The Definer and the Defined

Many of you will recall a famous conversation from about ten years ago in New York Yearly Meeting. Two people were discussing who Jesus is/was. One of them reached a point of frustration and asked the question “Why is my Jesus not as good as yours?” The discussion, and particularly this oft-repeated question, raises interesting issues.

How much can a human really know about God? To some degree, He is much like the ocean. While standing on the beach, one could take a cup of water and analyze it. One could identify its chemical properties, evaluate its purity, and assess other qualities. One is not able to perform the same analysis on the entire ocean, so (according to this parable), there will always be aspects of God that each one of us will miss.

The most common parable about understanding God is the elephant parable. Many people like to talk about the blind men, but it seems to me that this parable misses the boat widely. A more apt comparison would be an electric wire. Making contact with God causes the current of divine energy to flow, and we know that something different has happened. Touching an elephant might be interesting, but unless the elephant steps on thy foot, it is unlikely to be too memorable for thee. Touching God is memorable from the first instant.

The Apostle warned us not to be like the people who are always learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the Truth. Each of us is responsible for acting upon what has been given to us. This is the problem – each of us to a degree defines the Creator by what we have experienced. And, sad to say, too often each of us also defines God using worldly criteria and notions.

Was Jesus a good teacher or the Son of God? Both? Neither? People who believe the question is important often base their statements upon various sources, including the scriptures, experience, and what they have observed in others. Let’s take all three and work from the latter to the former.

1. What they have observed in others. I attended a meeting last year in which a woman was not a Christian because she disagreed with the religious philosophy of Jerry Falwell. I was also not happy with Falwell’s understandings, but I asked the woman why Falwell was granted the right to define God for everyone else. The kernel of truth here is that a person whose life has been transformed has something to say about Who the Great I Am is. We are warned to speak the things that we know and not condemn the things we do not know – so allow those who know to inform thee and don’t worry about those who don’t know. And sometimes I am in the latter category, too.

2. Personal experience. This is held up high in eastern Pennsylvania as some kind of mantra. I know from personal experience that X is true and that Y is not. Here is a little parable about why I have a problem with this notion. Suppose someone said that houses of the 1800s have large, walk-in kitchen hearths. A person might know this by personal experience. I have certainly been in many such houses. I have also been in dozens (hundreds?) of houses from the 1800s which never had a large kitchen hearth. The issue here is that (since this is my job) I have been in a substantial number of historic houses, and what I might say on the topic would be supported on a wide base of personal experience. The same holds true spiritually. A person saying that Jesus is only a good teacher needs a lot of experience on that topic, not just a casual reading of the scriptures or reading of modern spiritual writing (most of the latter should be avoided anyway).

The scriptures. Sometimes it seems that everyone has a different shade of opinion on the scriptures. Many agree that the Bible is inspired except for the difficult passages (those we disagree with?). In the early 1990s, USA Today had a small graphic on scripture reading. Among those who attend religious services every week, only one out of three (it was actually 38%) read anything from the Bible at home. What this means is that two-thirds of religious people are allowing others to define God (my first category in this discussion). This 62% of religious people agreed that the scriptures are some variation of a suitable or the only guide for life but were not reading them. God gave us a text to allow us to have a common basis of spiritual knowledge and a mechanism for teaching us, but so often we don’t allow Him to use it as He intended.

What all this is leading up to is this: who is the Definer, and who is the Defined? A person with little spiritual experience is still in the stages of defining who God is. That is fine, and not to be condemned. It’s not always easy to understand what the Lord is up to in the life of a given person. Right now I would be glad to have an insight into what He is doing in my life. The challenge is not to allow speculation on who He is to stop the person from moving into the next spiritual chapter. People who have moved from ideas about God to an intimate communion with Him have also made the transition from Definer to Defined. Christ Jesus, as the Logos or Light, is changing that person into what He intends or desires, and He is defining the person rather than being defined. This is the person who has something of substance to say about who the Creator is.