Learning about God is a lot like learning how to read, so let us start answering this question by thinking about books. God authored two books, and between the two, the surest way we come to learn about God is through the Bible. In it, God reveals His love and then gives us the Church to teach us how better to read and live in that love.
The other “book” where we learn about God is through creation. This way of knowing is called Natural Revelation. Saint Augustine said that as an author writes his meaning with words on the pages of a book, God writes through words, deeds, and actions in history (His-story, get it?). That means that people, places, and events communicate God’s message to us all the time.
Reading a book may come easy to us now, but that was not always the case. As children, we looked at a page on a book and saw the ink but did not perceive the pattern. We needed to be taught how to not merely look at the ink, but to look along it to understand the meaning of symbols. First we learned letters and then how those letters formed words. Then we learned that words could be put into sentences. Sentences revealed ideas and ideas became stories that had the power to invite us along an adventure that made this long process of learning to read more than worth the time.
Learning to read God’s meaning from the world around us takes time too. And because of things like impatience, confusion and sin, we do not always perceive the proper patterns and miss the meaning of the message. This again is why God gave us the Bible, which reveals His heart clearly to us. In the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we know that His heart is clearly and fully for us.
When it comes to Natural Revelation, we are children learning how to read. Making mistakes is okay. Letting God teach us, especially through the wisdom of the Church, is invaluable. So even though it is not always clear or immediately accessible for everyone, the Author is too good and the adventure too great to ignore either of the books God is writing!
The great outdoors is a place where people continually go to in search of God. The beauty of nature, from forests to rivers and hills, speak of the Creator. For example, mountains have always been places to meet God and, according to Scripture, they are often chosen places where God and man entered into family relationships called Covenants. Why?
Read into the symbolic value. As they rise above the earth, mountains seem to reach out to the heavens. They are part of our real world, and so we can really make it to the top if we are willing. So close to the heavens, mountains are mysterious, challenging, and pose a real risk for the climber. Once they are scaled, they give perspective and provide a big picture of the world below. They also give a real picture of the world above. They reveal that as high as humanity can climb, the heavens are higher still. Finally, since mountain tops are not really livable spaces, they remind us that the experience from the top is meant for the valley where most people live their daily lives.
We can meet God through Art. Great paintings, sculptures, music and movies can move us in ways that we gain profound insight about the world around us. When an artist is true to her art and through blood, sweat, and tears, excels in it, she participates in something awesome. She becomes a sub-creator alongside God, the Primary Creator. God inspires the artist and her art can inspires others to experience truth, goodness, and beauty.
Here is another way: ... shhh…no really…shhh…When was the last time you were silent (when you did not really have to be)? Though it is what we use to punish criminals, silence and solitude is what the great saints and mystics sought. It is where we get to recover our own voice and uncover things that have been buried beneath the noisiness of daily life. Sure, at first we might feel uncomfortable or bored by the silence, but nothing good come easily. Without it, we will never really learn how to even pray. In the end, though we may talk a lot to God, without the practice of silence, we will never learn how to listen.
A different way of encountering God is by examining our authentic desires. Some of our desires—such as for the latest smartphone—are obviously artificial. They do not come from within us, but from without. We only have a desire for one after it has been invented and marketed to us. There are other desires, however, that are universal to humanity. Each one of these desires seem to have a natural fulfillment in the world around us. We are all naturally hungry. Food fulfills that desire. We all naturally experience exhaustion. Sleep satisfies that desires. Once we satisfy our natural desires, we do not immediately want more of it.
Yet, there is one natural desire that we all have that nothing in our experience has ever satisfied. We all have a deep desire for infinite love that has never been fulfilled and that we never want to end. Think about that. The best experiences of love do not satisfy that desire; they only make us hungry for more love. About this desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, Christian author C.S. Lewis once said that the most probable explanation is that we were made for something more than this world. Our deepest desires then, if properly understood and pursued, lead us back to the God who alone can fulfill them.
The two books from God—Scripture and nature—though they work differently and they require different sets of skills to read them, are complimentary. They are meant to be read together, and often. And as we better learn how to read each, the world opens up and we find the Author of both books inviting us into an adventure that changes everything.
JOE PHILIP is a theology teacher and retreat coordinator for Powers Catholic High School in Flint, Michigan. He holds his M.A. from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Philip serves as host of the upcoming SHALOM WORLD television original series, SEEKERS. He and his wife, Tara, travel and share their love for Jesus and the Church by leading and speaking at retreats. They are happy parents to two young children, a girl and a boy. Follow Joe on Twitter @joephilip101.