Who is this God we seek? I

Further to my post down the board on the need for catechesis about the teachings of Christ on the Pharisees (see 156674.html), I suggested that we need an alternative vision of what this whole spiritual quest is about. In this post I am trying to elucidate what some of those qualities of that alternative vision are.

At the heart of our problem is the difficulty of trying to describe something that is essentially mysterious. God is literally "indescribable". There are no words, no sentences, no encyclicals, no great works of music or art that can adequately encompass the "greatness" and "fullness" of what God is and who God is and what God offers to and seeks of us. The ancients invented a word "YaWeH" or "YWH" for God which literally meant "that which cannot be contained by words". YaWeH was the descriptor for that which could not be described or even uttered by us mere mortals.

As human beings we intrinsically do not like things that do not have simple answers. My own formal training was as a Physicist. At present I am reading a fascinating book on the history of the enormous breakthroughs in fundamental scientific insight that went on in the first three decades of the 20th century that have led to all these marvellous technologies that we have like the internet, all the technologies that have taken the back-breaking grind out of work and which have given all of us in the Western world, even the very poorest, access to far more leisure time and release from the worry of trying to work out where our next meal is coming from. The book is called "In Search of Schrodinger's Cat – Quantum Physics and Reality". It is written by John Gribbin and is one of the very best books I've seen written for the non-specialist trying to give some insight into the enormous changes that have occurred in the sciences which fundamentally change the whole base frame of reference through which ordinary people view reality.

In it Gribbin explains one of the problems that dogged the great theorists who were trying to understand the mysteries of the fundamental forces at work that create the reality of what we see in the things we can see and touch on our desks or as we are driving a motor car. The problem these people faced, and still face to a large extent, is that the atom is so small, and so mysterious, that we can only draw approximate pictures or analogies of what it might look like. We simply cannot, literally by scientific principle as we now know, we cannot make a microscope powerful enough that will magnify these small and mysterious things to the point where we can "see" them as we would, say, be able see billiard balls on a table.

(At one point Gribbin gives one of the best descriptors I've ever read of how small these atoms are. I'll condense it here. If you took a lump of carbon about the size of a 500 gram slab of butter and you had a pair of tweezers small enough to be able to pick out of it the single carbon atoms. If you now imagine being able to pick those atoms off that slab of coal or carbon at the rate of one a second and put them in a pile, how long do you think it would take you to move all of the atoms in that slab to the new pile? Think about it and I'll give the answer at the end of this post.)

One of the things that bedevilled the scientists for so long in trying to discover the fundamental laws in Quantum Physics is that no one can actually "see" what is trying to be described. It is similar to the problem we all have in trying to "see" God. To understand something it is very helpful if you can firstly "see" what you are trying to understand. With God we cannot "see" this Mystery. Like the fundamental Physicist all we have to go on are the "manifestations" of the presence of God. We can "see" his handiwork, we can see, as it were, the footprints he leaves in his wake, or the shadow his towering presence casts over us, but he is so big we cannot actually see him. Even describing God as "him" is a literary device that is inaccurate and is like the thing John Briggs was trying to describe in a post this morning of how we use the story of Adam and Eve to try to get our heads around the presence of good and evil in the world and how this dualism came to be. God is not "a him" but is a Mystery that has some qualities that are like that of a father in a family.

In my earlier post I suggested that the problem we face at the moment is that the world (particularly the Church) seems to be dividing into two incompatible visions as to who God is, and what he is expecting of us.

Before we look at the incompatibilities, let us first try and examine where there might be points of agreement. I think virtually all Christians or Catholics might agree to the proposition that belief in God calls us into some kind of obedience. If we believe in God surely that implies we need to listen to whatever it is that he might have to say to us. I think also that all Catholics/Christians would also agree with the proposition that God is a Mystery — none of us can adequately describe who God is. We cannot "touch" God, or "hold him in our hand", or even point and say "look, that is God!" just as the nuclear scientist cannot actually point to some tiny something and say "look, that is a single atom!".

If we agree on those things then where must the difficulty or incompatibility be?

To me it seems to come down to what we mean by this notion of obedience. One vision puts forward the proposition that God is calling us to obedience of a whole string of externals. This is the pharisaical understanding of religion and spirituality. It posits that God has provided us with a whole string of rules or commandments. The spiritual quest is presented as some kind of endeavour of learning all those rules or commandments and then obeying them. It seems to posit that "life is simple" and the spiritual quest is fulfilled or accomplished by what I describe as a hoop-jumping exercise very similar to the old model we had of what education was all about. You learned the rules by rote and if at the end of the year you were judged to have memorised them sufficiently well you advanced into a higher grade to learn the next level of rules. At the end of your schooling you were deemed to know all the rules and you became an adult and for the rest of your life you simply had to comply with all those rules and you would be "saved" or be given "the passport to heaven".

Many people today have grown past all that stuff now though. They can see that that is a totally inadequate explanation as to what their lives are about and what this core spiritual quest of their lives is about. I suggest that most of them would appreciate though that in the early stages of learning you do have to start out with a model like that in order to gain the rudimentary skills with which to reason and learn. It's a bit like learning to ride a pushbike. You need the "training wheels" for the first couple of days until you have learned to balance but after you have learned the art of balance the training wheels actually become an impediment to becoming a really competent bike rider.

This is how I see the alternative image I think we (the Church) need to be presenting to our world. The external rules are still important. I believe we do still have to learn them and learn them well. I also believe obedience is also still important. Where I disagree with my Pharisee friends though is in my understanding of what, ultimately, I am seeking to be obedient to. Is it merely those rules or is it something else? Is it something that is even more important than those rules? I think it is.

Ultimately Christ (the emissary God gave us to explain these things) is saying to us that life is not simple. The evidence of our own eyes should tell us that, and more so the older we get and if we are saddled with the responsibility of educating children and we get to gaze in wonder at how they "tick". (That's as wondrous, Alex, as "gazing at the heavens".) His discourses on the Pharisees are basically all about trying to explain that and trying to explain that you are never going to get to heaven if you think the spiritual quest is about some slavish, hoop-jumping following of externals.

What Christ urges our obedience to is "the Way". But what is "the Way"? As nearly as I can make sense of it, it seems to me that it is "the way of thinking and acting like Christ" would do if he were standing in our shoes and facing the same dilemmas and choices that we have to make. The difficulty though is that the on-ground choices we have to make often involve choosing between all the rules and often the rules can be in seeming conflict. For some reason the Pharisee though seems to have enormous difficulty in seeing that. They seem to only see life in very black or white vision. There are no "shades of grey or subtle colours" — things are either right or they are wrong and there are no subtle distinctions in the middle between the two extremes. Just stick around this discussion board long enough and you can see this pattern spelled out graphically time after time. Curiously enough these people also seem to have a great aversion to reading anything longer than about two sentences so it is unlikely that they'll be reading this. What they read is usually short and so often is what they have to say.

CONTINUED [use navigation below]...

©2005Tom Scott/Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Posted: 16Dec2004, 3:58 pm