After reading Michael Novak’s book, No One Sees God (2008) several years ago, as much as I enjoyed the book, it has been its title that has stuck most with me, the clear simplicity of this most vexing aspect of God: His invisibility. It forms the basis for all the various religious ideas, doctrines, practices and even its superstitions. It floods the vacuum between the human and the divine, as though a huge veil hides all of God’s love, mercy and “works” (particularly miracles) from our view, which only prods us to speculate about Him through “rumours” and ideas, which may well be quite off the mark. God’s invisibility becomes clearest in the times of our personal and collective Spiritual angst, when we hearken skyward to be answered by He who knows all, but shares such too sparingly. And so, for thousands of years, we have sometimes foolishly filled in this vacuum with our own, too-human, remedies.
For a very long time, the primitives had simple rituals about God’s invisibility, centered around their quite Naturalized sense of the world, with only limited speculation, there being no real theology. Theology is our human speculation about how God functions, upon which religious practices are formed and passed down through the generations as though they are accurate and necessary. I would say that, too often, they are not, and actually set us apart from God by imposing what fills this human-divine vacuum with too many and often too-complex notions of “how God is.” This is true regardless of the religion involved, and indeed, is common to virtually every “evolving” religion. I would say that religion itself is designed to deal with this invisibility of God in the form of the human-divine vaccum, and, too often, fails to satisfactory straddle this perhaps unshrinkable chasm with the bloated speculation of the well-meaning but likely wrong. The old refrain is “God only knows.”
It occurred to me that a relevant starting point for looking closer at God’s invisibility would be to discuss the long history of animal sacrifices in various religions. It is thought that, as peoples became more agrarian, such sacrifices showed appreciation to the gods for bountiful harvests. A long list of cultures involved in such sacrifices include: the Egyptians, Cannanites, Minoans, Persians, Hebrews (early Jews), Greeks, Romans as well as present-day Islam and Hinduism. All such cultures invented intricate practices for their animal sacrifices, which, for the Israelites, for example, perhaps led to their complex dietary laws over time. Common to such practices was that the animals needed to be “unblemished” in order to atone for our human sins as offered to the relevant gods as a kind of sacrifice-induced forgiveness, or at least thanking them for good fortune. These rituals of animal sacrifices would be organized around our speculation about what the gods demanded from us in exchange for either divine benevolence or to forestall their wrath. Long before there was the sophisticated organization of either Judaism or Christianity (the religions with which we are most familiar), these animal sacrifices formed the basis for our attempts to both explain and possibly shrink the human-divine chasm in ways that were sensible and could sustain us through both successes and calamities. The problem is, they don’t really work. After the destruction of the second Jewish temple in 70 C.E., these sacrifices ended, and have never resumed. The word holocaust means “burnt offering.” Christians would say that Jesus was our sacrifices that superseded the animals, even though there were occasions of other human sacrifices, and not just the virgins in old stories. We proud modern-types would say that we are long past needing animal sacrifices to worship God, but what about His invisibility?
In replacing these animal sacrifices, there came the Jewish ideas about cleanliness and foregoing idol worship, combined with liturgical worship in the synagogues, which would later profoundly influence Catholic and, to a lesser extent, Protestant church services. Out of Torah observance would come Jesus’ Lord’s Prayer and later the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the latter heralding the notion of “beliefs” as a means of clarifying how we could sight God on our side of the human-divine chasm, whether or not this suited Him or reflected “His ways.” It would be these beliefs that would spur the permanent rift between Jews and Christians, much later between Catholics and Protestants, and still later the often misguided denominational friction within the Protestant churches. God had become the subject of innumerable doctrinal disputes, about which He would likely snicker, saying to us: I never made you to have foolish disputes about Me, since I know better. Dietary laws, liturgies and creeds tried their hardest to plug some of the many holes that are human-divine vacuum, but they tend to leak and even disappear once we step outside of our churches into the larger world. I discussed my objections to the Holy Trinity in previous essay. Communion (or the Eucharist), coming from Jesus Himself, functions as a direct expression of what God wants from us as worship of Him. It is edibly and drinkably tangible compared to the abstraction of baptism, just as the 23rd Psalm, in its plaintive brevity, sings above the more wailsome prose of many of the other Psalms. Religion has always been about what we can hold onto between weekly worship services. So we ask: How do we continually conjure and serve He whom we can not see?
