“I AM” Gives Us the Ground Rule for Knowing God
This is the second of a three-part series on God’s name, “I AM.” Be sure to go back and read Part One (“‘I AM’ shows us how we encounter God”), and to check out Part Three (“‘I AM’ transforms our identities”).
When God appears to Moses at the burning bush and says, “I am who I am,” that implies, “I am not who you define me to be.” Obvious enough, right? Yet one of the consistent blunders of our generation is that we’d rather remake God into our image than accept him as he is. But he won’t have it. God is not the result of democratic processes. He’s not the puppet of our polls. God is. And in saying, “I am,” God gives us the ground rule for knowing him at all.
Theologians talk about two types of theology—the “theology from above” and the “theology from below.” Theology from below is the result of philosophical speculation. We get together, share ideas about what we think God is like, and after a spirited debate, we make our conclusions. This is, after all, the ideal for how we should make decisions in our contemporary pluralistic society, so it’s natural to think that we can do the same with religion. Let’s bring all of our ideas to the public square and see which God-ideas are best.
Theology from above, on the other hand, isn’t the result of philosophy. It’s not a matter of debate. It’s revealed, and we only have two options—accept it or reject it. The analogy that Plato uses of the cave is a helpful one here. In Plato’s Republic, he uses the image of a cave to describe our pursuit of truth. All of us are in a cave, and as light comes in from outside, we can’t see what’s going on outside, but we can see shadows. So we guess at what the shadows represent. The point, as Plato explains, is that our pursuit of God is largely fruitless…unless someone from outside could come in and tell us what life is like out there. That’s precisely what Christians believe about Jesus.
Which type of theology do you believe in? Is it a theology that arises from below, one that you can modify and adjust as you see fit? Or is it theology from above, a revelation of who God truly is? Most of us Christians would like to say that we believe in a theology from above. But here’s a trick to let you know if you actually believe in it: when theology comes from above, you don’t argue with it.
Do you edit God’s word when it bothers you? Do you ignore the ethical parts that seem too restrictive? Is there any room in your life for God to actually contradict you? If God can never contradict you, then whatever else you say, you’re constructing theology from below. Real people surprise us. They challenge us. They often offend us. God is (in this way) no different. If you believe in a God who never surprises you, challenges you, or offends you, that’s not a real person. That’s a figment of your imagination.
God’s revelation comes down from above. It begins not with us putting our heads together, but with his flat assertion: I am. That’s a revelation that we can receive. It’s a revelation we can reject. But if God is truly alive, then that’s not a revelation we can debate, edit, reshape, or refashion. God is. Receive him for who he is, or just be honest about it and reject him wholesale. There isn’t a third option.