Saturday, September 17, 2011

God revisited

I usually enjoy the comic news dispatches from Andy Borowitz. This week he included a description of God as "the bearded King of the Universe, dressed in his trademark flowing white robe and carrying a lightning bolt."

This image, derived from a combination of Zeus, Hollywood and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, is probably close to the popular stereotype of God as an old man "up there," messing around with human lives. It's understandable that most people need a specific image rather than an abstraction they can't visualize. It's convenient to look up to the sky and imagine there a God you can blame for storms or illness or bad luck.

We might smile at such images of "God," yet at the same time, most of us who think about matters of faith know that such anthromorphism is ludicrous and even dangerous. It reduces the infinite and unknowable to the dimensions of a cartoon. Even those who know the Bible often forget the revelation of the divine to Moses as "I am who am." I am Being itself, not a being: this is the ancient and medieval notion of God that respects the mystery and daring of the revelation.

For the Christian, God is unknowable except through his Son and indirectly through his creatures, especially the human kind, or I should say, especially through human love as it is reflected in creation. If I need a non-human image of this ultimate mystery, I rely on an ancient one: light.

I say all this because I have recently read All Things Shining, a book that promises to find meaning and the sacred in the secular world by reading the classics. The authors' conclusion about David Foster Wallace, who emerges as a key player in their humanistic search, is that, for Wallace, we humans are the ones responsible for creating out of nothing "whatever idea of the sacred there can ever be."

Such is the modern dilemma: from Matthew Arnold on, many writers in the West have lost the traditional notion of a permanent, unchanging reality beyond our mutable world; thus God as the ultimate source of meaning is "dead," and each of us is left to find what the heart yearns for--the holy--elsewhere or nowhere.

As a result, any discussion of presence, even capitalized, is vague; and the mystical is reduced (or expanded) to include the spiritually strange; mystery is not included in the "search for the sacred," which (as in the book I just referenced) is never defined. We are left with a series of intellectual abstractions.

Poems like Dante's "Divine Comedy" and The Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot, however, can remind us that the love that moves the universe, like prayer, is still valid, even in a world of ever-growing diversity and complexity. The traditional spirituality of Thomas Merton, like that of Thomas Keating today and many others, is a reminder that gratitude and the presence of God in silence are real and not merely the product of our selves.

The God who lives within us as a loving presence is not an old man in a flowing robe.

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