Posted by: HAT | December 15, 2014

Not Too Sure, Not Too Scared

the Scream, by Edvard Munch

Most people would prefer to avoid the feeling of terror, at least most of the time

Hi, Gang!

Our pastor began the sermon yesterday by saying that he often wishes that, like Mary in the first chapter of Luke, he could get a clear, direct, unmistakable communication from God.

I immediately thought of email. Email is clear, direct, and unmistakable communication, normally. If it were email from God, though, it probably wouldn’t be. I suspect that, if a message from God showed up in my inbox, I would treat it like the elaborately polite requests from Mr. Dontchu Believeit of Lagos, Nigeria who wants to send me my inheritance of two million dollars but first needs all my bank account and credit card numbers. Or the chain letters that have been around the world 25 times and that will give me something nice if I forward them to 10 people but something awful if I break the chain, like that man in the Philippines who broke the chain and three days later walked out his front door and was hit by falling space debris — or was it bitten by a zombie squirrel? In fact, who knows, maybe I have already sent more than one email from God to the recycle bin.

I don’t know what properties an email would need to have for me to accept it as clear, direct, and unmistakable communication from God, but I think they would have to be well beyond the parameters of ordinary email. It would probably at least have to speak to me, ideally with the speakers on mute. But if it did that, it wouldn’t really be email any more; it would already be something else.

And if it were something else, and it were convincing enough to constitute clear, direct and unmistakable communication from God, the more I think about it, the less I think I would want to experience it. Because I suspect anything that convincing would also be terrifying.

Most of my friends don’t seem to like the idea of “fearing” God. When those words show up in the Bible reading, they wince. I feel I understand this. It seems a little uncharitable to be afraid of God, when God is supposed to love us and forgive us and be merciful and compassionate. Those are presumably not frightening attributes. And there is something off-putting about being told over and over again to be afraid of someone. It feels like being threatened, and who in our world makes threats, besides bullies and gangsters? The image of God as a cosmic gangster seems unworthy of the Creator of the Universe.

But the more I think about it, the less apt this way of understanding “the fear of the Holy One” seems. Instead, the admonitions to fear God and the repeated assertion that the fear of the Holy One is the beginning of wisdom seem to emanate from the same sector of reality that makes the first words out of the mouths of angels, over and over again, “Fear not!” If people weren’t actually afraid, the angels would probably skip that part.

Imagine how it would feel to have in your personal space something – anything, even something “benign” – that felt like proof that the familiar material world, with its regularities, its logical relations and certainties, its predictability and solidity, was radically more or other than you had ever thought it was. Imagine how it would feel to be convinced that you were in the presence of someone or something that called all your “business as usual” thinking into question, that convinced you that reality is radically immense and unfathomable, much bigger than you, and way beyond your small powers of control, and is about to make it impossible for you ever to live life on the same footing again.

The closest I have ever come to something like that was when it hit me that when my daughter arrived there would be no going back. I wasn’t sorry, but it would be a lie to say I wasn’t afraid. And that was just in the presence of an abstract thought, not anything as concrete and other-worldly as the Angel Gabriel.

So I think, at least for now, I am grateful to “the saints and all the prophets” for running interference for us; their demands are stringent enough. I think I may prefer the unclear, indistinct, and doubtful forms of communication after all. For all their ambiguity, they are gentler on my everyday life.

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