Surprised by God's presence

The differences between the tenses in Biblical Hebrew and contemporary English make real challenges for translation. It isn’t just a matter of translating words to words, which alone is a challenge; it is a matter of a mindset that is reflected in the language we use. Our words express the way we understand the world. There can be some debate about whether it functions the other way around. Does our language affect the way we understand the world? We might find ourselves in a “chicken and egg” kind of argument with no particular way of resolving the debate. What can be said is that language and culture are so closely intertwined in human perception that language can be used as a reliable measure of cultural understanding.

What got me to thinking about this particular subject was a conversation I had recently with an honest person of faith who sometimes struggles with whether or not God exists. I’m not talking about an evangelical atheist who is constantly trying to convince others to reject the notion of God. This person continues to practice faith in a meaningful way, but sometimes is uncertain about God’s presence, and often experiences something akin to the absence of God.

Theologians sometimes refer to that kind of doubt as a dark night of the soul. The term is often incorrectly attributed to the 16th-century Spanish Poet and Roman Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross. John of the Cross, however, doesn’t ever use that term. It is, however the title given to a poem he wrote which describes the journey of a soul leaving its human body in search of union with God. It is hardly a poem grounded in existential doubt, and John of the Cross wrote two book-length commentaries on the poem which also demonstrate deep faith in God.

Whatever you call it, however, genuine doubt is not an enemy of faith, and it is common in the midst of a life of faith. Most famously, some doubts recorded by Saint Teresa of Calcutta clearly illustrate that mental questioning and doubts are, in fact, quite compatible with a life of deep faith and service.

Back to the problem of translation. One of the foundational stories about God’s identity from our Bible comes from the Book of Exodus. When Moses encounters God at the burning bush, he rightly asks God, who he is. Or at least he enquires of the voice that comes from the bush what its identity is. The answer comes in three Hebrew words - actually in two with one repeated: “Hayah asher hayah.” The phrase is probably most commonly known by the English mistranslation in the King James version of the Bible: “I am that I am.” The Revised Standard version doesn’t get it any better, translating it, “I am who I am.” Both have God instructing Moses to tell the people of Israel, “I am has sent me to you.”

Here is where tense throws off the translation. Most contemporary scholars agree that a more accurate translation would be “I will be who or how or where I will be.”

The difference may be subtle, but it is substantial.

It may only be possible to talk about God if one is constantly aware that God is a part of our future as much as a part of our past. And God isn’t a fixed concept that can be known or possessed or fully understood. God, by the very nature of God, is constantly surprising us. And God is constantly appearing in places where we might not expect to find God.

Whenever someone talks about God with absolute certainty, as if God could be fully known, you can be certain that they aren’t talking about God. That includes those who try to argue against the existence of God. What they claim doesn’t exist may in fact not exist. It just isn’t God that they are talking about.

This is an especially important thing for those of us who work within the institution of the church to remember. To put it simply, God is bigger than religion. God is more expansive than the institutions of religion. Even though we long for fellowship with those who are outside of the church, even though we try our best to keep our doors open and to learn the practice of hospitality, we must never forget that we don’t hold a corner on God’s presence. When we open our hearts and minds we are quick to discover God in all kinds of people and events and connections and communities that lie beyond the normal definitions of church.

“I will be who or how or where I will be.”

It not only means that the people of Israel will come to know God independently of Moses’ recounting of the stories of his experiences. It also means that we will discover God in the lives of those who have rejected most of the trappings of traditional religion.

It may be tough for a preacher to take, but God may be as present in the utterances of a frustrated sports fan on a Sunday morning as in the words of my sermon despite the years of education, training and practice that lie behind my preaching. God is very good at surprising us that way.

God’s answer to Moses is also an important lesson to us as we engage in conversation with those of different religions. We must be open to God’s presence wherever God may be found. And, it seems to me, that it is very possible that God takes delight by letting us discover a trace of God’s presence in the peacefulness of a Buddhist monk, or in the hospitality of Sikh practitioners, or in the graciousness of Hindu life.

We too often arm ourselves with John 14:6 in which Jesus said, “no one comes to the Father but by me.” We want to interpret that to mean that you have to be a Christian to know God, instead of a declaration that Jesus Christ is everywhere that God is and that Jesus, too can surprise faithful Christians who think they have a corner on the messiah by being present in the least expected locations and practices of faith.

I find that my faith thrives on discussions with those who doubt the existence of God, for amazingly, God’s presence seems to manifest itself in the honesty of their questions and the genuineness of their conversation.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!