to see god face to face— part I: where is god?

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part I: where is God?

   The three victims mounted together onto chairs.
   The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.
   “Long live liberty!” cried two adults.
   But the boy was silent.
   “Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.
   At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs were tipped over. …
   [The child] was still alive when I passed in front of him…his eyes not yet extinguished.
   Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
   “Where is God now?”
   And I heard a voice within me answer him:
   “Where is He? Here he is—He is hanging here on this gallows.”
                —Elie Wiesel, Night


Throughout the Bible, there is a refrain on which I have long ruminated: “No one has ever seen God.”[1] I am both drawn to and repelled by this simple, straightforward assertion. Its impulse toward “negative theology” is enticing — God is un-begotten, in-finite, in-comprehensible, and un-containable. Approaching God through negative theology has the power to lure us forward into Great Mystery, Mystery that draws us to our knees in awe-some wonder of that which is always ever greater than words could ever convey or we could ever comprehend or imagine.

Negative theology, however, is inextricably bound to “positive theology.” Into naked absence the un-utterable God comes, and we discover that even “the Void is full of worlds;”[2] indeed, there “a universe slowly makes itself visible.”[3] Thus the circle continues: God’s presence is un-quantifiable; it cannot be grasped, contained or controlled. It can, however, be touched—encountered.


This intimate, incarnational assertion takes seriously the radical affirmation of the imago Dei (“image of God”) creation of all humanity, echoing the famous maxim of the 2nd century Church Father and Bishop, Iranaeus of Lyon: “the glory of God is the human being fully alive.”


“What does it mean to encounter the ‘glory of God’ in another human being?”[4] What might God-talk of such transfigured, fleshy, incarnational encounter look, sound, smell, taste, and feel like?


Questions such as these are the spring to the river running throughout this series of blog posts. They erupt from within like springs of Living Water, calling us to take and drink, zōèyn aiōnion (“unending life”).[5] Concerned with the Really Real, the More, the Unseen—with that which we cannot quantify and yet, somehow, we undeniably touch—these questions present us with a deeply existential exploration of who we are in relation to God, to one another, and to the entire cosmos.

As such, this series emphatically will not be a systematic attempt of damming enclosure. I am not after “questions of ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ in any absolute sense, including the is-ness or isn’t-ness of God.”[6] “The truth of the Other—divine or human—will never be ours to possess,” comprehend, or explicate.[7]


Rather, encounter—and the truths revealed therein—draws us into the dynamic power of poetry and story, a power that evokes, provokes, and opens us to the Great Mystery, to that which is beyond our saying, for we are not reducible to words or concepts either. We also exceed totalizing attempts of definition, labeling, or categorization; we, too, are in-finite, ever-expanding universes. As the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has so poetically narrated (see esp. ~2:30), it is not simply that we are in the universe, but that “the universe is in us.”


Infinitude is not separate from you and me; infinitude is revealed in and through you and me!


Sit with that for a moment.
Does your body not tremble?
Let your mind wander and wonder. . . . . . .


Such a mind-boggling reality must shape a theology of encounter with the Other—divine and human; this theology must therefore be
an imaginative kindling,
a metaphorical dance,
a seductive touch,
a theo-poetical rumination

that irresistibly
evokes, inspires, and lures us
like   a   moth   to   the   flame
into transfiguration and transformation
into new being and renewed relationship
to God, to one another, to the cosmos
our  becoming,  together,
on  the Way.


Therefore, I take theologian Mayra Rivera’s provocative cosmological assertion that “it is always and only within creation that the divine Other is encountered” as my starting point.[8]


With the haunting voice that rose up from within Elie Wiesel in the face of the gallows of the concentration camp, I want to ponder what it might look, sound, smell, feel and taste like to find God not in the heights of heaven but in the face of one right in front of us; even more, in the face of a single victim “hanging from the gallows” right in front of us.


This image, as old as the faith itself, pierces the Christian’s side with forceful familiarity. From the beginning, incarnation—bodies, flesh, faces, eyes—has insisted on disrupting our lives, our conceptions of God and, as a result, our relationship to one another. But in these disruptions–these poignant provocations of our incatenation–also lies the possibility of redemption and restoration, of our salvation!


Indeed, we cannot see God. And yet (and yet!) we encounter Her; we see His face; we look into Their eyes—every day! Would that we had hearts to see.

[1] see 1 John 4:12, along with: Exodus 33:20; John 1:18, 6:46; and 1 Timothy 6:16, among others.
[2] Rubem Alves, The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet. St. Albans Place, London: SCM Press. 2002, 33.
[3] Ibid., 140.
[4] Mayra Rivera, The Touch of Transcendence. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 2007, 3.
[5] This Greek phrase, a signature of the Gospel of John, is intended to convey the “realized eschatology” of John’s theology—that is, of “eternal/everlasting/unending life” as already present and able to be experienced here and now. In using this phrase, I also hope to evoke the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4:1-15, see esp. v. 14.
[6] Laurel Schneider, Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity. New York: Routledge, 155. Rather than popular theism/atheism debate about the existence of God, this theology follows liberation theologians who have re-framed the question to: “what does one’s conception of God do to those who submit themselves to it?”
[7] Rivera, The Touch of Transcendence, 128.
[8] Ibid., 2. Emphasis mine.