No one knows God. No one.
At the very beginning of our religious tradition, the Jews went out of their way to make that point. When asked his name by Moses, the Jews say “God” answered, “I am who I am,” which can be translated, brusquely, “I’m not giving you my name.”
Idols and images of the nameless “God” were forbidden. The Jews carried an empty tent along with their own as a symbol of “God’s” abiding presence traveling with them. An empty tent!
The Jews never claimed to know “God.” The only thing they ever said was that they had a contract with “him.”
Granted, we don’t know “God” directly, but can’t we ask, “what is ‘he’ like“?
The word “like” is the key to this whole business. Once you ask the question in that way, you are talking about translation. Like interpreting someone else’s language, you are trying to put what you do not understand into words that you do understand. In Spanish the words “que tal” (literally, “what such”) means “hi,” in English. If you don’t know Spanish, someone can say “que tal” or even “what such” ’til they’re blue in the face, and you will never hear “hi.”
“God” has a right to be whatever “he” is. We have no right to demand anything. “God” is another language. But we also have a right to be whatever we are. We are human beings and our relationships need to be translated into terms that we can understand. If you want to talk to us, you have to use our “language.”
In a recent message, a friend at first seemed to demand that his translation of the nameless “God” that no one knows must include the words, “conscious,” and “aware.” But I noticed that he backed off immediately, correctly sensing that the terms themselves are anthropomorphic and may not denote exactly the way “God” might be conscious and aware. His hesitation suggests that it might be dawning on him that “God” might be conscious and aware in ways that appear unconscious to us … as indeed they do. He might be realizing that the words “conscious” and “aware” are limited. They are so specifically human in their denotation that they don’t even embrace other “consciousness and awareness” like that of the animals … which in our cousins the chimps and other primates, while not the same, are not all that different from ours. But we won’t allow it. Our words are selfish. Our words, in other words, as the Jews suggested thousands of years ago, may very well be a trap, rather than a liberation.
We have a right to our translations … but we have to be honest and admit that they are only translations. Our religions are, like the various tongues we speak all over the world, languages of their own … ways of translating into human symbolic terms what we do not know. The different peoples speak different tongues, and they hear about “God” in these different languages we call religions. In each case they are saying what they think “God” is “like” … what “he” is similar to.
All relationships ride on that word “like.” When we are dating — a living hell to which I have been consigned in my old age — we ask, “what is she like“? … meaning how does her particular configuration of cells and hormones translate into human terms. To “know” a person is not to “know” them the way science knows them, but rather what they mean to us … how they act … what they are like in our terms. We often express that in poetry. “My wife was like a butterfly … I might say … and then, nah, that’s not right … she was more like a soaring eagle.” Please notice. These are translations. My wife was neither the one nor the other. They are terms that speak to me of how we related … of what she meant to me when she was alive. At no moment do I think she was actually a butterfly or an eagle. In fact, not entirely unlike “God” I never really “knew” her. But then again … I really knew her … because I knew what she was like …
We have a right to our translations because we are what we are. We are human beings. We have a right to use our symbols and our poetry. It is the glue and substance of our love-life. But we are stone clear about exactly where the line is drawn between what is symbolic and what is literal. Why, suddenly, I ask, does all this clarity evaporate when we talk about “God”? I venture an answer: because of the ancient Roman Empire’s need for mind control and internalized fear and obedience. The Romans took poetry and tried to make it a literal litmus test of loyalty to their damn empire. This is what we inherited. What does it take to see this?
Jesus, however, never spoke in those terms. He used metaphors to talk about “God” and parables to get us to think on our own. He painted “God” as a loving “father.” He said “God” was like the sun that shines on the just and the unjust … quietly contradicting a superficial interpretation of the ancient Jewish contract … a “God” who cherished us so intensely that “he” counted every hair on our head … “he” knew every sparrow that fell from the sky … he clothed the weeds with the splendor of kings. Are these words literal? Did Jesus worship the sun? Did God really care about how many hairs we have? Obviously, not. They are poetry … we know exactly what Jesus was saying … that we are in the embrace of a benevolence so profound and universal that we have no other way of speaking … we are in fact rendered speechless in the face of a love so immense that we cannot understand it.
We have never understood how “God” could “shine on the just and the unjust” … and we probably never will … until we let “God” be whatever “he” is.
The point is “religion” is not about understanding … it is about relationship. And as with all love relationships, we use whatever symbols we can to help us relate. But please notice … they are there to help us relate … not make believe we have been given the inside scoop about what “God” really is.
There is nothing arcane or esoteric about this “theology.” If you leave us alone, we do it naturally. Our problem is the imperial money-changers who sell us a bill of goods … in exchange for our souls.
“Who are you,” we ask eternally … and “God” answers as always, liberating himself and us … “I am who I am.”