It would be easy to toss off some glib, superficial answer to the question of how we may know the God beyond our limited stereotypes — in the words of Paul Tillich, the “God beyond God.” But this would provide no real insight into solving the mystery of Who God Is, or at the very least, into learning to live with the mystery. For a complete understanding of God is unattainable. And too much “certainty,” even about what we think we can know, is bound to be mistaken.
To consider more clearly how I find I know God as more than a stereotype, as Someone greater and immeasurably more worth knowing than Big Santa Claus in the Sky, I have to take a step back from the shouting. You’re all too well aware of what I mean: the melee of loud voices from the Right, the Left, the Center and back again. God is this…No, God is that…God loves me…God doesn’t love you…My God can beat up your God…blah-yak-woof!
It all makes my head hurt, and most of the time, in the middle of the sound and fury, I feel I can’t even hear God speaking. Funny that all that human babble about God can make us feel farther away from “Him” (“Her,” “It” — take your pick) than ever before.
When I take my step back, breathe in deep and think in the peaceful silence between God and me when we’re alone together, I find I can see things about God more clearly. This is not the same as seeing God directly, but it helps. And the image that I find perhaps most helpful comes from a way of seeing that Jesus especially loved: a parable. Not one of His own, but an ancient Indian legend I believe He would have liked.
It’s usually known as “The Three Blind Men and the Elephant.” (If we wanted to make it politically-correct, we could update that to “The Three Visually-Challenged, Gender-Neutral Persons and the Elephant.”) It’s the story of three folks who can’t see, as they encounter an elephant — not really knowing quite what it is that they have found. They grope around for a while, trying to get a handle on it that makes sense. And it’s not long before each one is sure he (or she) has the answer.
“It’s a long, sort of conical thing, with a really wet, wiggly, hairy spot on the end,” says the Gender-Neutral Person who has gotten a hold of the trunk.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no!” argues Person Number Two. “It’s wiggly, all right, but really short, and sort of skinny. Keeps whisking around, too…it’s hard to catch it!” He/she, of course, is at the tail end of the beast.
Number Three, however, disagrees with them both. “You two are really clueless! This thing is very big, and it’s round and flat on the bottom, and…oof!…it almost stomped on my toes!”
What they’re each experiencing, of course, is a different part of the same gargantuan concept. But unless they all stop arguing long enough to compare notes, they’ll never figure that out. And that’s a lot like God and us. I find that I must listen to a lot of different people, then step back to get the bigger picture.
We see now “through a glass, darkly.” St. Paul expressed it well. But nevertheless, I find that bigger, better sense profoundly comforting. And I know, in my deepest heart, that it is true.
What we each have — and the best we can have, in this life — is a very spotty, partial and prejudiced picture of Who God Is. Some become dispirited at the confusion in this and, throwing up their hands in defeat, claim it means they can’t believe in God at all. But what it really means is that God allows each of us a tantalizing glimpse of “Him” — a chance to peek at just a little, rather as Moses did when he peered out through the cleft in the rock and saw the back side of God passing by (though not God’s face, as to see that would have killed him). Hover once above the world, viewing our swirly blue globe from outer space, and the perspective will astound you. All these tiny fragments, fit together like pieces in a giant jigsaw puzzle, show us God!
We all need each other. We need to listen to each other, and to learn from one another, in order to become completely human. We’re each a tiny reflection of God, like marbles in a jar, each reflecting the room around us. No two of us reflect exactly the same image, but nobody can rightly claim the image any one reflects does not truly represent the room.
We are those “marbles,” and God is the “Room.” Too big, too wonderful, too all-encompassing to be captured by any one marble, yet having created each in “His” own likeness, not only in miniature but in fragmentary form. Why? Well, so we’ll all need to fit together to make sense of the world. So our love and sharing can, in some small way, mirror that which exists between the Persons in the Trinity in whose image we were made.
Our fallenness, our brokenness — our sin, if you will — is in our failure to recognize and accept that each of us is a part and not the whole. “You shall be as gods,” promised the Serpent in the Garden. And Eve’s real sin was not in eating that fruit (an apple, as tradition has it — though who’s to say it couldn’t have been a peach, a banana or even a kiwi?), but in believing that the tempter’s promise could be true. She wanted to be the whole — as did Adam, Abel, Cain and every last one of their other progeny all the way down to us. When we live as if we were the whole room, instead of being content to be our own little part of it, that is when we sin — against God, and against each other.
Not only did God make each marble only a partial reflection of the Room, but “He” made each marble unique. Glory be to Our Creator — no two of us “marbles” are exactly alike! Even identical twins are separate people. But the good news of the Gospel is that though we aren’t identical, we don’t need to be enemies. And that though we are less than God, we don’t have to be alienated from “Him.”
Who can make sense of all the chaos in our great, big world? Who can say to each person, “I made you in My image, and I love you, even if you don’t know all the answers, and even if you aren’t exactly like everybody else?”
Only God can say this. And these are the words we all so long to hear. They make sense of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people experience. They make sense of all of human life, and they alone can. God alone can judge us; thanks be to God, nobody else ultimately will.
Oh, sure, lots of people think it’s their job to judge us. Turn on any religious TV channel, and you’ll find some ham actor in a thousand-dollar suit, telling us what “God” told him that morning over his eggs and coffee. He knows just who’s “in” and who’s “in sin” — and the sheep in his flock are very likely to believe him. But do they really recognize the voice of the Shepherd? Perhaps they shouldn’t be too sure.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,” God tells Isaiah, “nor are your ways my ways.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”
Behold the face of Jesus, battered to a pulp, squinting up at Heaven through the blood and sweat as He hangs upon the Cross. Barely recognizable as a human: a man scorned and shunned. “My God,” He cries, “My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
A God Who hangs naked, broken and despairing upon an instrument of the most humiliating torture devised by man? A God Who dies? Who could have made that up? Why, look how hard it was for His own disciples to believe it! And even after His triumphant Resurrection, He forced belief on no one.
God is an ever-unfolding mystery to us all. Even an eternity in Heaven won’t be enough time for us to learn everything there is to know about “Him.” Yet perhaps the greatest joy of Heaven will be that thrill of discovery, and the anticipation of always more to learn. Just to think about it makes us glad. Treasure that feeling — it’s a foretaste of the things to come.
From my cosmic step back, as I orbit the earth in the arms of God, I am renewed and refreshed: able to return to the chaos and madness of the world. We’re a contentious, quarrelsome lot, and anybody else would soon tire of us. But even after untold millions of years, God still hasn’t given up on us. I know that this is Who God Is. And the least I can do is snuggle closer to “Him” and love “Him” in return.
A self-described “Libertarian Episcopalian lesbian,” freelance writer and the author of Good Clowns, a young adult novel published in 2018, Lori Heine published a blog called “Born on 9-11” and was a frequent contributor to the website Liberty Unbound. A native of Phoenix, Ariz., she graduated from Grand Canyon University in 1988 and spent much of her life in the insurance industry before turning full-time to writing as a freelancer, blogger and author.