There is a story told about a meeting between Augustine, the early church father, and a little boy on a beach. At the time, Augustine was writing his book on the Trinity and was walking along the seashore, deep in prayer and thought.
Augustine noticed the little boy pouring seawater into a hole that had been dug in the sand. The little boy would go down to the surf, scoop up handfuls of the salty water, and quickly carry it back to the hole and dump it in. The boy did this trip, after trip, after trip.
Augustine watched this exercise for a while and then asked the little boy what he was doing. The boy answered, “I am pouring the Mediterranean Sea into this hole I have dug in the ground.” Augustine could only smile.
The old theologian then said to the boy, “Well, young man, you are wasting your time. You will never get the entire sea into that one little hole. It simply cannot be done.” To which the boy responded, “Well then you are wasting your time writing about God. You will never get all that he is into that one little book.”
That is great theology. Why? Because, yes, God is bigger than our books, our doctrines, our belief statements, and our theories about him – far bigger. I now resist even using the words “theory” or “explanation” when speaking of God, because these imply that we can figure it all out, when we can’t.
We get fooled into thinking that the totality of the holy, the Incarnation of God in the flesh, the essence of the Creator, can get crammed into one book, one series of sermons, one doctrinal system, or one denomination. How can that be possible when the entire universe cannot contain God?
The best we can do is use the tools at our disposal: Words, metaphors, stories, and pictures. We use these to describe our relationship with the Almighty and with his world. And even then, we are attempting to express the inexpressible.
In some ways, every time we open our mouths to describe God, we commit heresy; because whatever we say will be wrong. Like blind men describing an elephant, we articulate our own understanding best we can, of what we cannot and have not clearly seen.
But these understandings, these blind explorations, can quickly become unyielding dogma. We get locked into one perspective, discounting the views of others. Then we become more committed to our dogma than we are to our relationship with God.
C. S. Lewis explained it like this: Suppose a man looks out at theAtlantic Ocean. Then he goes and looks at a map of theAtlantic Ocean. When he does that, he has turned from something real to something less real. He has turned from real waves and salty air to a bit of colored paper.
Now, the map is important, because it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the realAtlantic. And, if you want to go anywhere, the map is necessary. To this, Lewis says, “Our theology is just like that map.”
Merely thinking about or learning about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than actually hitting the water. What we believe about God is not God. These are only a kind of map. These are bits of colored paper pointing to and describing what is real and actual.
Now, if you want to get any where you must use the map – absolutely. But you will not get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. We love the map, but God wants us to love him. So don’t sit on the beach, reading the map and think this is it. The map calls is out to sea, out to follow Christ, out to the God who knows and calls us by name.
After all, we cannot have a relationship with a map. We cannot bond to theories or creeds. We cannot experience a confession of faith or church dogma. But we can have a relationship with God. We can experience Christ, even if it will take an eternity to begin to know him.