life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

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Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

knowing god...

Wow! Great comments to the last post! If you didn't read the comments you may want to in order to understand my response here. I decided to put it on as a post instead of a comment.

Hey, Tim! Welcome to my blog! Good comments. I think you are right. Modernism cannot completely describe God. Our knowing is imperfect. Our experience of him is imperfect. Glory to God that he desires (and accomplishes) relationship with us in spite of our lack of knowing or full experience. I think this is what drove St. Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 13, by the way. We "see in a glass darkly" right now. We would all be better off to admit it.

Judy, the quote was sent to me by Marshall after a wonderful day of fellowship, talking, exploring and saying a lot of I-don't-knows.

Speaking of Marshall... great comment. Thanks for the literary landscape of how post-modernism has sprouted up there, echoing the sciences, philosophy and the other arts. I knew there was a reason I liked Garcia-Marquez! Thanks for introducing me to him years back.

Since you used me as an illustration regarding "knowing" someone, let me note a couple of things about just one thing you said (peripherally) and then expand a bit on it.

First of all, when we speak of knowing people, we are speaking in terms that may include some of but go well beyond knowing about them. True knowing as you have spoken of it comes in spending time with, in honest discussion with, in good and frustrating moments with, walking a life path with the one we are coming to know. I remember back when Dorothy (my wife) and I were first dating. We spent hours upon hours talking together about tons of things. We were finding out about each other, but at the same time we were coming to know each other in relational terms. Deeper relationship began forming when we went through experiences together, clashed, learned to understand more through experience, etc. To intellectually know about God or even surmise about him is not the same as knowing God. I'm reading a book right now about experiencing a conversational relationship with God. The premise is that the conversation, as in any good friendship, is intended to be bi-directional. (Mother Theresa's quoted answer to the question, "What do you do when you pray?", paraphrased poorly by me is said to have been something like, "Mostly I listen." Seems appropriate here.) I'm still working my way through the book but I'm sure I will post on it sometime. The point is that one way conversations where we do all the talking and none of the listening yield poor relationships in the end. Ask any woman that has married the "big, silent type." It would be nice if God didn't seem such the "big, silent type". No offense or disrespect meant toward him, but that is often the extent of our prayers -- and consequently of our relationship. Or can be if we aren't careful to learn to listen to our beloved.

Second, there are different levels or textures of knowing someone. Your knowing of me is different from Dorothy's knowing, or my parents' knowing, or Rebecca and Steven's (my children) knowing of me. But I am not defined by them. I am the same me. Their experience of and relationship to me makes a difference in how they perceive me, but I'm still the same person. How they see me is defined by how they view me and what role I play in their lives.

Which leads to my third point. I am not unknowable. But I can and do have relationships with friends and family, some of them quite deep, in spite of the fact that they cannot fully know me. (Nuts! I don't even know myself fully!)

This is where I think our analysis of post-modern thought thus far breaks down. We have not fully allowed for a God who desires to know and be known. Nor have we allowed for people who desire to embrace the mystery of such knowing.

Just as "language is inherently limited", so experience is inherently limited. Thus the wonder of something like love. How ironic that in the midst of the inherent limits, the misunderstandings, missed communications, cross purposes, self interests, etc, there are actually bonafide, valuable, valuing relationships. Certainly not perfect, but beautifully ironic, none the less.

If such relationships can exist in such a world of irony, how much more ironic (in the way we traditionally use the word) to not believe that kind of relationship is possible with the one who created all of this. Maybe that is what St. Paul was trying to say in his prayer for the Ephesians that they may know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3).

The caution to those of us living in this age is not to so crystallize our conception of God and what he will and won't do on the one hand, or decry on the other hand any kind of knowing of him whatsoever.

Some of the greatest biblical scholars I have known have been, above all, incredibly humble. I think that may be because they have learned to live in the tension of knowing and not knowing (with the "tilt" growing much heavier on the not knowing side as time goes by), and while doing that, as Micah says, walking humbly with their God. They were pretty honest with him, too.

Enough for now. But I'm intrigued, Marshall, with how you talk about being freed by the relationship with God to actually walk with, discuss with, argue with Him (my words, not yours). I think you're onto something there. It sounds much more like what I read in the biblical narratives, though, I must say, that Samson is certainly not the poster child for faithful relationship with God. ;o)

Still working on two cafe dolce posts, but these interesting thoughts (and family duties) keep getting in the way. Another post, unrelated to all of this and dealing with the poor, is simmering just below the surface, too.

