Knowing God vs knowing about God

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years writing about God, faith and spirituality. So it’s easy to kid myself that I’m a bit of an expert (albeit an amateur one, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms – or even if it is). “God? – yeah, I’ve written loads about him”, I catch myself thinking. “Faith? – yeah, I know tons about that.”

Now that’s not actually true – as I realise whenever I read the writings of someone who really does know a lot. But even if it were true, the problem is that knowing about something isn’t at all the same as knowing something – really knowing it inside and out, inhabiting it, letting it inhabit and change you.

It’s a little bit like the difference between being a film critic and being an actor, director or screenwriter. The critic may know all sorts of interesting facts about films and be able to relate them very well, but s/he doesn’t know what it’s like to create and inhabit a story that people love, a world that people want to belong to.

Knowing a person

Furthermore, God of course is a someone not a something. And knowing someone is a very different kettle of fish to knowing anything else. Knowing a person – any person – is a very special and intimate kind of knowledge, one that only comes through genuine and long-term relationship.

These days we all know lots about all sorts of people, including people we’ve never met and never will. The media feeds us every intimate secret of celebrities’ lives that we could ever wish to know (and then some). But that doesn’t mean that we really know these people. Their true reality and nature remains hidden to us.

Closer to home, if for some odd reason you really wanted to, you could find out a fair few facts about me by the dark magic of Google – but that wouldn’t enable you to know me. Only by spending time with me in all my different roles and moods and aspects could you start to say you knew me (or I you). And even then there would be lots we wouldn’t really know about each other, much that remained opaque or mysterious. There are things I don’t even know about myself, things that are hidden in God.

What can we say about God?

And of course all this is even more true of God, whom none of us have ever seen and most of us haven’t directly or audibly heard.

As I’ve discovered, it’s pretty easy to say a lot about God and faith. My output on this blog currently stands at something like 300,000 words and rising, with no signs of an end in sight – sorry guys.

Yet I sometimes wonder it’s really possible to know or say much that’s very definite or helpful about God. There are certain things we may be able to say provisionally and partially, such as that God is love, God is good, God is uncreated spirit, etc. But I’m not sure these things are hugely meaningful except within the context of a real, living relationship with the actual, living God. Outside that they’re just dry bones without flesh or beating heart.

And for the many things we can’t be sure about, we can explore and debate ideas which can be very interesting and maybe even sometimes helpful. But in and of itself, I’m not sure how much further forward just discussing theological theories gets us spiritually. Sometimes I think it can have the opposite effect.

God the Great Unnameable

When we write (or read) a lot about someone we can easily think we understand them, and may even think we control or own them. It’s like the old idea that once you can name something, you have power over it.

But God is the Great Unnameable – the ‘I am’ whose very name is an enigma wrapped in a mystery. We can’t Name or Tame him; “he’s not a tame lion” as C.S. Lewis famously put it. And we absolutely can’t own or possess him. He is other, he is free, he is himself (or to avoid gendered language, God is Godself).

God is way more (unimaginably more) awesome, amazing, mysterious and indeed terrifying (in a certain sense) than we can imagine. Look at nebulas in deep space, at the vastness and number of countless galaxies, at aeons of time, at mighty elemental power and at the unfathomable complexities of the human brain, and all that’s nothing compared to the reality of God. If I do know anything about God at all, it’s probably less than 0.0000000000000001% of ‘him’.

Knowing, not knowing about

But lest this should all merely sound depressing, the really good thing is – I would contend – that you don’t need to know much (if anything) about God to know God.

My cat doesn’t know anything about me apart from that I’m one of the big incompletely-furred not-quite-cats who give him food and shelter and affection. But he doesn’t need to. A human infant knows hardly anything about the parents who love and nurture him or her, but they don’t need to either.

And on a more cosmic scale, you and I can have a profound and meaningful relationship with the one we call God without having to be able to recite the shorter Westminster catechism or understand the finer points of Christology, eschatology and ecclesiology. We don’t really need to know anything (at least not to start with) except that God is there and we can turn to him, can trust him, can love and be loved by him. If that sounds childishly simple, it’s because it is and is meant to be.

Most of the time I think we massively and unnecessarily over-complicate Christianity – which I may come back to another time.

Anyone can know God

I am utterly convinced that anyone can know God, regardless of their mental capacity, ability to communicate or anything else.

