Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
“Lord you have been our refuge from one generation to another” (Ps. 90).
1. Where is God hidden? Beth and Jonathan Singer, the senior rabbis at Temple Emmanuel feel like big siblings to me. This is the ninth year we have been friends and I admire them very much. On Thursday for lunch they convened a group of 13 religious leaders (half Jewish and half not Jewish) to talk about the recent violence in the Middle East. They opened the conversation by sharing their deep concern for the people who live in Gaza, and their support for a two state solution to the diplomatic crisis.
They also talked about the terrible pain they are feeling, about friends with family members who are being held hostage in tunnels under the ground. I heard about many funerals, some for young people. Beth said that she hoped that in our meeting together we would really speak from the heart, even if this lead us into uncomfortable places.
All the Jewish leaders spoke, then most of the others except me. Jonathan said, “what do you have to say Malcolm?” Frankly I did not want to say anything. I have never been to the Middle East and did not feel I had much to add. It is difficult to talk about how horrifying and inhumane the terrorist attacks by Hamas are and yet at the same time to recognize that the situation for ordinary people in Gaza seems impossible. I told them that our community is connected to Jewish people and Palestinians too, that every day we pray for peace, that we long for peace.
This seemed to understandably upset one of the other rabbis who I don’t know as well. She said that peace is not enough. After the terrible violence, after the innocent people who have been murdered, something has to be done immediately to make things right. I think all of us felt the tension, the trauma, anger and despair, as she emphatically said that prayers are not enough. We say that here too – when we talk about the epidemic of gun violence in America.
It felt like we had moved far away from the Hebrew prayer of blessing before the meal. God is not just hidden in violence and inhumanity. God can seem hidden to us in our personal pain and fear, and in our humiliation when we have said the wrong thing.
2. God also seems hidden during the last days of Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus rides in a palm procession through adoring crowds. He goes directly to the temple. He overturns the tables of the money changers. He heals the blind and the lame. But most of all he teaches. The religious leaders fear his popularity and are afraid to arrest him so instead they plot to trap him in his own words.
God is hidden here. The leaders come in bad faith, not to ask a real question about God. They begin with flattery calling Jesus “teacher” and in their first sentence they use two different versions of the word truth (alētheia in Greek) as they describe Jesus to himself. What we translate in English as being impartial is more literally in Greek, “for you do not see the face of a person.” In other words Jesus treats every person equally as if he did not even know who they were. The philosopher John Rawls uses this idea in his book A Theory of Justice to imagine a society that is fair to everyone with the phrase, “people in the original position”).1
Pointedly the Pharisees who vigorously oppose the Roman occupation have brought with them some Herodians. These are the supporters of King Herod’s son (Herod Antipas) the puppet leader and collaborator with the Roman army. They ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not.” If Jesus says it is lawful, the Pharisees and the crowds will hate him. If he says that paying taxes is against God’s law, then the Herodians will charge him with sedition.
Jesus understands that in this moment God is hidden. He recognizes the trap. “Why are you putting me to the test you hypocrites? Show me the coin…” (Mt. 22). The coin, a denarius, would have featured an image (or in Greek an “eikōn”) of the emperor and an inscription which would have read “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Augustus.”2
Interpreters point out that Jesus does not have a coin himself. When the religious leaders produce a coin in the temple, it is a kind of sacrilege. They are violating the first two of the Ten Commandments: 1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me, and, 2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. They hand Jesus the symbol of an entire empire built on slave labor and the extraction of unjust taxes.3
In this moment religious leaders collaborating with a brutal empire, attack a loving and righteous man. When God seems so hidden, Jesus helps us to really see who God is. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This does not divide the world into sacred and secular realms. The image on the coin is Caesar’s. But the image, “the eikon” on every single person is God’s. Our whole lives should be given to God.
And they are when we participate in God’s mission, when we oppose cruelty, unfairness and greed, when we give ourselves wholly to love, justice and mercy. This happens when we honor and respect each other, not when we ask cynical questions that entrap others. It happens when we listen with real curiosity and the compassion that leads us to see God present in another person.
3. Every time we fail to recognize the dignity of another, we miss the chance to see God. But there are other ways that God is hidden from us. This week, for the second time on the Forum I will be interviewing the Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky. What I love so much about him is how hard he is trying to see the inherent dignity in every person and how he helps us to see this holiness too.
