Human names are much more than identification tags in most climes. They have important meanings, being statements most times. My name is Chukwuma and it means “God Knows”. Sometimes my mother fondly calls me Chukwu-ma-ihe-nine which means “God knows everything”. My people, the Igbos of Nigeria, have many other names making statements about God such as Chukwuebuka (God is extremely mighty), Chukwunonso (God is nearby), Onyedikachukwu (Who is like God?), other varieties such as Chidimma (God is Good), Chiamaka (God is extremely good), Chimamanda (My God is invincible), and many others; and similar names exist in other cultures, such as Michael (Who is like God) and Raphael (God heals) which are Hebrew. These statements about God depict how people of various cultures regard God.
From the connotations in these human names can be inferred the basic concept of God in human cultures. The basic concept of God universally seems to be that of an almighty supreme being in charge of everything: the anatomy and physiology of creation. In other words, he does the physical creation of everything visible and invisible, and the enablement of all activities in everything, visible and invisible. God is also regarded as the ultimately supreme being.
It is interesting that these superlative nuances about God seem to give rise to some disagreeable notions concerning the role of God in some issues in the life of man. In one breath God can do everything, in another breath he cannot cause suffering, cannot cause accidents, and cannot cause ill-health. The feeling in many hearts is that God is not involved in disasters and does not sanction disasters; the devil always causes disasters and everything bad while God prevents them. This feeling is so entrenched that such people do not notice that when sometimes trying to exonerate God in some circumstances they consequently diminish him very badly. An example:
There was a story about how a man eventually died in an accident that involved his car, after doing some exceptional driving maneuvers to avoid a crash following the incident that caused the accident. Eyewitnesses greatly praised his efforts although he eventually died. A catholic priest illustratively told us what he heard from sympathizers in the man’s home – what one person said, which is similar to, or in agreement with, what most others were saying:
“Hei Chukwu anwaka, Chukwu agbanika;
Ife nwoke a onyalu na moto di ebube!
Oh, ezi Chukwu anyi agbanika-a-a!
Mana Ekwensu ekwero.”
This is a dialect in Igbo language and is saying:
“Hei God made great efforts, God tried so much,
How this man drove the car was wonderful!
Oh, our good God tried so-o-o much!
But the Devil was obstinate.”
The implication here is that the devil caused the accident, God made commendable efforts to forestall it, judging from the way he enabled the man to do such wonderful driving maneuvers that nearly saved his life, but the devil in his wickedness still decided to push through with the accident and did. While making such statements, like this one, they do not feel they are implying the devil has had an upper hand against God; the mentality is always that God showed goodness and benevolence while the devil showed his typical badness and wickedness. It is usually difficult for them to bring the invincibility attribute of God to factor in as part of a consideration in such situations because that would mean that the invincible and almighty God allowed this to happen suggesting he is not a good God after all, or that the good God is not invincible after all. Such is the difficulty that plays out when we try to exonerate God in an ordinary way, in such bad situations and ordinarily remove responsibility from God. Is it then acceptable not to clear God of wrongdoing? We have problems because we do not understand the real nature of our good God and so we do not understand the ways of God.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55: 8-9).
God’s ways are different from ours and God’s ways are far removed from our ways. There are very many things we will not be able to understand. I heard the story of The Grumbling Hermit from Archbishop G. G. Ganaka, in 1984, when he gave a talk titled “Give God a Chance and See”, at Ibadan, Nigeria, invited by the Nigeria Federation of Catholic Students:
Tthere was this hermit who was seriously complaining about the baffling lot of man on earth where it is said that the good and powerful God controls. “Why would disasters befall good people? the hardworking breadwinner loses his life while his less useful relatives are spared, evil men enjoy prosperity while honest people suffer, accidents and other disasters here and there; and it is said that a just and good God is in control; this is fallacious …”. God granted him a vision. A man came to him in the vision and said to him “I am a man of God, follow me” and he followed him.
