Sunday, October 7, 2007

Impossible (or difficult) thoughts

I want to know something:

What is God like?

That's what I want to know. That's what everyone wants to know. And philosopher/theologians are fond of pointing out that the urge to know the nature of God is pretty much universal in the human race, and it's also the cause of a lot of problems, one of which I ran across this week.

Almost the first thing that theologians say about God is that God is infinite. That seems right - it pretty much has to be true. But it also gets us into the very tricky area where everything we say about God is inadequate - or just plain wrong - because we can only think and say finite things. We can only describe things in terms of our experience, and God is beyond all of our experience. We can talk about God being Love, for instance, or Power, or Compassion or Justice, but that only means we are talking about our experience of love, power, compassion and justice, and the reality of God is so far beyond our experience that it's impossible to think that we could be describing the divine nature adequately. So what do we do with that? Once we've realized that we can't really describe what God is like, what do we do with our yearning to know God?

There is a whole school of spirituality and theology that tries to deal with this by using opposites: they talk about the all-powerful Creator of the Universe being born as a tiny helpless baby, for instance, and writings from the early church are full of these couplets of descriptions of the Divine, which operate in very much the same way the Zen koans do: they are designed to get our rational minds to shut down, because the spiritual perception is that rational thinking can only get in the way of perceiving the larger reality of Truth.

Forgive this intellectual digression. I don't usually write this way, and this is not the sort of stuff that most people find particularly interesting. But I put it down here because it's the background to the really intriguing situation I found myself in this past week, and it has a lot to do with how I am explaining things to myself in the past few days.

To put it shortly, I got hit over the head with one of these couplets of opposites at Vespers last Sunday, and I've been kind of dazed ever since.

What I got so stunned by was the Collect - the prayer that sums up each of our services as it comes to an end. Now we had been using this particular collect since the evening before, which means that I had heard it four times before we got to Sunday Vespers, and I don't know where my mind was during the praying of that prayer on those four previous occasions - in outer space, probably. But at Sunday Vespers I actually heard what it said. It said: "O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity................" And something about that conjunction of "power" with "mercy and pity" sent my mind into a real whirl.

"Good God" I thought: "I never think of power in terms of mercy and pity. I think of power in terms of getting what I want. I think of power as the ability to Get Things Done. I think of power as the ability to run straight over any opposition. I think of power in lots of ways. But I never think of power as being merciful and showing pity."

What made this such a stunning moment, I think, was my body. I wasn't just thinking this dilemma, I was feeling it, and I was feeling it in my body. For some reason, when the officiant of that office sang the words "your almighty power" I really felt that power - or at least what my senses think of as power. And I was wrapped up in feeling my version of God's power when the words "mercy and pity" came along, and they completely toppled me off my (intellectual) horse. Because power - the power I think about with my mind and feel with my body, has to do with a lot of things, but not with mercy. Not with pity.

But God's power has everything to do with mercy and pity. That's what the collect says. And if that is true, I have a lot of work to do.

And this has occupied my thoughts all week long. For one thing, I have to face that fact that I have this God thing all wrong. Or partly wrong. Or a bit wrong. Or whatever. My thinking turns out to be crazy, at least when applied to God. I do, at a very important level in my conscious mind, think of God in the same way that gets people into so much trouble: "If God is so almighty powerful, why doesn't God just make everything all right? Why doesn't God just decide to do away with injustice and suffering? I could make a better world than this!" Well, I have managed to get my thinking adjusted so that I don't face that sort of dilemma much, but it turns out that the emotional sense that it all rests on is still securely in place. I think of power as the ability to run right over everything that stands in my way.

And God is different from that. God uses power differently than that. Even deeper: God, who IS power, isn't that sort of power. I have my image of God all wrong in an important (and until now, largely unconscious) way.

Even more than that, I have some really big and really important integration to work on, because this is not just about having the right ideas about God. After all, according to our tradition I am the image of God, (it's right there in the second chapter of Genesis) and that means that when I act out power in this world, what I have to be acting out is "chiefly mercy and pity". Somehow my felt sense of power has to be integrated with my felt sense of mercy and pity. If I don't start walking this path, I may be a very admirable individual in lots of ways, but I won't be the image of God to this world.

