make sense of God

How Can We Make Sense of God?

Daniel DeWittBy Daniel DeWitt15 Minutes

Excerpt taken from: Sketchy Views: A Beginner’s Guide to Making Sense of God by Daniel Dewitt.

How Can We Make Sense of God?

We often take the sum total of our understanding of the world and make it foundational for how we make sense of God. For example, some take the scientific consensus of the moment and make it the rule by which they measure Scripture. After all, the biblical authors were living in the same physical universe we are today. So, while our study of the world can at times inform how we read a biblical text, we can’t make scientific consensus supreme in our biblical interpretation.

At times, something we learn about nature helps us understand what a biblical author is describing. For example, when David talks about the rising and setting of the sun in Psalm 19, we know he was using language to express his point of view. To him, as it is to us, it seems as though the sun is rising and setting. It’s really not.

Through a study of the natural world, we can understand the earth’s orbit and know it only appears that the sun is moving around the earth. David is no more wrong in describing the sun in the Psalms than a meteorologist is for announcing the time of the sunrise.

While these insights are helpful, we’re heading toward a sketchy view of God if we make science the gatekeeper for our beliefs about him. As Christians we believe in a super-natural God who is beyond nature, who is able to interact with nature in powerful ways that defy our scientific categories. As created beings, we can’t make ourselves or the creation the standard for understanding the Creator.

Looking to the mind

Still another view would be to measure everything by our own intellect. If something in the Bible doesn’t make sense to us, we can discount it or ignore it. When we treat God’s Word in this way, we’re really making our brain the ultimate authority, instead of the Bible.

Don’t get me wrong; I think the intellectual life is really important. Ignorance is not a virtue, and poor understanding and bad arguments aren’t a model for the Christian life. But there are things about God that we just can’t grasp—that go well beyond our intellectual reasoning. So, while we want to grow in our knowledge of who God is, we don’t want to make our mental ability the real master and the Bible the servant. That’s the exact opposite of how we should frame our theology.

A long time ago in a land far away there was a philosopher named Protagoras. He believed humans are the measure for all things, determining what’s real, what exists, and what doesn’t. There was someone long before him who taught that too. He showed up as a snake in the garden of Eden. Making ourselves the authority for what God is like and how to relate to him is a sketchy view as old as the third chapter in Genesis.

Facing the Wrong Direction

None of us like what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” That’s when we believe something that doesn’t quite line up with the world around us. Let’s say you trust a close friend, but you keep hearing that they are saying negative things about you behind your back. You believe them to be trustworthy, but your experience is pointing in the opposite direction. When we face challenges to our beliefs like these, we will often begin exploring new beliefs to better explain the situation.

Is that how we should handle our theology? If our beliefs hit troubled waters, should we begin editing our convictions to accommodate our experience? It’s certainly hard to avoid this. But is this the best way to make sense of God?

Have you ever thought, I wouldn’t believe in a God like that? I know I have. Maybe something you read in the Bible is difficult to understand or accept. It just doesn’t line up with a commonsense view of things. What should we do? Reject what the Bible says or reject our feelings?

Let me ask another question: What if God is different than we expect? What if he doesn’t line up with all our experiences or expectations? What if we’re looking in the wrong direction when we’re thinking about God? What then? What now?

If something seems clear in Scripture but goes against our intellect, our understanding of nature, or our own personal experience, we might dismiss it or assume the Bible is saying something other than what it is. When we do this, we allow our experiences in the world to retrofit the Bible. We make ourselves the authority over what God has said about himself. In forming our theology this way, we shape our view of God based on our own lives and then find a way to make Scripture conform.

God in the Mirror?

Here’s the problem with this method: we end up with a God who looks a lot like our experiences, a lot like the person who stares back at us from the mirror—a God who looks like us. I remember hearing a Christian leader once say something like, God made us in his image, and he didn’t ask us to return the favor. If we make our experience in the world our starting point and authority, we’ll end up custom making a God to our own specifications, one who never challenges our assumptions, aspirations, or appetites.

