Tag Archive | God

The Silence of God

The music soars to a climax, and ends. The audience sits breathless, silent. The silence is entire, beautiful in and of itself, and very, very short–just before the applause begins.

Karen Armstrong, a British author and commentator known for her books on comparative religion, writes in “Louder Than Words,” (Literary Review) about the power of silence from a theological point of view. The article is a review of Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

The silence of God is about the Divine as utterly incomprehensible. There is nothing we can say. All our language about God is meaningless because the Divine is beyond all our language–all our understanding.

But what about that pause when the symphony ends? Does art participate in a holy silence, the silence that is God? Almost certainly, I think, silence is present and central to art, literature, music.

Said William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

In the meantime, most of us must rely on art.

Spanish Revelations scan

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The Question of God and Evil

 

I hadn’t realized it, but April is Holocaust month, a time to remember and think about the unimaginable events that marked our history in the last century.

Ron Rosenbaum, writing in “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” (The Naked Truth), wrestles with the meaning of the Holocaust. Wikipedia tells me that in the ’70s and ’80s, he spent years researching Adolph Hitler, finally publishing Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil in 1988. His  life as a Jewish man, and a thinking, feeling human being has been haunted by the Holocaust. It, more than any other single event, has raised the question of evil and God.  The study of the question even has its own field of study, called theodicy. How, it asks, can a God who is worshiped as an all-powerful, all-knowing, and loving deity,a God who  is able to intervene in history and has time and again, be reconciled with the evil that pervades our world? Why would such a God permit the Holocaust?

 

Rosenbaum takes the attempts to answer this question one by one, and finds them empty, sometimes obscene, and always unconvincing. More, he agrees with the renegade Rabbi Richard Rubenstein who wrote, “Jewish history has written the final chapter in the terrible story of the God of History. And the pathetic hope of coming to grips with Auschwitz through the framework of traditional Judaism will never be realized.”

Or, as Bob Dylan put it, “hitler did not change history. Hitler was history….”

Rosenbaum’s essay in this instance has to do with his passionate opposition to every attempt to explain away this awful God, and the offense one of his listeners took to his words.  My concerns take another direction.

When I finished reading Rosenbaum’s piece, I looked at the comments that followed–dozens of them, pursuing the same convoluted debates the author had already taken apart. Rosenbaum had been talking specifically about the God he knew as a Jew, the creator-God who acts in history, but most of the ranting men and women professed no such faith. And that’s why I wondered why none of them entertained the answer I’d given to the question of evil years ago.

I’d studied philosophy of religion on the undergraduate and graduate levels, so it wasn’t a question I hadn’t thought about. If God or the Divine couldn’t be both good and all-powerful, then it seemed to me it was obvious that the Divine was love and goodness, and not all-powerful. I think the point of the crucified son of God is exactly that: a demonstration of  Divine love rather than power, God as one with humanity, weak, meek, with another kind of strength perhaps, but not that of the thundering Deity of the Old (and New!) Testaments.

Certainly, that answer isn’t original with me, so why, I wonder, why didn’t any of those ranting letter-writers consider that possibility? For those who believe, does God have to be all-powerful? By definition? Is our culture hung up on the idea of power? I could go on, but I’d love to hear what my readers think!

A God of your own understanding

I’m not at home this week and so I’m making short, pithy posts. No running on and on as I tend to do. Just things that caught my imagination and made me think.

Today’comes from a woman on public radio. I was on my way from one place to another and she’s not someone whose name I remember, but someone city-bred, the daughter of a gangster, she had lived most of her life among people busily and professionally breaking the law. Sounded tough.
I was startled when she talked suddenly about God. “A God of your own understanding,” she said.  Of course, I thought,  it must always be a God of your own understanding. But what a perfectly wonderful way to express it.

And what will that God feel like and look like? Sound like?

 

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Now, it’s your turn….

W.H. Auden and the God Who Suffers

I happened to run across a review of Auden and Christianity by Arthur Kirsch in an old New York Review of Books the other day, and while I didn’t read it word for word, I read enough to be intrigued. I knew vaguely that Auden was something of a Christian — it turns out that he thought of Christianity as an aspiration, and not something normal human beings can attain.

According to the reviewer, Edward Mendelson, Auden’s Christianity was from the beginning based on “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It was what he looked for in Christians, and in the human race. It was what he expected of himself. But as a child he’d also loved the church for its ritual. All that incense, poetry and pageantry.

I can identify with that, although our situations weren’t the same. Auden’s father was a psychologist and amateur archaeologist. He grew up in a world where the arts and literature were present. In my childhood, they were almost entirely missing: religion was the only place where meaning and beauty could be discovered, if only in an ordinary suburban Lutheran church, and not the high church of England.

Anyway, the Christian church played an important part in both our lives. No matter what beliefs I might come to hold, no matter how I would eventually think, write or create — Christian ritual and lore would provide much of the context and the language. Auden’s poetry, claims Mendelson, wasn’t overtly Christian, but the religious ideas he derived from it were nearly always at its base.

Take for example, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” a poem all about Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558).

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The poem, Mendelson points out, also sketches the outline of the Christian story; it mentions, as if in passing, a “miraculous birth,” a “dreadful martyrdom,” and the “forsaken cry” of the dying Icarus — an echo of the victim in the gospels who “cried with a loud voice, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’

The poem and the painting describe human indifference. If you study the painting, you see that while Icarus is its subject, he’s barely present—his legs and feet are just visible (in front of the ship on the lower right of the painting). No one hears him scream; no one sees the boy who fell from the sky.

And that commonplace failure (to love one’s neighbor) has universal significance. As Auden noted, the gospels describe the commandments to love one’s God and to love one’s neighbor as “like” each other, and for Auden the moral significance of one’s neighbor becomes clear when one thinks of him as created in the image of God.

For Auden, the moral crisis that transformed and deepened his religious convictions, was World War II, when the depth of humanity’s inability to love drove him back into the church and to more profound spiritual considerations. I won’t try to describe how he got where he got — it’s complicated and you and I should probably both read the book, dear reader.  But I was excited to see that Auden reached a similar conclusion as the one I reached some time ago.

God is a God who suffers.

Auden found himself agreeing with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most important theologians of our time and a martyr to Nazi fanaticism: “It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.”

It has long seemed to me that the only way to make sense of evil and suffering in the world is to understand God as a suffering divinity, and that the crucifixion of Christ makes exactly that point. That conclusion puts both of us at odds with much of orthodox Christianity because it means that God is not all-powerful.

A problem if your definition of God is that “He” is all-powerful.