Monday, June 1, 2015

Imagining God

It is hard to imagine the universe.  It is even more difficult to imagine what many theoretical physicists are calling the “multiverse.” String theory proponents postulate as many as 10500 different possible universes, each operating with different physical laws.[1]  The universe we inhabit, even if it is just one of many, is difficult enough to comprehend.  It has been expanding and cooling since it burst into existence with a Big Bang about 13.7 billion year ago.  Our galaxy, the Milky Way, just one small part of the universe, contains some 200 billion stars, with a diameter of approximately 100,000 light-years.  One light-year equals the distance that a ray of light travels in one year: about six trillion miles.  We cannot fathom such immensity.[2] 

Even more difficult to comprehend is the rarity of the constellation of factors that make life possible.  In March 2009, NASA launched a spacecraft, Kepler, with the mission to search for planets orbiting in the “habitable zone” of other stars; that is, planets located such that the liquid water necessary for the emergence of life may exist. Dozens of planets have been identified as possible candidates.  It is estimated that a life-sustaining planet orbits about 3% of all stars in the universe.  If this is true, then the fraction of matter in the visible universe that exists in living form is something like one-millionth of one-billionth of 1%.[3]   The fact that we are here today is itself a source of tremendous awe and wonder, a wholly unnecessary and fortuitous occurence.

It is hard to imagine the observable universe.  How then, do we even begin to imagine God?  In moving from a consideration of the universe to a consideration of God, let me be clear that I am not suggesting that God is a force or cause within nature, nor a supreme natural explanation.  This would be to reduce God to one being among other beings, one cause – even if the first cause – among other causal forces.  To do so would be to speak of the god (small “g”) that the militant new atheists reject and that modern religious deists and fundamentalists affirm.  This is the god of the clockmaker variety, who builds a world, winds it up, and lets it go; but such is not God; at least, not the God of the great religious traditions, both East and West.[4]

As Thomas Bentley Hart argues, “Beliefs regarding God concern the source and ground and end of reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all.”[5]  God is then, the necessary logical presupposition for the existence of the universe; not the creator of the universe at some point in time past, but rather the infinite actuality from which everything that exists continuously receives its being; or in Paul Tillich’s felicitous phrase, God is “Being Itself.”

We must imagine God, because, while science can describe the shape of the universe and the relationships among its constituent material elements, it can not explain the universe’s very existence.  Existence is not a natural phenomenon; it is logically prior to any physical cause whatsoever.  Science can explain, in large part, what is but not that it is.  We are driven therefore, by reason and wonder, to imagine God. 

Our images of God derive from modes of knowing that are either acts of logical deduction and induction, or derived from contemplative or sacramental experiences that are by their nature episodic and intuitive.[6]  Classical philosophy and theology embrace both modes of knowing. Our experiences of transcendence give rise to our logical reasoning about those experiences, taking such forms as the Trinitarian symbol of Christian orthodoxy.  The adequacy of such speculative formulations is determined by whether or not they illuminate our experience.  The symbol must correspond to reality and participate in its power.

Our scripture readings today include two images of God that are well known, but whose evocative power is too often understated.  The first image comes from the prophet Isaiah’s temple vision, and the second image emerges in the course of Jesus’ ironic and ambiguous conversation with Nicodemus.  Both of these stories challenge us to imagine God in ways that may be uncomfortable and even life changing.

Isaiah was a priest serving in the Jerusalem Temple about 700 years before the time of Jesus.  He became a prophet during a time of great international turmoil, including a war between Judah and Syria and threats from the Assyrian Empire.  While serving in the Temple, he had a most remarkable vision of God that the prurient interest of translators utterly fails to convey.

Our translation describes God as seated on a throne, with the hem of his robe filling the temple.  As Lyle Eslinger notes in an exhaustive philological and comparative study, the Hebrew word sûl, translated here as “hem of his robe,” actually refers to the male or female pudenda. Isaiah reports then that he has seen God, naked on this throne, with his (the personal pronoun here is masculine) visible genitalia filling the temple.[7]  This is not an image you will find in any edition of the Children’s Illustrated Bible!

But then, 8th Century BC Hebrew prophets were not 16th Century AD English puritans.  Even so, Isaiah has inadvertently trespassed the boundary between the sacred and the profane to his horror and shame.  The Seraphim quickly use there wings to covers God’s face and genitals to re-establish the cultic boundary, reinforced by the liturgical image of smoke or incense and the cry “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  Here again, the translators fail us by describing the Seraphim as covering their own eyes and “feet” – a euphemism if there ever was one.

