Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Knowing God (for students of the arts)

Last week I shared the following to a group of arts students:

Why do we want to know?
It is very common for us to see knowledge as something powerful. So powerful that with the right knowledge, we are able to manipulate circumstances to be in our favour, to our advantage.

There is a story about a guy who said to God, “Dear God, isn’t it true that 100 million years is just like a second to you?”

God answered, “It’s true, my son.”

Then the guy asked again, "Isn’t it true that $100 million dollars is like one cent to you?”

God answered, “Yes, that’s true.”

So the guy asked, “God, I’m sure you can spare me one cent.”

And God smiled and said, “Sure, just a second.”

The guy in the story tried to manipulate God with his knowledge of God. But God outwitted him.

That’s why when we talk about knowing God, we must examine ourselves why do we want to know God?

Do we want to know God so that we can manipulate him? Do we want to know God so that we may ultimately worship knowledge?

There was once I attended one of the local megachurches where the senior pastor asked the congregation to turn to the person seated next to us to say, “Knowledge is power.”

I may be wrong, but I think such repetition can be dangerous to Christian without clarification. To us, Christ is the greatest power. 1 Cor. 1.24 teaches us that Christ is the power of God.

Knowledge is not. At best, knowledge is the servant of Christ. At worst, knowledge is the enemy of God. That’s why apostle Paul in 2 Cor. 10:5 encouraged us to conquer knowledge and make it submit to Christ.

How to know?
In our experience, to know someone or something requires us to pay attention to what we can learn from the person or thing. We need to interact with the subject that we want to know.

For example if I want to find out the motivation of Johann Sebastian Bach as a musician, I need to interact with his works, letters, his biographies, and perhaps also visit and say a prayer at his tomb in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany.

Likewise if I want to get to know a girl that I’m attracted to, I need to spend time interacting with her, listening to how she describes herself, her interest, her dreams, her philosophy in life, her family, and may be also her experience in relationship.

To know is to interact. When we want to know God, we interact with God. We have to read God’s works, letters, biographies, and participate in the community of which God’s presence is there.

We have to listen how God describes himself, his interest, his vision, his philosophy of life, and his experience with people.

That’s why Christians throughout the long history of the church have paid close attention to the scripture because in this collection we have the various expression that God has shown himself to the authors.

Knowing God and meaning of life
Surprisingly, the first conversation that God had with humans is not about him, but about us. The first thing that God reveals is not how great or how awesome he is, which is a given, but what does it mean for us to live meaningfully.

In Gen. 1:28-30 right after God created them in his own image, he said to them:

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. [...] I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food."

How different is God from many people today. I’m sure you have come across people who when they start talking with you, they talk about how great or successful they are. They talk about what they have achieved, which concert they have worked on, which artists they have collaborated with, and etc.

When God starts to talk with us, he expresses immense interest in our life’s purpose. God said, “I care that you don’t waste your life away.”

The Genesis passage is about the way to live that reflects our knowledge of God. If God didn’t tell us anything about our purpose in life, then life is simply whatever we make of it.

Without God’s message, we can devote our life to worship hobby, career, money, Korean actors/actresses and many other things, and set the pursuit of these things as our meaning of life.

There was once someone asked iPhone’s app Siri, what is the meaning of life? Siri replied, “All evidence to date suggest it’s chocolate.”[1]

God has given specific meaning to our life. When we replace it with anything other than what God has given, we often find ourselves restless. When this restlessness goes on without checked, it becomes exhaustion. That’s when we are tired of living; when we feel dreadful and empty throughout the day.

One of the greatest pastors of the church was a bishop by the name of Augustine in the 5th century. He reflected on this and wrote, “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Or in the words of C. S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia Chronicles, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. […] God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

To know God is about living meaningfully for God. It’s about waking up with gratitude and a sense of calling to spend the day in a way that says, “I know God and how he wants me to live today.”

Many other religions or philosophies teach that the meaning of life is only discovered when you are separated from the network of family and friends. These teachings tell us to go into isolation to find meaning.

