God is the greatest question


John O'Donohue

John O’Donohue

God is the most passionate presence in the universe. … there is not a stitch of utilitarianism or functionalism in God. … God surges and flows and is wild. 

This aspect of God’s vitality has been lost for so long with­in the tradition. … Aristotle’s idea of God as unmoved mover seemed to protect the transcendence of God by putting him safely beyond all change.

The danger of such a concept is that it deadens the deity. God is not a dead answer. God is the greatest question in the universe, a question that has kept itself free of banal answers. This is where all fundamentalists and sects get lost. They convert the passion, wildness and danger of God as a question into a clichéd answer ….

John O’Donohue, ‘Fire: At Home at the Hearth of Spirit’, in: The Four Elements: Reflections on Nature

Of spiritual rebels, untamable hearts and a God who is bigger than religion

Here is another instalment of thoughts from Krista Tippett’s book Becoming Wise.

On religion or religiosity:

Certain kinds of religiosity turned themselves into boxes into which too little light and air could enter or escape.

On responses, throughout the centuries, to the Church having lost its way:

The wandering ascetic, eccentric sages known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the visionaries like Benedict or Francis or Ignatius of Loyola across the many centuries in which Catholicism was the only way to be Christian – they all emerged at a distance from a Church they experienced to have grown imperial, externally domesticated, and inwardly cold – out of touch with its own spiritual core.

Intriguingly – and rightly, in my judgement – Tippett sees the ‘nones’, those unaffiliated with any particular religion, as the modern-day equivalent to the mystics and monastics who, in earlier times, have called the Church back to its ‘spiritual core’:

The Nones of this age are ecumenical, humanist, transreligious. But in their midst are analogs to the original monastics: spiritual rebels and seekers on the margins of established religion, pointing tradition back to its own untamable, countercultural, service-oriented heart.

I love the notion of religion’s ‘untamable, countercultural, service-oriented heart’. Without this, we have little of real value to offer to our world.

And Tippett quotes former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reflecting on the meaning of the divine name ‘hayah asher hayah‘, which he explains in transreligious terms:

Don’t think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you. One of the ways God surprises us is by letting a Jew or a Christian discover the trace of God’s presence in a Buddhist monk or a Sikh tradition of hospitality or the graciousness of Hindu life. Don’t think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.

The one and only test

The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience or devotional practice [is] that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine [makes] you kinder, more empathetic and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness this [is] good theology. But if your notion of God [makes] you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it [leads] you to kill in God’s name, it [is] bad theology.

Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase

Tsimtsum and the coming into being of the other

Scan0001Henri Nouwen, in The Wounder Healer, quotes James Hillman, who talks about the Jewish mystical doctrine of Tsimtsum, noting that

God as omnipresent and omnipotent was everywhere. He filled the universe with his Being. How then could the creation come about? … God had to create by withdrawal; He created the not-Him, the other, by self-concentration … On the human level, withdrawal of myself aids the other to come into being.

Nouwen elaborates:

when we have found the anchor places for our lives in our own center, we can be free to let others enter into the space created for them and allow them to dance their own dance, sing their own song and speak their own language without fear. Then our presence is no longer threatening and demanding but inviting and liberating.

Two poets on the burning bush

… Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

From ‘The Bright Field’ by R. S. Thomas

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes

From ‘Aurora Leigh’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning