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.

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