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

Christian Anarchism: The Singular Weapon Opposing That Hideous Strength

That Christianity is over and against the arche (the organizing principle, the principalities and powers) of this world is a truism of the same order as “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is one of those universal trues that is universally ignored.  Everyone is against the “ruler of this world, the devil” (as depicted in the temptation of Jesus and elsewhere), but to oppose position, power, authority, prestige, and wealth, as Jesus does, is another matter.  The word “anarchism,” maybe due to its association with the 19th century movement advocating stateless societies, gets at the radical nature of Christian opposition to illegitimate authority. Christian anarchism might be associated with the desert fathers, Leo Tolstoy, Søren Kierkegaard, Jacques Ellul, and most particularly with the work of C. S. Lewis (as I conclude below) but what all would claim (though not in the same modern word) is that in authentic Christianity God is sole authority and any authority which would usurp the place of God is illegitimate. The devil though, is in the details of the workings of illegitimate authority, as depicted in the New Testament (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount) and specifically by Paul in Corinthians. The summation of Paul’s point is that illegitimate authority is coercive, shaming, filled with ambition and giving rise to strife. All of this can be summed up as a kind of violence if we understand violence is itself simply this coercive power. Christianity is anarchic in that it opposes the organizing violence which shapes people’s lives and runs the world.

Where the church would collude with the arche, as the Corinthians and the church through the ages has been tempted, the demonic, according to Paul, displaces God: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons” (I Co 10:21). You cannot pledge allegiance to more than one ultimate power; it is either God or mammon. The Corinthians are claiming the idol is nothing, and while Paul agrees he notes that this is not the basis for collusion. Paul explains, he does not want them to unwittingly be participants with demons (v. 20). The arche or demonic masks itself behind the apparently benign and the history of the church is one of collusion with this power: Constantinian, German, American, liberal democratic, idolatrous – conjoined with Christian has produced demonic “Christianity.” Churches have conformed, respected, and often supported state authorities and in the process have tolerated and participated in the most grievous evil.

Paul is modeling a concept of authority which sees God as the only final authority, and in this he is enacting Christ’s servant leadership – a phrase so bandied about and abused that it can become repulsive (if not recovered from those who pervert it). The leader as the servant of all, in Paul’s prolonged argument, is not violent (literally or metaphorically the super-apostles are slapping people around), or an authoritarian, or coercive, or interested in position. What is pompous, a spectacle, a hierarchy of power, an end in itself, is not Christian. Those who use Christianity (e.g. the super-apostles in Corinth) for power and position are not following Christ. The problem is this more or less excludes most all churches. To state it in the most straightforward manner, if one can be promoted, given a raise in pay, given an important title, to become one of these then this cannot possibly be what Paul and Jesus are modeling.

But has not God appointed the masters and servants, giving his sign of blessing through socioeconomic success? Aren’t the clergy consigned with knowledge and power which can be utilized as chaplains of the state and all of its various powers (military, police, government)? Noam Chomsky, perhaps the most famous living anarchist, has spent his life uncovering the slaughter, genocide, and human sacrifice, in the name of a Christian liberal democracy (primarily that of the United States). The blood of human sacrifice, whether overtly idolatrous or covertly so, flows from illegitimate authority (it is always illegitimate/deadly in the same way).   The sacrifice of the weak to the “knowledge” of the strong, at Corinth or in Chomsky’s analysis, is the authority of the rich, the privileged, the elites, presuming to Lord it over the poor, the powerless, and dispossessed. Paul’s and Chomsky’s analysis converge in describing the sacrifice of persons for principle (gnosis or knowledge over concern for the weak) and in the obscuring of history (Israel perished, hundreds of thousands have been killed in South America, the Middle East, Africa, etc., in the promotion of American freedom). Where Chomsky’s atheistic anarchism falls short is in the realization of the real-world corporate resistance Paul is putting into place in his establishment of anarchic Christian communities.

