Yesterday, an interesting status update on a friend’s Facebook page read as follows:
I think good Theology begins with the understanding that we know far less about God than we think we do.
I countered with:
Good theology starts with speaking about God as sensibly as we can. Remember ‘logos’ indicates not just words, but wisdom. Stupid talk about God is not theology.
And a few others chimed in, one about raising ourselves to God’s level, rather than bringing God down to ours. I’m not at all sure that can happen, so I replied:
Or at least acknowledging that we are not on the level of God, and only see the underside at most.
Uh-oh. I may have to think about seeing God from the underside, and write a blog post…
To which my friend who originated the discussion gave an enthusiastic “Do it!” And so, I obey.
It occurs to me that one of the major differences between the great religions is in the way they view the origin and nature of their holy books. For example, Muslims believe that the Quran is the Prophet Mohammed’s direct recitation of exactly the words given to him by Allah for the instruction of his people. Some Christians believe the same is true of the Bible, but the majority of mainstream Christians do not accept this view. Contemporary biblical scholarship is heavily on the side of a multiplicity of human authors, working under divine inspiration–but there is little direct quoting of God by the biblical writers. “Thus says the LORD” is mainly limited to the prophetic works, prominently in Jeremiah, but it is not a phrase very often invoked. The stories of the Ten Commandments in Exodus and Deutoronomy are of God giving the law to Moses in written form–Moses was not to corrupt it by re-writing it, although there has been much in the way of interpretation and debate on all of the Torah throughout Judaeo-Christian history.
Seeing God face-to-face is not something most human beings get to do. Exodus 33 is a bit confusing, because at one point, it is said that “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend”, but by the end of the chapter, God tells Moses that “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And then God lets Moses see him–but only his back.
Trinitarian Christians believe that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine, which means that those who had visual contact with the incarnate Son actually did see God face-to-face. Since the Ascension, some people have claimed visions of the face of God in the form of the face of Jesus, but not all Christians accept these mystical encounters as verifiable fact.
For most of us, we think of God in spatial terms–God is “above”, we are “below”, and we only see God in a glass, dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12) at the present. But we never seem to think that even that dark and blurry image above us is incomplete: we don’t ever speak much about the notion that we might only see the underside of God.
We are looking from below (metaphorically, at least)–God’s thoughts are “higher than our thoughts”, so we believe God said in Isaiah 55:8-9. In my visits around a variety of churches, I saw a lot of people raising their faces and hands upward in prayer–we tend to direct upwards to encounter God. Or, if we are of the ‘miserable sinner’ sort, downwards, so our faces might not be seen by God. Which, if we believe that God is everywhere and sees all, is a bit silly.
It may disturb some people that even if we only see the image of God dimly, that we don’t have the whole image in front of us. But I rather like the idea of only seeing the underside of God. We here on earth, even the most spiritually adept and theologically knowledgeable, only have access to the part that is usually ignored or about which we are a little embarrassed. Who wants to spend much time thinking that the heavenward gaze of the eleven surviving disciples is really a long up-skirt view of Jesus? The final shot of the movie Gravity is really just a long up-boob shot of Sandra Bullock–perhaps not the best way of visually capturing the emotions of having survived a nearly unique-in-human-experience ordeal.
Little kids, and prurient adolescents and adults, find the bottoms of living beings amusing and exciting–partly because they are in some measure taboo in most societies. But faces are primary. As infants, we first respond to and bond with faces. We don’t bond with rear-ends. Faces are nuanced and expressive; backsides, not so much. Bottoms and those things associated with them may have some interest throughout our lives–with any luck, as we mature, it will be put in proper proportion.
It’s the face, though, that first thing we bond with, that people look for when they have been absent from one another for a long time. It’s the face that shows the delight in seeing a loved one after a long separation, that responds to a joke or sad news, that shows love and affection–or, as any adolescent who has displeased a parent, gives the stink-eye across a room as a silent signal to modify behavior immediately. Or Else.
And maybe, during most of our time on earth, we are really just spiritual pre-adolescents, and God only allows us to see the underside because that is really all we are interested in. We aren’t ready to appreciate the full expression of God. And I can only imagine what the results of getting the stink-eye from the Holy One of Israel might be.
But maybe we need to appreciate undersides better. Most mammal undersides are actually rather boring, but the underside of a leaf can be quite interesting. The underside of the western painted turtle is really pretty magnificent. I want to think about the underside of God more as possessing the beauty of the painted turtle than of the silliness of adolescent butt-jokes.
I have to think that there is much more to God than I am able to see from below. I really hope that all I see now is the underside. I hope that all the Christian literature, theology, architecture, art and music–and all the stuff the church has done both well and badly through its history–is just the underside of God. I hope that all we’ve managed to record and describe is not just a dim version of the whole, but a dim version of what we see from one vantage point only.
Because some days, what I see of this underside is more human backside than painted turtle.