Tuesday, September 7, 2010

to know & be known

About a year ago, when I first began this blog, I referenced a work by A. W. Tozer that was, and still is, quite influential in shaping my approach to theology (click here for the original post). Specifically, I brought up his notion that he develops in The Knowledge of the Holy that what we think about God is the most important thing about us. Here is part of his opening chapter where he immmediately discloses this concept:

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.
The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man's spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.
For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. This is true not only of the individual Christian, but of the company of Christians that composes the Church. Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech. She can never escape the self-disclosure of her witness concerning God.
Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, "What comes into your mind when you think about God?" we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man. Were we able to know exactly what our most influential religious leaders think about God today, we might be able with some precision to foretell where the Church will stand tomorrow.
Without doubt, the mightiest thought the mind can entertain is the thought of God, and the weightiest word in any language is its word for God. Thought and speech are God's gift to creatures made in His image; these are intimately associated with Him and impossible apart from Him. It is highly significant that the first word was the Word: "And the Word was with God, and the Word was God." We may speak because God spoke. In Him word and idea are indivisible.
That our idea of God correspond as nearly as possible to the true being of God is of immense importance to us. Compared with our actual thoughts about Him, our creedal statements are of little consequence. Our real idea of God may lie buried under the rubbish of conventional religious notions and may require an intelligent and vigorous search before it is finally unearthed and exposed for what it is. Only after an ordeal of painful self-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God.
[...] The heaviest obligation lying upon the Christian Church today is to purify and elevate her concept of God until it is once more worthy of Him - and of her. (Tozer 1961:1-2, 4)

Now, since I have quoted Tozer at length, I am aware that I have introduced not only the principle argument, but several additional arguments and sub-arguments, as well. However, I wish here to focus exclusively on the main thought that is threaded throughout: the idea that what we think about God is the most important thing about us.
If we take this to be true then we must accept to some degree or other the striking burden this places on the individual person to formulate a proper conceptualization of God (in the sense of responding rightly to what God Himself has revealed). Before we react strongly against this, we must, in all fairness to Tozer, consider that he does not have in mind that such ability really originates with humankind, but instead originates with God who initiates His Self-revelation to those He created in His image. So, for example, Tozer would not support the claim that the perfect knowledge of God to which he exhorts us is in any way possible by intellectual pursuit. For Tozer, this type of knowledge is a divine grace made available to all who will grab hold of it through Christ Jesus, who, as part of the Trinity, perfectly reveals the Godhead. Nevertheless, we are still unable to avoid the somewhat anthropocentric nature of his claim, though we must temper any tendency to take this too far.
Recently I was forced to confront the validity of Tozer's assertion anew when, a few months ago, I read for the first time The Weight of Glory, a collection of essays and sermons by C. S. Lewis. In the very essay by the same title, Lewis adamantly rejects any formulation of "glory" that places undue burden on human thought (or belief, etc.). Instead, Lewis emphasizes glory that is "conferred" by God instead relates directly to how He thinks about us, not vice versa:

In the end that Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or the other [i.e., satisfaction/appreciation or disappointment], either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised. I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us. (Lewis 2001 [1949]:38)

For Lewis, the most important thing about us is the reward we receive by God's "divine accolade, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant'" (2001 [1949]:36, emphasis original). This glory is not really from any property that is intrinsic to humanity, but instead is bestowed upon by God, to whom all glory is veritably and inevatibly due.
The question we are to ask ourselves now is, Are these views as mutually exclusive as they first appear, that is, are they really irreconcilable? Interestingly, although Lewis rejects a strong formulation of the view that overemphasizes what man thinks, he alludes to potential resolution in his statement, "how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us" (2001 [1949]:38, emphasis added). To this point I am immediately willing to concede and, again with respect to Tozer, the wealth of his writings seem to be in accordance with such an emphasis as well. The resolution seems to be that both views are reconcilable, and both are important, but God always has primacy. For example, even if we take Lewis as our starting point we must at some point recognize that God approves of those who think rightly about Him, that is, who have responded to God's Self-Revelation in a way that is in accordance with His nature and works itself out towards obedience in love. When we speak about the notion that what we think about God is the most important thing about us, we must always bear in mind that a true understanding of this is first and foremost in deference to the Sovereign God who desires to make Himself known and, consequently, is the fount of any true knowledge regarding Him. When we speak about the notion that what God thinks about us is the most important thing about us, we must always bear in mind that it pleases Him to think rightly about Him (which, perhaps, is why He goes to great pains to explicitly reveal Himself). These views are (at least to some degree) recursive in the manner in which one relates to the other.
Not surprisingly, the tension that the above points, when taken in conjunction, illustrate is manifest in the Holy Scriptures. For example, while entrance into God's eternal joy is indeed predicated upon the acclamations that God alone can confer (see Luke 19:17), and thus is the reward and glory of humanity, still, "without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those that diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6, emphasis added). This verse in particular (especially when considered in its immediate textual context) is striking because it places import on both points - thinking rightly about God (one must "believe" both "that He is" and "that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him") and the weight of glory ("that He is a rewarder"). Perhaps, then, these views are not so contradictory after all. Additional examples might include the well-known story of the good samaritan, whose actions revealed that his conceptualization of God rightly included (or, resulted in) love for all peoples, or the woman at the well whom Jesus encouraged to have a proper understanding of the God who seeks worshipers to worship Him in spirit and in truth and not in a particular location. We could, in fact, discuss many instances in Scripture or history where a false conceptualization of God (one that, for example, denies His eternality, holiness, mercy, justice/righteousness, omnipotence, omniscience, etc., or some combination of these) results in dire consequences internally (e.g., with regard to a person's spiritual state) and/or externally (e.g., with regard to the effect of such on others). Thus, the goal, in relation to this topic, is twofold: to know, and to be known. Both are by God's grace and His initiative, and for this reason we give glory to Him alone. And if we "have come to know God, or rather to be known by God" we ought to not "turn back again" to things contrary to His nature; instead, we are urged on towards obedience in love as we rightfully (for God deserves no less) "by the mercies of God, present our bodies a living and holy sacrifice" to Him (Galatians 4:9; Romans 12:1). As we respond to the knowledge of Himself that He reveals and provides (for we cannot know Him apart from His Self-revelation), we long to receive the divine accolade wherein we are found, by God's grace and strength, to have been faithful. And, far from relishing in a false sense of our blessed obedience that exalts us, our response will be like that of the twenty-four elders, and the company of all who worship in the heavenly liturgy:

And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, "Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of your will they existed, and were created." (Revelation 4:9-11)

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing." And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the sea and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, "To Him who sits on the throne, and unto the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever." And the four living creatures kept saying, "Amen." And the elders fell down and worshiped. (5:11-14)

Lewis, C. S. (2001). The weight of glory. In C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Essays. New York, NY: HarperOne. (Original work published 1949)
Tozer, A. W. (1963). The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in Christian Life. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

1 comment:

  1. Nice job of tying the two ideas together! Very thought provoking!