THE RAINBOW

Since our language is a human creation, devised to reflect human concerns and to respond to human needs, we are very limited in what we can communicate regarding God. But it follows that, through language, very little regarding God can have been communicated to us. We may hear that God is omnipresent, for example, that God is everywhere; but hearing that doesn’t familiarize us with God. What does it do? It increases our ability to participate in a way of speaking called theology.

What would it even mean to familiarize yourself with omnipresence?

A blind person could theoretically become a skilled optician, could even teach university courses on optics. She might lecture effectively on rainbows, without ever having experienced one. In theory, she might even be productively lecturing to a classroom full of blind students, and they might go on to become lecturers themselves.

The analogy isn’t perfect, because the blind optician might possibly regain her sight, and then be able to experience a rainbow, to familiarize herself with a rainbow, while there is nothing that might happen to the theologian such that he could now experience or familiarize himself with omnipresence. Or omniscience. Or omnipotence. Or spirit. Or perfection. Or eternity.

If we insist on learning about God, what we are in fact insisting is that we be taught a language, the language of theology, so that we may participate in the sociology of theologians. This is what Wittgenstein used to refer to as a language game.

But we want something more, don’t we? We want something like the optician finally seeing her rainbow.

EARTH, SEA, SKY

God’s love – the Son – is like the earth, the sea, the sky. The earth extends itself to the sweet summer corn and the poisonous ivy. The ocean buoys and enables the shark as well as the dolphin. The sun and the rain bathe lizards and gazelles, the dove and the vulture, the lovable old dog and the wicked asp.

We insist on God being just, being discriminatory. But that is to create God after our own image.

HEAR O ISRAEL

We cannot imagine God before creation; it is a darkness beyond thought. We try to cast the light of human intelligence into that darkness, but there is neither depth for that light to plumb nor even surface for it to penetrate. The very words of our images – depth, surface, light,darkness – have no meaning is the before-creation.

There is however, within language and therefore within thought, something to say in truth of God before creation: God is one. That is to say, God is alone.

But from that – since we exist – we can also say that God, before creation, was not content. Contentedness is static, unmoving.

And that discontent within God’s oneness that generated creation, what can we call it?

We may call it love. Or we may call it the Son.

INCARNATION

Everything Jesus experienced was new to God. When Jesus opened his eyes, God first experienced sight. When Jesus suckled, God first experienced food. When Jesus clung to Mary, God first experienced companionship. And the first thing God ever said was almost undoubtedly imma, Aramaic for mother.

THE BROOM

A broom-maker gathers straw and and trims it and binds it together, then finds a long stick and fastens the straw to one end of the stick. What results is something that never existed before, that has no history. Being incorporated into a broom remains part of the history of the straw, and similarly for the stick. But the history of the broom begins when the broom-maker fastens the final knot. It is a new creation.

When people become acquainted, an acquaintanceship is born. Although not a material thing like a broom, it will also have its own history, distinct from the histories of the two people involved. So also marriages and partnerships and joint ventures of all kinds.

In a sense, everything we do is a new creation, with its own history. When I drive to the store or deliver a sermon or smoke a pipe, what is done reverberates through creation from that time forward in its own historical arc. But the infinity of these new creations are, so to say, sloughings from me, expanding out from me they way the water wake does from a boat, or the vapor trail from a plane. They are not separate elements brought together into something new, with its own identity.

When someone accepts Christ as Savior and Lord, a new relationship is born. That is the new creation of which Paul speaks. It is not the person undone or wiped out, and then re-created. The straw does not cease being straw nor the stick stick when, together, they form a broom. Instead, together, they form a new identity, which then begins upon its own life history.

TWO SPARROWS

The voice of God is at odds with the world’s voice in many ways.

Jesus illustrates one of them in several images: fasting, praying, performing acts of charity. When he advises secrecy in such activities, it’s not to encourage modesty or humility. It’s to encourage us to attend to the voice of God.

That singular voice – which is the figure for God’s presence, in its perfect attentiveness and unqualified concern – is the true nourishment our spirit requires for vitality in the Kingdom, but we cannot receive it while seeking sustenance elsewhere.

When Jesus advises anonymity from the world, he’s speaking as a physician, not as a moralist.

Once we become attentive to it, the same voice can be heard in the privacy of suffering (and all suffering is essentially private.) Its comforting tone there – or rather, our familiarity with it there – will serve us in good stead as we enter the final journey, where the voices of the world are withdrawn, the spotlight fades, and the audience stands and exits the theater of our lives.

God’s abiding presence to each of us is an eternal given, but it’s never simply administered: it must be appropriated. It’s like a telephone ringing softly, softly. Or like the astounding beauty waiting in every leaf and blade of glass. Or like the music of the spheres that we cannot hear, because we are always hearing it, from the moment we are born until the moment we die.

