What does it mean to know God?

by Richard on September 29, 2005

My friend and colleague Kim Fabricius (a New Yorker, but resident in Wales) preached this sermon in the university chapel this evening and has kindly agreed to allow me to post it here. It is strong, challenging stuff. See what you make of it.

What does it mean to “know God” and not to know God? That’s the question I want to explore this afternoon — and this being a university, in joined-up thinking! It’s a question I am going to circle around and creep up on, because I don’t think it’s a question you can answer directly — and certainly not by sound-bite or bumper-sticker theology. But to get us started I begin with a premise — which I will later question — the premise that Christians, at least, do know God. And then a first probing: Does that mean that non-Christians do not know God?

Most, not all but most, Christians would agree that adherents of at least two other great world faiths, Judaism and Islam, know at least something of God, Jews in particular sharing the Christian scriptures — what we call the Old Testament — and Muslims, with Jews and Christians, tracing their ancestry back to our common father Abraham. But then does that mean that the adherents of other great world faiths, like Hinduism and Buddhism, know less of God, or even know nothing at all of God?

Should we perhaps privilege the term ‘religion’ and grant to all ‘religious’ people at least some knowledge of God, a knowledge we deny to ‘non-religious’ people? That sounds intuitively plausible, but it’s actually quite problematical, and for several reasons. One is that there is no such thing as ‘religion’ as such, in the singular, just one thing; religions are just too multifarious and diverse to come under one umbrella term. A second reason responds to the well-known metaphor, beloved of religious pluralists, that all faiths are like the different paths up a mountain — eventually they all get to the same peak. But who is to say that some don’t lead into a crevasse, or even over a precipice? (Religious pluralism is a busted flush.) And a third reason goes back to Karl Barth’s radical critique against religion, even — especially — the Christian religion. “Many people,” Barth said, “go to church to make their last stand against God.” Religion, that is, can be a stained-glass way of avoiding God; it can be but ‘the loftiest summit in the land of sin’. So, counter-intuitive though it sounds, the terms ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ are actually not very helpful when it comes to knowing what ‘knowing” and not knowing God means.
What about ‘art’ and ’science’? It is often said that artists — poets, musicians, sculptors — are ’spiritual’ people (to introduce another notoriously slippery term!), and that being ’spiritual’ they will have some knowledge of God, quite unlike materialistic scientists with their facts, observations, measurements, and theories. The Russian painter Jawlensky said, “All art is nostalgia for God,” while the French astronomer Laplace, when asked by Napoleon why there was no place for God in his system, replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” And indeed it has been said that in a secular society art has replaced religion as the main way of accessing God, while it is a commonplace — mistaken, of course — that science has made God altogether redundant.

But I am not sure that the art/science distinction gets us very far either when it comes to knowing God. There are, after all, plenty of artists who are not believers and plenty of scientists who are. And if you want to elide the spiritual with the aesthetic, there is certainly something aesthetic about science as well as art. Science isn’t all test tubes and telescopes, you know. The creative process is common to both fields, as is a sense of intricate order and beauty. Stephen Hawking has even spoken of the great goal of physics as knowing ‘the mind of God’. Indeed, I don’t think that even the label ‘atheist’ rules one out from a knowledge of God. The nineteenth century philosopher Frederick Nietzsche and the twentieth century writer Albert Camus were both atheists, yet they wrestled with the question of God with such honesty and intensity, and knocked down so many idols masquerading as God along the way, that their insights actually tell us more about God than many of the expostulations of conventional theologians, let alone the platitudes of some brain-dead believers.

My conclusion so far, then, is this: that neither religion, nor art or science, nor even atheism, as such, tell us very much one way or the other about what it means to know or not know God, neither guaranteeing nor excluding knowledge of God. But I want to go on and suggest to you three characteristics that anyone may have that indicate that they, in fact, do know God — whether they know it or not! And, conversely, I want to suggest to you that apart from these three characteristics people in fact do not know God whether they claim to know God or not. (And how do I know? Because, I would argue, the Bible tells me so!)

First, with the Psalmist, a sense of wonder, wonder at the world, at the universe, wonder that there is something rather than nothing, wonder at the starry sky or a blade of grass or the human form, wonder at words, sounds, or colours. People who have a sense of wonder, I maintain, know God at least in some sense, while people who have no sense of wonder do not know God at all, whatever their faith-claims. And there can be no sense of wonder without a mind that soars, explores, asks questions, and no sense of wonder where there is no passion, no fire, either. The earthbound, the unadventurous, the uninquisitive, the complacent and content, the cool and careful — what a poor, puny, and usually petulant god theirs is, a god of their own making, really.

