Fertility and Divinity

With the grass being so lush and green this Beltane, with all the heat and rain, I’ve been meditating on YHWH as the source of life and fertility.

In the process I’ve stumbled across a critique of Karl Barth by Walter Brueggemann, where he suggests Barth overplayed his hand in depicting YHWH as god of history in contrast to the Canaanite deities as gods of fertility. He particularly draws attention to Genesis 8:22, Psalm 104:27-30, and Hosea 2 as examples where YHWH is depicted as guarantor of the cycles of the seasons and the fruits of the earth.

In the process I have also been reflecting on places where YHWH is depicted as receptive rather than active, playing host rather than guest, inviting outsiders in. In particularly I’ve been reflecting on the YHWH of Jesus, who was often a quite motherly father.

God’s Ineffability – Ron Rolheiser

God’s Ineffability – What’s Reveiled in Jesus’ Eyes?  
Ron Rolheiser


God, as I understand him, is not very well understood. A colleague of mine, now deceased, was fond of saying that. It’s a wise comment.

Anyone who claims to understand God is deceived because the very first dogma we have about God affirms that God is ineffable. That means that we can know God, but never adequately capture God in a concept. God is unimaginable. God cannot be circumscribed and put into a mental picture of any kind. Thank goodness too. If God could be understood then God would be as limited as we are.

But God is infinite. Infinity, precisely because it’s unlimited, cannot be circumscribed. Hence it cannot be captured in a mental picture. Indeed, we don’t even have a way of picturing God’s gender. God is not a man, not a woman, and not some hybrid, half-man and half-woman. God’s gender, like God’s nature, is intellectually inconceivable. We can’t grasp it and have no language or pronoun for it. God, in a modality beyond the categories of human thought, is somehow perfect masculinity and perfect femininity all at the same time. It’s a mystery beyond us.

But while that mystery cannot be grasped with any rational adequacy, we can know it intimately, and indeed know it so deeply that it’s meant to be the most intimate of all knowledge in our lives. It’s no accident that the bible uses the verb “to know” to connote sexual intimacy. There are different ways of knowing, some more inchoate, intuitive, and intimate than others. We can know God in a radical intimacy, even as we cannot conceptualize God with any adequacy. And that’s also true of all the deep realities in life, we can know them and relate to them intimately, but we can never fully understand them.

So where does that leave us with God? In the best of places! We are not on a blind date, struggling to develop intimacy with a complete stranger, with an unknown person who could be benign or malignant. God may be ineffable, but God’s nature is known. Divine revelation, as seen through nature, as seen through other religions, and especially as seen through Jesus, spells out what’s inside God’s ineffable reality. And what’s revealed there is both comforting beyond all comfort and challenging beyond all challenge. What’s revealed in the beauty of creation, in the compassion that’s the hallmark of all true religion, and in Jesus’ revelation of his Father, takes us beyond a blind date into a trustworthy relationship. Nature, religion, and Jesus conspire together to reveal an Ultimate Reality, a Ground of Being, a Creator and Sustainer of the universe, a God, who is wise, intelligent, prodigal, compassionate, loving, forgiving, patient, good, trustworthy, and beautiful beyond imagination.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, once, in a mystical vision, saw all of this hidden inside the eyes of Jesus. Staring at a painting of Jesus on a church-wall one day, Jesus’ eyes suddenly became transfigured and this what Teilhard saw: “These eyes which at first were so gentle and filled with pity that I thought my mother stood before me, became an instant later, like those of a woman, passionate and filled with the power to subdue, yet at the same time so imperiously pure that under their domination it would have been physically impossible for the emotions to go astray. And then they changed again, and became filled with a noble, virile majesty, similar to that which one sees in the eyes of men of great courage or refinement or strength, but incomparably more lofty to behold and more delightful to submit to. This scintillation of diverse beauties was so complete, so captivating, and also so swift that I felt it touch and penetrate all my powers simultaneously, so that the very core of my being vibrated in response to it, sounding a unique note of expansion and happiness.

Now while I was ardently gazing deep into the pupils of Christ’s eyes, which had become abysses of fiery, fascinating life, suddenly I beheld rising up from the depths of those same eyes what seemed like a cloud , blurring and blending all that variety I have been describing to you. Little by little an extraordinary expression of great intensity, spread over the diverse shades of meaning which the divine eyes revealed, first of all penetrating them and then finally absorbing them all. … And I stood dumbfounded. For this final expression, which had dominated and gathered up into itself all the others, was indecipherable. I simply could not tell whether it denoted an indescribable agony or a superabundance of triumphant joy.”

God cannot be deciphered, circumscribed, or captured in human thought; but, from what can be deciphered, we’re in good, safe hands. We can sleep well at night. God has our back. In the end, both for humanity as a whole and for our own individual lives, all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of being will be well. God is good.

On the jealousy of God

A few thoughts on the jealousy of God. In order to understand the jealousy of God properly it is important to understand it in relation to other qualities of God, such as the goodness of God, the justice of God, and the self sufficiency of God. Being uniquely self sufficient, the jealousy of God has nothing to do with any neediness on God’s part. On the contrary, it is motivated by our need for God. God wants the best for us and won’t settle for second best.