REWARDS

Whether musicians realize it or not, they are appropriating a gift from God.

Watch trained musicians playing together and you are witnessing the realization of a joy that non-musicians will never experience. And this is true whether the setting is a symphony orchestra or a jazz trio or a high school marching band.

It’s a complex and nebulous joy, comprised of many parts and having many degrees. There is mutual dependence and respect, there is the satisfaction of being a contributing member to a community of the like-minded and like-skilled, there is shared aspiration and shared satisfaction, there is a sense of generosity and aesthetic accomplishment, of being part of something unique and therefore timeless. And much else besides.

This special joy is available to anyone who is willing to acquire the skill of playing an instrument. You can say it is a reward, but that’s a loose and misleading way of speaking. To speak of rewards is to assume a rewarder. When you reach the top of a mountain and enjoy the view from there, the view is not the reward, as if it’s something that might have been withheld. The view is the discovery of what was there all along, waiting for you to climb the mountain and appropriate it.

Christianity is often spoken of as a religion of rewards, and that is equally loose and misleading. The thought is that, if you do such-and-such or lead a life that is so-and-so, God will then benefit you with something. But that’s like saying the dramatic view is like a pat on the head for the effort of climbing the mountain; or the special joy of playing in a jazz trio is like the payment from the owner of the club.

Christ does not teach how to earn rewards. He teaches how to appropriate the joy of being in harmony with God.

PERMISSIVE WILL

God’s sacrifice did not consist in the murder of Jesus on a cross, nor in allowing that murder. God’s sacrifice consisted in becoming human, and therefore helpless to the degree humans are helpless.

The Old Testament understanding is of God being in control, even of the terrible things that happen; the New Testament understanding is of love relinquishing control, in faith.

To theorize about God’s permissive will is to shrink from this terrible revelation.

SALVATION

There are only two ways of accomplishing education, that is, of lifting out of ignorance. One is through verbal instruction; the other is through demonstration.

Typically these two methods are combined in various proportions. We all begin ignorant of carpentry, for example, and our ignorance is lifted by someone showing us a mitered joint and telling us how it works, by holding up a model buttress and describing where the gravitational forces lean upon it. And so, little by little, we learn carpentry.

For some sorts of education – learning how to box, say, or to swim, or to kiss – the education leans very heavily on the showing; in teaching history or astrophysics, say, the verbal instruction takes most of the responsibility.

“Sinfulness” is a variety of ignorance, and salvation from it consists in education, the education, both verbal and demonstrative, that Christ provides. That is what is meant by Christ saving us from our sins.

Our salvation through Christ is not like being plucked from a leaky boat. It’s like being taught how to patch holes, and how to swim.

DIVINE PUNISHMENT

We have nothing but our language to describe God, heaven, the work of Christ, and so on, and our language is entirely a product of our concerns and objectives and limitations. The words God, heaven, and work are good examples. So is the word good. So is the word example. So is the word word.

You see the difficulty?

For all its wondrous powers, human language is of little use in communicating that which stands outside of our concerns and objectives and limitations. That’s why Jesus is almost always allusive and parabolic in his speech.

Consider the insistence that God is morally just, and how that contention is used to argue that God’s very nature requires the infliction of punishment – perhaps even never-ending punishment – on the wrong-doer. According to this way of thought, moral righteousness requires that each moral being be treated according to his works. So virtue merits proportionate reward, and vice proportionate punishment. For God to arrange consequences according to any other pattern would run contrary to his own nature, which is impossible. Quod erat demonstrandum.

(We won’t dwell on the unforeseen implications this way of thinking has for commonplace notions of heaven and hell, except to say that no imaginable human virtue is proportional (by any human understanding of proportion) to everlasting bliss, nor any vice to endless torment. Thus this argument from God’s nature would rule out both heaven and hell, as they are commonly conceived.)

But from the point of view of our present reflection, there is a much more fundamental problem. Our God-given conscience does most certainly incline us to think that effortful goodness (virtue) and effortful malfeasance (vice) merit or warrant different consequences, just as an itch merits scratching or a full ear of corn warrants harvesting. And so in order to reflect this warranted revelation of conscience we speak of rewarding the one and punishing the other, here as always utilizing words that are products of our own concerns and practices.

We can trust the distinction itself, since it is revealed by God in conscience; but what we cannot trust is how humans have embodied the distinction in language and therefore in thought. How God embodies the distinction in reality may be entirely different.

It may, in fact, be true of vice, as it is said to be of virtue, that in God’s reality, it is its own reward.