There can also be no sense of wonder — and therefore no knowledge of God — where there is no sense of ‘the impossible’ (Derrida). The Roman poet Terence said that since what we usually wish for is impossible, it would make more sense if we gave up wishing and sought only the possible. Terence did not know God, for God is the impossible, beyond prediction and calculation, beyond management and control. And beyond that fashionable word ‘closure’ too. With God there can be no closure, no done-and-dusted, for God is open-ended, always ahead, always beyond, never as tidy as we’d like. But there can be no closure with ourselves — our selves — either. Not only will God always be a mystery to us but also we will always be a mystery to us. Quaestio mihi factus sum, said Augustine: “I have been made a mystery to myself.” Who am I? I am the one who does not know who I am — that is who I am. And I will not know who I am until God tells me who I am on Judgement Day. And who is God? God is the one you cannot know who he is – that is who God is. And who God will be even on Judgement Day! “Concepts create idols,” said St. Gregory of Nyssa, “only wonder understands.”

A second characteristic of those who know God (you won’t be surprised to hear!) is love. St. John says: “Whoever loves . . . knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God. For God is love” (I John 4:7b-8). The real opposite of a person whoi knows God is not an non-religious person, or a secular person, or (again) even an atheist, but a selfish person, “a loveless lout who knows no higher pleasure than the contemplation of his own visage, a mediocre fellow who does not have the energy to love anything except his mutual funds” (John Caputo) (which, by the way, is why money is the root of all evil: it is the root of all selfishness). Love is not a possession but a dispossession, a giving up and a reaching out, in excess and overflow, in openness, engagement, and hospitality — and especially to the different, the other, the strange, indeed the enemy. Those who see the “other” and think, “Crush! Kill! Exterminate!” — or even just “Convert!” — they do not know God, theirs is a tribal deity.

Finally, a third characteristic of people who know God — after wonder and love: justice. Justice? But isn’t justice, as it were, a Church and Society issue, not a Faith and Doctrine issue? Doesn’t justice lie in the realm of action, in doing not knowing? Yes, justice is certainly a doing, but that’s just the point: that knowing — certainly knowing God — is also a doing, above all a doing. (St. John speaks of “doing the truth.”) You can’t know God just by thinking certain thoughts, even “theologically correct” thoughts, or just by having certain feelings, certain ‘religious experiences’, even ‘born-again’ experiences. No, you can only know God by doing, which is an outward, and a very practical, thing. Doing, in particular, God’s will, and God’s most particular will is the doing of justice. If you do not do justice, you do not know God. If you are a Christian Phalangist who bayoneted Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Chatila, though you had an icon of the Virgin on your rifle butt, as did marauding Christian Serbs in Bosnia, or if you are a paid-up member of the Christian Right who thinks, like the crusaders, that you can slaughter Muslims for Christ’s sakea loveless lout who knows no higher pleasure than the contemplation of his own visage, a mediocre fell, well, you are deceived — and you most certainly do not know God. And, conversely, if you give a cup of water or a crust of bread to ‘one of the least of these’, or support, stand up for the vulnerable, excluded, oppressed, then you do know God. You may not name the Name, but you know the Named. You could say that God is not a noun, God is a verb, and therefore known only by people who are verbs, not nouns.

So forget about labels, religious and otherwise, for when it comes to knowing God, labels are libels. To paraphrase Jesus himself, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ knows God. Only those who do God’s will know God.” And God’s will, embodied and perfected in Jesus, is the practice of wonder, love, and justice.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }


Joel Thomas 09.30.05 at 5:06 am

To know God is also to feel the absence of God. That is what I am feeling right now. Intellectually I know that God is present.

From the “Hymn of Promise” — “in our doubt there is believing.”


DH 09.30.05 at 2:44 pm

What does this post have in relation to “Not by works of Righteuosness which we have done…” or “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and Believe in your heart that God has risen from the dead you shall be saved.”?

I think it is wrong to think that Jews and Muslims know part of God because Jesus said “If you deny Me you have denied the Father in heaven who sent Me.” or Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. How can they believe part of God when these are actually false gods?
The person even contradicted scripture against “Born Again”. “Except a man be born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

I do believe all of the characteristics but the characteristics in and of themselves are not the ends to the means. Their must be our own Faith in Christ’s death and resurrection and the acceptance by us of this free gift to even begin to know God.

