Someone once told me that I was a theologian. I laughed, incredulous. With all due respect to theologians, it is not something I aspire to.
How does one study God?
To attempt to do so is a perilous path. When I think how many things I have said or written about God, I tremble at my hubris.
Who am I to say anything about God, as though I know all about Him? As though He were an object that I could examine and explain to others?
The problem with any area of study is that it is too easy, at the end of the day, to think you know something.
I have a PhD in Clinical Psychology and have worked as a psychologist for over 25 years. It would thus be tempting to think that I know a lot about the human mind and its relationship to behavior.
Yet each person I encounter is a mystery. A unique blend of biology and experiences and choices unlike any other, with the image of God stamped deep within.
In my work and study, I learn to identify patterns in people. As unique as each is, there is also a commonality among humans. It is both helpful and unhelpful to see such patterns.
It is helpful to not have to start at the very beginning with each person I meet. My mind has stored up a wide variety of shortcuts that will lead me to understanding more quickly than if it were my first time encountering another human being.
On the other hand, my shortcuts can easily be erroneous. I can, consciously or unconsciously, attribute patterns to an individual that do not belong to them but are just the product my own experiences or projections.
It is, in fact, so easy to be wrong, that I must approach each person with the assumption that I will be wrong – or at least not completely right – much of the time. It is for this reason that listening with openness is so very important.
If I consider the study of God, how much more probable is it that my thoughts and beliefs and conjectures will be incorrect? God “occupies” (if one can even use that word) a totally different ontological reality than everyone and everything else that exists. God is eternal Creator. Everything else, including me, is temporal and created.
I cannot see God or examine God using any of my senses or by employing any created instruments. God is above all of these. (“Above” in the sense that St. Augustine used the term, “above me because He created me”.) I cannot prove God’s existence or nonexistence. I cannot truly know God as God is.
But, the believer asks, what about revelation? What about Jesus who lived among us and, we are told, was one with the Father? What about the Church, its Tradition, and the holy Fathers (and Mothers) of the ancient Church who, guided by the Spirit, passed on to us so much wisdom?
These, of course, are what keep me from despair. From thinking that I cannot possibly know God. If I cannot know God, life is a dark, swirling chaos without meaning, leading to an inevitable death and, ultimately, nonexistence.
So why then, with this rich source of information about God, would I consider the study of God to be perilous? Should it not be the source of my hope and joy? What value would the Church, Tradition, Scripture, the writings of the ancients have if not to help me know God?
Sometimes the source of our hope and joy is something we must approach with fear and trembling. In undertaking the study of God, we, poor sinners that we are, may make the mistake of thinking that we know the truth of God when perhaps we have merely discovered our own emotional desires and mental projections.
None of us want to think this true of ourselves, of course.
But when we delve into even the seemingly most basic teachings of Christianity, we encounter disagreement about how to interpret what we have been given. Not only do theologians disagree, writing extensive articles and books defending a certain notion about God, but whole groups of people turn their backs on one another because of their belief that they are the ones who “know” God.
Thus, with the help of the evil one, the source of our salvation becomes twisted into a path toward perdition. Do any of our sources tell us that mistaken beliefs about God will result in condemnation? It is not poor theology that Jesus warns us about but a lack of love for our neighbor.
How ironic that the study of God can so readily become a trigger point for division, for hatred, for war – even for rejection of God Himself.
It is, for me, far better to acknowledge what I do not know – and that is almost everything.
If the mystery of my patient bids me to “listen with openness” lest my brain’s shortcuts lead me astray, how much more need I listen in silence when I stand before the mystery of God?
It is not wrong to study God, of course, nor is it wrong to study Scripture, Church Tradition or the writings of the holy ones of old. It is simply dangerous to conclude that I know anything as a result.
If I have learned anything at all thus far in my life, it is that God wants me to discover Him – to experience Him and to delight in His love – and to delight even more in being formed into the unique vessel of His love that He created me to be.
And everything He wants for me, He also wants for you and for everyone He created out of His loving goodness.
But how do I discover Him, you ask?
I listen with openness. I embrace silence. I seek to attain nothing but trust that He will lead me to Himself, sending me whatever I need.
I watch for His gifts and unwrap them with glee, even when they hurt. Because they are from Him and He knows what I need.
And in the end, I practice love. I don’t know how and am not very good at it, but I ask Him to help me.
He’s been waiting for me to ask. Why have I not asked before or more often?
Because I am afraid. Love is not easy. As Dostoyevsky wrote, “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing”.
Love will lead me to the Cross.
I am afraid. But I ask anyway.
It is only in this way that I can discover God – and keep discovering Him through every moment of life and death and beyond.
This is what I live for. Amen. Amen.