God is like a loving father who’s daughter is enticed away from him by a modelling agent, who turns out to be a pimp who just wants to exploit her. The pimp definitely does not have the daughter’s best interests at heart, unlike her father. So the father jealousy seeks her back. He has no interest in sharing her with the pimp. If he were less jealous, if he were more open to sharing his daughter with the pimp, he would not be as good or just.

The Lady chosen by our Lord

mother-of-jesus-christI have been considering the ways in which Christianity can legitimately be said to have both a Lady and a Lord. The Second Epistle of John opens with an address to “To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth”. From the context it would seem that the Lady in question is the Church; that John sees us her as our Holy Mother. This echoes other allusions in scripture to the Church as the bride of Christ and to Israel as the wife of God. It is following such allusions that the prophets spoke of Israel’s idolatry as covenant adultery and that Isaiah could declare, “as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you”. In truth this is not so far removed from Jewish mystical speculation about Malkuth and Shekinah. And it’s not so hard to see how the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Mother Church and the presence of Christ in the womb or arms of Mary could become conflated in Christian iconography.

Alexei Ospipov on the limits of experience and the knowledge of God

Is it really possible to deny God only because everyday experience does not give Him to us? But we know that “everyday experience” is in no way absolute, that it encompasses only some superficial sides of events and phenomena, that plain common sense is limited, and that there are many irrefutable facts which do not fit into what would seem to be unshakable, self-evident truth. Everyday experience gives us almost none of the things modern scientists talk about, but we believe their experience; we believe them without even knowing them or having the remotest possibility of testing the larger part of their assumptions and conclusion. On what grounds do we disbelieve the innumerably greater quantity of religious experiences, the testimony of people who are pure as crystal?

The experience of these experts in the “science of sciences” does not speak of unsubstantiated faith, nor of opinion, nor of an accepted hypothesis, nor even simple tradition, but of the fact of their knowledge of God.

The main experience of religion – a meeting with God – possesses (at least in its highest points) such a victorious power and fiery conviction, that it leaves any other obviousness far behind. It can be forgotten or lost, but not denied…. If people of faith began to tell about themselves, about what they have seen and learned with final certainty, then a whole mountain would form under which the mound of sceptical rationalism would be buried and hidden from sight.

Knowledge of God is an exact science, and not a chaos of mystical ecstasies and unhealthy exultations caused by inflamed nerves. Knowledge of God has its own systems, conditions, and criteria. How can we attain the knowledge of God? It begins with a selfless search for the truth, for the meaning of life and moral purity, and by forcing oneself towards goodness. Without such a beginning, the “experiment” of knowing God cannot be successful. These conditions are expressed in the Gospels briefly and clearly: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”.(Mt 5:8).

Alexei Ospipov

Christian monotheism and Pagan polytheism: Can they be reconciled?

In case any of you are wondering how I reconcile Christian monotheism with Pagan polytheism, here’s a brief if somewhat incomplete explanation of how I understand deity.
In essence, I differentiate between an uncreated One, who is the source of all life, and many created ones, who influence life in all its many aspects. Whether these created ones, these intermediaries, are knowns as gods or angels or spirits or otherwise is of secondary concern to me. I tend to think in more functional terms, recognising that many of these functions tend to translate across cultures even if the names don’t.
So, do I worship these created ones? No, I reserve worship for the uncreated One alone. However, I do consider them worthy of respect, and although their influence is limited in both space and time and in relation to the uncreated One it is still considerable. So I pay my respects where appropriate.
So, how do I understand Jesus in relation to deity? I recognise Jesus as the embodiment of the uncreated One – not in his masculinity, for the uncreated One is the source of all gender, but in his unconditional love and faithfulness which he demonstrated when he was amongst us, for that is the true character of the uncreated One.
As for the uncreated One, I get why the Jews were reluctant to name this one casually. Naming tends to limit and we are talking here of the limitless. If I use the word God or Deity or Spirit it is with the recognition that this word can confuse as much as enlighten.

Does God hate anyone?

hand-of-hateDoes God hate sinners? Many have told me so, from both the far left and the far right, but I am far from convinced of this myself. For having searched the scriptures I have seen many instances in which God says, this I hate, but almost invariably the reference is to actions, not to people; to behaviours, not to the perpetrators. The scriptures talk of people hating God and of people hating each other, frequently so. But as for God hating people? There is a vast void by comparison. Indeed in all of scripture I have found only four illusions to God hating anyone.

But let’s look at them more closely before jumping to conclusions. The first is Psalm 5:5-6 where the Psalmist says, “You hate all who do wrong; you destroy those who tell lies.” This is very suggestive, but it’s important to remember genre here. This is a psalm, not a prophecy. This is not God saying something about God’s own self. This is something being said about God by someone else. It’s not quite the slam dunk. The next, Psalm 11:5, is a similar case. The next is Malachi 1:3, where God says, “but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” But it is clear from the context that God is speaking figuratively about the nation of Edom, again, a thing, not the flesh and blood Esau. Then next is Romans 9:13, where Paul is quoting the same passage in Malachi. So what looks like clear examples at first glance turns out to be a lot more tenuous.

