I once tried to become an atheist. And I utterly failed. I wasn’t raised with institutional religion; so when I went looking for a religious path as an adult, I accidentally found myself enmeshed in toxic Christianity. After a few years I became so disillusioned and angry that I turned toward the New Atheists. But in their writings I just found more black and white answers. They were different answers than I’d been taught in non-denominational evangelicalism, but they were just as fixed and definitive.
I thought my searching was a quest for answers. But every time I found one I became more and more dissatisfied. I had no words to describe what I desired back then, but I can see now that I was yearning for Mystery. My heart craved a connection with something that existed beyond answers. For years I was lonely in my religious searching. And because I couldn’t find any acceptable answers to my big questions, I started to believe that there was no spiritual home for me.
It took me a long time to realize that the biggest questions can’t be answered. And thankfully, I’ve come to see that I’m not alone in my yearning. As human beings we all long for deep connection. We all crave a sense of meaning in our lives. And sometimes, we search for that meaning through an entity we often call God.
The word God is electric. It’s dangerous. It’s triggering. It’s compelling. It’s comforting. It’s been used to incite hate crimes, war, genocide. It’s been used to inspire generosity, reconciliation, healing. The history of the word God is beyond complex. Intellectually I’m interested in understanding how the word God works in the world. And politically I’m interested in fighting against the ways this word allows for injustice. I don’t want the word God to allow me to spiritually bypass the very real justice work that needs to be done. The word God is powerful and common. As spiritual seekers we must take responsibility for how we use it.
In my teaching I no longer use the word without some sort of explanation and an invitation for personal translation. But in the depths of my own being, the word remains potent. The simple mantra ‘God be with me’ plays on repeat inside my mind. Holding it lightly I’m able to remember that the word God is just a word. It’s a stand-in name for something that can’t be named.
Mystery is also just a word, but it’s a different kind of word. It carries with it a sense of non-definition—of exploration and non-closure. My spiritual heart is fascinated by the Mystery we call God. And I yearn for union with the unknowable source, with, as Paul Tillich names it, the Ground of Being. Again, I hold all this language lightly. I remember that it will always be inadequate. But I continue to search after language that can be useful.
And in the loneliness that often accompanies spiritual seeking, I find refuge in the stories of ancient scripture. I wish I could remember the first time I encountered the story of Jacob’s wrestling match in the Book of Genesis. But I can’t. Because at this point the story has been so deeply etched inside of me that I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t part of who I am. I hold the story close because I think it was the first time I encountered someone begging for the unknowable name of God.
The story takes place at night, when at a particularly bad point in his life Jacob got in a fight. The fight represents an inner battle, but it’s not described that way. It’s physical. So physical that Jacob gets injured. At the heart of the fight, Jacob cries out for blessing. And then he asks for a name. He never gets a name, but he does receive a blessing. And then he makes the grand declaration that he saw God face-to-face and survived.
When Moses—in the midst of his own struggles—asked to see the Glory of God he was told: “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” But the Divine voice continued and said: “There is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” What a wild visual this scripture paints. Can you imagine the experience of Moses here? Standing on a rock gazing upon the back of God. God is palpably present and yet, utterly hidden.
In the 11th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna too asks for an experience of the Divine. He cried: “Oh Lord, master of yoga, if you think me strong enough to behold it, show me your immortal Self.” Krishna told Arjuna that he could never see these things with his physical eyes, but that he would give him spiritual vision to perceive the majestic power. One of the most famous lines from the description of this vision reads: “The brilliance of a thousand suns rising at once in the sky perhaps would be comparable to the splendor of this great Being.” Eventually Arjuna can handle it no longer and says: “I have seen what was never seen before; my heart is glad but my mind is afraid.” And he asked that Krishna return to his mortal form.
Divine encounter is a feeling and a personal experience. If we try and analyze these stories too much, we’re immediately returned to patterns of thought and the world of answers. But if we can hold them lightly, we can be awed by them. And our hearts—our hearts that yearn for Divine union—can be comforted and inspired.