There is an old story told about Augustine, the early church father, and a little boy on a beach. At the time, Augustine was writing his book on the Trinity and was walking along the seashore, deep in thought. Augustine noticed the little boy pouring seawater into a hole that had been dug in the sand.
The little boy would go down to the surf, scoop up handfuls of the salty water, and quickly carry it back to the hole and dump it in. The boy did this repeatedly. Augustine finally asked the little boy what he was doing. The boy answered, “I am pouring the sea into this hole I have dug.”
Augustine smiled, and then said to the boy, “Young man, you are wasting your time. You will never get all that water into that one little hole. It cannot be done.” To which the boy responded, “Well then you are wasting your time writing about God. You will never get all of him into that one little book.”
That little boy was right. God is bigger than our books, our doctrines, our belief statements, and our theories about him — far bigger. I now resist even using the words “theory” or “explanation” when speaking of God, because these imply that we can figure it all out, when we can’t.
We get fooled into thinking that the totality of the holy, the Incarnation of God in the flesh, the essence of the Creator, can get crammed into one book, one series of sermons, one doctrinal system, or one denomination. How can that be possible when the entire universe cannot contain God?
The best we can do is use the tools at our disposal: Words, metaphors, stories, and pictures. We use these to describe our relationship with the Almighty and with his world. And even then, we are attempting to express the inexpressible. In some ways, every time we open our mouths to describe God, we commit heresy; because whatever we say will be wrong.
Like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant, we articulate our own understanding best we can, of what we cannot and have not clearly seen. But these understandings, these blind explorations, can quickly become unyielding dogma. We get locked into one perspective, discounting the views of others. Then we become more committed to our dogma than we are to our relationship with God.
C. S. Lewis explained it like this: Suppose a man looks out at the Atlantic Ocean. Then he goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic Ocean. When he does that, he has turned from something real to something less real. He has turned from actual waves and salty air to “a bit of colored paper.”
Now, the map is important, because it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic.
And, if you want to go anywhere, the map is necessary, but it’s not the real thing. Lewis concludes that our beliefs are just like that map; important, yes, but a weak representation of the genuine.
What we believe about God is not God. These are bits of colored paper pointing to what is real and actual. Yet, our tendency is to fall in love with the map, when God wants us to love him. We are skilled at knowing the ins-and-outs of all our religious charts, but God wants us to know him. After all, we cannot have a relationship with a map. We cannot commune with a theological concept. We cannot experience creed or dogma. But we can relate to, commune with, and experience God, a God that is an ever-unfolding mystery of wonder and grace, larger than the universe.
So let’s not sit on the beach, reading the map, concluding that words and paper are all that faith is about. Instead, let’s hit the water, and with the wind in our face, we can begin to learn that merely thinking or learning about God is a poor substitute for actually experiencing him.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.