Wednesday 12 May 2021

What if Shakespeare was your Dad? Getting to know God - easy or impossible?

There are only two coherent ways of regarding God. 

Either as someone who is easy to know; exactly as easy to know as knowing your parents. 

(Which - of course - not everybody can do, although it is common enough; and so easy that even a child can do it - and indeed young children are nowadays often better at it than adult children.) 

Or else God - being the creator - is so qualitatively different from us, that God is impossible to know. 

So - God is either easy or impossible to know.

The other option, which I would reject, is that God is 'possible but difficult' to know. This is the idea that most people cannot know God; but some few can get to know God by (for example) prolonged study, meditation, practice or initiation/ ordination. Such a view has been common in the history of religion, including the history of Christianity - yet I think that it is and was an essentially false understanding, for a Christian. 

Getting to know God, in the way that we know our family, is a very different matter from understanding God, or from predicting God. 

A young child may know his mother, and has faith in her love - even though the child's intellectual capacity means that the child cannot understand her. 

Indeed the gap in ability between (say) a young daughter and (say) William Shakespeare, who happens to be her father, is truly immense; in that Shakespeare was a creative genius of such stature that he towered above all others in his field - then and now. 

This makes an instructive thought experiment for Christians. Many Christians are 'stunned', 'overwhelmed' - even mentally-paralyzed - by the qualitative gap in ability between the creator of this reality, and themselves - and they assume that this means we cannot know God.  

It does mean that we cannot get near to understanding God in the specifics of his creating; just as Shakespeare's daughter did not understand how her father could write what he did. Indeed, nobody has ever understood how Shakespeare wrote what he did: the gap is just too large. 

Yet the little girl can know that her father loves her, and can live in that confidence. 

She can also, no matter how young, understand her father's motivations as they relate to her; she can understand what (in broad terms, and also in some specifics) he hopes from her in terms of her behaviour and life trajectory. 

This applies to a Christian's ideal relationship with God; because all Christians understand God as their loving father. This means that, although we can understand God's creative work much less than we can understand Shakespeare; we can nonetheless know God in the same kind of personal way that we know our parents.

We can - and should - be in awe of what God has done and can do; yet it would not be a good thing if a daughter was to have a relationship with her father that was primarily one of awe - the relationship ought instead to be loving and personal, affectionate and close. 

Ideally, there should and would be respect on both sides - the respect of one unique person for another when they are bound by love and confident of love. 

But in a family, awe and respect does not get in the way of affection, of closeness - because underneath all there is a confidence that derives from mutual knowledge of love.

That confidence is also called Faith.   

Thus a Christian should aim for the kind of confident, affectionate relationship with God that we innately know to be the ideal for a loving family. And this Faith can then be the basis of understanding what God wants for us and the world. In much the same way that Shakespeare's young daughter might have understood what her father wanted in terms of family relationships and plans - despite that she had no understanding of how her father had composed his sonnets, nor how he planned to write Hamlet. 

Note: the above is indebted to the insights of William Arkle - especially his Letter from a Father

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