Perceptions of God through metaphors and stories, not “as an object at the mercy of scrutiny”

We don’t get to know what God is ‘like’ in the abstract; we don’t get a definition delivered in the language of ideas. … We shall never get to know God as God knows God, and our human words will always fail immeasurably short of his reality; God cannot be for us an object at the mercy of scrutiny, because God is always active, never just there over against us like objects in this world. The very activity of our thinking minds is what it is because God is activating them here and now. But precisely because we get to know God in what he does, not as an idea of an object, what we discover is his active will — what he wants, what his purpose, his longing is.

Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust 2007, pgs 9-10

A few thoughts on these ideas:

First, this makes sense to me. A God that is revealed through metaphors, most commonly stories, tropes, narratives, etc., especially those that are common in the cultural milieu of those to whom God reveals him/herself, fits the “data points” that we have from the evidence of world history. We learn about God through “what he does, what he wants, what his purpose, his longing is” as revealed through religious stories, myths, and sacred texts. Often, though, we get in the habit of mistaking those stories for the reality and assuming that our reality is universal. This, however, does not fit the data points when considering the wide swath of human history, cultures, and religions. Perhaps this is because it might be the only way that God can interact with us given the limitations of our neurophysiology which is has been strongly adapted through evolution to response to story and narrative.

Second, because these stories are to a large extent culturally and historically contingent, they are to some extent also arbitrary. I don’t know exactly what Julian of Norwich had in mind when she wrote: “So I was taught to choose Jesus for my heaven. … No other heaven pleased me but Jesus, who will be my bliss when I come there” (Revelations, long text, chapter 19). This suggests, though, that she perceived other heavens or options available to her. Perhaps worldly things, but perhaps also other ways in which God is revealed to us (“intermediaries” as she writes in chapter 6), including religions, stories, narratives, symbols, metaphors, etc. Even if the stories are arbitrary, for her, she preferred Jesus as her heaven. That’s the story that worked for her and that she was familiar with, and so when God revealed him/herself to Dame Julian, it was through the story of Jesus and his suffering. But God used that story to reveal another aspect of God’s nature: love, kindness, and friendship.

Third, regarding this part: “we shall never get to know God as God knows God.” Perhaps in this life this may be true, but I have hope that at some point all will be revealed and we will be able to know God as God knows us. Even then, many prominent mystics seem to be of the position that we can “get to know God as God knows God” here and now. Meister Eckhart, for example, wrote: “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” To me, this strongly implies that it is possible to “get to know God as God knows God,” through mystic, transcendent experiences. But then, whatever we perceive God to be through those experiences may ultimately be indistinguishable from the cultural symbols, metaphors, etc. through which God is revealed in those experiences.

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