No Single Understanding Of God Captures The Whole Truth
Commentary by Paul Prather | Religion Unplugged
Having been raised in an insular faith tradition, I was an adult before I started realizing that people outside my native denomination might have very different understandings of God and spiritual practice.
As my years and experiences have accumulated, I’ve come to recognize something I hardly imagined in my youth: that God is so big and wonderful and complex that no one group — even my own — and no individual has a monopoly on God. Nobody understands it all.
I grew up as a Southern Baptist, in counties that were overwhelmingly Southern Baptist, as the son of a Southern Baptist pastor who for a period worked for a Southern Baptist college. All my grandparents were Baptists, although not Southern Baptists. My parents’ friends were Baptists. Nearly all my friends were Baptists.
It was such a homogeneous existence that I thought the occasional Methodists or Presbyterians I met were as exotic as peacocks.
Then, in my early 20s, while I was staying temporarily with my folks, they switched to become charismatic/Pentecostal Christians, speaking in tongues and laying hands on the sick for healing.
Soon, I started dating an old-school Pentecostal girl and married into her large Pentecostal family. At 26, I became the pastor of their Pentecostal church.
Having become a Pentecostal, I continually found my Baptist paradigm rocked and rerocked — more or less literally.
For one thing, as opposed to the staid hymns played on pianos and organs I was used to in church services, Pentecostals favored thumping basses, pounding drums, screaming electric guitars and any other instruments anybody present could play, including saxes and tambourines. As the nursery rhyme says, when it was good, it was very, very good. And when it was bad, it was horrid.
Church-wise, that was it for me until 1990, when the editors of the newspaper where I worked made me the paper’s religion writer.
Talk about getting your paradigm rocked. I began spending 40 hours a week interviewing, observing and worshipping among groups I’d hardly known existed.
Looking back, I find I’ve learned something about God and his purposes from nearly every faith tradition I’ve encountered.
From Baptists, I learned a respect for and devotion to the Bible.
From Pentecostals, I learned that God blessed us with emotions, and that it’s liberating to worship using those emotions and our full bodies. God gave us brains, of course, but he also blessed us with ecstasy, tears and dancing. Hallelujah!
From mainline Protestants, I learned that those aforementioned brains perform better when trained in critical thinking.
From Black Protestants, I learned the spiritual worth of social action, of the church as an instrument for improving society.
From Catholics, I learned the power of history, tradition and contemplation, as well as a new respect for the Eucharist.
From Muslims, I learned the power of daily prayers and rituals.
From Buddhists, I learned that suffering is inevitable, but that there’s inner peace to be gained when we surrender to the truths that suffering reveals.
From Jews, I learned a lot. Yet this thing stands out: I once sat in on a class taught by a Jewish scholar. I’ve told the story before. I have no contemporaneous notes from the lecture, so bear with my faulty memory.
The scholar talked about one Jewish mode of studying the Scriptures. It says the Torah is so alive and multilayered that when people read it, they’ll get different meanings from it. Ten of us, say, might read a passage in Exodus, and we’d arrive at 10 different interpretations.
And all 10 of us would, in our limited way, be right.
In other words, it’s not a zero-sum game — it’s not that if my interpretation is correct, yours automatically is wrong. Or vice versa.
More likely, we’re both right. We’ve each gotten our individual insight into the holy word. We’ve each received the nugget allotted to us.
What we should do, then, is compare our 10 interpretations freely. To the extent we share our glimpses, we might discover a far bigger truth emerging.
This idea speaks to me. I’ve come to apply it not just to the study of Scripture, but to spirituality generally. God is so great none of us can comprehend all that he is. Ten of us — or 10 denominations, even — can’t grasp the full mystery.
Thus we ought to approach other pilgrims with open minds and open hearts, looking for what we can impart to them and also what we can receive from them.
Some religious people find this suggestion alarming. They have trouble imagining that folks from other faiths might know anything.
Or they misunderstand me to be saying that all religions are alike or that they’re all equally valid. That’s not what I’m saying. Faith traditions vary widely. A few religious groups are stone-cold wacko.
For the record, I’m content as a Pentecostal preacher and intend to continue right along with it.
Still, there’s much to learn from those who see God differently than we do, and much of what we learn is helpful. Sometimes it’s life-changing.
Listening and sharing are worth the efforts and the risks. May we keep that in mind throughout our days.
Paul Prather has been a rural Pentecostal pastor in Kentucky for more than 40 years. Also a journalist, he was the Lexington Herald-Leader’s staff religion writer in the 1990s, before leaving to devote his full time to the ministry. He’s the author of four books. You can email him at email@example.com.
This piece reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily represent those of SpokaneFāVS or Religion Unplugged.
Religion Unplugged is a non-profit news organization, funded by TheMediaProject.org. It serves as an online news magazine on the topic of religion.