But Genesis tells us that the meaning of life is in how we manage our family, friends, neighbours, office, society, and the earth in a way that pleases God.

God’s call for us to be fruitful and increase in number to fill the earth and subdue it is not about overpopulating the world and exploiting natural resources until it becomes an unliveable wasteland.

It’s about God’s calling us to develop this world from a garden into a city, as seen in the flow of the whole Bible. In the first book, Genesis, humans are being placed into a garden to work it. (Gen. 2:15)

In the last book, John’s revelation, the entire world will be a holy city where God’s people will rest in God’s presence. (Rev. 21:1-2)

Instead of destroying the world into a wasteland, humans are told to develop it with the vision of the great city which will be built by God himself at the end of history.

This is the divine purpose that we have, the meaning of life that we have been looking for. We cannot know God without living purposefully as intended by God.

And for you all, who are students of the arts, there is something rich within you all that can contribute significantly to develop the garden into the city of God.

The other day I was just reading Revelation and came across Rev. 21:2: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

The image that the word ‘adorned’ carries in Greek (‘kosmeo’) means arranging in proper and fitting order, like how a musician plays a masterpiece in its finest tune; like how Johann Pacabelle wrote and performed Canon in D major. Or like how Sarah Darling re-arranged a cover version of U2’s song ‘With or without you’.

Or, how beautician brings about the embedded beauty of a face. In fact, it is from this Greek word ‘kosmeo’ that we get the English word cosmetic.

The calling of artists is to contribute to the development of the world according to this blueprint of God’s holy city. Your task is to adorn, kosmeo, the world preparing it for the coming of God.

Fill it with best work according to your talents and resources.

Living with God’s vision for us is one way to interact with God. Knowing God is not like studying an impersonal subject like how we learn to fix a car.

Knowing God is more like the picture painted in Genesis where God and the first humans were in the presence of each other in the garden, interacting.

That’s why apostle Paul wrote in Col. 1:9-10: “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (ESV)

Knowing God goes along with walking with and for him.

And when Christians don’t live meaningfully as God has created us, we lose the knowledge of God and back into slavery to the meaning we give to ourselves.

This is why Paul wrote in Gal. 4:8-9: “At the time, when you didn’t know God, you were enslaved by things that aren’t gods by nature. But now, after knowing God (or rather, being known by God), how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless world system? Do you want to be slaves to it again?”

Living and knowing are like the different components of a guitar. In order to be a guitar, it has to have all its part, from headstock to its neck to its body. With any part missing, it is not a guitar.

So in the same way, our knowledge of God is part of our living meaningfully for God, and our living for God is our knowing of God.

Knowing God is theology
The church has called this type of knowledge of God as ‘theology’. Nowadays, people misunderstand that theology is a specialized subject, meant only for some people who have nothing better to do with life.

Theology is about the interaction with God. A great pastor of the church in the 11th century, Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a prayer book with the title Proslogion, which means ‘conversation with God’. And it is from this prayer book that philosophers get one of the most famous arguments for the existence of God, which they call ‘ontological argument.’

Originally Anselm wanted to title the book as Faith seeking understanding.[2] This original title summarizes what the church meant by theology. It is about interacting with God, getting to know him, in a form of prayer.

Theology is not only talking about God, but also talking with God. Or in the words of a 5th century Christian monk, Evagrius, “The one who prays is a theologian, and a theologian is one who prays.”[3]

It is through this form of interacting with God, living meaningfully, that we know God. As for you all, students of the arts, it is more than just leading a holy life. It involves your calling to bring about the beauty hidden in the world for God through your talent, skill and passion.

Let me pray for you all with a prayer from Ephesians 3:14-19:

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

[1] Sirifunny, Siri answers: What is the meaning of life?, 7 October 2011, (accessed 4 October 2012).
[2] Sze Zeng, Where did the phrase ‘Faith Seeking Understanding’ come from?, dated 12 October 2010, (accessed 4 October 2012).
[3] Laurence Freeman, ‘The Monastic Wisdom of the Christian Desert: A Selection of Sayings,’ Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ In One Another (USA: New Seed Books, 2005), p.125.