By Richard Rohr OFM
My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways. . . . As high as the heavens are above the earth, so my ways are beyond your ways, and my thoughts are beyond your thoughts. —Isaiah 55:8-9
We cannot comprehend the work of God from beginning to end. —Ecclesiastes 3:11
Within his Judaic tradition, Jesus was formed by the passage above from Isaiah which teaches humility before the mystery of God. When we presume we know fully, we can be very arrogant and goal-oriented. When we know we don’t know fully, we are much more concerned about practical, loving behavior. Those who know God are humble about their knowledge of God; those who don’t really know God, often speak in platitudes and certainties (about which they are not really certain).
When we speak of God and things transcendent, all we can do is use metaphors, approximations, and pointers. No language is adequate to describe the Holy. As an early portrait of Saint John of the Cross illustrates, we must place a hushing finger over our lips to remind ourselves that God is finally unspeakable and ineffable. Or, like the Jews, we may even refuse to pronounce the name YHWH.
All our words, beliefs, and rituals are merely “fingers pointing to the moon.” They are never 100% right or perfect. This is the necessary and good poverty of all spiritual language. Remember, Jesus never said, “You must be right!” or even that it was important to be right. He largely talked about being honest and humble (which is probably our only available form of rightness).
Such admitted poverty in words should keep us humble, curious, and searching for God. Yet the ego doesn’t like such uncertainty. So, it’s not surprising that the history of the three monotheistic religions, in their first few thousand years, has largely been the proclaiming of absolutes and dogmas. In fact, we usually focus on areas where we can feel a sense of order and control—things like finances, clothing, edifices, roles, offices, and who has the authority. In my experience, I observe that the people who find God are usually those who are very serious about their quest and their questions. It is said that asking good questions is a sign of intelligence. But Western culture has spent centuries admiring and promoting people who supposedly have all the answers—which, too often, they have read or heard from someone else.
As Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet:
I want to ask you, as clearly as I can, to bear with patience all that is unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves. . . . For everything must be lived. Live the questions now, perhaps then, someday, you will gradually, without noticing, live into the answer.