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 â€“ 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.