Several years ago, but long after Sheila and I had been married, I said something that made her double over laughing. And it was completely unintentional on my part.
In the 1970s – while my parents were on a vacation in Europe, my great aunt took me and one of my cousins on a road trip to her home in California. Along the way, I got to see all kinds of things: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Disney Land, San Francisco, etc.
Sheila knew this already. This was a pretty important event in my life. But in all my prior accounts of the story, I had left out one detail. The journey was made in a Volkswagen van.
During the 80s and 90s, vans of this nature have come to acquire some pretty strong stereotypes. Many have come to think of them as vehicles that were painted with rainbow designs and flowers, and driven by hippies. These hippies, in turn, are often stereotypically associated with California. When people think of VW vans, no one thinks of my great aunt (definitely not a hippy) and her then practical need for a reliable, fuel-efficient vehicle with space, which could also travel a lot of miles cross-country.
So….moving back to the original story: one day we spotted an old VW van on the road, and – looking at the van – I stated something like this to some people who were with us at the time: You know, one time I went to California in a VW van.
The image that this conjured was too much for Sheila to handle: Me. Dressed as a hippy. Smoking who-knows-what. Listening to the Beatles. In the back of a colorfully painted VW van on the road to California.
She didn’t think that I was serious. She thought I was mocking her own latent hippy sensibilities. But I wasn’t. And eventually, after she calmed down, I managed to give her the rest of the story.
Now, before I told this story, if you had asked Sheila if she knew me, she would have looked at you very strangely, and said “Well, of course I know him. He’s my husband.”
But did she? Here you had a formative experience in my life that she’d never seen in this particular light. And up until then, she knew nothing about the fact that it involved countless hours of travel in a VW van.
You can spend every day of your life with a spouse, a child, a friend, a co-worker, a partner, and never completely know them. We don’t have magical psychic links to each other. We only know what they consciously or unconsciously reveal about themselves to us, and what others might say about them.
In 1955, psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham invented a conceptual model for visualizing the way we know other people (and/or the way we are known by them). They called it the “Johari window.” (The “Johari” part was an amalgamation of their first names.) Here is what it looks like:
The concept is fairly straightforward. In the upper left hand corner are things that you know about yourself, and that are known by others. In the lower left had corner are things that others don’t yet know about you. In this illustration, that quadrant is called a Facade, but you shouldn’t presume that this means you are being “fake” – it simply means that there is a portion of you that is not yet known.
The right hand side represents things that others might observe about you, but you don’t know about yourself and things that are unknown both to you and to others.
It is a fairly simple concept, which recognizes that we are never fully known to others, nor do we ever fully know others. We are reliant on what they know about themselves and what they choose do disclose, and they are likewise reliant on our self-perceptions and decisions about self disclosure.
For simplification, lets ignore the right hand side of the diagram, and imagine a simple window blind instead. Imagine that we can pull the blind up and down a little. If it is a Venetian blind, we can also choose to open it a lot or a little, revealing more or less about ourselves. We can lift up one the corner of the individual shingles and provide a little more information about what’s behind the window. But no matter how hard we try, we’re never going to get it fully open, because we are limited by language, time, and numerous other factors.
One of the most significant limiting factors in how “open” the blinds will become is simply that we don’t want others to know everything about us. Disclosure of our true selves can be a very risky proposition. Do I really want you to know what I think about that political issue? That I have this strange personal quirk? That I find something about your appearance to be unattractive?
Think about the process of courtship and dating, for example. Probably, when a couple first begins to see each other, they are very guarded in what they disclose. However, hopefully, over time, they will slowly learn more and more.
This process of getting to know each other is very much a give-and-take process, with lots of ups and downs. If you react positively to one thing I say, I may go out on a limb and say something that puts me even more at risk, but if you seem hesitant or scared, I may have to “shelve” a particular piece of history for a while. By the same token, I want to get to know you, but not too quickly. Give me too much information at once, and I may get overwhelmed with trying to process it all.
The way we come to know each other, and the way we reveal ourselves to others is – of necessity – a slow, tedious and very uncertain process. It is an awkward dance, of sorts.
Now, finally, to the point.
Since the only “tools” that we have for getting to know God are the skills we develop and use in forming human relations, it seems to me our ability to know God would be limited in the same ways that we are limited in getting to know each other.
(Some of you may already be thinking that both processes are integrated with one another – that we encounter God in human relationships. If so, then, hold that thought – we’ll explore it in more detail later. For the time being, however, lets just stick with the assumption that we are talking about two different processes.)
In fact, I would say that it is a much, much more difficult process. God, whose personality is so infinitely complex that we need to think of him as taking the form of at least three people in order to even begin to grasp his nature, is necessarily going to be much more difficult to “know” than a friend or co-worker, who can (usually!) be conceptualized as having no more than one personality.
As is the case with all of our human relationships, and even more because of his unique nature, God will always be both known and unknown at the same time.
A healthy respect for this paradox is, I think, at the heart of any decent theological system, and it is certainly understood by most – if not all – of the biblical witnesses. Now we see as through a mirror darkly, Paul once wrote. And he was exactly right. We can, perhaps, make out dim shapes of the divine at times, but we are making a grave mistake if we think our perception is one of complete clarity.
To say that God is holy, I think, is to recognize the unknown qualities of God – that we don’t know. Not fully.
But is this simply a result of our own limitations, or does God, as I have already suggested, play his own brand of “hide and seek” with us, pulling the blinds closed at one moment, and then popping open a shingle or two when we least expect? Are there times when he intentionally moves in and out of our “relational” field of vision? And if so, why?
I think that the biblical witnesses and most theological systems address these questions in a limited way, and the next post will explore what I think is a fairly universal answer amongst Jews and Christians to the “why” part of that question.
Up next: If looks could kill (literally or otherwise).