Many years ago, early in my spiritual journey, I read a story about Uncle Frank Davis, a Pawnee elder. He told two young journalists that as a boy he had asked his mother how a person becomes wise. His mother explained that each of us follows the path through life that the Creator makes especially for us. Along our unique path, the Creator drops "little slips of paper" to provide us with instructions on the right use of our lives. It's our task, she told her son, to notice the scraps of paper as they fall around us, to pick them up and to put them in our pockets. When we need guidance along life's way, all we have to do is reach deep into our pockets and pull out the slips of paper that, pieced carefully together, comprise our particular map.
We all need a map. God is wildly unpredictable and mysterious. When good things happen, we often credit them to divine intervention. When bad things happen, we find we cannot grasp how God could cause us to suffer or leave us in despair. In our greatest moments of need, we assume God has failed us personally. These concerns have haunted our hearts even more since the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. Perhaps the larger question begging consideration in our present world-turned-upside-down is this: Who then, or what, is the one we call God?
Most religious traditions teach that God is a living being-the Father or Mother of us all-who lives outside us, takes personal interest in each of us, and has a direct influence on the events of our lives. Is it possible this is an outdated conceptualization of the magnificent Mystery that lives at the exact epicenter of all life? Possible that, in our attempts to maintain the illusion of order in a troubled and turbulent world, we try too hard to force the Mystery of God into names, forms, images, or even belief systems? And while these attempts to pin God down may offer small measures of comfort, they may also fail to convey the complex nature of Ultimate Reality. Both theologians and scientists are concluding simultaneously at this point in human understanding that the Mystery of God-both wondrous and baffling-is almost impossible to proclaim.
For many traditionally religious people, this news is unsettling. It shakes the foundations of all they believe. For individuals who are less traditional in their search for a meaningful relationship with the sacred, the possibility that God is a complex, inexplicable, unpredictable mystery explains their lifelong discomfort in the presence of religious dogmas that don't correspond with their own personal encounters with God. Many quiet, unassuming everyday mystics choose to remain silent because religious traditions and leaders discount their personal experiences of God for failing to substantiate a doctrine.
Early in my own religious upbringing, I was startled to discover that church doctrine explained God in terms that departed wildly from my personal experiences of That-Which-Is-Sacred. Even then I knew my direct relationship with the Sacred communicated information far more authentic, more embodied, and thus more believable to me about the unpredictable, unexpected, changing nature of God than what I learned in church. I adopted a belief that God is more mysterious than I would ever understand and began to address God simply as Mystery. This belief led me to perhaps the most important of my questions: Are we failing to experience the wonder of the Sacred Mystery in our midst-and to learn from it-because we foolishly and mistakenly believe God has already finished revealing its holy nature to us?
It seems plausible that we're being challenged to revise our understanding of God. Could God be something other than what religious doctrine tells us? Could God be evolving and changing in the same way humanity is evolving, and therefore be different today than God was two thousand years ago? Questions like this fascinate me.
I take the position that God's nature is always changing, continually growing and revealing itself to us in new ways. In my opinion, we have to remain on our toes for whatever (borrowing from my colleague Michael Dwinell) "God is up to" in our lives and in the world today. This means I cannot assume someone else-for example, the world's clergy-knows God better than I do and can interpret God to me. I alone am responsible for paying attention to how the Mystery of God continually reveals itself in and through my life. No one else can do this for me.I'm the one who must develop my own relationship with, and understanding of, the nature of the Divine Mystery.