What is the role of prayer in trying to alleviate God’s invisibility? It is through prayer that any or all of what church-goers take from religious services to personalize into voicing our needs on a daily basis. When spoken in church, the calling of “Let us pray” is quickly drawn into often-familiar verbiage which bypasses the most vexing question: Who is God, and what might He look like? Or, who is it that we are praying to? This issue of our inability to see God’s “face,” to my recollection of many years spent in churches, is never articulated, and probably would be described as “Whoever God looks like to each of you.” The chronic weight of churched familiarity sometimes dissolves completely when we are praying to God on our own. We become more acutely aware of the human-divine chasm, and sometimes “the words do not come” or what has been called “dry prayers.” When I first started writing religious poetry over thirty years ago, I conjured God’s face as having twelve eyes, one for each of the hours of the daytime or night-time, meaning that He had panoptical sight, being able to see in all directions at once. I no longer pray to what I perceive as God’s “maybe face,” since I now know that anything I might conjure would undoubtedly be wrong. Theology is unintentionally designed to diminish our helplessness before God out of knowing so little about Him. It gives us a false sense of confidence, which too easily melts before the reality of how ignorant about Him we actually are. It is during prayer that such ignorant helplessness becomes apparent to most of us, whether seldom or overly often. It then becomes easier to turn away from God, saying “I’ll come back to You tomorrow.” Not being Catholic, I am not interested in reciting rote devotional prayers offered by that church, because I believe God wants us to come unto Him “as we are,” not through rehearsed, sanctioned prayers nearly trademarked and overly familiar. God wants to be “beseeched,” not merely “talked to.” He hears millions or billions of prayers each day, I think He has an “ego,” and wants to addressed sincerely. Whether He has become jaded about our prayer-making after so many years of attempts to influence Him, we can’t know.
We can not make God visible, that is our problem, regardless of whichever religion or not. Nothing learned in or out of church changes this inevitability, and it is we who must accept or reject Him on this basis. Having chatted with atheists on the Internet, it became clear to me that it is God’s invisibility they are rejecting as a “problem” with which to wrestle, rather than only their tired “science and logic” arguments. Since Jesus was the only person who, with God’s help, straddled the human-divine chasm, we barely have any clear sense of His actual face, much less God’s. What we are being asked to do, both through prayer as well as acts of service unto others, is to accept being guided by an unseeable force of Nature beyond any real capacity to comprehend Him, unless through the miraculous. The Trinity may well have been inspired by the sense that Jesus is as close as we are going to get to what God is like. Clearly, He is God’s human representation on earth. Judaism says the Messiah is necessarily human, and nothing more. Christians accept that God infused Himself through Jesus to show us what is “Godly possible,” what emanates from a place called Heaven. Jesus became the solution to idol worship, though even He was killed. We are all self-referential.
So, what do I mean by tremorous? If we accept the phenomenon of a human-divine chasm (which, to me, is indisputable), there will be times when our experiences of this chasm induces what I will call “the anxiety over sighting God” as a divine intervener in our lives. Medical emergencies come immediately to mind, particularly those that are deemed “life and death.” We can forget about God until He urgently matters, then we no longer care what He looks like—-we just want Him to help our loved ones in need. We turn our own faces back toward Him in the shameless expectancy of aid, however wayward we had been, even the day before. Tremors of whether God will answer our beseeching prayers well and soon enough to matter. We ourselves momentarily straddle that chasm, nearly demanding to be heard by our unseeable and untouchable Father, who knows everything and from whom “nothing is impossible.” For God to be mercy-fully forthcoming with His love and divine powers. These are tremors of our unyielding needs.
There are also the tremors of sensing that nothing is coming, that God is either disinterested or unwilling to grant our wishes, that He will “say NO again,” that we are only talking to the air or He has better people to consider. Not all prayers nor most prayers will be granted, so why are we asking? Tremors from Scripture or churches telling us that our prayers will be granted, Jesus Himself saying so. Tremors over what to say to God or whether He will release Himself into our lives—-what everyone calls “the old doubts,” since He works more than a little differently from us. Tremors that there really is no God at all, that we have been fooling ourselves since the Jews found their monotheistic God perhaps 4,000 years ago in the desert. Tremors about what a “relationship with God” really is, since it is not clearly reciprocal, and how can we have a relationship with a “ghost?”
If I sound doubt-full about God, I am not, even though I have yet to be blessed by Him from my own prayer-full petitions, because I have come to know a little more about how He actually works. God was never human. A slippery relationship with Him at best, until He truly comes, and then everything changes and all our doubts die. If we do not see this in our lives, we see it in others. We saw it Jesus’ own life. It is Lent as I write, and we all know what is coming. Bloody death and transcendent radiance in His tomb. Our tremors can die, too. Amen.