Dean Lloyd: “The Back Side of God”
I have to admit it. All my life I’ve wanted God to be clear. For a long time I wondered why on earth God has to be so mysterious and elusive, so hard to figure out and pin down. In my high school years I stopped saying the Creed in church on Sunday because I wasn’t sure whether I could believe all those things. The Creed sounded so confident. But none of it seemed clear to me. Where was God?
In my college days I lost my faith for awhile, and I remember praying to God to be clear, so I could know. My evangelical friends promised that if I asked for God to reveal himself to me then it would happen. It didn’t, at least in any obvious way. In one of Woody Allen’s movies years ago a character looks up into the heavens demanding that God prove his existence and says, “Is anyone up there? Could you give me a sign? Anything. How about at least a cough!” That man spoke for me.
One of the most frequent frustrations I’ve heard from people about the life of faith is that God seems hard to understand or to see. Where is God? Does God have a face? It’s maybe the deepest yearning of the human heart. We want to know what’s behind it all, who is behind it all, especially when times are hard. You could hear it following Hurricane Katrina in the cries of despair of the evacuees who had lost everything.
What is the shape of this great mystery in which we are living? Is there a stern face of anger and demand behind our lives, or a blank face of an uncaring ruler, or could there be tears on the face of God?
The question of knowing God is now at play in our public life in a big way. Strong voices are vying to speak for God. Think of all the religious divisions of public life in recent years. Should we go to war in Iraq? Should abortion be legal? Should doctors be allowed to assist in ending a patient’s life? Should taxes be raised to provide better care to the most vulnerable in our society? Should gay and lesbian people be allowed to marry?
Religious people often claim to know God’s will on these issues with remarkable certainty. The problem is, they disagree, sometimes vehemently.
Wouldn’t it be good if we could actually see God’s face, if we could know God’s intention for every detail of our lives? Don’t you wish you had full access to divine knowledge? From the sounds of the debates these days, it seems as if many people believe they do.
The Old Testament lesson today presents one of the most profound moments of encountering God in the Bible. Moses has led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, across the desert wilderness, and now they arrive at Mt. Sinai. He goes up on the mountain and brings down the Ten Commandments, but when he returns he discovers that the Israelites have begun worshiping an idol—a God they can see and control.
In a fury Moses takes the tablets of the commandments and throws them to the ground, and goes back up to talk to God. And he doesn’t hold back. “Look,” he says, “I need some help here. You need to show me that I’m on the right track.”
“Show me your ways,” he says to God, “show me your glory. I need to see.”
And God answers, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will be gracious…and will show mercy on you.” But “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
And then God tells him he will put him in a cleft in a rock, and then, he says, “I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
“I’ll never desert you, I will go with you,” God is saying, “but I will not show you my face.” All Moses will see is the back side of God. We human beings are not able to see God fully. God is hidden. We are mortals, finite; we do not have the capacity to see and understand God fully.
And this isn’t the only time in the scriptures when human beings are put in their place. “My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts,” God says in the Book of Isaiah. “Do not hide your face from me,” one Psalm says. Another complains, “Why do you hide your face from me?”
Even St. Paul in the New Testament acknowledged that there is so much about God we can’t know. “For now we see in a glass dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
And did you follow that tricky little gospel lesson this morning? The Pharisees are trying to trip Jesus up by asking him whether they should pay taxes or not. If he says no, he will offend the Roman powers, and if he says yes, he will offend his own followers who resent the Roman authorities.
But did you notice? Jesus doesn’t give a straight answer. Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s he says, and to God the things that are God’s. But what is Caesar’s and what is God’s? It’s hard to say. Jesus seems intent on not answering the question, but rather to keep us “permanently uneasy,” as William Willimon has put it. That’s often where Jesus leaves us—wrestling with the mystery, unable to possess a simple answer, permanently uneasy.
And oddly enough, the scriptures seem to be telling us, this is part of God’s gift to us. God intentionally chooses to be mysterious—for our sakes. If God were to be fully and completely revealed, if we were to see God beyond all hiddenness and mystery, our freedom would disappear. We would be forced to believe, forced to be obedient. No, this hiddenness is God’s blessing.
