For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love ( 1 Cor. 13:12-13, NRSV).
The story is told of an American Zen master who became a Buddhist as a young woman. Her friends and family were having a hard time reconciling themselves with her religious decision. They kept asking her the kind of questions you would expect, including: “Do you at least believe in God?” One day, when they asked her this question for the umpteenth time, she answered with exasperation: “And who is God?”
This is the way Zen masters deal with what are called metaphysical questions. Instead of answering the question directly this teacher redirected the questioners to a more fundamental problem. In Zen Buddhism the disciple is expected to find the answer themselves. The goal, in most cases, is to help the practitioner realize that they cannot solve such problems by thinking. Why? Because the best answer lies beyond thought.
Irma Zaleski, who recounts this story about the American Zen master, says this response initially irritated her. It did me too when I read the story, at least until I began to explore the meaning of God without all of my simple, formulaic answers. Zaleski writes:
But I soon became convinced that all of us ‘believers’ would do well to ask ourselves the same question very seriously at least once in our lives.” But why you ask? It is important to admit that, if we are honest with ourselves, we do not really know how to answer this question in a way that a would satisfy our own minds, let alone a Zen master. We do not know who God is. We cannot prove God’s existence or explain God in words (Irma Zaleski, Who Is God? The Soul’s Road Home. Boston: New Seeds, 2006, xiv).
It appears to me that Western Christians have lost the ancient, and deeply Christian, idea that God is the Ultimate Reality, the Source of all being – a Mystery that human reason cannot penetrate nor can words express adequately. But there is clear biblical warrant for recovering this approach to God: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” 1 Cor. 13:12, NRSV). The word translated “dimly” in this famous text means “obscurely.” In fact the NRSV includes the marginal translation “in a riddle.” Compared to seeing Christ face-t0-face, which will happen in the future, we currently see the truth “in a riddle” or “obscurely.”
An entire book on theological method could be written based upon this single verse. I’ll leave this immense task to others. What I urge you to do is less ambitious but not less important: do not try to “solve” the Mystery. We cannot write a perfect theology of God, his nature and being. I was trained in a tradition that taught me that we could do precisely this if we simply and faithfully followed the Bible and interpreted the text properly. (We identify this one method of interpretation and then form entire denominations, schools and movements around our differences in using this supposedly plain method!) But lets be really honest about this – we cannot even explain how “God is love” without asking a thousand other questions. Some of these questions will occupy our attention throughout this book. But at the outset it is important that we can open ourselves up to this Mystery. We cannot receive it, or learn anything about it, unless we allow our thought process to take us into the inner core of our being, through what the Hebrews called “the heart.”
But to say “I don’t know” is scary. It requires a reorientation that few of us are prepared to make. It will require a patient, hard and intense efforts to let go of our certainty and illusions in order to truly know. “It means being prepared to stand silent and unknowing before the Mystery of God and to place all our trust in his mercy and love” (Irma Zaleski, Who Is God?, xvi).
I am persuaded that the knowledge of God to which Christ calls his followers is never achieved through study. If study were the key to such knowledge then some of the greatest Christians you and I will ever meet are great scholars. But I know many great scholars and this conclusion does not add up. Some of these scholars seem lost in their own thoughts and disciplines and know very little about God. No, we do not come to know God through study, as valuable as study can be for our personal development. We come to know God when a vision is given to the heart. The mystery of faith is given to those who are meek and humble. It is given to those who search with all their heart.