The people who say “Lord, Lord” are people who never gave their entire lives to Christ. It was only a head knowledge. Also, it is people who believed other gods: Buddah, Mohammad, Hindu, etc. but also believed in their head Jesus and people who are “good people” who did good works but who never had Faith in Christ.

Remember “Without Faith it is impossible to please God.” That is our Faith to Christ by giving our entire lives to Christ at that momment of conversion “Born Again” that saves people. With that comes a responsibility from Rom Chapt 6.


DH 09.30.05 at 2:45 pm

Doubt being good? How about Jesus saying to Thomas: “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet Believe.”?


Wood 09.30.05 at 3:15 pm

And yet Jesus accepts Thomas at the same time He says that.


DH 09.30.05 at 4:04 pm

He accepts him. True. But as a rhetorical question than what is the point of Christ even saying this? To me it appears to be a rebuke.


alice 10.01.05 at 12:26 am

Wow. I had been minding I’d missed Thursday’s service, but having seen Sarah afterwards, and now read this, I’m feeling a bit less cut off. I miss chaplaincy, and chaplains, and chaplains’ preaching! thank you lots.


Joel Thomas 10.01.05 at 2:18 am


Put in another way, I could have quoted, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

My comment was not about doubting that Jesus is Savior. It was about the frailty of the human condition and the fact that God is sometimes there the most when we feel his presence the least.

I highly recommend the book, out a few years back called “In Defense of Doubt: An Invitation to Adventure” by Val Webb.

Anyway, my comment was a highly personal one, so I don’t think I’ll be wanting to get into a debate about “doubt.”


kim fabricius 10.01.05 at 2:19 am

Thanks to Joel Thomas for his comment. I couldn’t agree more. He may find two sayings of Simone Weil helpful:

“God can only be prersent in creation in the form of an absence.”

“The very reason why God has decided to hide himself is that we might have an idea of what he is like.”

Also a hymn I have written (and published):

God whose presence is an absence,
never like an object “there”,
speak to me in sounds of silence,
in the voiceless void of prayer.

God whose truth’s beyond all showing,
not like one and one are two,
teach us truth’s not known by knowing,
truth is something that we do.

God whose being is an ocean,
sea of love yet unexplored,
keep my flailing faith in motion
as I paddle by the shore.

God who keeps a proper distance,
God who runs ahead at pace,
leave us signs of your existence,
footprints we can track and trace.

When in heaven we behold you,
with the angels, face to face,
we will see that all we’ve been through
was the trailer of your grace.



Richard 10.01.05 at 8:30 am

Glad to ’see’ you Kim - thanks for dropping in!

I want to adress some of DH’s concerns.

>>“I think it is wrong to think that Jews and Muslims know part of God…”

Then the simple fact is that you’re out of step with the majority of the historical Christian community. What you’re saying is that Jews now *nothing* of God, implying that the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament, if you’d rather) reveals *nothing* of God. I don’t think you mean that, but it’s what you said. The same can be said of Islam, since Muslims share stories with Jewsand Christians. Christians believe God is revealed most fully and completely in Jesus, but I’m not aware that we’ve ever claimed that no one outside of the Christian faith can have any knowledge of God.

>>“The people who say “Lord, Lord” are people who never gave their entire lives to Christ. It was only a head knowledge.”
That’s a point of view, and I understand why you hold it, but I don’t see how you can justify it from what Jesus is reported to have said, which was “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’… but he who does the will of my Father.” Seems pretty clear to me.
I think the mistake you’re making is in the assumption that the scriptures are a textbook, a systematic theology in which only one view of salvation is possible. What I’d want to suggest is that scripture has more in common with poetry which, to borrow Kim’s helpful imagery, ‘circles around’ and ‘creeps up on’ the big questions of human existence. So, for example, Paul can say with boldness, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1) but can also invite the Philippians to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) and that “each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire”. Similarly, it is perfectly possible to proclaim ’salvation by grace through faith’ but also to take very seriously what Jesus seems to have said about the importance of doing God’s will. This is not about contradiction, but rather another perspective. Nuance, if you will.


Eugene McKinnon 10.02.05 at 8:23 pm


Robert Schuller called. Stop plagiarising his heresy.


Richard 10.02.05 at 10:17 pm

I’m afraid I don’t understand this comment, Eugene. What has Kim’s sermon to do with Robert Schuller?


