God With Us: The Shattering of the “Idea of God” and Discovery of His Presence

“My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? … And most are offended by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.” CS Lewis[1]

Last night we finished a course on the Holy Spirit through PBI, and each of the participants (all seasoned pastors and theologians) described experiencing (at some point in their lives but reappreciated in our time together) something on the order of what Lewis describes as the shattering of former ideas and the realization of God’s presence in the realms of marriage, fatherhood, friendship, prayer and ultimately every order of being. The class brought home the recognition that centering, contemplative prayer opens a continual awareness of divine activity pervading our world. We are so attuned, in this secular age, to a disenchanted mechanical universe (the “God-forsakenness” of the world in Charles Taylor’s description) that it takes conscious effort to wake up to the endless iconic nature of the world. In continually looking for God to show-up, it may be we have missed the still small voice beckoning through friendship, contemplative prayer, and married love. The ordinary course of human suffering and love, the questions of a child, and even a rescued cat (continually present in class), testify, we realized, to the divine presence. The recognition requires a relinquishing of settled (limited) notions of God which then opens us to the unsettling realization of the pervasive presence of the Spirit.

The seeming tension between a settled idea of God and continually attempting to conjure up God’s presence are not opposed but consist of the same failure. To divinize an idea is to miss the enfleshed manner in which God comes to us. An “idea” is not enfleshed, it is not felt, it has no presence, and it gives no comfort but at the same time it offers no threat. Isaiah pictures Immanuel (God With Us) as shattering human ideas, human religion and human plans, precisely because they depend on death, darkness and absence. If the music is intense enough, the lights and smoke adjusted just right, and the medium is appealing, it may be that “whisperings and mutterings” may seem to conjure up God’s presence, but Isaiah warns the real thing shatters this conspiratorial belief system.

Mathew announces that Christ as Immanuel brings about this shattering presence of God, and it is Israel and her institutions who will stumble over God With Us. But is Jesus the same one who “will sweep into Judah” and “fill the breadth of your land”? Is God With Us on the order of water which “will overflow and pass through” reaching “even to the neck” and is it his metaphorical wings which will cover the land (Isaiah 8:8)? Mathew also quotes Isaiah to say the Messiah is one who will cause no disturbance: “He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope” (Mt 12:19–21, ESV). How will he bring about a revolutionary justice and provide universal hope without causing a disturbance? How is it that from the womb of a humble peasant girl, as a baby in a manger, working in a carpenter’s shop, teaching a few disciples for three years, and dying on an implement of torture reserved for slaves, Christ changes the world order?

God With Us in the womb, in ordinary life, on a cross, and in the resurrection has, in Irenaeus image, recapitulated all things, so that the world is opened to Trinitarian fellowship. Hans Urs von Balthasar describes Christ as convening a “cosmic liturgy” as he has opened up the world to divine love: “the essence of all being has become visible in Jesus Christ” who reveals the Father, as “a wellspring of reciprocal love.”[2] The fellowship of friends, the love of marriage, the birth of a child, and quiet meditation bear the presence of Immanuel. As Julian of Norwich pictures it, “everything is penetrated, in length and breadth, in height and in depth without end; and it is all one love.”[3]

Many of us have tended, perhaps due to the combined influence of modernity and patriarchal religion, toward a settled idea of God. A static God, a stale theology, a world emptied of the grandeur of God, passes over the unsettling dynamic of God With Us. The incarnation opens to us the interdependent relations of the Trinity, and the fact that Jesus displays the dependence of an infant upon his mother, the dependence of a child on his parents, dependence upon other people’s generosity (e.g., the wealthy women who provided him support), and just the basic human dependence on culture, demonstrates an interdependent reality on a continuum that extends into the Trinity. To be dependent on God and others or to be an interdependent part of a community is part of the mediating reality of knowing God. In Jesus we see the divine in every area of human life: his healing touch, his thirst, his sorrow at death, his love of children, and his tiredness, are mediating realities in which he is known as “I am.” This relational understanding of God revealed in Christ is not a departure from the “I am that I am” revealed to Moses, but its completion; the fulfillment that goes ahead into Egypt and the world.

