Let’s start with the beginning. Our faith story declares –In the beginning God… We are told that God is the alpha and omega, the beginning and end.The essence of our faith centers on our understanding of God. While there are other components that shape and inform our faith like the Bible and tradition, it is our view of God that shapes our perspective most.
If someone were to ask you to complete the following statement: God is ___— how would you complete the statement? Would your answer be that God is loving or vengeful? Or both? Where did the answer come from? How did others shape your understanding of God? Why does it matter? The answers to these questions are important.
I understand Brian McLaren’s concern in the way God is often talked about when he said: “Sometimes, when I hear people speak about God, I feel like an atheist. The God they speak of I don’t believe in. The God who loves Christians but hates Muslims or a God who pours luxuries on the rich but consigns the poor to poverty, or a God who cares about human souls but really doesn’t care about conserving and protecting our beautiful, fragile planet. So if you asked me, ‘ Is God real?’ I first have to ask, which God are we talking about? And what do you mean by God?”
We so often forget that in our attempts to describe God that basically all we can rely on are images. The Bible itself contains many different images for God. God is depicted as friend, lover, spirit, lord, judge, warrior, builder, gardener, shepherd, father, mother, potter, healer, eagle, bear, light, wing, fire, rock, fortress and shield. This is only a partial list.
The tendency we have to turn an image into an idol is real for all of us when it comes to our language about God. We choose one image and exclude all other images insisting that ours is to be taken literally. That is why ancient Israel often revered the name of God so much that they simply would not mention his name. They understood the tendency to turn an image into an idol. Even when Moses asked “who shall I say sent me?” The best he could get from God is “tell them that I Am sent you.” That is where the name Yahweh comes from, I Am that I Am.
Maybe Frederich Buechner is right; “God cannot be explained, only experienced.” Instead of trying to define God in ways that reduce God to some system or one particular image perhaps we should open our eyes and heart and become aware of our experiences with God. Those are moments that strengthen and shape our lives.
What does it mean to experience God? If you pressed me hard enough and demanded that I answer this question I would respond by quoting 1 John 4:8: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” I claim that understanding of God from scripture and my own personal experiences with God. Our understanding of God matters. It shapes our perspective more than any of us fully realize.