Isaiah is not trying to be provocative and neither am I.  Yet, his vision does startle us out of our usual placid images of God as “the guy upstairs.”  What Isaiah’s vision is trying to communicate is the tremendous, generative power of the divine that fills the whole earth; indeed, that continuously holds the universe in being.  To come into contact with that power, even for a moment, is an overwhelming experience.  We cannot bear it for too long; it has to be covered up!  It reduces Isaiah to a sense of his being “unclean;” not because his image of God is somehow a “dirty” one, but rather because it reveals the smallness of his own preoccupations and the limits of his own comprehension and power.  Isaiah is reduced to “nothing.”

Isaiah is possessed by this image of God, so much so that he strips and walks around Jerusalem naked for three years as a sign of the impending disaster that Assyria would visit on Egypt and Ethiopia, and then Judah itself.[8]   Isaiah’s nakedness conveys both the vulnerability of Judah and the absolute power of God, upon which all contingent realities depend.   The moral of the story is to place our trust in God, not in the transient power of people or empires.

Isaiah’s vision of divine potency undoes him and radically opens him to being an instrument and sign of God’s power.  This power is not safe or predictable.  It may lead us in paths we would not choose.  It is the source of both fascination and fear.  Yet this absolute, unconditioned reality is also naked to our perception, even jarringly intimate to those who have eyes to see.  Isaiah’s vision emphasizes God’s patriarchal potency, if you will, a power that is overwhelming and distancing but at the same time strangely seductive, capable of possessing us.

In the course of his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus offers another image of God that emphasizes the way in which divine power is in the service of universal renewal.  Here the metaphor shifts from a patriarchal image of God to a maternal one.  This is clearly the case as indicated by the literalism with which Nicodemus’ misunderstands Jesus.  When Jesus speaks of being born anew, Nicodemus wonders how one can re-enter the womb when one is old.  Jesus, of course, is speaking of a different kind of womb:  the metaphorical “womb” of God. 

Jesus, too, is speaking of divine generative power, but in a different key: not so much the power of being as the power of consciousness.  Birth by water (an allusion to child birth) and the Spirit, speaks of an initiation into a new awareness of reality (the kingdom of God).  When we are born from above (of God) we are given a new vision of the world such that our perception and reality are in alignment, no longer seen through the false prism of cultural and ideological lenses that delimit and falsify our perception.  This transformation of consciousness is nothing less than a new birth. 

This awareness is not just an intellectual insight.  It is an existential reorientation of our whole way of life such that we entrust ourselves to the power of the Spirit, a power greater than us, which we cannot fully comprehend or control.  We come to trust what we do not know.  God is the inexhaustible source of our being and our consciousness, and being born anew is the acceptance of our ultimate origin and end in God in such a way as to live more fully, freely, and compassionately.

This dying to false forms of consciousness and being given a new perception of God’s generative power leads to the insight that God not only gives being to existence; God not only gives birth to us as conscious beings, capable of perceiving reality; God also loves the world and desires us to share in the bliss that is eternal life. 

In Jesus’ vision, God is like a mother who not only gives us physical birth, but also spiritual awareness so that we might perceive that our creation is an act of love, and so come to accept this love as our ultimate origin and end.  This is the taproot experience from which emerges the Trinitarian symbol of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which shares much with the Indian idea of Brahman as ultimate and unconditioned being (sat), consciousness (chit), and bliss (ananda); or what the great Sufi theologian Ibn Arabi, describing God as absolute reality, referred to as wujud, wijdan, and wad.[9] 

It is hard to imagine the universe.  It is even harder to imagine it without God: without Being, Consciousness, and, finally, Bliss.


[1] Alan Lightman, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), pp. 18-21.
[2] Lightman, pp. 92-93.
[3] Lightman, pp. 100-101.
[4] Thomas Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), pp. 19-41.
[5] Hart, p. 33.
[6] Hart, p. 34.
[7] Lyle Eslinger, “The Infinite In A Finite Organical Perception (Isaiah VI 1-5),” Vetus Testamentum (XLV, 2). 
[8] Isaiah 20:2-5.  On naked prophets, see Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel (New York:  Continuum, 2005), pp. 87-89.
[9] Hart, pp. 42-43.

No comments: