Shortly after I was ordained priest I had a crisis of faith. I went back to where I had trained. It was a chance to work out what should happen next since I hardly believed in the reality of God anymore. While there I was taken under the wing of Fr. Daniel, one of the Mirfield monks. He gave me this advice: ‘Maybe, John, it is not God who's gone but your vision of him. Why not pray an honest prayer, like, ‘God, if you're there, show yourself. Give me a vision of yourself that's to your dimensions and not mine’. With nothing to lose I prayed Fr. Daniel’s prayer over two cliff-hanging days. Then God answered. He chose a leaf on a tree in the monastery garden. I was walking along with no particular thought in my head when my eyes fell on the leaf and it was as if it spoke to me. ‘He made you’, the leaf seemed to say. I was bowled over. As I moved forward I saw the great Crucifix that stands in the garden. ‘I made you. I love you’, the figure of Jesus seemed to say. ‘Father, Son...what about the Holy Spirit?’, my mind was spinning. The Father was saying ‘I made you’, the Son ‘I love you’. Could it be that the Spirit was saying ‘I want to fill you’? A group of monks prayed for me to be filled afresh with the Holy Spirit and from that day forward God has seemed closer to me in people and nature as well as in church.
This experience has helped me understand what it means to pray ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen’. It was as if my vision of God had grown too ‘samey’ and needed to get ‘different’ and only God could do that, the living God who speaks to anyone prepared to lend an ear to him. In reminding me ‘I made you’ God used a leaf to speak to me – a leaf out of his book of nature!
God is different from us and yet the same as us. We humans are individual persons but God is three persons in one God which goes beyond reason. That is the great thing about God - his frontiers are beyond ours so he can invite us into new territories by what he chooses to reveal to us. The supreme territory is the life of the resurrection. Because of its core historical events, in Christianity talk of God is inseparable from a vision of him beyond this world. Austin Farrer makes this plain in one of his sermons: ‘You can equivocate for ever on God's very existence... but a God who reverses nature, a God who undoes death, that those in whom the likeness of his glory has faintly and fitfully shone may be drawn everlastingly into the heart of light, and know him as he is: this is a God indeed, a God almighty, a God to be trusted, loved and adored’. The Bible says ‘God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’ and the gift of reason is seen as the mark of that image within us. By reason we can evaluate the goodness, truth and beauty around us as pointing to God as being more of the same. Yet there are things our minds cannot grasp like suffering and death, people who forgive one another and the immensity of space. Such realities reveal themselves to us as being bigger than our minds or beyond reason.
God has sameness to us and difference from us. Since God is one in himself and one with us in Jesus Christ we can experience his sameness. He is our loving source and ending, our Father. We are the children he loves and wants to be with him for ever. God’s sameness appeals to us as reasonable beings. Since God is revealed in history as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons in one God, he is gloriously different from us, with space and power to bring all other persons into communion with himself. This space and power was revealed upon earth in a human life of 33 years. God’s space, power and holiness is so different from ours it needed bringing to focus, so we could see it, through God becoming a human being in the person of Jesus. ‘As a magnifying glass concentrates the rays of the sun into a little burning knot of heat that can set fire to a dry leaf or a piece of paper, so the mystery of Christ in the Gospel concentrates the rays of God’s light and fire to a point that sets fire to the spirit of man’. So wrote the great Christian mystic and writer Thomas Merton.
I got into a conversation at Sainsbury’s. The young man at the till didn’t go to Church but I’ll not forget what he said: ‘God’s all powerful but they make him to be a wimping wimp!’ This observation brought back to me a frequent complaint made by the great explorer Laurens Van der Post about the Church’s domestication of God which might be behind non-attendance of folk like my friend at the till. The explorer wrote: ‘One of the strangest ideas ever conceived is the idea that religion is the opium of the people, because religion is a call to battle.. human beings in their rational selves.. shy like frightened horses away from a God who is not the source of opium for people but a reawakening of creation and a transcending of the forces and nuclear energies in the human soul’.
Van der Post was imprisoned by the Japanese during World War Two and lived under the threat of execution. A date was set. The night before he records experiencing a tremendous thunderstorm outside his prison. He saw in this storm a strengthening as if from the awesome truth of a God so different he can raise the dead. The Japanese were not ultimately in control. The storm witnessed a greater than human power which in the end would decide all. He was spared execution. God’s all powerful - may he forgive us for making him ‘a wimping wimp’!
May God also forgive those of us who put him into words and make him seem neat and tidy. Theology is putting together human words about a reality beyond words. It is necessary because God in Christ, so different from us, has made himself the same as us by taking flesh and bidding us write words about him. Scripture takes precedence over all such words, a library of inspired documents, presenting God as awesome yet accessible in Christ.
All religions claim some sort of revelation of God. Hindus see many gods expressing affinity or sameness with ordinary life. Muslims see one God above and beyond us whose utter difference from us seems to exclude any sameness. Christians are in the middle with three persons in one God, a God who is personal like ourselves but also beyond us as the ground of our being.
God for Christians is different from us not just because of what he says about himself through scripture - or to put it inclusively what God says about Godself - but on account of our experience of that difference as believers as I found in the monastery garden and the supermarket and Van der Post discovered in prison.
Engagement with God is a calling forth both of the light of reason and the light of faith which together lift us beyond ourselves into his praise. As the word of God written in the prophet Isaiah states: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).