon our apprehension of God through God’s works or energies, but it becomes erroneous when we try to turn that relative truth into the absolute truth itself. All such relative truths are true insofar as they participate and is one with the absolute truth which transcends it. When we recognize the relative truth as relative truth, we can speak about the truth through its relative presentation because of its connection to the absolute truth. And, this is important, because the absolute truth is something which we cannot comprehend, yet the relative truth often is something which we can, and so it explains how we can have some comprehension of the truth even if we cannot comprehend the absolute truth itself. Similarly, this connection between the two is necessary, for by recognizing how the relative truth relates to the absolute truth we stop ourselves from falling for relativism because there is an ultimate truth which lies behind and connects all relative truths, an ultimate truth which also can be used to show how some claims about the truth are false.  It is also this connection which allows us to engage different apprehensions, different experiences, about God and use them to work together to bring about a better understanding of God.  For God is at work in and throughout the world. Different people engage God differently. They have different levels or kinds of revelation or apprehension of God which they use to discus God, and if we can correlate them properly, we can better understand God and how God is at work in the world and keep us away from the idolatrous error of exclusivism which denies God’s universal work with the world.  God’s work with others them means they have something to share us, something which we can learn from, and with it, come to understand God just that much better, even as then they can learn from us and come to know God better as well. Indeed, though the fullness of revelation lies in the incarnation, the incarnation brings us together as one humanity, showing that it is by coming together we will best understand and appreciate that revelation.


[1] Al-Ghazālī, The Niche of Lights. Trans. David Buchman (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1998), 17.

[2] Roger Bacon, Opus Majus. Part I. trans. Robert Belle Burke (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1928), 74.

[3] Henry of Ghent, Henry of Ghent’s Summa: The Question on God’s Existence and Essence (Articles 21 – 24). Trans. Jos Decorte and Roland J Teske, SJ (Leuven: Peeters, 2005), 203 [Art 24 Q3].


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