“I AM what I AM…” (Exodus 3:14)
“I AM.” And that’s all?
God’s self-description seemed terribly incomplete to me when I read it in my Bible for the first time. In fact, I remember being fascinated that Moses didn’t ask for more details. If I had been Moses, I would likely have retorted: “YOU ARE what? What does that even mean?”
It wasn’t until several years into my spiritual journey that, for reasons I don’t remember, I spoke these words in second person and realized what they meant. Rather than “I AM,” I quietly whispered to myself: “God is.”
“God is.” Two simple words– A complete sentence that captures God’s existence, and God’s eternality… and God’s transcendence, and God’s ability to be a multitude of things to a multitude of people… Two words upon which God would later build an identity that could only be fully understood in light of experience. Only experience would give the Israelites the conviction to say “God is– the creator” and “God is– the provider” and “God is– present with us.”
I’ve come to understand that this is the way the relationship with God unfolds for a lot of people. God begins as the One who exists (or who is), whether we acknowledge such an existence or not. Before we even knew of a divine being, God was… and God will be long after we’re gone.
The God who is reveals himself to humankind experientially, and through those experiences, we develop language to explain our understanding of God’s character. Many of us feel loved when we encounter God, so we say that “God is love.” Others feel overwhelmed when encountering God, and consequently say that “God is powerful.”
People in non-Christian traditions that promote meditation are not put-off by the concept of God’s simple is-ness, nor are they offended by the possibility that we may have added God’s attributes. (I suspect they’re also more open to the possibility that we may be wrong about the characteristics we’ve assigned to God, but that’s a topic for another blog post). They view God as a presence that should be experienced, but not necessarily defined. In many of those traditions, practitioners believe that any words used to explain God’s nature will only fall inadequately flat. In their view, there’s no language powerful enough to capture such an Essence.
However in Christianity, we begin our explorations of God’s nature with language. We prize our theology so much that when we attempt to explain what it means for humans to be God’s people, we often forgo our experiences and begin with our doctrines. We say, “As a Christian I affirm this…” or “those who wish to have a valid experience of God must believe that” or “if you wish to join our movement, you must think thus-and-so.” We attempt to normalize a transcendent experience by shrouding it in words, and in so doing we stifle the many experiential possibilities that could exist for the love affair between humankind and the Divine.
I believe that like Moses, we must each come to know God as the “I AM…” That is, we must all learn the power of the inherent simplicity in: God is. We must experience God—and we must allow others to experience God. And then, we must allow them to define the meanings of those experiences for themselves. Each of us should be given the freedom to explore the possibilities of Whom and What God can be—even if those experiences draw us outside the realm of orthodoxy. And, we must be ready to embrace the fact that God is a variety of things to a variety of people… a Great Spirit that cannot and should not be bound or normalized by any human system.
And so, my words about God are fairly simple: God is… As for theology– well, let’s just say that I’m becoming very comfortable with the likelihood that all other words are only inadequate reflections of our experiences.
[NOTE: This post was my response to Tony Jones’ challenge to progressive theo-bloggers… A great project that should happen more in the blogosphere. :)]