Certitude is a spiritual danger. If we claim to know God’s ways without question, we limit God to the shape of our own minds. As St. Augustine put it 1700 years ago, “If you think you understand, it isn’t God.”
One of the troubling currents of our time is the tendency of religious people to speak as if we have seen God’s face. A lot of what is being said in religious circles can suggest that some people claim to have God figured out, under control, in their pockets.
Visiting my family not long ago in Mississippi I came across on cable television a preacher and his wife speaking from what looked like a luxurious living room as they urged people to buy their Bible study book called How to Get Rich and Have Everything You Ever Wanted. Faith is the way to have it all. They had seen God’s face and it had dollar signs all over it.
Often this mindset of certitude can be destructive. Fundamentalist suicide bombers are absolutely confident of what their God wants. For years Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland each had God on their sides, or so they claimed. The Afrikaaners in South Africa were sure God endorsed apartheid.
And here in our country the religious right often has utter confidence that it knows God’s will and is mobilizing people in the churches to fight for “God’s ways.” Meanwhile liberals claim to know less about God, but can be every bit as confident that they are on God’s side.
And in the Episcopal Church people on both sides of the homosexuality debate are so sure that they have seen God’s face on this one that they can only view their opponents as morally and spiritually flawed.
But in fact orthodox Christian faith has never been a package of certainties handed down straight from God. It has acknowledged the hiddenness of God, the inability of us humans fully to know God’s will. Notions of infallible teaching or literalist certainty have been foreign to much of Christian understanding through the centuries.
The Anglican tradition itself was forged in the sixteenth century in an era of absolutist leaders. First, Protestants held power and destroyed as much of Catholic worship in England as they could. Then the Catholics took over and burned at the stake many of the Protestant leaders. And when the Protestants returned to power they killed some more. Out of that terrible time emerged a new kind of Christian tradition that sought to embrace opposing points of view, to acknowledge that we all see through the glass dimly. And they came to see that truthfulness required embracing disagreement, other perspectives, what they called a middle way, a via media.
Let me read you a poem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai that captures this same spirit. Few people have had to live with conflict any more bitter and destructive than the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is Amichai’s response:
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood
That is the wisdom of our Old Testament lesson today. We need our doubts, our modesty before the immensity of God. And we need our loves. Those are what will bring life to our world, far more than absolutist certainties. You see, if we are always right, there’s no room for any other truth, and truth is bigger than all of us.
In recent days two distinguished leaders who have spoken here at the Cathedral have called for a more generous spirit amid the conflicts of our time. John Danforth, retired senator from Missouri and an Episcopal priest, in a sermon at Harvard’s Memorial Church called for a Christianity that can hold us together instead of driving us apart.
Let’s insist [he said] that politics cannot become a religious crusade. No matter the strength of our political convictions, our opinions are not sanctioned by God…Yes, we can try to apply our faith to our politics…but none of us can presume that our political agenda is the will of God…Some very devout people are politically conservative. Some equally devout people are politically liberal. Paul goes so far as to say we should count others as better than ourselves.
And just last week Robin Eames, the Anglican Archbishop of Ireland and an essential leader in trying to hold the Anglican Communion in these troubled times, began and ended his lectures at Virginia Seminary with an image that he says has haunted him. Think, he said, of a poor, desperately hungry, match-stick-thin child, standing on the scrub landscape of Africa, not knowing where his next meal will come from. And as he stands there, only a few feet away two Anglicans are shouting, Bibles waving in their hands, arguing over the pros and cons of homosexuality, completely ignoring the child and his needs.
That, he said, is the tragedy of this moment—a communion of Christians around the world so distracted by their fighting that they can’t do the very work of feeding the hungry and the spiritually hungry their Lord called them first to do.
Can we see God? No, but we can see and follow the one God sent to show us the way. “No one has ever seen God,” the Gospel of John says. “It is God the only son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” To be a Christian is not to have a list of certainties, but to give our lives, our hearts and souls, to following him.
That calls for vigorous discussion and disagreement. But God help us if we forsake our modesty and civility, our sense of mystery and wonder, our doubts and our loves. We should be permanently uneasy. After all, even on a good day, we can only see the back side of God.
Jesus seemed never to care very much whether his followers thought alike. But did they love? Do they love each other now? Which do they love more, their certainties, or that match-stick-thin child?