So what about Jesus? Jesus is after all the very image of the invisible God according to scripture. Is there anyone Jesus says he hates? Well, the saying that comes closest to suggesting this is Luke 14:26, where he says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” Yet again, not so fast, Jesus has long been recognized as a speaker who used hyperbole, exaggeration, as a rhetorical technique. If you doubt this is hyperbole in this case, consider who his mother is! Mary! Did he hate her or love her? No, all Jesus is suggesting here by “hate” is that everyone needs to come a distant second to God. And if we ever doubt this we only need to remember that this was the man who said, not only to love one another, but extended that to even loving enemies. Just in case we misunderstood him.

And what does God say of love and mercy and forgiveness by way of contrast? Volumes.

So it is clear what God puts weight on. Are we any greater than the master? Do we have license to go beyond the Lord? Though the Lord expresses judgement at times, we are clearly told to leave judgement to God. Though the Lord expresses anger at times, we are clearly warned against letting anger leading us into sin. How much more careful should we be with something so much stronger: hate. Is it a word we should casually fling around? How wary should we be of attributing it to God? How much more wary should we be of exercising it ourselves, beyond the warrant of God?

Hate what God hates, yes. Hate who God loves? You just may be condemning yourself.

 

What is a god?

A problem with classifying world views as polytheistic or monotheistic or atheistic is that we’re not always using the word theos, that is, god, in the same way. Monotheistic worldviews that emphasise the oneness of God have rarely excluded concurrent belief in angels. Which begs the question: how exactly do we differentiate angels in monotheism from gods in polytheism?

In my experience the difference between polytheistic gods and monotheistic angels is less stark than we’ve made it. In fact I am inclined to suggest their equivalence and assert what monotheists call God is more akin to what polytheists have at times referred to as the unknowable god or formative chaos or ultimate reality from which all gods emerged.

This ambiguity besets dialogue between monotheists and atheists also. For not only are atheists mistakenly inclined to draw an equivalence between the God of monotheists and the gods of polytheists, but I have met many who identified as atheist whilst still holding to belief in angels without seeing any problem with that self identification.

Is Elohim a Plural Word?

Many readers of the Bible have noted that the Hebrew word for God, Elohim, is plural given the -im ending and wondered how that squares with strict monotheism. Some, usually with a Christian agenda, have anachronistically read Trinitarianism into it. Some, usually with an counter-Christian agenda, have provocatively read polytheism into it. I would like to suggest both are mistaken.

Elohim is a plural word, but it functions as a plural or a singular word depending on the context. This is not as strange as it sounds. Consider the words: sheep, fish, squid, scissors and aircraft. They’re all words for which the plural and singular forms are the same.

Now let’s read Genesis 1:26-28, the source of this controversy, with this in mind.

Then Elohim said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness … So Elohim created humankind in his image, in the image of Elohim he created them; male and female he created them.

I would suggest that what we have here is a single person, God, addressing a group, the heavenly hosts or divine assembly, what these days we call angels. Then having made the announcement God goes ahead and acts – unilaterally. The others watch, just as they did when God laid the foundations of the earth (Job 38:4-7). Maybe that’s why Daniel calls them Watchers (Daniel 4:13,17).

Can we limit God to masculine metaphors?

mother-and-childHere’s my view. Though God-as-father-to-Israel and God-as-husband-to-Israel metaphors are prevalent within the New and Old Testaments, they are by no means the only metaphors to be found there and closer examination reveals feminine metaphors for God as well. Moreover, some of the God-as-father metaphor found there are distinctly counter-cultural and not at all in tune with traditional images of fatherhood at the time of their writing. So it undercuts notion that God’s character can be fully encapsulated by patriarchal language, as some would have it.

YHWH, a God of darkness and mystery as well as light and illumination

In western Christian art the living God is often associated with light, but a review of the Old Testament reveals a far more complex picture. For the God of Israel and everything else is associated with both darkness and light by the prophets. Here are a few examples that illustrate what I mean.

God is hidden in darkness

  • “The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:21)
  • “You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness.” (Deut 4:11)
  • “These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness; and he added nothing more. Then he wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.” (Deut 5:22)
  • “Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.” (Psalm 97:2)

God is master of darkness and light

  • “He made darkness his canopy around him — the dark rain clouds of the sky.” (2 Sam 22:12)
  • “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)
  • “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” (Joel 2:31)

Nothing is hidden from God

  • “He reveals the deep things of darkness and brings utter darkness into the light.” (Job 12:22)
  • “even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139:12)
  • “In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see.” (Isaiah 29:18)
  • “He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.” (Daniel 2:22)

And of course it does not end with the Old Testament but continues into the life of Jesus, the image of the invisible God. For when he died, “from noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land.” (Matt 27:45)