When I began looking for a college at the age of 17, I went to my guidance counselor’s office. I told them I needed help finding the right college. I was pretty sure I wanted to become a professor, but I didn’t know whether I’d want to do philosophy or theology. The guidance counselor looked at me blankly, and pointed out a bookshelf with a few large volumes at the bottom. I walked over, bent down, and plucked one from the shelf. Leafing through it, I discovered that this book held the names and descriptions of every college and university in the country. It was a very heavy book. Immediately, I put it down. It was hundreds of pages, and was organized by name and region, not by major or specialty. And so, I walked out of the guidance counselor’s office, thinking they weren’t very good at giving guidance, and I was bewildered. I ended up narrowing down my options by looking at the schools I had heard people talk about, which weren’t too far away. I visited two of them, and decided to go to the more liberal one, the one that allowed dancing—off-campus.
When I got there, I enjoyed it for the most part. But there was decidedly little diversity on campus—racially, economically, and intellectually. So when, in a course on “The Meaning of Community,” I was required to do some research on a specific community, I chose to go to the University of Minnesota’s Atheist and Humanist Club (UMAH), just down the road. Mostly, I was curious. I wanted to know what they believed and why. I wanted to know what arguments they had, and whether they were any good. I wanted to see whether they would accept me as part of the group. Let me sit in, and have discussions with them. To my delight, they did accept me. They called me their token Christian. We’d go to the park together, eat out after our meetings, throw a few frisbees. I stayed in the group for the rest of my time at college.
The question up for discussion at UMAH meetings was often related to the (non-)existence of God, or to some scientific discovery, or to a recent event that had to do with religion. With my atheist and humanist friends, I discovered that I agreed with them about 90% of the time. I, too, believed in evolution and was incredulous about the biblical creation story. I, too, believed in the separation of church and state. I, too, thought that the notion of God as a bearded man in the sky was a little bit cartoonish. I, too, thought that some of the things people did in the name of religion, and Christianity in particular, were horrible. Condemning people outright, protesting at funerals, standing on the side of the street with pictures of aborted fetuses. With my atheist and humanist friends, I, too, recoiled at these thoughts and images and events.
Through my time at UMAH, I also discovered that it was pretty easy to say what we don’t agree with, what Christianity is not supposed to be, and even what God is not. God is not an old man with a beard, sitting somewhere out in the starry sky on a throne. God doesn’t have a bolt of lightening, and isn’t watching and waiting for us to mess up so he can throw the bolt down and punish us. I found it difficult, however, and I found it ever more difficult as my education went on, to say not only what I think God is not, but also to say what I think God is.
The question, “What is God?” is a question unlike others, because it is a question about the very Source of life. And the answer is unlike others, because it lays claim to our whole beings. When we experience the divine, we emerge from that experience transformed. And so, with the asking of this question, we enter into dangerous territory.
As in my experience of the high school guidance counselor’s office, I have sometimes felt that when I have asked such questions, instead of being invited into a conversation, I have been given a large, impenetrable book, which is organized in all the wrong ways, and is in many ways inaccessible.
And so I, and perhaps you, have scrounged around for whatever was nearby—someone to guide me in thinking about the divine. Like a high schooler thrust out of the guidance counselor’s office without real guidance, we go for the things that we’ve heard of, the things that are familiar—not too far away from home, but different enough to be intriguing. As a young person in a small rural town, I went to my local Christian bookstore to try to find some answers. The best I could find there was C.S. Lewis, but his arguments and stories only led to more questions. In college, I was able to read some of the greats – Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and I even heard the name of one Friedrich Schleiermacher. I devoured these texts, as you have devoured those resources you have found along the way. We have found much in these things to appreciate, and perhaps we’ve found just as much or even more to disagree with. So I wonder, after years or even a lifetime of study, is it still difficult for us to answer that question—what is God?
Thomas Aquinas, of course, thought the question could not be answered (Part I, Q.3). So perhaps this series of posts is a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, I want to explore the meaning of this word, “God,” and I don’t believe that God will clutch her pearls, any more than Jesus did. God can handle our questions, our doubts, our deepest desires and wonderings. So this week, I encourage you to take stock of where you are on this question, “What is God?” And I look forward to what we might discover together.