They came to the house of a man having a party to celebrate his reconciliation with his long time enemy. They were gladly welcomed by the man, who showed them a golden cup given to him by that his enemy as a token for their reconciliation. They enjoyed themselves and left. On the way, the hermit discovered that the Man of God had stolen that golden cup and he wondered. The man of God said “sh-sh-sh, these are the ways of God”. They continued to a house where a wicked miser lived. The miser had no iota of charity in him and so they did not expect a welcome. The Man of God just gave the golden cup to the wicked miser, which he cherished very much. The hermit was amazed and asked why he did that. “Sh-sh-sh these are the ways of God” was, again, the answer. They came to another house where a man lived with a young boy and they were welcomed and cared for. On leaving, the man allowed his little boy to go with them, take them to the river bank, show them the way, and come back. This the boy did on reaching the river bank. The Man of God pushed the little boy into the river and he drowned. The hermit was astonished and vehemently protested. The Man of God gave yet the same answer. They crossed the river and came to a farming area where one man lived in a house built with wood and grass, in a farmland that belonged to him. He cheerfully entertained them but, on leaving the Man of God set fire on the house and it burnt to the ground. This was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The hermit said “it is now clear, you are not a Man of God you are a devil!” The man transformed instantly into an angel and said to the hermit: “you human beings cannot understand the ways of God”. He began to explain to the hermit what he had seen:
The man they first saw was given a poisoned gold cup by his long time enemy who was not really interested in reconciliation. The cup was stolen to save the good man’s life. He will have to feel the loss of a highly cherished gift though. Another fall out from this is that the reconciliation still stands and he would continue feeling that friendship and would not be affected if the other man was not ready to consider him as a friend in his heart. The wicked miser was happy to own an unmerited gold cup. Drinking with the cup would eliminate him from the community he did not love and to which he was totally useless. The next man had the intention of training the young boy into an armed robber and the boy had to be taken back by the Lord still pure. The last person had suffered so much in life, having failed in a number of endeavours he undertook and also suffered various other setbacks. Disappointed and impoverished, he retired to the farmland to live on subsistent farming. Unknown to him, he had built his grass house on top of a rich gold mine in his own farmland. Burning down the grass house would make him dig for mud for a mud house and he would hit gold and become extremely rich ever after. These are the ways of God.
The instructiveness of the story is very evident. No amount of explanation, however, can make us understand the ways of God and the nature of God to a satisfactory extent. We are quick to refer to God as The Almighty and declare that he is omnipotent (having unlimited power, invincible, supreme), omniscient (infinitely wise, all-knowing) and omnipresent (Being present everywhere at once, ever-present, all-pervading) but it is not easy for us to understand why everything in our lives cannot just be taken care of by this kind of God that is also regarded as goodness personified. Why do we have to struggle, get it wrong, get it right, suffer, enjoy, encounter goodness and badness, and a stretching spectrum in-between, all in the mix.
I imagine what it would be like if God takes care of everything in our life just like that. You can imagine there will really be virtually no life at all – no struggle, nothing like failure, therefore nothing like success; no badness therefore nothing like goodness. No challenges at all, no problems to solve, no victories and achievements therefore. We can go on and on and we can discover that indeed if God takes over everything we will become essentially nothing. I feel the wisdom of God in the most important gift he gave to man which is “Free will”.
So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1: 27-28).
This means that God deposited in man a measure of his attributes of wisdom, power, goodness, creativity etc, by the way he created man – in his own image, set him to discover and subdue the earth, necessarily giving him the important gift of free will so he will be able to take original decisions, be able to discriminate, assess and take responsibility for the actions he has taken freely, and therefore experience and accept the consequences of those freely-taken actions. Free will means “the power of making free choices unconstrained by external agencies” and so makes man in charge – of himself and his activities, of other creatures and the whole earth he has to subdue (overcome its intrinsic challenges and improve it). Free will is necessarily imbued with discretion and high intelligence and so man is equipped to acquire a lot of insight to effectively control events in the world and acquire much knowledge. The knowledge that man is acquiring about God, and is capable of, keeps on widening and deepening as long as man keeps showing interest in this knowledge. Nevertheless, this free will and its imbued facilities, operate within the framework of finite humanity that is not equipped to significantly fathom the infinite Divinity.
Man living in history (time and space) is not equipped to fully understand the nature of God who lives in eternity. Eternity is all-pervading, it seems, history still being part of it, and so God’s nature is appreciable in our realm to an unimaginable extent.
“. . . because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1: 19-20).