Like the Puritan John Calvin (1509-1564), or the Jewish theologian, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), Sapolsky believes that there is no free will. Everything that happens was determined by what happened before. For me this is more of a theological/philosophical belief. It certainly cannot be established by scientific reasoning. For Sapolsky this view is liberating because it means we cannot judge anyone for anything they have done (or be judged for that matter).
And yet at the same time he believes that, “the science… ultimately teaches that there is no meaning… There is nothing but an empty, indifferent universe…,” that we are “biological machines.”4 Sapolsky believes that there is no rational reason to take care of these biological entities which we call human beings. But every atom in him seems to rebel against this conclusion. He may not put it this way but he longs to inhabit a universe of love.
The theologian Katherine Sonderegger writes about the importance of Moses seeing God. God is hidden from us because as it says in the Hebrew Bible, God is one. God is so utterly singular, so impossible to compare to anything else that God remains hidden. God decides to show us himself, but in his own way, beyond our control. Sonderegger deeply values humility. God is humble and finds us when we are humble too.
We inhabit a world of methodological atheism. It is not acceptable to appeal to God in scientific reasoning. And yet if we think scientific knowing is the only kind of wisdom we miss something of fundamental importance. We become strangers to the One who should be most intimate to us.
Sonderegger writes, “God’s mystery is not marked out by a realm that lies beyond our knowing… beyond the finite limits of our intellect. Rather God is Real in our encounter with Him, and in just this way is exceeding Mystery, superabundant light.”5
The twentieth century monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) addresses God when he writes, “How shall we begin to know who You are if we do not begin ourselves to be something of what You are?” He goes on, “We receive enlightenment only in proportion as we give ourselves more and more completely to God by humble submission and love. We do not first see, then act: we act, then see… And that is why the man who waits to see clearly, before he will believe, never starts on the journey.”6
Where is God hidden? In the places where we fail to see each other. I’m grateful for my interfaith colleagues. I came away from our meeting filled with joy that we are all struggling to teach the way of love during this time of division. For homework this week seek out someone who disagrees with you – not to change their mind but to see how they are doing and to be with them.
The poet Denise Levertov’s (1923-1997) father was an Anglican priest and at the age of sixty she became a Christian. Let’s close with her poem, “Flickering Mind.”
“Lord, not you, / it is I who am absent. / At first / belief was a joy I kept in secret, / stealing alone / into sacred places: / a quick glance, and away – and back, / circling. / I have long since uttered your name / but now / I elude your presence. / I stop / to think about you, and my mind / at once / darts away, / darts / into the shadows, into gleams that fret / unceasingly over / the river’s purling and passing. / Not for one second / will my self hold still, but wanders / anywhere, / everywhere it can turn. Not you, / it is I am absent.”
“You are the stream, the fish, the light, / the pulsing shadow, / you the unchanging presence in whom all / moves and changes. / How can I focus my flickering, perceive / at the fountain’s heart / the sapphire I know is there?”7
God is not absent and we are not yet fully present. May we listen with curiosity and compassion. May we see the icon of God in every person we encounter. May the humility, truth and surrender of Jesus draw us into the superabundant light of Divinity.
1 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971).
2 Matthew Boulton, “Coin Flip: SALT’s Commentary for the Twenty-First Sunday of Pentecost,” SALT, 16 October 2023. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/10/12/jesus-and-the-2020-election-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-twentieth-week-after-pentecost
3 Herman Waetjen, Matthew’s Theology of Fulfillment, Its Universality and Its Ethnicity: God’s New Israel as the Pioneer of God’s New Humanity (NY: Bloomsbury, 2017) 230.
4 Robert M. Sapolsky, Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will (NY: Penguin Press, 2023) 386.
5 Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Volume One, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015) 42.
6 Thomas Merton cited in, Martha Greene, “Speak Up, God: Exodus 33:12-23,” The Christian Century, 25 September 2002. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2002-09/speak-god?code=CQoPMrN8SZFu5XhV0V0g&utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=01731e7e94-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_SCP_2023-10-16&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_-31c915c0b7-%5BLIST_EMAIL_ID%5D
7 Denise Levertov, The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (NY: New Directions, 2013).