Eugene McKinnon 10.03.05 at 4:46 am

Forgive my outburst Richard, but I feel that Kim’s sermon was doctrinally unsound and akin to the feel good, well constructed, scholarly sermons given by Robert Schuller in the Crystal Cathedral.

As a student for ministry I am growing more and more disillusioned by sermons that fail to preach Christ crucified, but prefer to look at the lofty values shared by Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and atheists.

While there are elements of truth in all religions, we cannot necessarily synthesise them into Christianity. Christianity is God reaching down from heaven to his fallen people through his son Jesus Christ. This is a major stumbling block to the other religions.

It is time Richard that we return to the Scriptures and to Christ.



Eugene McKinnon 10.03.05 at 4:48 am

In conclusion to Kim’s conclusion I suggest he read that Lukan quote again. Jesus also warns those who “do” that doing things in his name will also result in a one way ticket to hell. The passage talks about meeting Jesus in the middle, acknowledging him as Lord and consulting with him about what work there is to do in his name.

Eugene McKinnon


Joel Thomas 10.03.05 at 8:10 am

I think Kim’s hymn is beautiful and not doctrinally unsound. It gave me inspiritation at a time that I needed it, a witness to God’s grace that is profound, and a reminder of God’s transcendence that is both perplexing
and awesome.

What the real difference in essence between Kim’s hymn and “what have I to fear, what have I to dread, leaning on the everlasting arms? I have blessed peace with my Lord so near, leaning on the everlasting arms.”? There is no single one way to express God’s providence. It seems to me that Kim legitimately expressed such divine care in the context that we “see through a glass darkly.”


kim fabricius 10.03.05 at 10:52 am

Robert Schuller!! (I’m still laughing!) I’ll tell you what, Eugene - I’ll stop the plagiarism if you stop the libel.

But, really, Eugene, you would do well to look before you think, and to think before you write.

My sermon explicitly refutes the position commonly known as “religious pluralism” and argues instead that what is really at stake in the relation of Christianity to other faiths - and none (again, I explicitly deny that “religion” is a very helpful category when it comes to “knowing God”) -is whether Christianity can be genuinely open toward the Other - the other as creation, as creature - and, above all, as God, the Wholly Other! And I believe it must be - and can be: through an understanding of creation and the creature as graced by the Father, through the (crucified) Son, let loose in the world by the Spirit. I certainly believe that the knowledge of God is defined by Christ, but I also maintain that it is not confined to believers. As the Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov puts it: “We know where the Church is; it is not for us to judge and say where the Church is not.”

Eugene rightly argues for a strong theologia crucis - but not apart from an equally robust doctrine of the Trinity, with particular reference to pneumatology - which is where all evagelicals like Eugene fall short: they lack a doctrine of the Spirit that isn’t domestic and quite mean. That’s how Eugene can speak of God’s “reaching down from heaven to his fallen people threough his son Jesus Christ” - and then immediately speak about “a one way ticket to hell”. What Good News that is! It’s what Karl Barth called the “gospel at gunpoint”.

Finally, I would recommend that Eugene get out more, theologically, and spend some time, for example, with Bonhoeffer, who correctly diagnosed the evangelical fear of works as “cheap grace”. The knowledge of God - or, to use another word for it: holiness - isn’t in the head or the heart, holiness is a praxis, it is what we “do”. Indeed I can only know who your God is by observing your behaviour. That’s not heresy, or liberalism - and it’s certainly not Schuller! It’s Barth, Bonhoeffer, Hauerwas, Lash, McCabe . . .



DH 10.03.05 at 4:05 pm

The only way you can “do the will of My Father” is to first by Faith “Confess with you mouth the Lord Jesus and Believe with your heart that God has risen from the dead.”

“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1) but can also invite the Philippians to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) and that “each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire”. Similarly, it is perfectly possible to proclaim ’salvation by grace through faith’ but also to take very seriously what Jesus seems to have said about the importance of doing God’s will.

First, “…whi are in Christ Jesus” Those are who by Faith accepted Christ.
The “each mans work” is the judgement seat of Christ for the Believe.

However, I like your final sentence. We must help people to even be on the “path” by Salvation by Faith alone and thereafter being obedient to doing god’s Will. I’m reminded “What shall we say then? Can we continue to sin that Grace may abound? God forbid. How are we who are dead to sin live any longer in it?” The most important “will” for unbelievers is to accept Christ. The most important “will for Believer is to share the Gospel and do what God tells us to do from Gods Word and by the holy Spirit.

