God is Not an Idea

Photo by Hey Paul Studios

Photo by Hey Paul Studios

Today I am beginning the series of one-on-one meetings I have each year with confirmands during the two weeks leading up to our confirmation Sunday. I love this time with our young people, asking them big questions about faith and hearing how they respond in their own unique ways.

I’ve written before about the series of questions I ask our confirmands, and each year I tweak them a little bit based on experience and my own evolving faith. This year I’ve added two new sets of questions. The first is this:

  • Have you ever felt or experienced God’s presence?
  • What was that like? How would you describe it?

I added this after the question, “How do you know God exists?”—which generally gets responses about believing in God’s existence rather than knowing God’s existence—because I think this might be a better way of approaching how we experience God as a reality in our lives.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, Presbyterians (and others) are too caught up in the words we use to talk about God, as important and critical as choosing appropriate words is. Our focus on discussing concepts and words can have the cumulative effect of communicating that God is found in the words we use to talk about God, not beyond those words. I’m not sure this is what we want to communicate through confirmation and youth ministry, or any aspect of church for that matter.

God is not an idea. God is not the words we use to talk about God. God is not the words the Bible uses to talk about God. Ultimately, all of the words we use to describe God are metaphors, incomplete and provisional.

Yet Christians spend a lot of time arguing about these words, as if there is a set of absolute right words we should be using. And Christian faith formation is often an cerebral matter focused on words and ideas.

So by asking our confirmands if and how they have experienced God’s presence in their lives, I’m attempting to stretch their sense of engagement with the divine beyond the words and concepts with which confirmation classes spend so much time. Based on the responses I’ve heard so far, it’s clear to me that helping our young people recognize and name ways in which we experience God—in addition to the ways in which we think about or talk about God—is something I need to incorporate into future confirmation programs and wider youth ministry goals.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about the second set of questions I added this year, questions about vocation.

Comments

  1. Robert Cathey says:

    John, As linguistic beings, how do we experience God apart from the mediation of language? Even the mystics, even Philip K. Dick, wrote volumes about their exoteric experiences of God that they said exceeded language via more language. Perhaps there are pre-linguistic ways of experiencing God in the body or emotions that infants et al. experience. But I am sometimes struck at the amount of language used to say God is known without or beyond language. Please clarify. Bob

    • I agree that language always mediates our experience. And religion is a culturally coded language game.

      But what I’d like to explore—for myself and with others—is what William James referred to as the ineffability of mystical experience. I believe we can have encounters with the divine that are unmediated—at least unmediated by finite and provisional language.

      Basically, I want youth (and others) to recognize that talking about God isn’t the same thing as experiencing God.

      The only proposition about God I’m really comfortable with is “God is love.” I can talk about what love is and how God is like love or in some sense is love. But that’s altogether different from experiencing love or being in love. Poets have long tried to use words to describe love, but those words can never capture what love feels like.

  2. John,
    I love the experience that Joy Davidson, C.S. Lewis’ wife had. She was Jewish, an atheist and a communist. She was alone (her husband-the first one, was gone. she wrote:
    “It is infinite,unique; there are no words, there are no comparisons. Can one scoop up the sea in a tea cup? Those who have known God will understand me; the others, I find, can neither listen nor understand. There was a person with me in that room, directly present to my consciousness–A Persons so real that all my precious life was by comparison a mere shadow play. And i myself was more alive than I have ever been; it was like waking from sleep. So intense a life cannot be endured long by flesh and blood; we must ordinarily take our life watered down, diluted as it were, by time and space and matter. my perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute.”

    But I don’t think she nor her husband C.S. Lewis would accept your statement that all the words used to describe God are metaphors. God has the right to reveal who he is, and he does in his word written and in his final revelation Jesus Christ. Of course we cannot, and may not know all there is to know about God, but we know, if we are Christians, Jesus.

    Quite a few years ago, I was setting at my desk in an office where I directed an apologetic organization. I suddenly felt God’s presence and his assurance and wondered why. When I returned home I received almost immediately a call telling me one of my daughters had been hit by a motorcyclist. She had a concussion and was out of it for a while but in a week okay. But I have never forgotten God’s assurance. I don’t think that is a unique experience for a believer.

  3. Brian Shivers says:

    Words are often like boxes. Our words about God are our attempt to build a box in which we might contain the mystery of God. There is nothing inherently wrong with these boxes. They give us a frame through which we can talk about God and around which we can begin to understand something of who God is.

    However, there is a problem when the walls of the boxes we have constructed become immovable and impermeable. Once they have become such, our box has become an idol in and of itself. I fear we too often worship our the boxes we have constructed rather than God.

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  1. […] as I was bringing that year’s confirmation class to an end, I reflected on my belief that God is not an idea. Western Christians—and Presbyterians in particular—spend a lot of time talking about […]

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