“But do they teach you who God really is?” she asked wistfully. “That’s what I wish my church would do.”
My heart leapt and I wanted to simply say yes. That is indeed the pursuit that led me to the Orthodox Church.
Just as we began looking into Orthodoxy I read an article by a prominent fundamentalist. He had a new scheme for determining which doctrines are fundamental to the Christian faith.
It could have been illustrated by a series of concentric circles, with “the gospel” at the heart. The more necessary a doctrine was in explaining the gospel, the more fundamental that doctrine was to be considered. That put the doctrine of God and Christ’s incarnation somewhere off to the side. I felt I was looking at something completely disordered, from the desk of one of the most spiritually mature men I knew.
In contrast, I had begun reading Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church as well as The Cloud of Unknowing, and was immediately struck by how Orthodox theology has God at the center. Not just the doctrine of God – God himself. All the other doctrines flowed naturally and even forcefully from the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Yet as I trundled over dark roads in my little Ford Focus, with her at my side asking her wistful question, I could not say a simple “yes, they do tell me who God really is.”
As a matter of fact, nowhere in Orthodoxy have I been told “who God really is.” Everywhere I turn I’ve been told that’s something I can’t know. But that denial, odd as it sounds, is the most deeply satisfying assurance I’ve ever been given.
“Eye has not seen” I have long known, “nor ear heard, neither has it entered into a human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
But that statement rings hollow when you believe that God has been correctly defined and you happen to know the definition. If the human heart has already exhausted the concept of God, the best thing that exists, what is there left for him to give me that’s so hard to imagine? What place could he prepare for me that I can’t conceive of, if I can so readily conceive of its builder?
But my Bible had long been telling me that it is he, God, who has been our dwelling place in all generations. Now my church tells me that it is in God that place has been prepared for those who love him, beyond our hearts’ conceiving. Moses, who saw his glory, called God a home and a realm. In him we all have our being and when we yearn for him we long to rest within him and not beside him.
In other words, it would be harder to define God than to draw a line around the space-time fabric. Yet it is also impossible to stand outside of him and for this reason he can descend to us, enflame us with himself, and bestow the knowledge of God upon us.
So to answer her question: while they don’t exactly tell me who God really is, they do lead me to this endless River of Fire. I step in and my heart begins to thaw. The God that I cannot comprehend, by contrast comprehends me perfectly. And I begin to know him from within – a completely different position than the one which her words imply, and the exact position toward which she yearns.
Not only that, but they hand me a broom of sorts, and every day I sweep away false idols from my mind. As I write this, I’m remembering once again that the oldest book of the Bible is a story about a man, an innocent sufferer, who has to atone for three men who said the wrong things about God. So here I am, an Orthodox Chatecumen, learning how not to say the wrong things about God.
I wish she were here with me.