God who cannot be seen, known, or spoken about properly

Our discussions on Lauren Winner’s Wearing God and who God is have led us to recognize that despite being the God who sees us (and who we see), we can never see God fully. It is like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle where “the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known.” In relation to God, Winner describes what that might look like: “I cannot describe God in the same way that I cannot describe a picture I am holding millimeters from my eyes – the picture is made strange and unknowable not because it is distant but because it is close.” Winner, Wearing God, 235.

She notes further that:

“God is boundless and perfect; human language is precarious and contingent and decidedly small. Perhaps, say some philosophers, the only true things you can say about God are what God is not – God is not unjust, God is not finite- because to say anything positive is to limit a limitless God. To speak about this boundless being with our pockmarked words might be insulting, or deceiving, or just plain false. Maybe we would come closer to telling the truth if we said very little, or nothing at all.” Winner, Wearing God, 228.

But since I do need to speak of God and definitely want to speak to God, I appreciate Winner’s wisdom in how to go about doing that:

“It is only through prayer that I become able to speak about God at all; it is only in speaking to God that I can say anything about I remember this morning how prayer is first and finally a confession of dependence on God, and it is that confession alone that drains my speech of the power and argument and self-assertion that speech usually implies.” Winner, Wearing God, 234

God as laboring woman

While there were many images in Winner’s book, Wearing God, that helped us grow in our understanding of God, the image of God as laboring woman (or nursing mother) wasn’t one that many people at Campus Edge could appreciate. This is probably due to the fact that most people at Campus Edge do not have children; yet, it is likely also due to the fact that birth and nursing are often hidden away from most people in Western society.

At the same time, through imagining God as a laboring woman with all of the messiness of birth, we recognized that we have often sanitized aspects of God. We sanitize how easy redemption was, including death on the cross. Should we not have the same unease with the picture of Jesus on the cross as we do with God as laboring woman? As Winner points out:

“The Crucifixion has become so sanitized in my mind, so normalized and familiar, that thinking of it does not shock me or disturb me or really produce much reaction at all, because I, along with much of the church, have turned a bloody state punishment into nothing more or less than tidy doctrine.” Winner, Wearing God, 154.

God and laughter

Winner in Wearing God sees God’s laughter as intimately connected to justice:

“the laughter of God is inseparable from God’s justice. In the here and now, the kind of laughter that friends of God pursue is laughter that is proleptic – laughter that hints at, or partakes of, the world to come. The best laughter now is laughter that bespeaks a heaven in which those who have been made to weep by earthly rulers will, in the fullness of time, heartily laugh. . . Laughter arranges power, and God provokes us to laugh as testimony – testimony to our belief in a God who is ruling over a calamitous or oppressive situation, despite all signs to the contrary.” Winner, Wearing God, 190.

I deeply appreciate this focus on God’s justice and how God rearranges power. At the same time, this is not how laughter works in my own life. Laughter often comes from being surprised by the unexpected; this doesn’t seem to apply to God. As God is omniscient, even if the rearrangement of how things will be is surprising to us, it is not to God, and so it is hard to imagine God laughing the way I do so many times a day.

Instead, it is easier to see God as lovingly chuckling at us, as an adult laughs at a child who tries out words that he/she does not understand and doesn’t quite get it right. Winner describes this laughter somewhat in a text she read in a commentary on Ecclesiastes:

“‘Laughter makes it possible for us to make a negative judgment while yet remaining open to the other person, or even to parts of ourselves that we find inadequate or embarrassing.’ I will think back to the morning in Ashe County when I heard God laughing at me [rueful – as thought God appreciates that I cannot do any better but wishes that I could . . . as though God wishes that I would become a little bit more transformed, and see that I have not.] I will think: God has made a negative judgment; God is still open to me. I am still open to myself, even to my small, sinful, curdling parts. I will welcome them with laughter.” Winner, Wearing God, 199.

As graduate and professional school so often confronts us with our own failures and sense of being inadequate, it is encouraging to think of God as loving us even in the midst of our embarrassing moments. This laughter gives us the perspective to recognize that we are not as wonderful as we sometimes believe we are – and thus do desperately need God and those around us. At the same time, God’s laughter carries hope that we will still become transformed like Christ, and so we are given the courage to keep trying.

How does evolution affect the image of God as Creator?

Steve, one of Campus Edge’s board members, has spent a lot of time pondering how evolution affects our understanding of God. Two pieces of work that he has written explore how evolution can point to God’s power and awe-inspiring work.

He put together a blend of the words of David (Psalm 8 and 104) and Darwin, which is titled “Psalm 1859” (Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published that year). This was published by BioLogos as part of a two-part blog post about his trip to an evolutionary biology conference in the Galapagos Islands a few years ago. Part 2, which includes Psalm 1859 at the end, is here: http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/evolution-and-faith-in-latin-america-part-2. He borrowed directly from Psalm 8, Psalm 104, and The Origin with my point being that Darwin expressed the same wonderment at creation as did the Psalmist.