The Bible knows nothing of the Unmoved Mover but pictures God in dynamic interpersonal relationships such as deliverer, father, mother, husband, beloved, companion, friend, advocate, liberator, king, and judge. God is interpersonal relatedness and this reality extends to his relationship to the world. The God of the Bible gets his hands dirty shaping earth (adamah) into his likeness. Rather than God being unmoved, unoccupied, and settled he is pictured as a shepherd, farmer, laundress, construction worker, potter, midwife, physician, baker, artist, writer, nurse, and homemaker, busily going about the tasks which occupy people and in which we can recognize his activity. Far from an uninvolved patriarch or distant king, God is pictured as giving birth, nursing the young, and is particularly concerned with children, the poor and the weak. The world is alive with the activity and grandeur of God but it may be that the idea of God blinds us to the reality. The Bible points to the constellations, the wonders of nature, the constancy of the seasons, as bearing the fingerprint of God. A she bear protecting her cubs, a mother hen hovering over her chicks, the work of ants, the stealth of the badger, the fragility of birds or even inanimate objects such as running water, light, fire, rocks, or clouds point us to his presence and activity.[4]

Elizabeth Johnson lists the variety of names in the Mishnah as a further example of the dynamic identity of God. In this post-biblical Jewish usage he is the Living God, Friend of the World, Mighty One, Searcher of Hearts, the One who knows the thoughts of all, Lord of Consolations, Height of the World, Eye of the World, Life of the World, Beloved, the One who dwells in hidden places, the Heart of Israel, the One who understands, the One who spoke and the world was, Justice of the World, Home of the World, Rock of the World, the Holy One, Holy Spirit, the One who hears, Peace of the World, Strong One, Merciful One.

In the spirit of Paul on the Areopagus referencing an idol to the “unknown god,” God may also be approached through the myriad of names and activities found in traditional religions: Alone the Great One, the Powerful One, Wise One, Shining One, the One who sees all, the One who is everywhere, Friend, the Greatest of Friends, the One you confide your troubles to, the One who can turn everything upside down, the One there from ancient times, the One who began the forest, the One who gives to all, the Rain-giver, Highest of the Highest, Unknown, Queen of Heaven whose glory shines in mist and rainbow, Great Spirit, Great One of the Sky, Protector of the Poor, Guardian of Orphans, the Chief, the Almighty, Watcher of everything, Owner of everything, Savior of all, the One who loves, who gives birth to the people, who rules, who makes children, who embraces all; the One who does not die, who has not let us down yet, who bears the world, who has seen many moons, who thunders from far-off times, who carries everyone on her back, who is heard in all the world; the One who blesses. The world knows something of the God revealed in Christ, and just as Christ reappropriates and gives new meaning to the Hebrew names for God, he appropriates and fulfills human expectations of an ultimate interpersonal reality.

There is not one settled concept which is adequate for God but what is required is an inexhaustible variety of names and concepts which allow for a dynamic unfolding of the divine reality. Even “Abba,” the name revealed by Christ, does not sum up or amass the Truth in one stroke. As expressed in the metaphor of Henri de Lubac, one can only keep afloat in knowing God in the way that a swimmer keeps afloat, through a continuous stroking of the water. As Johnson puts it, referencing de Lubac, “They are forever brushing aside the representations which are continually reforming, knowing full well that these support them, but that if they were to rest for a single moment they would sink.” As Aquinas notes, if you imagine you have understood God, then what you have understood is not God. [5]

Even the world (in all of its parts), which is open to understanding, seems to require infinite exploration and explanation. I spent some twenty years teaching scientists English in Tsukuba Science City in Japan, and among my students, one was spending his career studying the circulatory system of the silk worm, another was studying the genome of rice, another was a specialist in the human intestine. Several meteorologists passed through my classes and I discovered there are forest meteorologists, desert meteorologists, and those who specialize in ocean currents, but there was no accurate working model of world wide weather as the variables and factors are too great. Tsukuba boasted a small particle accelerator but it was well known that the subatomic world was proving bottomless and the only hope was for larger accelerators. There was no area of science, no matter how small its area of study, that was settled or finished. Just the opposite, the tiniest realm, to say nothing of the rapidly expanding universe, is proving to have infinite depth so that the world seems to consist of an endless number of, what Jason Baxter calls, finite infinities.

