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My Hand Over My Mouth, III

In Christianity on May 30, 2010 at 2:55 am

The two prior posts in this series have asked the question, “What can we truly say to God, and perhaps more importantly, about God?” God, in the words of the popular hymn, is “immortal, invisible, God only wise; in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”  And although we can know Him in Jesus Christ, and rejoice that Christ took on human flesh for our sakes, we still must be careful to demonstrate sufficient reverence; sufficient Godly awe; and most of all, complete humility, when speaking about the Creator of the universe.

Our Orthodox brothers and sisters have wrestled with this issue, as perhaps all thoughtful Christians must.  Early in his book, The Orthodox Way, Bishop Kallistos Ware discusses what is called the “apophatic approach.”

Recognizing that God is incomparably greater than anything we can say or think about Him, we find it necessary to refer to Him  not just through direct statements but through pictures and images.  Our theology is largely symbolic.  Yet symbols alone are insufficient to convey the transcendence and the “otherness” of God.  To point at the mysterium tremendum, we need to use negative as well as affirmative statements, saying what God is not, rather than what He is.  Without this use of the way of negation, of what is termed the apophatic approach, our talk about God becomes gravely misleading.  All that we affirm concerning God, however correct, falls far short of the living truth.¹  [Emphasis mine]

Quoting Cardinal John Henry Newman, Bishop Ware concludes: “we are continually ‘saying and unsaying to a positive effect.'”  This “dazzling darkness,” as Bishop Ware calls it, “brings us not to emptiness but to fullness.”  And I would add, to much needed humility.

By order of Him who spoke, everything will be understood at the opportune time. —Saint John of the Cross, quoted in Magnificat, January 31, 2010

¹ p. 14, The Orthodox Way

My Hand Over My Mouth, II

In Christianity on May 26, 2010 at 12:24 pm

In the first post of this series, I suggested we might do well to take a lesson from Job, who decided to talk less (particularly about himself and his understanding of God) and adore more.  These are odd words, almost jarring to our ears.

Yet we see Job coming to this realization in the Old Testament book that bears his name. In Job 7:11, we find Job speaking rashly: “My own utterance I will not restrain. I will speak.” Although Job’s friend Eliphaz was wrong in much his counsel, in 15:6—he offers sound insight: “Your own mouth condemns you, not I.” Yet Job doesn’t listen. In 23:3-4 he is still speaking: “I would set my cause before Him, and fill my mouth with arguments.”

But in 38:1-2, God speaks to Job: “Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance?”  By 40:4, having been challenged by God, Job’s enthusiasm for speaking is spent and he simply says, “What can I answer you? I put my hand over my mouth.” And by 42:3, Job admits, “I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know.”

Let us take care, brothers and sisters, when we speak casually about God, or worse, to God. Christ is our Good Shepherd, but he is also “immortal, invisible, God only wise; in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,” in the words of the hymn.

Therefore, we who are receiving the unshakable kingdom should have gratitude, with which we should offer worship pleasing to God in reverence and awe.  For our God is a consuming fire

Stay tuned for Part III, in which we’ll discuss an approach, a way of thinking about how to always speak humbly and reverently of God.

¹ Hebrews 12:28-29

My Hand Over My Mouth, Part I

In Christianity on May 21, 2010 at 2:09 am

A Christian friend and I were discussing whether it is truly possible to say “I love God.” “One might say,” she suggested, “I reverence Him. I stand in awe of Him. I worship Him. I am extraordinarily grateful to Him.” But can we truly say we love Him?

Her point, if I rightly understood, was not simply that we fall short of Luke 10:27—i.e., that we are to love God with all our heart, being, strength, and mind. It was, rather, “How can we say we love God, when so much about God is totally Other; completely unknowable?”

Perhaps there are two paths toward answering this question. The first is that the eternal, transcendent God did come to us, clothed in human flesh. He took on the genetic and very real humanity of the Virgin Mary. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” John 14:9 tells us. Thus, the true God may be known and loved in Jesus Christ.

Yet God is God! He is a Trinity of Divine Persons, infinite, transcendent, outside time, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. So a second path toward answering suggests that, while never failing to share the Gospel, we might also do well to take a lesson from Job, who decided to talk less (particularly about himself and his understanding of God) and adore more. “God is not so much an object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”¹

Stay tuned, as we continue this topic with a study from the Book of Job, followed by thoughts on what our Orthodox brothers and sisters call the “apophatic approach.”

¹ Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, Revised Edition (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995).