This article is part of my blog series inspired by Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice by James Alison.*
Where Can We Find I AM?
Children learning Bible stories for the first time often ask, “Where is God?” They are seeking a literal answer, of course, because for them the world still lacks form and structure. Everything in it needs to be named and sorted out. By trial and error, they figure out that there are fuzzy things they can touch, but sharp things can cut. Sometimes it’s okay to giggle; other times giggling gets you in trouble. Some things go in your mouth and some things must never go in your mouth. For a young child trying to sort all this out, the world can be a very confusing place! But sorting it all out is doable. It is, in fact, the work of childhood and human children excel at it.
Children also want to sort things out about God. Is God safe to touch or will God burn? Is God okay with laughter or is it better not to be silly when God is around? Is God something I can eat or is God something I might choke on? And the question we are dealing with now: Where is God to be found? Whatever answer we give our children, it will always be one that transcends the divide between literal and metaphoric. Because God transcends those boundaries. Or rather, we cannot talk about God without bumping up against the limits of human language. The normal ways we name and sort things can only hint at the fullness of being that is God.
Patterns of Desire
One version of the “Where is God?” question that adults ask is whether or not God is in the Bible. If so, then in what way is God to be found in a collection of books? My colleague Adam Ericksen has recently written about the dangers of believing too emphatically that God is revealed in and through the Bible. He expressed his concern that some Christian churches profess a “belief” in the Bible, something that borders on idolatry. Adam writes:
I appreciate the passion that many “Bible believing” churches have. That passion is a good thing, but it’s misdirected. Christians shouldn’t “believe” in the Bible. We are not Biblians. We are Christians.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Bible. It’s an important book and has authority in my life in that it points beyond itself to God. But the Bible is not a member of the Trinity. It deserves to be respected, but it shouldn’t be elevated above God.
Oddly enough, Bible believing churches would no doubt agree with Adam that the Bible points beyond itself to God. Therein lies its essential place in Christian life. What Adam is pointing to, however, are different patterns of desire in our relationship to the Bible. A pattern of desire is the form or shape of our relationship to people or things. In his introduction to Christianity course, James Alison contrasts two patterns of desire that often compete for dominance in our lives. The first is a grasping pattern in which we seek to acquire, possess or master the object of our desire for ourselves. For example, naming things can give us a false sense of mastery over them. The name might become an obstacle to learning more about it. For example, in my own work with early childhood, I have to come to see that knowing someone is a “child” often prevents adults from engaging honestly and openly with children. The label “child” can generate a false sense that we know who the child is and so we often fail to discover the unique, unfolding life at our knees.
The second pattern of desire is a receptive pattern in which we stop trying to grasp hold of what we desire and instead approach the people and things in our lives with wonder. In this second pattern of desire, we realize that there is much we do not know and we are gripped by a sense of discovery, of encountering possibilities we have not yet dared to imagine. The first pattern is idolatrous. The second is, well, I’m not sure what to call it!What’s In a Name?
These two warring patterns of desire run through the Bible. The story of Adam naming the living creatures of the world is not accidently placed in the Creation story. The naming and sorting of the world is an incredible achievement accomplished by human beings in our childhood. The children we were form the foundation for our adult lives. We are so successful at it that we can easily become intoxicated by our mastery of our environment. We are therefore highly susceptible to grasping hold of any object and turning it into an idol in the most literal sense: a solid, unchanging, petrified representation of our idea of who or what it is. When we do that, we rob the object of its essence and ourselves of the joy of discovery.
To give any sort of meaningful answer to the children’s question or to ours, we will need to let go of our certainty that we know what’s in a name! James Alison notes that when Moses asks God for God’s name, God gives “the ultimate non-answer.” What sort of name is “I AM”? It is the name of one who refuses to be pinned down and grasped hold of. This “not-being-able-to-be-grasped” is, Alison explains, “essential to what is going on.” In other words, this God will not be made into an idol. It’s my sense that any act of communication from this God, such as what we find in the Bible, will be distorted beyond recognition if it is made into an idol as well.
Is God in the Bible? Of course. Can we encounter God in children? You betcha! God entered into this world as a child and each birth is another reentry, another re-incarnation of the creative force that is I AM. I AM is in a bush that burns but is not consumed, on a mountaintop and a sunrise. I AM can be found in palaces and migrant camps, on yachts and in prisons, on thrones and in cradles. I AM is on death row, in an empty tomb, with sinners, saints, and angels. If we cannot see I AM in those places, it is because we have stopped looking. I AM cannot be contained by our certainty, by our God-given talent for naming things, for our human tendency to turn the living presence of God into stone. I AM will go where I AM will go. May we have the grace to follow.
*Years ago, just when I was about to give up on Christianity as irrelevant to my life, I stumbled across the work of James Alison. He helped me encounter a God of mercy who loved me more than I could imagine – what a gift! So when he asked for help to produce his course of introduction to Christianity, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, I jumped at the chance. All proceeds from sales of the course go to support the website, translations, promotion, and James’ living and travel expenses. James is an independent scholar and itinerant preacher and is very grateful for your support. James and I both pray that this blog series and the course itself will be a meaningful part of your journey toward a deeper faith and fuller life in Christ. You can learn more about the course and purchase it at our store.
For other parts of this series see:
Stay in the loop! Like Teaching Nonviolent Atonement on Facebook!