Blessings to you all, folks. Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog.

Grace and peace,



Anonymous Marshall said...

Hi, Owen, et al. What follows rambles, I’m afraid… It is as though I have too many thoughts about knowing God to sort them… This is a very important discussion thread to me, though…

If you were to ask D. right now what Marshall is like, she might tell you he’s a rotten *&^%$. We dated for a couple months recently, and it ended up pretty toxic. My daughters might tell you that I’m a lot like my grandpa, that I had a strong temper once but have mellowed a lot. My boss would tell you I am a valued employee. L. might tell you she loves me. Once, on the same set of student evaluations, I was called “a man of grace and God” and an “arrogant ass.” I am “too skinny” and “putting on weight.” I have been called “beautiful”; I have been called “ugly.”

God is the God who hears. He is the God who sees. He is God Almighty. He is the Prince of Peace. He is elohim. He is (according to my Mormon friends) one of many. He is something about which we cannot properly converse: “The path that can be followed is not the true path.” He is simple to know: merely read. He is Love. He is capricious. He is the God to whom we cry, "How long, O Lord?!" “Life is a tale told by an idiot.” He is callous. He has a passion for justice. He is not fair. He is harsh. He is gentle. He applauds 9/11. He condemns 9/11. He does not exist. He is Reality itself.

Perhaps, Owen, we might say that knowing is a process, and that it is not the accomplishment that matters (for this life, anyway) but the process itself. Certainly, this is true in human relationships. I would hazard a guess that you are still coming to know Dorothy, and that she still has the power to surprise you.

The Christian scriptures tell us that if we reach out to God, he reaches back. “If you seek, you will find.” “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” These passages are vibrant, but they don't answer all questions. Is God always pleased with our efforts to know him? Even when those efforts are wrong-headed or so clouded by culture as to be…an assault on the Twin Towers? Or are some “seekers” not actually seeking at all? Is certainty the opposite of seeking and therefore to be avoided? Seeking = humility; certainty = pride?

In my own path of getting to know God, I find myself trying to discover and adopt the right set of expectations. God didn’t stop my divorce. And God doesn’t stop far worse events. In a sour mood, I can see the whole world as an example of what J. G. Ballard termed an “atrocity exhibition.”

In my own search it seems that God does from time to time communicate with me, but so subtly that I can take it only on faith. Usually, in fact, the communication is so subtle that I would have to admit, objectively, that I may be “reading into” events rather than reading them.

What I haven’t found in my life, or the life of anyone else I know, are events like those involving Elijah and the priests of Baal – a God of power who is so radically responsive! My experiences are much more similar to those of Anne Lamott, for whom God always responds to the prayer “Help me!,” but with subtlety, and without violating the laws of physics. Paul tells us that nature itself contains lessons about God’s character, but I would never have guessed Jehovah’s rage from nature. Were it not for the Bible, based solely on my own experience, I would conclude that there is something mind-like behind it all, but I would not conclude that God is as active, intrusive, or…uptight as he seems to be throughout much of the Bible. On the other hand, I might not conclude that he is loving.

Yet do Elijah, Lamott, and my own experiences have anything in common? – yes, the belief that God will respond. And the belief that, in the end, he has. I need to stipulate, however, that both Elijah and Lamott have stronger faith in this arena than I do. In what are perhaps my healthier moments, however, I feel as they do. But, then, “I, or any mortal at any time, may be utterly mistaken as to the situation he is really in.” – C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.

How complex!

So...How well can I say that I know God? Really know? He seems to me to allow great suffering, confusion, and blindness. He seems to me to orchestrate occasional glimpses to keep hope alive, moments when the light gets in a bit more than usual. He seems to have built into the fabric of existence a radical freedom, that allows for natural catastrophes and inconceivable human depravity. He seems very near at times, very distant at others. He seems predominately silent. He seems imperfectly described in the Christian scriptures. Was he more active in antiquity? Was hyperbole a common assumption among the ancients? God seems willing to help us grow healthier, but it's "a slow train coming."

