Do we believe what we see or do we see what we believe? Jason Petty
This is such a packed question isn’t it? I heard this said a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to put it out of my mind since. What a powerful and necessary dynamic to explore - to question whether we explain things away with our certainties, or if we can stay open enough to see the truth as it opens before us.
While challenged by this question, I began to see the start of how we can end up in a place of certainty, and I think it often begins with our speech, and particularly, the way we name things.
When we’re children, we learn simple words by association. We see a circle, we’re told it’s called “circle,” we begin referring to all round bodies as circles. As we get older, we learn to name more abstract concepts and feelings and can reason deeper and more intelligently. Whether we’re children assigning the word “cat” to a quadruped with a long tail and whiskers or conceptualizing human emotions or philosophy, we are perceiving, processing, and assigning worth to create an interpretation of the external world. We assign meaning to everything we encounter, and when we name something - when we give language to an experience - we reduce the thing to a concrete definition, an expectation, a constant.
Words are supposed to frame our world with concepts, but what tends to happen when we name things, is that we define them instead. One cannot generically say “tree” and a mass of people create the same mental image. “Tree” is a concept that is universal to our cultural understanding, but not something concrete and exact to then stick in concrete and put on a shelf. The tree changes in size, shape, color, texture, and in various ways that we cannot totally predict. We’re meant to live our lives through experience, wonder and intuition, using language as a way to connect us to our surroundings but not to reduce our way of life to scraps.
I think of what Jiddu Krishnamurti meant when he said “the day you teach the child the name of a bird, the child will never see the bird again.” It’s much more interesting to watch a bird gather materials for it’s nest or to preen it’s feathers, than to just say “bird.” “Bird” means wings and feathers and can create a construct of the subject being spoken of, but it doesn’t even touch hearing it’s call or seeing it’s pattern of flight or the coloration of it’s feathers. So the trick is to be able to name things, yet also to hold that name loosely enough to let the magic breathe through them still.
I love how in Jewish culture the name of God isn’t written in its entirety. It is written YHWH or G-d and is not spoken at all. Sometimes God is called HaShem which means “the name.” Sometimes the name of God is replaced with pause and breathing. The essence of God is so revered and honored that they allow God to remain fluid and uncontainable. They don’t give him the concreteness of a name because they understand that they are actually incapable of knowing him and understanding him fully. So they let the name breathe and evolve.
The way God is conceptualized in this culture is horrifying. My own definitions have been from opinions formed from my finite mind: by speculation and poor translating. The collective conscience of the faith behind proselytization created and upheld a slave economy after all. God is rarely what we say or think he is because we are too busy trying to prove our interpretations right. Again, are we blindly affirming what we already believe, or are we open to the experience of God Himself? So while challenging my view of God, I had to start at the very basic question: who is God? Wanting to bypass my own interpretation, I went to the book of Exodus where God named himself to Moses.
Moses was having confidence issues about approaching the slaves and declaring that God was going to free them. He asked God, “Well...if they ask, who do I even say that you are?” And God replied, “I am that I am.” “I am that I am” is more accurately translated as “I will be what I will be” or “I will become whatever I may become.” It was not a very helpful definition in terms of specificity, but it was a big and bold promise that God was going to be everything they needed: water from a rock, clothing that never wore out, a parted sea, a softened heart, a pillar of fire, manna, freedom that looked like a desert. He is fluid, uncontainable, and ever-present. He’s everything and nothing specific. He didn’t define himself with an overload of adjectives, but told us who he was in relation to us: a very real promise of provision and presence. This is what we needed to know - a definition that created context and familiarity, while avoiding anything concrete that could box God into something less than. The rest, was to be left to the experience of knowing him and seeing his promise play through.
All through the desert, the Israelites grappled with this definition to the point of longing for Egypt - the very heart of what held them captive. Our certainty does that to us. It removes the mystery and the call to trust and replaces it with platitudes. Even when our platitudes are dull and lifeless, we still cling to them. Often times it’s easier to believe the pat answer than to remain in a state of vulnerability and just trust. The Israelites would rather have been predictably and routinely fed by their masters than to trust God to miraculously feed them in freedom. That’s what our certainty does to us, it tames us. It robs us of life and only lets us see the things that uphold what we already believe. They believed God had forgotten them because they didn’t have a kingdom of their own. All they had to do was believe what God had promised them, to let the miracles of their very emancipation and sustenance carry them through and they would have been able to see the miracle of their desert-life for what it was.
So what does my understanding evoke and how can I escape the finality of such a large and unruly definition? I think this quote opened more questions in me then it did offer answers, but isn’t that the point? God will do the unexpected, he’ll lead me through deserts while making bold promises for my barren life. All he asks is that I follow and trust. So I follow and I try to hold loosely to the ideas I have of God while trying to let the experience rope me in and shake my beliefs down to the breath. The very place where God is closest to me. The experience and act of living itself.