How do I feel powerful when exercising mercy and pity? That's the big question. And it's a very important question. I'm going to have to reflect on this, and look at my actions, and think what changes need to be made. And I have to pray a lot.

It's too bad that I'm nearly 70 years old. I think I have just uncovered a lifetime's worth of work that is waiting to be done. But it's pretty exciting, just the same.

1 comment:

Fred said...

(Note: Although this is posting under the blog of Father Fred Myers, that is because I volunteer here at St. Paul's Episcopal {Palm Springs} and cover the office on Fridays. The author of the post is Patrick Jarvis).

Re: Impossible (or difficult) thoughts....
I found this sermon to be most edifying, as the interpretation of God's nature actually defines and re-defines us throughout our life; surely our best efforts come from what we believe is reflective of and desired from our Heavenly Father, so it would follow that one's definition of who that God is at the deepest level and how He operates is the soil from which the finest of our crops grow (planted and tended, of course, by the Spirit).

Reflecting on this sermon, I was struck by how completely powerful, and merciless, 'power' has become as a concept in our culture. From war efforts where power, now tied to patriotism, offense posing as "defense" (and oddly enough, democracy) conjures up images of torture, "nation building" chaos and endless (but profitable) bloodshed, to popular nighttime soap operas where social and sexual power is used by glimmering creatures as a tool to control corporations, crush lives and gleefully take revenge......

Power has become an idol in our culture, a cold, gleaming, chrome idol so subtly intertwined with greed that the two are like the Siamese twins of evil, one spurring on the other to darker and deeper realizations of man's inhumanity to man. It (power) has been marketed as sexy, irresistible and wearing a very expensive dark suit (or a deep-cut evening gown, or $400 shoes, or whatever is power's "Flava-flav of the day".)

Just witness the release of the latest contestant in the prime-time sudser derby, a show entitled "Dirty Sexy Money" (ABC-Disney). I predict a long run.
Ruthlessness is just part of the gear, like a tie or a belt, not only tolerated, but encouraged and deemed necessary, taught to young aspiring executives, officers and entrepreneurs as the only way one makes it to the upper echelon.

Mercy is aiming pretty high in 2007. Empathy is a truly lost aptitude in our world today, available only to those of great spiritual gifting or those who acquire it while visiting their own personal Gethsemane. Children have it. But we start wringing it out of them earlier these days; national studies show startling drops in empathy levels of the "Baby Einstein" generation that has been plunked down in front of computers by a mommy and daddy hell-bent on seeing that Daddy, Jr. makes it to an Ivy League school.....or at least starts trying in infancy.

Meanwhile, when such unbridled power lacking God's mercy is allowed to flourish in real life, we end up bearing witness to atrocities such as Iraq and Darfur, where mercy and pity would get in the way of the oil profits.

What Prior Mudge's sermon provokes in me is a longing for God's true power...and following Prior Mudge's lead here, my desire is to allow God more and more room to define these things on His terms.... to take sovereignty in my heart (and beyond), a power steeped in mercy and pity, invoking images of grace, provision, healing, peace and tolerance. Ever so quietly, I realize that these are the attributes of love.

Somewhere between this and that previous sermon involving moonlight and bananas (which I highly recommend, if you haven't had the pleasure), I feel a deep longing to get to know my God better, to find Him here in the land of the living, to strip away my own misconceptions and projections and I, too sometimes wonder to what extent this is even possible; surely part of Him is beyond our reach; at the end of the day, are we allowed to see only that of Him which he will reveal to us?

Perhaps the closest we will ever come to defining God here, as we wrestle away, is the clue we are given in Isaiah 55:8-9....not so much about what He is, but what He isn't....

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts."(NRSV)

And looking around at what we have wrought, thank God for this.

This is why obedience and humility have a much deeper purpose and potential meaning than just the moral value of these actions. It is the faith that the Almighty Father knows best that keeps us at the table, while a longing to know that father more intimately cannot help but churn away within us, tearing down old misconceptions and beckoning us to new and enlightened understandings.

As usual, a deeper slice of God's great mystery, courtesy of Prior Mudge and the OHC; a sermon to walk through the day with, quietly. Thank you.

Patrick Jarvis
Palm Springs, California