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, but still somehow
It's clouds' illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

~ Joni Mitchell

I shall keep trying, though.

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

Oh, and, Owen, I know that Samson is not a pillar of sexual integrity. Post-divorce, however, sexuality happens to be a battleground for God and me. After a 20-year physical relationship...the cat comes 'round and nuzzles one in a while. Not the same thing.

I recognise rationalization in some of my thinking. My intellectual self and my baser self sometimes get into huddles together, and I'm not sure what's shaping up...

3:55 PM  
Blogger Owen B. said...


Knowing God is a very important question and a very important discussion. There is much more that could be said than this, but here's a bit more in the conversation....

Marshall said...

Perhaps, Owen, we might say that knowing is a process, and that it is not the accomplishment that matters (for this life, anyway) but the process itself.

Very well put. This is exactly what I'm trying to get at. Knowing is a process, a journey. And, yes, Dorothy can still surprise me.

Marshall said...

Is certainty the opposite of seeking and therefore to be avoided? Seeking = humility; certainty = pride?

I would say "yes" to both, to the extent that fully knowing God is beyond the power of human beings in our current limited state. (Will we always be so limited?) However, I would caution against considering "knowing God" so ephemeral as to be always held in doubt, if the scriptures are any evidence. Rather, the caution is, in holding onto the elephant, not to blindly argue that God is like a snake because we have hold of the "trunk" or like a tree because we have hold of the leg (you know, the blind men of Hindustan story).

The Galatians were questioned by Paul (Gal. 4:8ff) at one point and as part of the preface to his question, he states what he believes to be the case with them. In verse 9 he says, "But now that you know God--or rather are known by God--how is it...?" Perhaps the more important emphasis is on God knowing us rather than us fully knowing God. If we claim to fully know and understand him, perhaps we overstate the case?

Anyway, you've asked a lot of good questions to have conversations about, questions that need to be asked, and questions for which I have no "certain" or ready answers.

Marshall said...

God seems willing to help us grow healthier, but it's "a slow train coming."

Perhaps one of the impediments to growing healthier (and one of the reasons we have such a hard time "hearing" God) is that we are too blinded by the tenets of modernity, including the "Christian system" view that has accompanied modernity? I don't know. You mentioned expectations in your comment. I wonder if we don't bring the wrong expectations because of our background/world view. Perhaps we want the God of no pain rather than the God who heals us through the pain? Again, I don't know. What I am convinced of is that God is knowable if he is at all. That, as love, he desires relationship with his creation. And that he desperately pursues that relationship with us despite our misunderstandings (or at least in spite of some of them). That, at least, is in part the God I pursue.

Regarding fanatics who would kill in the name of Jesus or Allah or Mohammed or Krishna or Yahweh or whoever... I would certainly question whether God, if he is the God who is Love, would acknowledge that misdirected allegiance. Then again, there are the stories of God and the wars of the Old Testament. I know. Maybe this sense comes from my being a confirmed pacifist since I was about 16, though I have had moments of doubt about that.

The older I grow, the more "I don't know" becomes a really applicable phrase. Forgive me if I say it too much, but it just fits!

One more note regarding my "Samson" comment.... It's not his sexual behavior that makes me most uncomfortable. It's that he was seemingly such an unspiritual lout who didn't care about much of anything except himself and his pride.

David had moments like that (and his own sexual problems that led him so far as to commit murder), but his life seemed to be lived differently overall than Samson's. At least his fervor against Goliath was for the honor of Yahweh. Samson seems more proof that God can even use an unspiritual lout. Of course, who am I to judge? (Samson is probably going to come up to me in heaven and beat me up now that I've said this.)

Good questions. Good thoughts. It's good to see even C.S. Lewis struggling with such things faced by the devastating loss of his wife, Joy.

Grace and peace,


10:56 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...


:-) You're beautiful. I don't think I've laughed so hard in months as I have at your joke about Samson. What a blessing our conversation is to me! I praise God for it.

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

Owen said:
Perhaps we want the God of no pain rather than the God who heals us through the pain?

Owen, the phrase above, more than any other you've posted, has really struck me. I have been mulling it over a lot. I do want the God of no pain. But that obviously is not the true God...

Wow. Hm. Thanks...

2:06 PM  

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