Thursday, September 13, 2012


In my last blog post, I was pondering the nature of reality, particularly as it relates to the passionate relationship between God and His people. I spoke of surfaces and shadows and how they reflect what lies beneath, hidden from the perceptions of our physical senses. I’d like to carry on from there and push a little further into our perceptions of God. What kind of Being is this who loves us and who inspires our love in return? Our only tangible connections with him are through his Book, his created world, the sacraments and each other. These we can touch and see and there is something about them that reflects the reality of God, albeit in a shadowy kind of way. For the rest, we must rely on our minds and our spiritual sensibilities.

Now you see it, now you don’t
As far as I can tell, our minds can grasp only a fraction of what lies under the surface, in the spiritual realm. We do catch glimpses now and then, for human beings are both flesh and spirit, after all. These aren’t clear perceptions, for the most part, and might be compared to seeing something in our peripheral vision. There are times when I perceive a movement out of the corner of my eye and when I turn to look, it has disappeared or is different than the initial glimpse led me to believe. 

Police officers taking down witness statements have found that three witnesses to the same crime may report three different versions of what happened or what the perpetrator looked like. Things like distractions (other elements in the scenario that impact the senses), personal perceptions, expectations, or judgements can affect how they make sense of what they see. Also, It is common for witnesses to add “after-thought” additional details to fill in the gaps in their mental pictures of events. For the most part, these are not purposeful attempts to sully the truth, but rather glitches in how the human mind perceives and processes reality.

I believe this is how it is with our perceptions of the spiritual realm. I mean, who on earth ever has a clear picture or idea of God? For one thing, God told Moses long ago that no one could ever see God and live. We get a glimpse into the shattering effects of God’s presence when we read Isaiah. When the prophet was transported mysteriously into the presence of God through a vision, he was completely undone by the experience. He fell down as if dead. Surrounded as he was by the holiness of God, he was intensely aware of and shamed by his own sinfulness. He needed the intervention of an angel, who swooped down to “cleanse” him so he could survive the encounter. It’s a strange story.

Beyond description
Isaiah wrote down what happened in this vision of God and we may be awed, encouraged or even confused and frightened by his description. When I read that passage in Isaiah 6, I sense that Isaiah may have struggled a bit to record the incident. Perhaps he found that words were not adequate to describe something so deeply spiritual – so Real. And then here we come, centuries later, and try to picture it in our own minds. We are limited to what our imaginations and intellects are able to fathom of something totally outside our own experience.

I’d like to fast forward a few centuries to the phenomenon that the Apostle John encountered and which he recorded in Revelation 1. He was an old man at this time, exiled to a distant island for preaching the Gospel once too often. One day, during his devotional time on the beach, John had a vision. He writes that, while he was “worshiping in the spirit”, he heard a voice speaking and saw someone who was “like the Son of Man”. John describes him as having “…hair white like wool, as white as snow. And his eyes were like flames of fire. His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace and his voice thundered like mighty ocean waves.” 

This amazing Being then made it clear that he was the resurrected Jesus. John could not get up from where he had fallen to the sand, in some sort of daze, until Jesus reached down and touched him. Can you picture Jesus as John depicts him? I think I’d have fainted too!

These recorded encounters with Divinity are important because they remind us that we are not dealing with a God that can be fully understood by our probing intellects. Theology is part of understanding, of course. God gave us reasoning minds and we need to comprehend him and his ways on that level. Isaiah had visions, but he also heard God speaking to him in words and recorded what he heard so people could read it and grasp the things God wanted to communicate. A gifted theologian can help us to navigate through text that was written thousands of years ago, in an ancient language within the context of an unfamiliar culture.

Having said that, I do think that language and reasoning – the underpinnings of theology - are limited when it comes to answering the question, “Who is God and what is he like?” Intellectual perception is good, but if we stop with that, we lose our grip on Reality. Why would I say that? I think that, when we rely solely upon our intellects, we tend to reduce God to what we can understand through reasoning. As a result, we are unable to see anything outside of our mental constructs. In a different chapter of Isaiah, God says to the people:

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (55:8-9)

How do I get there from here?
Our thoughts, it would seem, are not able to fully appreciate the thoughts and ways of God. Well then, how else are we to perceive truth about a rather mysterious God, if not with our reasoning minds? The way in which the Bible was written is a clue. There are lots of theological bits and bites, to be sure, but those aren’t the main course. In addition to theology, we find poetry, allegory, prophetic visions, stories, biographies, narrative description, parables and more. This reveals a God of variety who will not stick to one genre in his desire to communicate with us. 

Some parts of the Bible march in directly through the intellect, while others creep in at the periphery of conscious understanding. Some inspire; others touch our hearts; some strike us as tedious; others are rip-roaring exciting. We may be offended at the picture that some sections paint of an angry or jealous God. Or we may be stunned and delighted at his love and kindness toward the weak and weary. All of the chapters in all of the books reveal something of God and the grand story of his relationship with human beings.

This is not always easy to accept. Intellectually, we may not be able to understand how to integrate the seemingly conflicting pictures of God that come through in various parts of the Bible. Theologians can help, but even they disagree at times - not only about the Bible, but also how God is revealed in the world. What are we to do?

It isn’t as if we are alone in our quest. Jesus made it clear that his Spirit resides in his followers, and is busy teaching, counseling and revealing truth to them. God’s Book comes alive in a way no other does because the author is sitting right there with us, showing us things we can’t take in through reason alone. It’s the same with the natural world, the sacraments and the people we meet along the way. God makes himself known beyond shadows and surfaces, even though it may be a glimpse from the periphery or a grainy snapshot. A little unclear, but very, very real nonetheless.

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