In Baxter’s explanation, there was a window between the 12th and 15th century, prior to the secular age but subsequent to the reign of Greek notions in which infinity was equated with incomprehension, in which beauty began to be experienced in terms of the infinite. Where classical philosophers strove to whittle down diffuseness to a tapered and simple whole (the One despite the plurality), the “Gothic aesthetic,” as Baxter dubs it, found a new point of analogy between the world and its maker in the infinite. Thierry of Chartres, for example, discussed how each creature potentially functioned as a mirror of God, with the world consisting of an infinite variety of mirrors reflecting one face: “Just as a single face, when casting its reflection off many mirrors, is still one” (Commentum super Boethii librum De Trinitate, II,48), so God looks at the world and history and sees his face reflected in an infinite number of mirrors. Nicholas of Cusa, in his treatise, On Searching for God, “tells a spiritual brother that the path to God is a paradoxical ascent accomplished by a descent into the world.” He deploys the mustard seed as an example, which grows into a tree which then drops thousands of seeds, each potentially becoming a tree such that “if its potential should be unfolded in actuality, this sensible world would not suffice, nor indeed, would ten or a thousand or all the worlds that one could count.” Nicholas then performs a thought experiment unfolding the infinity immediately available in the mind:

All capacity of the whole sensible word, and not only of this one world but also of an infinite number of worlds . . . How great a magnitude there is in our intellect! . . . through similar ascents, you will be able to ascend from the power of the millet seed and likewise from the power of all vegetable and animal seeds. The power of no seed is less than that of the mustard seed, and there are an infinite number of such seeds. Oh how great is our God, who is the actuality of all potency!

As Baxter notes, “That last part is important, because even if all the potentialities in every seed were unfolded into their infinities, the world would still be but a shadowy explication of God.” [6]

If we settle upon a static image, an idea, a limited whole, a distant and perhaps patriarchal notion of God, then we miss the iconic dynamic of God With Us in the boundless finite infinities. He is with us in creation, in history, in time, in the human circumstance, which mirrors his infinity. We can see him at work in the infinite depth of friendship, in the ever unfolding love of marriage and in the bottomless fellowship and relationship in the world all around us. Immanuel, in shattering the settled finite idols, offers up the infinite icon of the world as the mirror of his image.


(Thank you to Allan, Matt, David, Rob, Dan, Trenton, and Justin for exploring these possibilities together.)


[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber, 1966), 52.

[2] Theo-Logic, III, 438.

[3] Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 296-97; see Joan Nuth, Wisdom’s Daughter: The Theology of Julian of Norwich (New York: Crossroad Pub., 199 1). Quoted from Elizabeth Johnson, “Naming God She: The Theological Implications” (2000). Boardman Lectureship in Christian Ethics. 5. http://repository.upenn.edu/boardman/5

[4] See Johnson, Ibid.

[5] Henri De Lubac, Discovely of God, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: I?]. Kenedy, 1960), 120-2 1. Johnson, Ibid.

[6] Jason Baxter, “The Nine Billion Names of God” in Church Life Journal (December 8, 2021) https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-nine-billion-names-of-god/?fbclid=IwAR22nJYREsZNhrTDkBOusl2B6OjvVUK36tOFiBUKZl0bKD4qiIMrRxRgXbk

Is Nonviolence Essential to the Gospel?

Justin Martyr assured Emperor Titus that he need not fear that Christians were insurrectionists as they have, by definition, forsworn all violence. They have, he explains, turned from violence to “cultivating piety, justice, and love” and “they have turned their swords into ploughshares and their spears into farm tools.” In a recent video, the Capitol insurrectionists pause on the senate floor, led by the horned man (Jacob Chansley), to pray and dedicate their invasion to Jesus. Frank Schaeffer also released a video explaining that he and his father, the famous missionary Francis Schaeffer, were to blame for the events that unfolded in Washington. He explained that his father had declared a kind of holy war and that in his last book, A Christian Manifesto, he had called for a potential revolution against the government if Roe V. Wade was not overturned. Schaeffer blames himself, his father, C. Everett Coop (Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General), Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and Ralph Reed, as leaders and creators of the religious right. He claims, “America does not have a political problem but a religious fanaticism problem.” Certainly, the Christianity which Justin defended to Emperor Titus is not that which Schaeffer describes or that of the insurrectionists dedicating their invasion of the Capitol to Jesus. Which raises the question, is there a violent form of the Christian faith, a violently insurrectionist Christianity?

Since we have just recently celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is fitting that he serve as a counter-example, as one who has enacted a revolutionary-peaceful gospel, but also as someone who gives testimony to profound personal courage provided by the gospel of peace. His life is a portrayal of the nonviolent revolution at the heart of the gospel but what may be less well understood was the depth of his personal dependence upon the peaceful gospel and the peaceable vision he gained from the Hebrew Bible.

