Ask yourself this question, “Who is God?” and then see what you answer. Depending on how much you have thought about it, it might take you more or less time, but most people have an answer. It might look like a long list of qualities and theological statements. (My personal list begins with “God is love: unconditional, boundless, all-encompassing, mind-blowing, heart-crushing love…” I have a lot of other statements, too, but that one is at the top.) Theological statements about God are good, but they are only half of the answer, the part that comes from our head.
Now, what about the part of the definition that comes from your heart? Did your list include how you relate to God? Something like, “God is my king” or “God is my best friend”? Or if we’re very, very honest, maybe, “God is my Santa Claus” or “God is my plumber: I mostly think of him when something breaks!” There is some real soul-searching involved in answering, “Who is God to me?” in a 100% honest way. Once you have an answer, though, you can take a look and see what kind of a box you have asked God to occupy in your life. If He in the “best friend” box, for example, you may be expecting him to act like a best friend in being supportive, keeping you company, and lots of other ways. It is not a bad box, as boxes go, but let’s admit it: “divine and loving best friend” is an idol. It limits who God can be in your life.
“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them” ― Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island
I love this quote from Thomas Merton. It is true when we apply it to other people, and even more true when we apply it to God. Learning to love God for who He is also means shattering all our idols, opening all our boxes and allowing God to be God.
When theologians try to answer the question, “Who is God?” without describing mere idols, they call their efforts apophatic theology. In one approach to doing apophatic theology, they heap so many attributes and metaphors together that the images begin to contradict each other. The reality that emerges from this ultimate paradox is beyond any one of the metaphors. God is mercy. God is judge. God is our father. God is a mother hen. God is greater than the entire created universe. God is in the tiniest grain of sand. God is both priest and sacrifice. If I select just one or even several images of God, then they will always be an idol. Any image can only be true when it is combined with so many others that language itself breaks down and we see how God is totally beyond any image that we can conceive.
Another apophatic approach to answering “Who is God?” is to begin by negating every possible statement about who God is. God is not a being. God is not even the greatest being. But saying that God is not the greatest being is also not true. God is beyond any category of being or non-being that we can make. The same thing applies to any quality we can think of. God is Truth, but not in the limited sense of a truth that I can prove using a series of logical statements. God is not a syllogism, and not even a non-syllogism. If I say, “God is love,” but I think of love in any merely human way– tainted by a desire to possess or control its object, for example– then God is not love. God’s love is so pure and so limitless that we cannot begin to fathom it. If I form any idea in my mind of what that kind of love might look like, it will always fail to grasp the real infinity of true divine love.
Of all possible metaphors, however, Love is the one that St. John, the apostle whom Jesus loved, chooses, and Love comes the closest that any metaphor can to describing God. This is because love takes us outside ourselves. Love helps us to get beyond our own ego and glimpse the unspeakably beautiful reality that is normally obscured by an idol.
What does it feel like when our idols of God are shattered? It often feels like being broken. The Biblical metaphor of the flawed clay pot that the Potter smashes in order to reshape it comes to mind. St. John of the Cross describes the process as the Dark Night of the Soul. Initially, God seems cold and distant, or even non-existent. This happens when we have realized that our old perception of God was actually a lifeless, mute idol, but we have not yet learned to recognize the voice of the true God who has been with us all along. A short, but powerful poem by Madeleine L’Engle expresses this process vividly:
“The Birth of Love”
To learn to love
is to be stripped of all love
until you are wholly without love
until you have gone
naked and afraid
into this cold and dark place
where all love is taken from you
you will not know
that you are wholly within love.
Smashing our personal idols of God feels intensely painful, but ultimately, it leads to a tremendous sense of relief and freedom. The reality will be very different from what we expected and imagined that we wanted, yes, but it will also be better, greater. Most importantly, it will be true. Santa Claus is a mere wraith in a red suit when compared to the reality beyond reality that is God. Santa would give us toys that, in time, always break or lose their appeal. But the real God would make us whole and give us eternal life.
Bonus: links to two related blog posts by Fr. Aidan Kimel, who frequently seems to be thinking about the same topics that I am:
1. On how we tend to think of God as a mere god, but shouldn’t. http://afkimel.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/god-is-not-odin-god-is-not-zeus-god-is-not-marduk/
2. A little taste of apophatic theology, not difficult to read. http://afkimel.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/the-experience-of-god-part-3/