Part of the 12-step programs is addressing a relationship with something called “the God of my Understanding.” This is an attempt to help people who have experienced “God” as the source of judgment or thunderous contempt to sidestep the past hurt and work on the relationship. God is redefined as the product of our own understanding/definition rather than the product of a specific dogma.
On the one hand, this is freeing as it gives the opportunity to explain God again in ways with which we can live. At the same time, it bypasses a foundational challenge of the life of faith namely checking to see if the god we are rejecting is even real. This is because we usually first meet the god we reject when we’re kids. Thus the explanation of “who god is” had to be pitched to us at concrete thinking, no metaphors please, “kid level.” That’s not a criticism, by the way, so much as it is a reminder of where we started.
We had God explained to us in small chunks and simple statements, with words that had only one (obvious to us as kids) meaning. We may have had no more clue about what we were hearing than a rutabaga might and the jargon words probably went over our heads. Still, all the Big People agreed that “that’s what God is” so we went along with it.
The problem of spiritual life however, is that our understanding of God may not have grown or been re-examined since. That’s how God stays teddybear sized and becomes cutely impotent or the shell of an all powerful and indifferent rage monster. Rightly dissatisfied with this image, we don’t go back and double check the child sized God we were given to start out. Neither do we check to see if we even understood all the fancy words our teachers used.
What we do is take our kiddie God, hold it up to the world around us, and then junk the whole thing because “it’s stupid.” Yes, I’m painting a broad brush picture here and there will always be exceptions. At the same time, I see in the notion of “the God of our Understanding” an invitation to something more.
It invites us to try and understand the God we may have inherited (and subsequently rejected) rather than simply reject it and look to make a new one more in keeping with our desires. It’s also an invitation to consider well and attempt to understand whatever we establish as God in our life.
As Luther put it, “a God is that to which we look for all good and to whom we flee in times of distress.” In other words, a God can be just about anything or everything. Therefore, we’d do well to understand and be clear about what this force, idea, thing, person, whatever actually is as we give our will and our lives into its care.
Even more than this, we may discover something profoundly important when we seek to understand exactly what this God of our Understanding may be. We may find the deep power in the God we do not Understand. We may ultimately find that God is a real moving presence in the cosmos and yet still so wrapped in a mystery of which we can only glimpse the edges.
That has been my experience. I can point to the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, and even the sound of a bare whisper but even Elijah knew that there was a deeper mystery going on. I can take all my certainty about Who God Is and know that, as happened with Job, God will blow the whole structure to dust. I know that we are somehow stewards of this mystery we do not understand and yet still seek to understand.
I am glad in the God of my Understanding and at the same time deeply hopeful because of the God I do not Understand because that God invites me passionately to seek understanding anyway. In one sense, it is like the passion for one’s beloved. One can know them, even “know” them biblically and yet there are mysteries and depths which one does not and cannot fully know. A passionate lover will still seek understanding even while knowing that complete and perfect understanding is impossible.
This passionate knowing and yet not knowing which is writ small in relationships is writ large with God. It is an invitation to know more, an entry into an intense pursuit that can absorb our life into hope and health. That’s an invitation worth answering.
As a bonus: the church has a long and depressing history of being stupid every time we are sure that we know Who God Is. Thus the God We Do Not Understand is a great reminder of the limits of our ability to undertand. While also inviting us to seek more, explore more, love and look more.