In the second semester of my sophomore year of college – a semester when I was alone most of the time, and sad, mourning the end of a relationship and trying to figure out who I was without the girl who had left – during this depressing semester I took a class called “Philosophy of God.” I got a D in it, and not just because I didn’t do the work. Within the first few weeks of class, it became apparent to me that the professor was interested in answering a question that I didn’t care about – does God exist? I had enrolled because I wanted an answer to a very different question – what kind of God exists?
It might be that I’m a natural believer. Every once in awhile we hear about a “God gene” or a neurological explanation for why some people are religious and others aren’t. But until I was seventeen I thought of myself as an atheist, and any religious longings that I felt were easily filled by art. I liked writing and I liked drawing. The two activities took me to a place that was somehow outside of myself, a place where time could go by without my noticing it, and I could feel the taut excitement of creativity mixed with the satisfaction of beauty. When I was seventeen, I encountered God. I moved outside of myself while walking on a hilltop in Northern California, and saw everything around me with a precision and clarity that I’ve never experienced again. I knew that God existed, and didn’t need philosophical proofs for that existence.
What kind of God exists? I’m still asking that question, although I think I have more answers now. And I feel okay about being a priest and asking that question, being a priest and admitting that I don’t entirely know. I’m just echoing the confusion of the early church, the confusion that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews spoke into when he said: “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” Obviously there was an argument going on, which wasn’t atypical in the early church. Some of the believers thought of God in the good, traditional, Old Testament way. What kind of God exists? Why, the God who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, and the God who whispered to Elijah on a mountainside, and the God who appeared to Job in a whirlwind. But there were believers who thought of God as an idea, and believers who thought of God as a revolution, and, finally, believers who thought of God as a person. A specific person, whom they had known. Jesus of Nazareth, a man who walked among them and ate with them and shared jokes and stories with them.
It must have blown their minds, this thought that they had personally known God. Only a few people in the entire history of humankind had been so lucky. The patriarchs and the prophets, people whom God chose as collaborators in the great project of restoring creation to its original peace and beauty. And a few people who God signaled out for no apparent reason other than to be kind, such as Hagar, as she and her son Ishmael lay dying of thirst in the desert. But never before had God come into the presence of so many and various people, and never before had God come in such a mellow way, simply as a man, and a man who was willing to be decidedly un-Godlike, to let them hit him and insult him and kill him.
There’s a beautiful prayer from the early church that, to me, speaks to exactly this sense of intimacy and wonder:
We give thanks to you, every life and heart stretches toward you, O name untroubled, honored with the name of God, praised with the name of Father. 2 To everyone and everything comes the kindness of the Father, and love and desire. 3 And if there is a sweet and simple teaching, it gifts us mind, word, and knowledge: mind, that we may understand you; word, that we may interpret you; knowledge, that we may know you. 4 We rejoice and are enlightened by your knowledge. We rejoice that you have taught us about yourself. 5 We rejoice that in the body you have made us divine through your knowledge. 6 The thanksgiving of the human who reaches you is this alone: that we know you. 7 We have known you, O light of mind. O light of life, we have known you. 8 O womb of all that grows, we have known you. 9 O womb pregnant with the nature of the Father, we have known you. 10 O never-ending endurance of the Father who gives birth, so we worship your goodness. 11 One wish we ask: we wish to be protected in knowledge. 12 One protection we desire: that we not stumble in this life.
You can hear their sense of wonder in that repeated phrase, “We have known you.” This is a prayer that is as much about the people who wrote it as it is about God. They’re reflecting on something that has happened to them. What kind of God exists? The one we actually knew and sat down with and ate with.
Somewhere along the line we lost that sense of intimacy. We began to think about God as more distant. Christ became a king, and then an emperor, someone so mighty and awe-inspiring that we couldn’t approach him directly, but had to ask his mom or one of the other saints to talk to him on our behalf. But we’ve been trying to get back to that earliest understanding of Christ for awhile now, since at least the 1970s. Diana Butler Bass, in her fantastic and exciting book Christianity After Religion, talks about how the Pentecostal movement began the process of re-orientating our faith to intimacy and experience, and how this reorientation was picked up by the Evangelical movement as a whole, and how it has become standard now in Mainline churches, and a normal part of American life in general. We live in a society that values experience, Diana Butler Bass says, and people expect some pretty exceptional experiences when they come to church.
There’s a word I learned a couple of months ago. Heirophant. A heirophant is someone or something that leads people into a direct experience of God. Ever since learning this word, I’ve been looking for a heirophant. I wish I could say that I was a heirophant myself, just by virtue of being a priest, but I’m not. I, like many people, long for experience of God but have little idea of how to get there. Yet I have experienced God in my adult life – never with the intensity of that first experience when I was seventeen, but still, in ways that are powerful and meaningful. Twice this year – once in a moment of extreme and unlooked for happiness when I was driving past North Market in Columbus, and once in a state of raw emotion when I was working on a painting. You may notice that I wasn’t in church on either of those occasions.
But then, I think it’s unfair of me to demand that church become heirophantic, or consistently be heirophantic, all of the time. I think that we should hope for the chance to experience God when we’re in church, but that we should also bring all of those outside experiences with us, and share them with each other. Maybe it’s okay to experience a moment of profound joy while driving past North Market and then go to church without the expectation of repeating it, but merely to say thank you. And maybe it’s okay if, on many Sundays, church is simply the place where we go to be with other people who have had similar experiences of God to our own, and know where we’re coming from.
Some of us have had experiences of God in our moments of most profound distress. I have a friend who went through an excruciating, agonizing divorce. The world changed for her, everything became very sharp and focused, magnified by her pain. And yet, at the same time, she couldn’t shake a perception of angels, hovering just beyond her view, a careful, guarding presence. Some of us have had experiences of God in our moments of greatest joy, when we were immersed in beauty, like another friend, a former student who was camping last Easter Sunday and stepped out of her tent into a mountain morning and experienced the fullest sense of resurrection that she’d ever known. Some of us have experienced God best when engaged in acts of justice, like my friend Marco Saavedra, who knows God as a perfect love that wells up in him as he stages protests and takes wild and extravagant action in the struggle for immigrant rights. Some of us have had experiences of God that are based in Christian worship, and hard to explain – the moment when light breaks across the pews, and the soloist’s voice rises high and pure from the choir, while the words of scripture still resonate and the table is set for communion. Some of us know God best in the simplest way, in the joy and support of community, without the need for any extensive experience beyond that which is offered by friends and supported by an ethic of love. And, finally, there are some who come here out of a sense, a nagging, itching sense, that there is a strong truth to the world, if only they could find it. That even if the world often seems crass, and cruel, and tiring, there is, in Gerard Manley Hopkin’s words, “the dearest freshness deep down things.” A small, quiet grandeur that is just waiting to burst out.
What kind of God exists? I don’t entirely know. It’s a question I’m learning the answer to all of the time, gathering the answer from friends and neighbors and my fellow Christians. I know two things. I know that I want to experience the answer, and not just receive it as an intellectual proposition. And I know that I want to experience the answer in the company of other people. Thank you for being church, for bringing your experiences and your questions, for listening to me talk, for greeting each other at the peace, for sharing a meal with each other. For creating experience, in other words, and letting me be a part of it.