A friend recently lent me the book Mister God, This is Anna. The book centres around Fynn (the author) and his adventures with a little girl named Anna. And, as the title of the book might suggest, their greatest adventure focuses on discovering the nature of God. “Anna searched for Mr. God and her desire was for a better understanding of him,” Fynn writes, adding, “It was just my luck that I happened to be with her when she was doing her ‘working out’.”
Let me first of all say that this is an enjoyable book. The writing is engaging, the characters endearing, and the illustrations truly lovely in their inky simplicity. Most enjoyable is that the book simultaneously and beautifully blends philosophically complex ideas with childlike wonder. A particularly striking scene occurs when Lynn and Anna use mirrors to uncover “hidden worlds” dwelling within our own – a sort of glimpse into fairy land, if you like, revealing the existence of “meaning” beyond the realm of mere facts.
But, like any book, Mister God, This is Anna has its faults – namely, in this case, that the theology Anna articulates is – whatever else it may be – certainly not Christian in the orthodox sense of the term. Anna seems convinced that in order for faith in “Mr. God” to be real, it ought not to be constrained by outward rules: church, theology, even Scripture – all inhibit her from meeting God, she thinks, in his abundant openness. “People,” she asserts, “when they go to church measure God from the outside…. They don’t get inside and measure Mister God.” In order to truly know God one must fully experience (indeed, indwell) him. Everything else just gets in the way of knowing God personally.
It’s curious therefore that Anna’s own approach to God has the unintended effect of robbing God of his personhood, rather than enhancing it. For, in essence, she basically decides she will know God only on her own terms, rather than meeting him on the terms he himself provides. One needs to figure out who God is based on the world, she says, but she seems to leave no room for the idea that God himself might wish to explicitly tell us who he is. Fynn sums up Anna’s thoughts in the following way:
So far as Anna was concerned one thing was absolutely certain. Mister God had made everything, there was nothing that God hadn’t made. When you began to see what it was all about, how things worked, how things were put together, then you were beginning to understand what Mr. God was.
When you think about it, that’s the eventual conclusion of any religion which insists on knowing God solely through experience: you end up so focused on your own ideas that the personhood of God seems to slip into shadow. Everything ends up dependent on your interpretation of the world around you. To be sure, Anna propounds some fascinating thoughts (philosophical, even mystical) in the book which we can learn from. But they’re ideas about an abstract God – not the personal God she seems so eager to know.
One need only think of earthly, human relationships to understand why this approach to God doesn’t work out. Friendships aren’t built on our perceptions of other people; they’re based on actual communication. If I claim to be friends with someone – let’s say Bob, for example – then it’s important I actually listen to what Bob has to say. I can’t simply look at the type of clothes Bob wears and say, “Well, that’s Bob.” I can’t look at his house, see the environment in which he lives and then conclude I know the man. While all this can provide insight into who Bob is, it is a far cry from a real relationship. No, I must actually speak with Bob in order to know him.
Anna’s approach to God is similarly concerned with the trappings rather than the actual person, and this is why her meditations on the character of God (while interesting) nevertheless lack depth. She ends up doing what she accuses the church of: merely describing God, not actually knowing him. She views the world that God has made, contemplates the mysteries of language, biology, and much more – in essence, she views the house that God built and the clothes he wears. And based on these observations, she develops a philosophy of God. But for all that, she does not truly know him. Her “Mister God”, we must confess, remains for her a Mystery. He is too broad. He is spread too thin. He is an idea, alas, and not a person.
The personal knowledge she lacks (and which we in our sin also lack) can only be attained through real conversation with God. We cannot simply talk to and about God; we have to let him speak as well. And that’s why Scripture is so important (and why Anna’s low opinion thereof is the more unfortunate). For in these texts, God himself speaks to us. His love for us might be, as Anna reasons at one point in the book, infinitely higher than our own human capacity to love. But we only find an overt expression of that love in the Scriptures. Here we hear the God of power and creativity speak us into creation. Here we hear the God of justice speak words of judgement over our sin. Here we hear the God of love speak himself into human form, bear our sin, die in our place, and live again that we also might live.
In short, Anna’s concept of God misses the relational, incarnational mercy of God – the God who speaks human words to us, who becomes human for us, and who continues to care for us in our human endeavours. To be sure, philosophy can be good; the “heavens declare the glory of God,” as the Scripture say. But we need revelation to truly know our Creator. We need the Word of God. We need Christ – the image of an otherwise incomprehensible, invisible God.