How do you get to know someone? You spend time with them, you watch them, but more significantly, you interact with them. You talk to them, listen to them. You observe their reactions and actions to you and to the world around them.
How do you get to know about someone? You spend time reading about them. You watch them, read things they have written, examine things they have made. You might be able to observe how they interact with others.
What’s the difference? Relationship. To know someone, they must also know you. We can know about people who do not know us, but we cannot know someone who cannot know us. It does not have to be a peer relationship, but it seems there must be interaction in order to really know someone.
I know a fair amount about C.S. Lewis. I’ve been to the Eagle and Child, I know he preferred dip pens over fountain pens and abhorred typewriters, and I’ve read many of his books and books about him. But I don’t know him. In some manner, I don’t have the same knowledge as those who really knew him. I may know some things about him that his students never knew, but all of my knowledge is second hand.
Perhaps that is the key distinction. Knowing someone is primary source knowledge. Our perception isn’t mediated by a third party. Everything I have learned about Lewis has passed through another person, be it an editor, publisher, or writer. I lack any direct access.
With that in mind, let us consider whether we know or know about God. Do we have any direct interaction or does all of our knowledge come through someone else? Consider the Desert Fathers. Anthony and his spiritual descendants went into the desert to seek God. They did not chose the desert because there was a great library, church, or monastery there. Some of these things developed as by-products to their seeking, but they were not there to begin with. Many of the desert fathers seem to have had little access to the Scriptures. So how did they come to such knowledge of God?
Contrast them with others who have sought to know about God and had the assistance of scholars and priests, libraries and churches, and yet seem to have little, if any, relationship with God. What is the difference? There are certainly various motivations at work and trying to paint these two groups with broad brush strokes will miss that, but perhaps there are a few things I can offer as possibilities worth pondering.
The primary difference seems to be motivation. What is it we are seeking? Do we want to know God (and be known by him—if my definition above is correct, this is crucial) or do we want to know about God? If I am willing to know God, I am willing to take risks for the relationship. Studying about something is seldom risky. If I seek to know God, what if he makes demands of me? We see this happen when we read some of the “call stories” of the Desert Fathers (and other saints). They heard or read the Word, often just a small piece of it, and were moved to be obedient to it, often at significant personal cost.
If I seek to know about God, my motivation may be to have information to use for my own benefit. This is certainly a temptation for professional clergy. We need to have something to give to our benefactors if we wish to continue our employment. We are engaged in an exchange of information. Perhaps we should instead be engaged in an exchange of introductions?
To twist Thoreau’s famous introduction to Walden, maybe we need more mission statements for churches along these lines:
I went to church because I wished to meet God, to front only the essential facts of his life, and see if I could not learn what he had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not known him, or been known by him. I did not wish to know what was not him, he is so dear. I wanted to live deep and to throw myself at the mercy of God, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not him, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive distraction into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest level, so that I could focus on God, and seek his face, and gaze upon him as the angels do. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about him, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to live lives of liberty and the pursuit of their own happiness.