While the super-apostles would extract obedience through violent shaming, Paul is offering a counter to this illegitimate authority that comes off as wimpy, cowardly, and weak, in their estimate. Paul is concerned with nurturing the weak, and so is living in relative poverty so as to identify himself with – or to be – weak as opposed to strong. Where Paul’s weakness arises from a concern for persons, the strong are centered on an impersonal gnosis. As Kierkegaard explains, the impersonal is the marker of evil power: “no mistake or crime is more horrible to God than those committed by power. Why? Because what is official is impersonal, and being impersonal is the greatest insult that can be paid to a person.” The sign you may be dealing with demons is when someone says you must sacrifice people for humanity – a few for the greater good. The Corinthians, as with all power elites, would sacrifice the weak and the poor for the exercise of their freedom.  So, the first mark of the devotion to idols such as rulers or nations, is the willingness to sacrifice the few. Immigrants, racial minorities, foreigners, Jews, the disabled, are the “genetically inferior” which the arche of the age have required for their use. Smell for the sulfur of hell when it is argued “we must do evil to the few, perhaps to you, that good may abound” as the devil sits before you. 

The second thing which both Paul and Chomsky describe is a certain obscuring or complete blurring of history. Every idol has obscure origins – “it just came out of the fire” (according to Aaron’s description of the origin of the golden calf); I turned to eat my lunch and this god appeared (according to the idolatrous craftsman in Isaiah); “We the people” constituted ourselves a people before we existed as a people according to the Constitution. Chomsky traces the anti-democratic intent of American origins in Madison’s and Jefferson’s concerted efforts to protect the wealthy from “majority tyranny.” The supposed democracy, from its origins, was a plutocracy (government by the wealthy) and Chomsky’s effort is to trace the human sacrifice this continues to involve. In contrast, even though the Corinthians are mainly made up of gentiles, Paul incorporates them into the history of Israel to show that their spiritual ancestor adulterated/idolatrized itself. The authoritarians would bypass history, and particularly history as Paul recounts it. They would claim a word from God, a spiritual gift, an ecstatic experience, that cannot be historically countered. Paul uses Israel as a warning that things can go wrong and did go wrong as the bodies of these Israelites are spread in the wilderness (I Co 10:5). They were given an open door to freedom from the tyranny of Egypt and its gods.  They chose, instead, to worship the arche of the age and bowed down to idols of Egypt, longing for the very fleshpots of meat that the Corinthians crave.  Of course, this is pointed at the Corinthians’ adherence to the organizing principle and authority of the age and by extension it is pointed at our lingering submission to this power.

The gospel has often been preached as a choice between damnation and conversion, as if salvation is snatching souls from out of the world and its history. Paul is picturing salvation through Moses, through Israel, and ultimately through Christ as part of a historical process in which one must be able to name the idols to be saved from enslavement.  The kingdom of God exists in the world but it cannot be reconciled to the organizing principle of the kingdoms of this world.

In our day for the church to be anarchic it must counter the organizing principles of materialism, scientism, technology, and economics. Jacques Ellul has described the supreme idolatry of the time as technology, technique, or information processing. As he notes, what “desacralizes a given reality, itself in turn becomes the new sacred reality.”[1] How to do it, how to perform, how to achieve, whether money, sex, a mega-church, happiness, or peace, the sacred principle of the time is technique. “Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.”[2] As I have outlined it previously (here), “becoming all things to all men” (the proof text for Church growth philosophy taken from this section of Corinthians) reduces authority and leadership to technique.

