To experience God is not to know God

Although I make it a habit of reading fiction every evening before I go to sleep, I do not consider myself heavily invested in it; my reading is casual, and I can usually put the book down at will. Every once in a while, however, I find myself reading a book that engrosses me. Such was the case this last month as I worked through Neil Griffiths’ 2017 novel, As a God Might Be.

It was not a plot with numerous twists and turns or non-stop action that kept me engaged, however, as interesting as the story was. Instead, it was his cast of characters in all their layered complexity. In particular, I found myself drawn in with fascination and something very near revulsion for the lead character, Proctor McCullough. The story begins with McCollough, known as ‘Mac’ to the other characters in the book, building a house and a church on a plot of common land that had been set aside, or ‘covenanted’, in the 1650s for a church. Believing he has had some sort of experience and vision of God compelling him to do this, he devotes most of a summer to the construction, enlisting the help of a number of young people from the local village. The building project is in many ways a background feature of the story – most of it centres on the various relationships Mac has with the characters. The story engages because his embrace of his experience of God leads to a life that spirals out of control, and it becomes difficult to look away. His seeming unwillingness to make any attempt to regain control deepens the engagement.

Little effort is required to dislike Mac. He is ridiculously self-absorbed, neglecting his family for the sake of his project, often abandoning them for weeks at a time, and eating up massive chunks of their financial resources to fund the building work. Even the sort of mentoring relationship he attempts to cultivate with the young people who come to help him is shot through with a neurotic drive for self-justification.

But the most frustrating thing in the book, by a wide margin, is how Mac deals with his experience of God. In short, save for a lot of introspection, he really does nothing about it. He claims to have read the Bible and had some interaction with the Church, but he wastes little time in writing both of these off as irrelevant and misleading, and proceeds with constructing his own idea of God. Mac wants to present as selfless and humble, a sort of prophet who has been chosen to help lead people into a deeper life of love, inspiring them with his willingness to give up everything for the sake of his call. But the reality is that he is deeply prideful, wilfully rejecting God’s revelation to fit his own narrative and give a sort of rationalisation to his vision, hurting himself and those around him in the process. Unsurprisingly, Mac’s ‘God’ ends up being a generally tame and inoffensive God of love, who baptises ideals and beliefs Mac already holds, not unlike the God most people in modern society would like to believe in. It is telling that Jesus barely gets a passing mention; when he does, it is usually in the context of Mac denying orthodox Christology.

I certainly would not suggest that what people like Mac claim to be experiences of God are inauthentic. But it is what happens following those experiences that is more important. Mac claims to know God, but the reality is that he continues to treat God as unknowable. I found it interesting to finish reading this around the same time I preached a short homily on Mark 3.22-30, reflecting on how the scribes and religious leaders wilfully misunderstood Jesus, despite the ways he made himself known in their presence. Jesus reveals God in the most intimate and profound ways, and the scribes merely turn up their noses at him. Mac is no different. To experience God in the way he did, as a significant and life-changing event, should have driven him in humility and submission to where God is most clearly revealed: in Scripture and in Jesus. Instead, it drove him to pride, uncertainty, and despair, leaving a trail of destruction behind him as he attempted to construct, and indeed be, his own god.

This is not to say the novel would have better remained on my shelf; indeed, often the stories that engage us most are the ones in which we see something of ourselves. And that was perhaps the most disturbing element of As a God Might Be: I saw myself reflected in Mac, and recognised how often I too make God into my own image, a God who is a bit more comfortable and easy to get on with, a God who is always willing to endorse my actions and behaviours. I suppose, then, that insofar as a book leads you to repentance and a deeper embrace of the God of Scripture, it is worth every minute of your time.

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