From where comes the power of religious faith?
Bible text: Exodus 3:13-14
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Revised Standard Version)
Like the moth attracted to the glowing light bulb on the front porch, I am continually drawn to this passage in Exodus. I circle around it over and over again, without fully understanding it. Yet I can’t leave it alone. Its mystery fascinates.
The passage comes from the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush on Mount Sinai (Exodus 3:1-4:18). Moses sees a bush burning on the mountainside, but it is not consumed. Curious, he investigates. To his surprise, he encounters the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
God explains the reason for the encounter. God is going to send Moses to Egypt to deliver the Israelites from their bondage to Pharaoh. Moses raises various objections to this task, before he submits to God’s call.
One of the objections is that he does not know God’s name. When the Israelites ask what God has sent him to deliver them, what shall he tell them? Who is this God who confronts him in the burning bush?
God responds to this question by saying, “I AM WHO I AM…Say to this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
What a strange, puzzling name! Yet what an appropriate name for the God we encounter in the Bible.
A name that reveals yet veils
There are a number of ways to take this name. For one, it says to me that God is one who always is. God lives in the eternal present. Time may flow all around us, but God is outside time. In a strange way, Einstein’s theories of relativity confirm this. Time as well as space are part of the created order, not eternal verities.
Second, the name reveals yet at the same time veils. The name reveals the reality of God, but it gives us no avenue for comprehending God. Because of that fact, we can never so understand God that we gain the power to control or manipulate God.
Human beings have invested a lot of time, energy, and money in the pursuit of knowledge. But why? One dominant reason is that we hope that by coming to understand our world, ourselves, and even God, we can shape and influence the forces of life and the universe to work for our benefit and prosperity. How much of science is motivated by the frantic hope that if we can just understand nature, we can compel nature to bless us.
This is not the only reason to pursue knowledge. We can also seek to know so that as the mysteries of nature, of ourselves, and of God are disclosed, we stand in awe of the majestic order that is revealed. Awe does not seek to manipulate. Awe stands in silence, with a gaping mouth. Awe appreciates without a desire to use.
The God whose name is I AM is a God whose essence we can never comprehend. In that respect, God is one whom we can never hope to know all about God that is possible to know. This I AM remains forever mystery.
Knowing God versus knowing about God
Yet the Bible is very confident that human beings can know God. But notice a careful distinction in the words I use. We can never know all we want to know about God. But we can know God in a personal relationship with God.
We can know God in terms of a dialogue with God, as Moses has there on Mount Sinai. We can know God in hearing God question us, in hearing God address us, in experiencing God loving us in his various acts of sustaining us and liberating us. We can know God by listening to God. We can know God by trusting God as our good and divine shepherd. We can know God by loving God.
In this relationship, we can learn something about God. That enables us to talk about God. Theology does. But we never so understand God that we can swallow and digest God. God remains the eternal Other, and so his ways will at times mystify us.
I once viewed a documentary titled “Oh My God.” In it the director wandered around the world quizzing people he met. His question: What is God? I think he was trying to understand the mystery of religion by exploring the many different concepts of God that people hold.
As I watched it, however, I felt he was asking the wrong question if he was trying to penetrate the mysterious power that religion has on people. It assumed that God is an intellectual concept that somehow holds a strange, captivating power over peoples’ minds and feelings. God becomes an object of intellectual inquiry.
But I don’t think anyone can ever understand the power of religion until one realizes that the power is to be found in that encounter with the divine Thou. Only when we relate to God as the ever present Thou in our world and in our lives can we begin to experience the transforming power of religious faith.
The secret of religion only opens up when we realize that it is contained in a meeting, a meeting between the I (or the We) and the divine Thou. That Thou is the one whose name is I AM.
Martin Buber capsulizes this insight for me in a sentence he wrote about the free man who “believes in the real solidarity of the real twofold entity I and Thou.” He then goes onto to correct himself. “I said he believes, but that really means he meets.” (Martin Buber, I and Thou, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958, page 60061)
Moses meets the I AM on that mountainside. His life and ours are never the same.