A more original piece that he wrote considers the past, present, and future of God’s creative work and our role in it: http://godandnature.asa3.org/poem-the-new-plant-and-animal-kingdoms-by-steve-roels.html.

God who provides

As much as I believe that God provides, I find it hard to live that way. Even if I believe that Jesus is the bread of life, I treat him a lot like I treat bread: as an extra to a meal, instead of being the basic sustenance of life.

I am tempted, like Sara in Genesis, to trust my own efforts in making sure things work out the way I want them to (especially if God hasn’t seemed to be providing). It’s hard not to want to take care of things myself – as our society values our ability to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

The chapter on bread and vine in Wearing God by Lauren Winner does a very good job in helping us explore how our mixed relationship with bread can help us see how we often have a mixed relationship towards God’s provision. Winner’s quote of Patrick T. McCormick captures this well:

“What, for example, does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist as food (bread and wine) in a place where we are increasingly obsessed with and yet deeply afraid and ashamed of food, where we idolize and demonize food, where we are increasingly disconnected from the sensual pleasures of good food, and where we have gone a long way toward losing our sense of food as a blessing that ties us to life and others? Or what does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist as body of Christ when our diets seem to be waging a war against our bodies (particularly against the bodies of women), when the ways in which we eat do not honor our bodies, or when our eating patterns seem indifferent to the suffering bodies of all the Lazaruses gathered at the edges of our tables, as well as all the Marthas waiting on those tables?” (Winner, Wearing God, 113)

Those of us who are able to provide for ourselves – and most graduate students are in this category, even if they are in the lower income range – have a vague sense of God’s provision, at least for our physical needs where that provision comes several steps removed from the food that is on our plates. This provision is less removed when it comes to our emotional well-being, especially amid the stresses of grad school.

Participating in the Eucharist, with its small quantities that can not physically feed us, provides an opportunity to see God’s provision anew:

“In the Holy Eucharist, we take a miniature sip of wine and small bite of wafer, and we call this God’s abundance. I believe by regularly proclaiming that God’s abundance can be found in something small, we are gradually retooling our understandings of what is truly necessary for life.” Winner, Wearing God, 102-3.

When we remember that the God who provides does not always provide as we want or expect, I believe we are more able to live fully into the belief that God does provide. More so, this provision is not just for me, but especially for those whose idea of bread as sustenance is not gourmet bread but Wonder bread that is cheap and readily available or corn tortillas or rice that almost fills the stomach when there is little else.

Whose image of God fits? Sara’s or Hagar’s?

Genesis 16 presents several images of God. One is that of Hagar, who calls God the one who sees her. The other is that of Sara, who speaks the following way about God: ‘The Lord has kept me from having children’ (v. 2) and ‘May the Lord judge between you [Abraham] and me (v.5).’ 

The contrast between the images of God held by Hagar and Sara continues in how each woman’s son is named. The name of Hagar’s son – Ishmael – means God hears, while the name of Sara’s son – Isaac – means laughter. In Genesis 16, God hears and responds to Hagar’s desires – seemingly without Hagar needing to tell God what they are. Sarah’s desires, however, are left unheard: God has kept her from having children. It is as if a cruel joke is being played on Sarah; her laughter (Gen 18:13) and that of Abraham (Gen 17:17) hopefully mark the beginning of their being able to see the good in God’s joke of giving them a son when it seemed impossible.

Hagar, who has been used and hurt by God’s people, is the one who has the understanding of God that we would want: God who sees us and whom we see; God who comes after us and finds us; God who gives us our desires before we even ask them. Yet, sometimes our experience of God does not look like that: as in Sara’s situation, sometimes God seems distant or present only through a lack of action. While the end of Sara’s story gives us hope, as does God’s reaching out to Hagar, this does not nullify the abuse and challenges Hagar faced nor the many years of difficult waiting that Sara faced (without any guarantee that God would ever hear).

Whatever image of God we have and whatever extent we feel seen and heard by God, we should be careful in how we judge another person’s image or experience of God. The story of Hagar and Sara shows a bit of the range of the experiences people can have with God and how this then complicates their relationship to and understanding of God.

The God who I (will) see

In Genesis 16, Hagar names God, ‘The God who sees me,’ because she says she has now seen the one who sees her. God had found her in the desert and told her that she would give birth to a fiercely independent son, a son who would be called Ishmael, meaning God hears. As the text does not indicate that Hagar had asked for anything specific from God, it appears that God heard her desires before she even voiced them. It is no wonder that she feels both seen by God and that she has seen God.

The God who sees me is a very powerful image of God, and it is an image that I sometimes wish was more part of my relationship with God. God often seems so absent. Despite knowing that I can pray to God and read the Bible whenever, and despite believing that God speaks through both these means, alongside of speaking through other people, my every day life seems to lack the wonder and expectation that God does see me, that God hears, and that I will see God.

The question I was thus left asking at the end of the study of Genesis 16 was what would happen if I imagined more often how God might delight in seeing me (the same way that I delight in simply seeing my daughter)? And what if we simply expected to see God more often? The Reformed tradition believes that God is already present and working at the university; this passage challenges me to develop eyes to see that.