In a previous post I found myself in a place of pondering and wondering; asking myself not what it is that I believe but why I believe when it comes to God, humanity, creation and life. I reflected on how the older I get the less interesting the what becomes and the more crucial the why becomes. It’s in the “why” spaces that I discover the most important truths of love; relationship, empathy, compassion, understanding, patience, self giving, sacrifice.
I had mentioned that in my pondering I came away with three words as most readily capturing the why for me when it comes to questions of faith: presence, hope, and mystery. As I’m finishing the book Honest Advent: Awakening to the Wonder of God-With-Us Then, Here, and Now by Scott Erickson and reading through the birth narrative from the Gospel of Matthew, this central proclamation rings forth into the early hours of this Christmas morning;
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name “Immanuel” (which means God with us).”Matthew 1:23 (ESV)
The very beginning of the Gospel, which echos through the hallways of John’s grand theologial treaties of the same subject, declaring the Word become flesh, is at its heart a story concerned with locating the presence of the Divine within our earthly and material reality. The bringing together of heaven and earth in order to say something about how see and know this reality. And of course to this end there is a what; Jesus has invaded this material space and, if we read the preceding verses of this passage, this is what this meant to the ancient readers and witnesses. It is the why that quickly comes into focus though, mining through the muddiness of the messianic hopes, their understanding of the cosmos, and their basic human longing for what is wrong to be made right in this world in relationship to God.
I feel like I’m a well read person. I grew up with books as my first love, with books like the existentially charged Charlottes Web evoking similar questions in my young mind; how is it that we make sense of this idea called God in a complicated world. Even as a child I sensed this to be a question we must attend for as we attempt to occupy the spaces of this world. As I got older these questions gradually developed into more specific questions about God’s existence with this one crucial difference; whereas my childs self was concerned with the why, my adult self became more and more concerned with the what. This informed both my belief and my unbelief. And the older I got the more complicated life and the inevitable quesitons seemed to become, challenging my allegiance to certainty and facts. This is where I came to understand something crucial about my own journey; if its not about proving God’s existence, then it is about why be concerned with God’s existence at all. This is the question that I find continues to invade my wrestling today.
So why does God’s presence matter? For me this is a two fold question. On one hand I have found that the older I get the more resistant I seem to become to the idea of using “experience” of God as potential evidence to justify my own longing for God to be present in this world. It feels less than rational, and to be honest can easily be relegated to the background when obsessing with the what, and even further readily abused and manipulated. And yet, in the honest spaces of my own life I am forced to contend for this basic reality. I can talk all day about my own experiences and the experiences of others who have informed my life. These are experiences that, despite what I once assumed, can’t simpy be dismissed. They are not conjured up out of a need to believe, and even if they were still compell me towards the why. Choosing to label these experiences as illusions is something that consistently doubled back on my unbelief and my rational processes in an equally destabilitizing way. Such ways of thinking, in my unbelieving spaces, also reeked of a neglect to actually talk with those who have experienced God and take them as seriously as I took my own intellectual process. This was my arrogance. To me there seems to a common characteristic to these experiences as I have encountered them in my own life and in the life of others; they are necessarily invasive. They disrupt. And they always arrive with a singular message, to declare God or spirit with us.
The other side of this then is the more pragmatic side. The more I read the more evident it seems to me that as we parse through the pages of history this basic idea; is God here in the world with us or somewhere out there distanced from us, seems to permeate our prolonged wrestling as a species and inform our relationship with the mysteries of this existence. Even if modern questions have become prone to partnering this with the idea of God’s potential or assumed non-existence in a way the ancients would not have considered, the ebb and flow of this quandry remains the same. Bring God into the world and this world and the natural laws get disrupted, and this is precisely because it forces us to ask deeper questions we otherwise ignore. On the other hand keep God out there and we become bound to ideas about God and how God relates to this world that cannot be disrupted largely because it removes these kinds of questions. And history suggests that outwardly we prefer it this way. And yet the hidden longings of the human spirit betray this on an internal level. Thus this idea of God with us remains both a deep longing and a persistant obstacle to belief.
I eventually became convinced that Jesus’ story, bringing together all of our religious stories into a singular sense of meaning, informs a crucial point in history where our wrestling with this question of Gods presence has an embodied answer; calling us to place such wrestling in this simple proclamation that God is indeed with us however difficult it is to make sense of. That Jesus arrives in line with a universal human question and longing that supersedes this historical reality seemed abundantly clear to me from the textual and historical evidence as well. This freed me to then explore the why quesiton in my own life with a greater degree of honesty. What I discovered is that this idea of God being present in my life is as much a part of my story and my memories as any practical experience I can recall. I cared as a child because I saw this world as good and so much seemed to challenge that assumption. I cared as a child because I saw this world as a wondrous place even while so much seemed insistent on stealing that wonder. I cared as a child because I needed to make sense of these apparent binaries that captured my imagination through story and experience, of good and evil, life and death, light and dark, and this was something I could not make sense of without story. The experience and the idea of Gods presence enabled me to see the good, the light, the life as the defining and governing principle of this natural world. As a child I experienced this in the mystery of God even as I fought back furiously with my questions. It captured my imagination. As an adult I challenged God by locating the answers elsewhere. And yet, as I grew to embrace and understand, it is equally true to say that the invasive presence that captured my childhood continued to invade my adult world, forcing me to turn this same wrestling back towards my doubts and my unbelief. What I discovered is that as an adult the why never changed, it just got buried beneath my allegiance to the what. I insisted that truth was predicated on the fact that I can proclaim God is, and whatever I filled the blank with is the stuff that either proved or disproved the presence of God in this world and in my life. Learning to live with that blank space and still be ble to declare that God is has become the necessary process.
This Christmas I am reminded that I encounter these words, God with us, not as some deifnitive proof of God’s existence but as a compelling way to make sense of my own story and to locate myself in a larger one. This might evoke an eye roll from some who find this appeal to a meta narrative to be cliche, but the function of memory, whether we believe in God or not, is the same. As the latest Matrix film suggests, we all need a narrative to justify this existence. One of the most powerful parts of the Christmas story to me is digging deep into what this narrative meant for the people of its time anchored as it is in creation-exodus-tabernacle theology. Most exciting for me is to then attempt to recontextualize it continually into my own experiences in my modern context, allowing it inform the very act of declaring that somehow and in someway, even when it brings up so many questions that cause me to resist and rail against such an idea, God is still with us today. Given that I have spent this Advent season reading through Scott Ericksons book Honest Advent: Awakening to the Wonder of God-With-Us Then, Here, and Now, I am reminded that in my most honest moments, including in my unbelief, I am still compelled to see that as a hopeful, unexpected, and transformative proclamation; as good news.