Friday, May 19, 2006

Mirror-image, And Absence

I have a number of close friends, each of whom have been committed Christians for many years, who find themselves at present questioning whether God is interested in being actively involved for good in their lives, or even exists. For some, the thing they are wrestling with is the gulf between their experience – in particular, various different kinds of loss – and the way in which they hear other Christians – in particular, those in positions of leadership – talk about life lived in relationship with God. For others, the thing they are wrestling with is finding that God is silent – or, perhaps worse, has become silent – again compounded by a church culture that speaks freely of hearing God clearly and regularly. In each case, there is concern of being rejected – or at least told that the problem lies within themselves – by their community if they were to publicly break the (perceived or actual? probably a bit of both) conspiracy of certainty.

I’m of the opinion that, this side of heaven, our experience of God is always partial, always provisional, continuously being over-written, “but a poor reflection…” And that does not mean that I believe that God is unknowable, or that he hasn’t revealed himself to us: just that we don’t have any right to be dogmatic about our knowledge, our experience of relationship with God. It is a child, not an adult, who needs the world to be a simple, black-and-white, place. And there is something that is greater than both faith and hope, and that is love.

[The photos are reflections of my daughter – someone who exists, and whom I know in part – in the kettle and a mirror.]

But I’m wondering about something else. One of the ways Jesus described God (and he should know), in more than one context and on more than one occasion, is as a man who goes away on a journey for a long time [the parable of the tenants, Matthew 21:33-46 // Mark 12:1-12; the parable of the talents, Matthew 25:14-30]. I’m wondering what it means to take that description seriously – and I’d want to suggest it means that just because God is omnipresent does not mean that our experience of God is, or is meant to be, omnipresent. Perhaps experiencing the absence of God is not abnormal, but one aspect of the normal Christian life; not the result of some failing to exercise faith on the part of the human, but the result of one aspect of God’s character – a God who, according to Jesus, will return (this experience may be long, but it isn’t indefinite) and will restore justice (making right the wrongs we have suffered, as well as those we have inflicted). That might not make everything okay…but it does mean that you can tell your equivalent of Job’s comforters to take a long walk off a short pier (in a loving and non-judgemental way, of course).

“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish things behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:8-13

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  1. I agree that people (pastors and others) often speak of the Christian's relationship with God in a manner that is not true to experience. Thus they set people up for disappointment.

    The "going away for a long time" passages are too closely associated with Jesus' going away, and the delay of the parousia, to speak to this problem for me. They speak of a theological conundrum confronting the early community rather than a personal trial.

    Maybe the problem is that people think a certain kind of experience is the only way God is present. He is present in a different way on other sorts of occasions, and therefore goes undiscerned.

    I sometimes feel closest to God at times of great disappointment and sorrow. It's a feeling that I've been thrown back entirely on God's resources, because I'm at the end of my own.

    Not a sense of exultation, which I enjoy on other occasions; just a mere presence — a sense that, at the bottom of it all, the final reality is the God Who Is There.

    I would tell people that both these kinds of experience are real, and testify to God's presence in our lives. And no doubt there are other ways of experiencing God besides these two.

    Finally, Christian tradition also witnesses to "the dark night of the soul"; an experience of forsakenness, akin to Jesus' sense of God's dereliction during the crucifixion. C.S. Lewis's book, "A Grief Observed", is an interesting study of such a time in his own life.

  2. Anonymous1:30 am

    This has definitely struck a few chords at the moment.

    It is of course easier to have faith in God when you can see him doing positive things. Not seeing him close challenges our faith, with the potential to either strengthen it or break it down.

    (And then there's Douglas Adams' [partially flawed but nonetheless entertaining] babelfish argument - that God cannot give anyone irrefutable proof of his existence, because proof removes the need for faith in his existence, and without faith God is nothing).

  3. Great to have some comments turning my thoughts into a conversation. From other feedback, too, this touches something of a shared experience.

    I recognise the "dark night of the soul" tradition...but I think I could also imagine a "long season of overcast grey days" tradition (that probably hasn't been written about so much) (picking up on the Adams reference, he coined the expression "the long dark tea-time of the soul").

    I guess in regard to q's parousia interpretation, I'm loathe to read any passage in the Bible at just one level of meaning. Not that it can mean whatever I want, or need, it to mean; but that I think scripture is too rich to work only at a 1:1 dynamic. So to interpret these passages at a community level relating to the Son does not, for me, mutually exclude interpreting them at a communal and/or individual level relating to the Father. Nor does the observation that we often miss God's presence because we have a narrow view of how he might be found - I agree - rule out the possibility that we might rightfully experience God's absence from time to time...

    Re faith and proof, by the way, I'm not convinced by the argument (not Adams'; the more general one). I have proof that my wife exists; but to have a relationship with her still requires faith - that she is faithful, etc. Faith, therefore, relates to the possibility of ongoing relationship (always fragile), not the possibility of recognising existence.

  4. Anonymous5:08 am

    Re faith and proof - I agree, as always you manage to put the argument into words very well.