Indeed, sometimes I think that great intellectual capacity can be more of a hindrance than a help in knowing God, but I’m sure there’s a place for geniuses and academics in the Kingdom too.

No, I know that there’s a place for intellect – reason is God-given as much as imagination, our mind as much as our heart. We’re called to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength (or body) – with every part of us, intellect and imagination, bodily life and mental life, everything we are and have. But the key is that we’re called to love – not to understand. And what we learn about God intellectually has to feed back into love, into relationship, or else it becomes stale or even unhelpful.

And when we know God, a lot of the stuff we don’t understand – say about the Bible – ceases to matter so much. I find I can far better accept the nasty stuff I don’t like in the Old Testament – that in  odd ways, it can even start to make some sense – when viewed within the context of a loving, trusting relationship with God, rather than when I’m just approaching it as an academic puzzle.

Seek ye first…

So yes, talking or writing about God can be a fun pastime, and it’s one that I happen to enjoy a lot. But you can talk or write about God forever without ever once encountering the actual God. And if we do that (as I suspect I often do), I suggest we’re in danger of entirely missing the point, and that we gain little of real value by it.

At the risk of sounding overly evangelical then, I urge you – and me – to seek the living God with all our hearts. Then we can talk about him and it can really mean something.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Love of God, Spirituality, Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Knowing God vs knowing about God

  1. I find it frustrating that there is often either too much of the intellectual and little spiritual, or else very little intellect and more emphasis on the spiritual. I don’t fit with either of these stances. Worse still, no intellect, little spirituality and the luke-warm Jesus of the churches I grew up in where it all seemed to amount to ‘let’s be nice to one another on a Sunday morning’.
    Funnily enough, my husband and I have both grown up with a yearning for Truth, and as youngsters we both sought God in different ways – his was a rigorous intellectualism and mine was a vigorous spirituality. Now, we learn from one another, but we still find it difficult to ‘fit in’. Maybe that’s because we’re not supposed to. After all, being a Christian isn’t about joining a tribe, or aligning oneself with something; it’s so much more.

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    • Yes, I’ve been in all 3 of those settings – too intellectual, too mindless, and just lukewarm! I don’t want to criticise too much – we all tend towards one extreme or another, and carefully avoid a pitfall in one direction only to fall slap into the exact opposite one. I’m not anti-intellectual or anti-emotional, but I do believe we can all know God without either needing a theology degree or else needing to be ‘super-spiritual’ or ultra-charismatic.

      I find it hard to ‘fit in’ too! But as you say, that’s okay.

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  2. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Evan, you have a lot of good insights here! I am not one who claims to know much about God. In fact, all I know about God is what Jesus says about the loving Father–and that is not a lot of information; he was not given to explaining a lot. I agree with you that I likely know less than 0.0000000000000001% about God.

    I am amazed when I read systematic theologies. The first section is usually on God, and it goes on and on and on forever in intricate detail. Just the sections on God’s many attributes (we know God’s attributes?) is amazing. I suspect, as well, that it is mostly amazing hogwash.

    I know only about God what Jesus specifically tells us about God. But what he tells us is overwhelmingly wonderful, and that limited information is sufficient for me.

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    • Thanks Tim – yes, I’m with you. I find it hard to derive any benefit from systematic theologies – particularly the strongly conservative ones which are absolutely sure that they have it all utterly correct! Like you, I only know what Jesus tells us, and even some of that I occasionally wonder about… 😉

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  3. doncher1 says:

    I always think the difference between knowing about / ‘knowing’ God must be especially difficult for pastors/ church leaders to hold on to, just because of the nature of what they do. I often think that about leaders / managers of anything. The temptation to forget how to ‘know’ something from the inside seems to be so much greater for people leading others.

    I think about that as a parent, too. Sometimes, I think I’m so caught up in ‘leading’ my children and plodding along, assuming that I know all about them, that I miss all sorts of opporunities to really know them more. I’ll try and do something about that.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Doncheri, that was really good!

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    • Sorry, been away in Wales for last week or so and not been online at all, hence very delayed response! I really agree – I think that’s always an inherent danger in ‘going professional’ and also in trying to lead others, though of course we need people who can do that. As you say, very much the same with parenting. Though I think I probably err the other way more and just want to play with my children rather than doing the difficult work of leading them and helping to form their characters… 😉

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