 As both Chomsky and Ellul illustrate, schools have become the focus of the sacralizing of technique. The young are indoctrinated to equate information gathering with understanding and education primarily conveys information. Intelligence is now conceived such that it could be duplicated artificially (AI) as it is pictured as mechanical. This accords with Lewis’s depiction in That Hideous Strength which portrays the demise of a little college that is somehow intimately familiar.  N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Coordinated Sciences) is the acronym of the technocratic organization, geared to pure science and to elevating humanity beyond embodiment, which takes over the school. What Lewis captures is the emptying out of intellect to a bland scientism and technology.[3]

Lewis’s resolution to this hideous evil, in his space trilogy and nonfiction, is Christian anarchy. The small group at St. St. Anne’s, made up of just a few ragged individuals, poses the only opposition to the domination of N.I.C.E. Lewis, it has been noted, was obsessed with “power-over” relationships.[4] Lewis explained, “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with the unchecked power over his fellows… I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” In his depiction of the unfallen world the races interact together quite freely and peacefully, trading amongst themselves, with no need for the machinations of a state structure or governing system.[5] Apart from the Fall “our race would never have featured any rulers dominating others.” Subordination of one human to another marks human failure which is erased in his depiction of the unfallen. In Out of the Silent Planet this is beautifully depicted in Professor Ransom’s research into how power and authority function on the planet. He concludes as Justin Fowler has described it, “equals are unfit to rule each other — humans are not fit to rule other humans. To try to rule another is to try to be something that one is not.”[6] What Lewis captures throughout his corpus is the anarchic nature of Christian authority, the only means of resisting pure evil.

[1] https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/06/29/cs-lewis-was-a-red/

[2] http://www.altarandthrone.com/anarchy-by-c-s-lewis-part-one/

[3] Even in biblical education, in my experience, students must harmonize, memorize, fill in the blanks, repeat the correct answer, summarize the doctrines, as if this constitutes learning the Word.  Administrators with their technique, their pursuit of accreditation, their total adherence to the arche of the age are displacing Truth. The truth of Christ as a person in whom we trust, is reduced to an impersonal gnosis which one can be made to espouse (think here of the history of forced conversion).

[4] https://archive.org/stream/JacquesEllulAnarchyChristianity/jacques-ellul-anarchy-%26-christianity_djvu.txt

[5] Ibid

[6] http://www.altarandthrone.com/anarchy-by-c-s-lewis-part-two/

A Cruciform Hermeneutic: The Passage from Dead Language to the Living Word

In his meditation on a beam of light in a tool shed, C.S. Lewis noted, one can either look at the beam of light and see dust particles and not much else or one can look along the beam of light and see the world the light illumines. The meditation concerned different ways of reading the Bible and of doing Christianity. Looking at may be the peculiar modern temptation to reduce everything to our field of vision while simultaneously constricting our vision to what is right in front of us. We imagine we can reduce Scripture to a theory so as to “know it all.”  Whether this reductionist understanding is fostered by or fosters pride, either way, it is characterized by a willingness to deconstruct and not to be deconstructed by the Word. Scripture is made to fit a modernist foundation and “reality” which precedes and is apprehended apart from Christ and Scripture. Truth, in this understanding, is objective and timeless and, as a result, the historical specifics of the narrative of Scripture are presumed to be secondary. That which is timeless and universally true must be sifted out from the particular, culturally specific, and narrative bound. Ironically, the primary trues of the incarnation are presumed, due to the necessary trues guiding reason, to be disincarnate. As a result, the life of Christ and the Gospels are consigned a secondary role to the doctrinal statements and theological development of the epistles. This disincarnate truth reduces to rules to follow, doctrines to be organized, or simply primary events witnessing to timeless truth (in the fundamentalist, conservative, or liberal, application of the foundational paradigm). Narrative cannot be authoritative in this understanding, as authority is pictured as vertical or top down (as in a monarchy or hierarchy) rather than a horizontal sort of road map which introduces previously uncharted territory. Scripture is thought to inform with rules and propositions rather than guide with example, and Christ is the object of faith (we have faith in him) rather than the subject of a faithfulness we are to enter into and imitate. Continue reading “A Cruciform Hermeneutic: The Passage from Dead Language to the Living Word”