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I recently read Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen. During one passage, Nouwen discusses what he views as adequate preparation for ministry and service.
I remember the educational story of a thirty-year-old Methodist minister from South Africa. When this man felt called to the ministry and was accepted by the church, he was sent as an assistant pastor to work in a parish without any formal theological training. But he was so convinced of his insights and experience, and his enthusiasm and fervor were who great that he had no problem in giving long sermons and strong lectures. But then, after two years, he was called back and sent to the seminary for theological education. Reflecting on his time in the seminary, he said, “During those years I read the works of many theologians, philosophers and novelists. Whereas before everything seemed so clear-cut and self-evident to me, I now lost my certainties, developed many questions and became much less certain of myself and my truth.” In a sense, his years of formation were more years of unlearning than of learning and when he returned to the ministry he had less to say but much more to listen to.
This story illustrates that well-educated ministers are not individuals who can tell you exactly who God is, where good and evil are and how to travel from this world to the next, but people whose articulate not-knowing makes them free to listen to the voice of God in the words of the people, in the events of the day and in the books containing the life experience of men and women from other places and other times. In short, learned ignorance makes one able to receive the word from others and the Other with great attention. That is the poverty of mind. It demands the continuing refusal to identify God with any concept, theory, document or event, thus preventing man or woman from becoming fanatic sectarian or enthusiast, while allowing for an ongoing growth in gentleness and receptivity.
If we admit that God is wholly beyond the limits of our comprehension, then we do God a disservice to put God into a box. A metaphor may be helpful for understanding an aspect of God, yet to exclusively limit God to the confines of the metaphor is to castrate God. When we say that God is a person, and we may have a relationship with Him, yet we refuse to acknowledge other understandings of God, we create God in our own image.
In humility, we must admit our own limitations. When we cease trying to define God, we become open for God to be revealed to us. This refusal to identify God with any concept, theory, document or event not only saves us from fanatic sectarianism, but enables a genuine encounter with the Divine. The creation account in Genesis states that humanity is made in the image of God. Experiencing God begins when we stop trying to recreate God in our own image.