What would you say if someone asked you “who is God for you, personally?”
That was going to be my opening sentence. Still is, I suppose, but as I was typing it, I thought well, that’s not a fair question. I’ve already given you the context in which I want the answer by saying “who.” Maybe your understanding of God is more “what.” Or even “how.” Your answer might also include a “where” component and perhaps your response might simply have been “why?”
I was also going to add “in thirty words or less,” but that became more and more ridiculous as I thought about the whole who, what, how thing.
Maybe “understand” is the way to go. Or “comprehend,” even “know.”
Maybe “God” isn’t even the right word for some people.
Already you may be wondering if I’m overthinking this, but I think wrestling with the question can be helpful in finding our way to an answer.
For many people, describing God can be tricky. We might resort to language and images of our particular faith tradition, the language of religion. I think that’s fine. After all, religion is the structure that we human beings have created in order that we might understand God better, and communal language enhances our sense of community around our understanding. That’s presuming, of course, that we all understand the meaning of the terminology we’re using.
Except that’s the one thing that was specific in the question. The question was “personally.” Even when we make collective statements of faith, like a creed, we still need to be mindful that there’s a communal understanding and a personal one. If we aren’t, then we’re going to have to wrestle with sameness versus diversity and uniformity versus unity. True community acknowledges, appreciates and embraces the uniqueness of its members and how they contribute to each other and the whole. That’s a strength, not a weakness.
We might resort to language and images of nature, particularly if we know God as creator. These might also lead us to knowing God in our own creativity, in our own imaginations, as we are part of the creation in which we live. Here we might also have to wrestle with our experience of the world in which we live, especially the moments we struggle with feeling God’s absence.
Whatever language or images we find meaningful, we might also find that they are constantly changing, just as we are. We grow, we change, and it’s important to keep wrestling with God, to keep wondering and imagining.
I keep saying “wrestling” because I keep thinking of the story of Jacob wrestling with a figure he later imagines to have been divine (Genesis 32:22-32). The figure can’t seem to beat Jacob, so he injures his hip. Even then, Jacob won’t let go until the figure blesses him. The figure renames him Israel “for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” Jacob realizes “I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved.” More than preserved, I think. The point of this “wrestling” isn’t in winning the competition, but in the transforming nature of the interaction: it changed Jacob, and not just in name.
When we wrestle with God, we are changed. We learn, we grow, we understand, we know. Even when we can articulate God - whether it’s in thirty words or thirty thousand - it’s important to revisit, re-engage and renew. That’s where the transforming power of God is, in the engagement. Imagine that.