Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"The highest" and "most worthy"?

Does that even make sense?

Many traditional prayers in Christianity mimic parts of the Bible which refer to God in terms which are superlative, such as "most holy" or "most mighty" or "above all".  Yet there are elements of ancient tradition and contemporary theology in which implying that God "exists" like other "things" and is merely superlative rather than transcendent is considered a grave error. 

So how does someone who agrees that God's transcendence and immanence defy categories intended for  ideas and things react to such language in the scriptures or liturgy?  Is there any honest, sensible and consistent away to deal with this or are they just historical and cultural anachronisms that should either be politely tolerated or dispensed with entirely?

It is easy to make an argument to modify or remove such language, so that argument will not be made here.  Instead, let's look at what other options there are to consider.  For example, despite the need for contextualization to get at the sentiment or message being conveyed, traditional sources still contain much wisdom.  So removing it or ignoring it or altering it beyond recognition cheats us of this insight.

The context cannot be generalized, but it is fair to say that not everyone has the same understanding of God.  A popular Eastern analogy is that teachings are merely fingers pointing to the moon -- we should not focus so much on a finger that we ignore the very thing it is trying to communicate to us.  This applies just as well to resources such as the Bible and the liturgy.  Some expressions of the superlative relating to the divine may simply reveal the limited view of the author, and others may be case of the audience focusing too literally on the analogy or metaphor rather than that to which the teachings points us.

In some cases this because of the level of understanding of the audience for which an example was originally intended.  In the original Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is trying to convince Han Solo into helping with the rescue of Princess Leia.  Sensing what would motivate Han to consider such a virtuous act, Luke tempts the smuggler by suggesting there would be a reward.  Han wants more information.  Luke tries to let Han's imagination take over, trailing off as he says "The reward would be...", but Han isn't buying it.  He demands to know how much.  Luke assures him that it will be more wealth than Han can imagine, upping the ante, yet Han insists he can imagine quite a lot.

In fact, Han is actually revealing he can imagine very little at this point in his character's development.  His view is very myopic and fitted with blinders based on his self image and his narrow assessment of the value of people and things. Many people have been and many of us continue to be like Han, focused on what we can fit into a view of the world matching our expectations and measured by our own limited standards.  Say that God is more than we can imagine, more than we can comprehend, and we insist on bringing God down to the level of our own standards.  Hence for many of us God is merely superlative: the biggest, the highest, the holiest, the best.* 

There are stories which help point beyond this, such as the account of Elijah's experience of the Shekina, a particular manifestation of Divine Presence, in the First Book of Kings, chapter 9, verses 10-13:
And the word of the LORD came to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

He replied, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."

The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by."

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
There is quite a bit that can be unpacked from this imagery, but for our purposes it reaffirms the antiquity of and serves as a lesson about such descriptions of God.  God isn't to be confused with or limited to being natural objects or occurrences, even the most spectacular or impressive examples.  The immanence of God is found in and through all things, but it is not exhausted in them.  Nor were they signs of God's wrath.

Here we have great winds, earthquakes and fires, the kind of superlative examples of power we may wish to use in defining God or discerning the message of God.  Yet in that sense, God "was not in" any of those things.  Instead, God was experienced by Elijah as a gentle whisper, which is sometimes translated as a small, still voice.  In the silence of the body (e.g. hearing), the heart (e.g. pride) and the mind (e.g. pre-conceived ideas), God speaks.

The debate over which language to modernize and re-contextualize and which to leave as is continues, but in either case the value of the message shouldn't be lost along the way.  For those who find such language so antiquated or inaccurate that it becomes a distraction, look up!  The moon is still there.

*It occurs to me this essay may appear judgmental, as if to say that people who prefer the superlative descriptions just aren't smart or mature enough or somehow doing God an injustice.  I can't say this is never the case, and the latter possibility is a serious concern, but it isn't the only way to see it.  There is nothing wrong with finding comfort and strength in such imagery.  We all relate to God incompletely at a descriptive and intellectual level, so judging other for being too high brow or low brow in this regard is petty and unskillful.  In fact, most of us probably have little if any direct experience of the mystical, ineffable presence of God as opposed to making such words into a neat sounding theology that gets us out of an intellectual bind.  In some ways, the superlative view may actually be more honest in describing how we really see God deep down.


  1. I grow most tired of my discussions with people who look only at the finger and then proceed to tell me it's the only finger, the one, true finger that is pointing at the moon.

    A good, thought provoking post.

  2. Most of those fingers aren't even pointing to them moon, they are pointing to the ego of the owner of the hand. You need to be careful who you get directions from ;o)


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