To Kim “If you deny Me you have denied the Father who sent Me.” I think Church is the Believers but we can help those who are not Believers to become Believers.


DH 10.03.05 at 4:36 pm

Kim, the Gospel is Good News to those who Believe. “We have all sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God”. The Good News is that we can be redeemed into “Newness of Life”. The fact nemains without Christ we all deserve death and hell but the Good News is we can be redeemed from that. How can this not be Good News to be redeemed from sin and hell? (I’m saying this to clarify and to restate Eugene’s harsh words and to help put into proper perspective).

Kim while I totally agree in Evangelism what we do as Believers is so important. you are right on. However, to become a Believer is “not by works of righteuosness which we have done…” However, that doesn’t downgrade our “works” because we must be in obedience to Christ to do the works of Christ and not do works which Christ doesn’t want us to do “sin’.

Holiness is the Sanctification of the Believer. Justification is the redeeming of the un-Believer.


DH 10.03.05 at 4:38 pm

Richard, as a rhetorical question, so the worshippers of Baal, were they “closer to God”? I think it is dangerous to say other gods are part of God when the Bible says “thou shalt have no OTHER gods before Me.”

You mention other but I feel God had something to say as I referenced above.


Joel Thomas 10.03.05 at 7:29 pm

Sometimes I’m just reminded that I always love Christ but I really struggle to care much for Christianity.


DH 10.05.05 at 3:46 pm

Joel what did I say went against Christ with what I said? Didn’t Christ mentioned the greatest commandements to “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul and mind and the second to love your neighbor as yourself.”? If people are placing other gods, Buddah, hindu, etc., over Christ or not believing Christ at all but the other, than aren’t they worshipping what is equivilent to “other gods”? or When He said “If you denied Me you have denied the Father who sent Me.”

This view isn’t just christianity but it IS Christ. I love Christ and one those things He never went against was the belief that the only way to the Father was through Him by John 3:3.

If there are “other ways” to Christ (which there are not) than what is the point? The choice to accept or reject Christ is the most powerful thing God gave us. We could have been robots but that wouldn’t be love because love can only be love if it is a choice made by both parties.

I don’t see how any of this goes against Christ. This isn’t Christianity but Christ.


Joel Thomas 10.05.05 at 6:43 pm


My comment was aimed at what I considered harsh rhetoric directed toward Kim and the fact the the Bible is often used not as “Good News” but simply as a weapon of war.

When I write of “Christianity” I am referring to the philosophical “movement” humans have created and not to either Christ or Christ’s Holy Church.

Constantine helped to grow the Church on the one hand, but on the other hand, he helped to motivate followers into a philosophy that often seems a poor reflection of the humility Christ calls us to.

I’m reminded that John Calvin preached on love but turned around and had some of those who disagreed with his doctrines executed. Martin Luther preached both grace and hatred of Jews.

It seems to me that modern Christianity has become 10% grace and 90% judgment. The judgment part isn’t so bad when we accept it for ourselves as part of our transformation. But judgment no longer seems so related to “us” but to “other.”

I believe that God’s fullest revelation is to be found in Jesus Christ. But God will save whom he will save. I have no power to save and no right to condemn. To witness, yes. To share the Good News, yes.


d 10.12.05 at 3:44 pm

I never mentioned anything about wars or the like. It is just that when the Bible says who will be part of the Kingdom and who will not, who will be saved (by Faith in Christ) and who will not, I can’t go against that.

I think all of us my self included need to understand the love of God and also understand how God is in relation to sin and the acceptance of Him.

I also never mentioned judgement or condemnation you did. I said what I said with humility. For all of us it is the Good News to know that we can have eternal life and escape judgment. The Bible talks about how to have new life in Christ and how to escape judgement as well.

“But God will save whom he will save.” That is correct that is why the bible says “Without Faith it is impossible to please God.” “I am the way the Truth and the life…” in conjuction with “…no other gods before Me.” This isn’t me saying this but God. I care about people and don’t want to see people hurt.

Also, just because Calvin, Luther, etc went overboard doesn’t make the foundations of what they said wrong. We should reject outright what they said. I too don’t agree with 100% of Luther, Calvin, etc. but neither do I of anyone. This type of outright rejection of certain foiundations leads people away from the Truth that God has revealed to us. Is it fully revealed? No but we sure can get an idea and no where does it say in the Bible ALL will accept God’s free gift to all. “If you deny Me I will deny you before My Father in heaven.”

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