It is evident most people on earth are not deploying enough insight into understanding the nature of God. God is largely understood, at best, as the being that controls everything on earth, makes all provisions, enables and disables at will, rewards and punishes as appropriate. This is a discernible truth about God but what remains confusing are the extent man is in charge, the extent God is responsible for all things good and bad, and how God’s omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, absoluteness and ultimate nature are brought to bear on life. An acceptable ground seems to be that God has empowered man to be in charge, giving him liberty to make his decisions freely to control the earth while the events on earth are influenced by forces in the spiritual realm, God exercising the ultimate control. No matter how the propositions are crafted none can be accurate concerning God. In the end we have to bow to the fact that there are very deep mysteries about God and his nature we can never understand.
My own proposition is that God and his role thereof can be appreciated in a hierarchy of realms of indeterminate or even infinite number, the deepest possible level of our appreciation from this life being at the most peripheral. It is possible that at the deepest realm God is the only essence; goodness, badness, faith and all, diffuse into this one essence and cease to exist perceptibly. At this our realm we experience various levels of appreciation of God according to the type and level of consciousness we have been able to develop while seeking God. It is God’s will that we seek him and find him.
From one single principle he not only created the whole human race so that they could occupy the entire earth, but he decreed the times and limits of their habitation. And he did this so that they might seek the deity and, by feeling their way towards him, succeed in finding him . . . (Acts 17: 26-27a).
What is important is recognizing him when you find him. Perhaps these three short stories from Fr Anthony De Mello1 could provide an insight:
THE ELEPHANT AND THE RAT
An elephant was enjoying a dip in a Jungle pool when a rat came up to insist that he gets out.
“I won’t,” said the elephant.
“I insist you get out this minute,” said the rat.
“I shall tell you that only after you are out of the pool.”
“Then I won’t get out.”
But he finally lumbered out of the pool, stood in front of the rat and said,
“Now then, why did you want me to get out of the pool?”
“To check if you were wearing my swimming trunks,” said the rat.
An elephant will sooner fit into the trunks of a rat than God into our notions of him.
THE SONG OF THE BIRD
The disciples were full of questions about God.
Said the Master, “God is Unknown, the Unknowable. Every statement about Him, every answer to your questions, is a distortion of the Truth.”
The disciples were bewildered.
“Then why do you speak about Him at all?”
“Why does the bird sing?” said the Master.
Not because he has a statement, but because he has a song. The words of the Scholar are to be understood. The words of the Master are not to be understood. They are to be listened to as one listens to the wind in the trees and the sound of the river and the song of the bird. They will awaken something within the heart that is beyond all knowledge.
THE LITTLE FISH
“Excuse me,” said an ocean fish, “You are older than I so can you tell me where to find this thing they call the Ocean?”
“The Ocean,” said the older fish, “is the thing you are in now,”
“Oh, this? But this is water. What I’m seeking is the Ocean,” said the disappointed fish as he swam away to search elsewhere.
He came to the Master in sannyasi robes. And he spoke sannyasi language: “For years I have been seeking God. I have sought Him everywhere that He is said to be: on mountain peaks, the vastness of the desert, and the silence of the cloister and the dwellings of the poor”.
“Have you found him?” the Master asked.
“No. I have not. Have you?”
What could the Master say? The evening sun was sending shafts of golden light into the room. hundreds of sparrows were twittering on a banyan tree. In the distance one could hear the sound of highway traffic. A mosquito droned a warning that it was going to strike… And yet this man could sit there and say he had not found Him. After a white he left, disappointed, to search elsewhere.
Stop searching, little fish. There isn’t anything to look for. All you have to do is look.
. . . indeed he is not far from any of us, since it is in him that we live, and move, and exist . . .(Acts 17: 27b-28).
You do appreciate, I believe, that recognizing God is not difficult. All you have to do is look.
You are already looking at God in everything you see. Every existence is in God and there is no existence outside God. There is nothing like “outside God”. You may not have realized that what you seek is right there where you are and waiting to be seen. All you have to do is look. You see without looking and so you do not know what you see. You look without seeing because you do not know what to see.
- Anthony De Mello SJ, The Elephant and the Rat, The Song of the Bird and The Little Fish, The Song of the Bird, http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/arvindgupta/songofbird.pdf