The Bible describes this as idolatry. If we make a god in our own image, after our own preferences, we’ve merely made an idol. If what you think about God is one of the most important things about you, then the last thing you want is to feel right but be dead wrong.

It’s easy to gravitate toward sketchy views that better fit with how we want to live than to begin and end with Scripture. There are about a million ways to get God wrong. There’s a narrow path to getting God right. Making our lives or the world the chief authority for forming important beliefs is the path to sketchy views of God. The goal of this book is to point you in the right direction in your lifelong quest to form proper beliefs about God. This is what Christians for centuries have described as orthodoxy.

Drawing Straight Lines

Followers of Jesus have often used two different terms — orthodoxy and heresy — to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable views of God. Orthodoxy means acquiring rightly ordered or formed beliefs about God, in the same way an orthodontist wants to straighten your teeth.

Heresy, on the other hand, means getting God wrong. The British theologian Alister McGrath points out the “essential feature of a heresy is that it is not unbelief.” Heresy is a poorly formed belief that is unhelpful and destructive. McGrath says heretical beliefs are “subversive or destructive” and thus can indirectly lead to unbelief.

Throughout this book, when I use the term sketchy views, I’m really talking about heresy. Heresy doesn’t flow from or fit with the text of Scripture. These are beliefs that don’t line up with the way Christians have interpreted the Bible for the last two thousand years. They might be beliefs that fit a particular mood or experience, but they aren’t lined up with how Christians have historically made sense of what God has revealed about himself in Scripture.

People who promote sketchy views of God are often called heretics. I regularly tell students in my theology courses that one of my main goals for them is that they not become heretics. That’s one of my goals for you as well. It’s a simple goal, but it can be far more difficult than it sounds. Heresy is subtle and seductive.

So I’ll just state it up front: don’t become a heretic. Don’t develop sketchy views of God that don’t line up with the Bible. The goal of the book is to point you in the right direction. This is more of a beginner’s guide because there are a lot of things I could say, or would like to say, but can’t. I’m going to introduce you to some big topics — to sketch the outline of biblical truth in broad strokes. I will begin with a bit of an overview, then model for you how to get started in the right way.

Facing the Right Direction

Just like that hungry fish looking for a meal upstream, it’s important to know which way to look when we think about God. It’s been said there are three good starting places for making sense of God. First, there is human reason. God made you in his image as a thinking being. You have a brain. When it’s working properly, it can direct you to truth. In fact, one of my favorite definitions of faith is “well-reasoned trust.” Our brains are tools we can use in our understanding of God.

Though reason can play an important role in our relationship with God, it can only take us so far. We can have good reasons to believe in God. But true faith follows our reason where it leads but then goes beyond where it’s able to take us. Reason goes a certain distance in explaining God, but there’s so much mystery to who God is, we can’t expect reason to bring us all the way. As we mentioned earlier, we have to take the next step beyond where our reason can take us. That’s faith.

The second source for thinking about God is church history or what we might call tradition. British author G. K. Chesterton said that tradition is “the democracy of the dead.”3 By looking at how Christians over the centuries have thought about the issues, we’re giving past believers a vote in how we think about God. We’re letting them teach us. This is important, and we’ll cover a good deal of it in each chapter.

The truth is, however, that even the best thinkers of the past were still only human. Though they lived long ago and didn’t face the same contemporary challenges we do today, they still could get things wrong. They were as susceptible to sketchy views as we are. Nonetheless, we need to give them a voice. We need to let their lives and writings teach us, learning from both their positive and even negative examples. We would be fools not to.

The third source is Scripture. Of these three sources, I’m going to make a case throughout the book that the correct starting point is the Bible. Though reason and tradition are important and helpful, they are not supreme. Scripture is the direction in which we need to look. The stream of orthodoxy flows straight from Scripture through our reason and tradition. The best way to avoid sketchy views of God is to begin with the Bible and return to it often.

Order your copy of: Sketchy Views: A Beginner’s Guide to Making Sense of God by Daniel Dewitt.