King’s epiphany at his kitchen table, perhaps the central spiritual experience of his life, is on the order of the epiphany of Isaiah during a time when Judah faced the possibility of obliteration at the hands of Assyria. Isaiah calls for Judah to trust in God and not in weapons of war. King, like Isaiah, would realize God’s power and presence in his life, and both would recognize God’s power to determine the course of history, in spite of the terrible events of the present moment.

King’s encounter came during the Montgomery bus boycott. It had become a months long affair and he had expected it would be over in a few days. As the economic threat of the boycott began to hit home, he was receiving up to 40 phone calls and threats on his life daily. After being pulled over for speeding and taken to jail, he feared he would be lynched. In his description, he was overcome with fear. He had reached the breaking point on Friday night, January 27, 1956. Then, he once again received a death threat: “N, we’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”  

With the Assyrian army bearing down on the tiny Kingdom of Judah, Isaiah called on the people of Israel to trust in the Lord and not in horses and chariots. The basis of this trust is spelled out in Isaiah’s vision of a future which, to paraphrase King, Egyptian children, Assyrian children, and Jewish children would hold hands in one accord. It is a trust which came to King that night, Shaken by the continual threat, he buried his face in his hands and began to pray aloud:

I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone. Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right … But … I must confess … I’m losing my courage.”

The great sense of comfort and courage that came to him at that moment is what strengthened him a few days later when his house was bombed. “Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.” As he writes years later, “It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”[1]

Isaiah’s understanding of God’s peace came from an encounter while he was officiating in the temple. Just as King’s “kitchen table epiphany” revealed God’s comforting presence and power to determine the course of history, Isaiah had a temple epiphany (in the temple and concerning Zion, the temple Mount).

And in the last days the mountain of the Lord shall be manifest, and the house of the Lord on the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall come unto it. And many people shall go and say, ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, unto the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us his way, and we will walk in it.’ For out of Zion shall go forth a law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

(Is. 2:2-3)

Isaiah 2 reflects a central theme in the Hebrew Bible, in which Zion is the center of the world and as it is lifted up this center of new creation heals the nations by removing what wounds and divides. As the nations of the earth “stream” to Zion (v. 2) they come together in a unified worship. As the “mountain of the house of the Lord” is “established as the chief of the mountains” (Is. 2:2) there is deconstruction of the counter religions – the “oaks of Bashan,” the “lofty mountains,” along with all the instruments of war – “every high tower,” “every fortified wall,” “all the ships of Tarshish,” or in summary, all “the pride of man will be humbled, and the loftiness of men will be abased” (Is. 2:13-17). The instruments of war and worship or all that goes into nation building and violence are undone. With the participation of all nations in Israel’s worship, there is a simultaneous movement “up to the mountain of the Lord,” an enabling to “walk in His paths,” and a movement outward as this teaching of Zion “will go forth” downward and outward (v. 3). As a result, “the court of YHWH will replace the battlefield of the world” as “people will use the scarce and valuable materials of earth to cultivate life instead of crafting death.”[2]

God’s reign, in Isaiah’s vision, culminates in a series of reversals: where the Edenic garden-world was turned into a blood-soaked burial plot (Abel’s blood cries out and, with the generation of Noah, the earth is filled with violence), now warriors are turned into gardeners as swords are beaten into ploughshares; the worlds languages had been confused and this confusion (the etymological and literal root of war) is synonymous with the scattering and enmity of violence, but as all gather in the singular place of worship on Zion they are instructed in the singular word of the Lord.

This Temple restoration sets the cosmos revolving around a new order of peace (shalom among men and even within nature), brought about by the branch of Jesse. This messianic figure will establish righteousness upon the earth and nature herself will be relieved of all violence. It is Isaiah 40, the culmination of the prophet’s kingdom vision, which King will quote in his most famous sermon:  “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight, and the glory of Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together” (Is. 40:4-5). From verse 1 we understand that this straightening of the rough places and the lowering of the high places is synonymous with the fact that earth’s “warfare has ended.” 

In Isaiah’s depiction, peace is the purpose of the religion of Israel, and this purpose is fulfilled in the branch of Jesse: “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse” and “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him” (Is. 11:2-3). As a result, righteousness will be established in all the earth (vv. 4-5) and “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them” (v. 6).

