God’s Hidden Face
Certain wonderful things always take me by surprise. Driving around the area this past week, I’m reminded once again of how beautiful Michigan can be in the fall. By now that knowledge should be an ingrained part of me, but from year to year I forget. I have a similar experience when I go to the mountains or the seashore. I have a vague, abstract memory of the beauty of the experience, but it only comes on me in full force when I’m actually there.
One of the ways theology has changed in my lifetime concerns the relationship of God to the environment. Historically, Christianity has been oriented more to the human and less to the natural order. The environmental crises of the 20th and 21st centuries have caused theologians and biblical scholars to reassess how we understand creation and our place in it. Where do we find God? In a church building? Beside a lake? In the midst of human interaction?
Clearly we find God in all those places. And, as the beauty of this year’s autumn attests, we find God in the fullness and splendor of the natural world. That’s not to say that the natural world is God. But it is to say that God is revealed to us in nature in ways that complement God’s self revelation in scripture, in sacrament, and in human community. The theologian Sallie McFague called the world, “the body of God”. That’s as good a formulation as I’ve ever heard.
One of the questions we routinely ask ourselves concerns God’s “hiddenness”. Although we see signs of God’s presence in the trees and streams and hills and lakes around us, why is it that God does not come plainly and overtly into our presence? Why must we always infer God from the evidences in scripture and the world? Why doesn’t God go on television, write a blog, have a Facebook page, or tweet?
One answer to that question was suggested by Archbishop Anthony Bloom, who suggested that God’s hiddenness might actually be an act of mercy: taken full on, God’s presence might just be too much for us. As John Irving once asked, how could I have a direct experience of God without being obliterated by it? How can God and I relate and still leave room for there to be a me?
In yesterday’s reading from Exodus, Moses concludes his visit atop Mount Sinai by asking that Yahweh show himself. Yahweh replies that he will be faithful to Israel in any number of ways, but he politely turns down the request to allow Moses to look directly at him. “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." [Exodus 33]
What Yahweh seems to be saying in this passage is that we humans will always have to content ourselves with seeing God obliquely. We cannot see God’s face and live. But we can see God in other ways. We see God in deep and mutual human relationships. We see God in the quest for justice. We hear God in scripture and we experience God in sacrament. And we see signs of God’s beauty and purpose in the natural world that surrounds us, especially now, in such plenitude and grace.
The theologians’ word for this kind of theology is apophatic, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “applied to knowledge of God obtained by way of negation.” Or as a seminary professor friend of mine once put it, “God is not in creation. God is behind us, with his hand on our shoulders”. It seems that’s as much as we can take.
As you experience the beauty of October in Michigan, let it be a sign for you of the One who is behind and around and among us. We cannot see that One’s face. But we can know that One’s presence by opening our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to the world.