How Can We Know Things About God?
One of the common misconceptions about faith in our world is that we can’t really know anything about God. Ironically, this hasn’t caused people to hesitate to make statements about God. It has caused people to say anything they want about God. This misconception has allowed individual people to define God in the way that they are most comfortable. Have you ever heard somebody say something like, “Well, that’s not the way my God does things.”
So there are a lot of rumors out there about who God is. There are a lot of opinions about what God is like. This is even true among Christians. There are many Christian Churches in Longview, and some of these Churches have wildly different opinions about what God is like and how he interacts in the world today. Furthermore, there are many different opinions about how God wants people to live. This is unfortunate, because it makes Christianity unattractive to people who aren’t Christians. It causes people to doubt that we can really know anything about God.
The good news is we can know things about God. The first way we know about God is through our natural ability to reason, which we can call philosophy for the time being. We can use our brains to determine that there is a God. In fact, many of our brightest philosophers in human history have done just that. For a good example of this watch this video from Robert Barron in which he explains Thomas Aquinas’ argument for God from Motion. (It’s a little dense, I admit)
But even though philosophers can reach a conclusion that there is a God, philosophy has its limits. There are many things that we cannot know about God through reason. For example, we cannot know if this God of the philosophers is good, or if he is bad. We cannot know if he cares about us or if he doesn’t. The only way we can know the answer to these questions is if God reveals himself to us. This is the second way we can know things about God. We know certain things about God because he has revealed them to us.
For Christians, this is one reason why Jesus is so important. Jesus was not merely a nice man who travelled about the world saying some nice things about love. We believe that Jesus was God who came down from heaven and became human in order to reveal who God is. This is good news! We really can know what God is like by understanding Jesus, and we can understand Jesus by understanding the Bible, especially the Gospels which contain the stories of his life and his most important teachings. But it gets better, because when we accept this revelation and trust it we go beyond knowing about God and will actually know him personally.
However, there is still a problem and it’s the same problem alluded to above. The problem is that there are many interpretations of the Bible. There are many pastors claiming that they are teaching what scripture says and only what scripture says, but sometimes their interpretations of scripture are pretty different. Some churches talk about Jesus like he is a gentle, meek, perhaps even a bit effeminate man without any real conviction beyond loving others. Other churches present Jesus as a rugged, hyper masculine ultimate fighter who came into the world to lay the smack down on certain, “Religious people.” For this reason, there doesn’t seem to be any real benefit to God revealing himself because we can’t know for sure if we are interpreting it correctly.
But there is more. There is also something called Sacred Tradition which is of great value to help us to interpret the Bible. Many Christians are opposed to Sacred Tradition, but that is because many of them do not understand what it is. They believe that Sacred Tradition consists of men adding things to what God has revealed, but this isn’t the case. Sacred Tradition keeps us rooted in the authentic Jesus, and not a Jesus that we have simply unwittingly created in our own image.
As a Catholic Priest, I interpret the Bible in light of Sacred Tradition. When I prepare my homily (sermon), I prayerfully read the scripture in light of my own life, as well as the lives of the people I know here in Longview so that I can make it relevant to the people who come to Mass on Sunday. But as I interpret the scripture passages, I look back at what earlier Christians (especially pastors called bishops) have said about them to keep me on track. If my interpretation harmonizes with earlier interpretations of these bishops, I can be more confident that I am teaching something authentic about God or about how to live. If my interpretation clashes with the interpretations of earlier Christians, I become suspicious of my own personal interpretation and scrap it in favor of something more reliable.
The Sacred Tradition of the Church is not opposed to scripture. In fact, scripture even mentions Tradition. St. Paul himself even wrote about it in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians. He tells them, “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” (2Thess 2:15).
When we interpret Scripture in light of Sacred Tradition, we are able to preach his word with greater authenticity. We are less prone to becoming false preachers who preach an inauthentic Jesus and harmful ways to live. Fewer of these false interpretations also serves to unify the Church and gives non-believers greater confidence that they really can know God and that they really can trust the way he teaches us to live.