The lesson of Isaiah brought to culmination by Christ (the true cosmic Temple), is that the children of God need to put their confidence and trust in the Lord and not in violence (chariots, horses, or swords). Jesus taught that peacemakers are the children of God and he demonstrated in his wilderness temptation the refusal of violent power or the temptation to become a violent messiah; he demonstrated the peaceful healing of the nations in his healing ministry; in his casting out of the violent demons, and in feeding and liberating the hungry and oppressed he embodied the cosmic vision of peace in which each will sit under his own vine and fig tree. He called for love of neighbor and of enemies and he called for his followers to offer no violent resistance. He sent his followers “as lambs sent among wolves” to carry out a mission of peace in a violent culture. He would enter Jerusalem as a nonviolent king, “a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass…He shall banish the war chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem…and he shall proclaim peace to the nations” (Zechariah 9:9-10). He commands Peter to put his sword away and the command stands. He nonviolently challenged the Temple system and then submitted, without resistance, to those who put him to death precisely due to this challenge to the Temple and religion of Israel.[3]

The understanding of the early church consistently placed the nonviolence of Jesus at the center of their life and discipleship. The Christian community refused to participate in the insurrection against Rome (66-70 CE), it resisted most any form of military service. Christians refused to kill on behalf of Caesar, and discipleship was aimed at preparing followers of the Way for martyrdom or witness. The practice of forgiveness, the application of the works of mercy, the cultivation of patience, all had as their center the nonviolent, nonretaliatory, gospel of Jesus.  Prior to the conversion of Constantine there is no Christian writing supporting “Christian warfare” as such a concept would have been oxymoronic. There were a few Christian soldiers, those who converted while in the service of the emperor (as testified by discovery of eight epitaphs to Christian soldiers). Tertullian (in 197) informs us that there were soldiers who converted, but the implication is that following Jesus meant they would quit the army. Nearly a century after Tertullian, St. Maximilian refused conscription into the Roman army and he was beheaded. His testimony during his trial would become, for centuries, a standard part of the mass: “I cannot serve. I cannot do evil. I will not be a soldier of this world. I am a soldier of Christ.”

St. Maximilian is a saint because the early church sought out those modeling the nonviolent Jesus. It was understood that Jesus broken body was celebrated not simply as another religious sacrifice, but as a model that accepts brokenness rather than to break the bodies of others. Christ submitted to torture and execution so as to overcome the violence and death which has the violent kingdoms of this world in its grip. [4] Christ rose from the dead and sends his disciples into the world so as to defeat death and the violent way that deploys death.

The early Christians understood the Church as the place where Isaiah’s vision is to be enacted. According to Gerhard Lohfink, the swords into ploughshares vision (of 2:3) is the most quoted text from the Hebrew Scripture in the early church. Origen (writing in the 240’s), presumed that every catechist would be familiar with it as the text was, apparently, a part of the catechism of every candidate for baptism. Justin employs the text in his explanation to Emperor Titus that Christians could not possibly be insurrectionists: “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and all wickedness have each and all throughout the earth changed our instruments of war, our swords into plowshares and our spears into farm tools, and cultivate piety, justice, love of humankind, faith and the hope, which we have from the Father through the Crucified One.” The testimony against violence and for peace is the consensus, as demonstrated by Christian writers such as Tatian, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Minucius, Felix, and Lactantius.[5] The peaceful kingdom of Isaiah, inaugurated by Christ, deployed by the early church, and taken up by modern disciples like Martin Luther King, breaks the chains of violence and death, the very point of being a follower of Christ.

Where this peace is not the means and end, can this be said to be the faith of Christ or the Christian religion? Rene Coste summarizes the broad consensus of church history and gospel criticism in affirming, “It is an incontestable fact that Christ did preach nonviolence, both as a condition and a consequence of the universal love that he taught us. To pretend, as is sometimes done, that his directives are only meant to be applied to individual relationships is a supposition nowhere to be found in the New Testament.”[6] Peace is the primary marker of the faith of Christ and it is unclear what remains of the religion of the New Testament in the absence of this understanding.


[1] Dr. Martin Luther King, recounted in his Stride Toward Freedom, quoted from https://lisasingh.com/southeast-travel/martin-luther-kings-defining-moment-a-kitchen-in-montgomery-alabama-past-midnight/

[2]Ralph P. Smith, Micah–Malachi. Word Biblical Commentary 32. (Waco, TX: Word, 1984)

[3] Fr. John Dear and Ken Butigan, “An overview of Gospel nonviolence in the Christian tradition,” in Nonviolence and Just Peace 11-13 April 2016 Rome, Italy at https://nonviolencejustpeacedotnet.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/nvjp-conference-background-papers.pdf The understanding of Lohfink is found in •Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (p. 92). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.