Sunday, January 17, 2010

understanding God: where's he & hearing him

I think one of the most frequent faith experiences and challenge that most humans have is wondering where God is? Not in the sense of where he "resides" or "spends his time," but, rather, is he in touch with what is going on with the humans alive on earth? Basically people wonder if God exists, then how much is he involved, if at all, with the day to day details of life. People of great faith wonder this, and people of no faith wonder it too (though they won't admit it because to wonder means to admit God's possible existence, ha, would it not?) So do not feel bad if you have felt this way, whether fleetingly, such as in times of great unhappiness and stress ("Where IS God? Doesn't he care?") or if you have often felt this way (for example, you only "feel God" when you view a landscape of grandeur, such as mountains) or if you have always felt that way (in other words, you are in total spiritual aridity, where you believe but do not feel God and thus you are somewhat like being in a desert, believing that water does exist, but not seeing any or feeling its comfort. No, do not feel bad because this is one of the basic challenges of faith and the human condition.

I must chide you some, though, because to use an analogy such as having an untreated illness, one is not meant to just suffer and let it worsen without an attempt to seek medical help. Faithful and rational believers have also gone through this in the centuries of faith history, and like with an illness, there is no reason to not seek out the advice of those who have had this before you. This is one reason I regret very much that reading the lives of the saints has fallen not only out of our schools (where they were taught along with the Bible), but also out of simple common sense. Centuries of believers have dealt with temporary or life challenging spiritual aridity and its accompanying wondering if God really is at all active in the universe by following the advice, example, and studying the remedies in the lives of the saints before. So while this is a common and frequent human challenge, the fact it's common and well known means that many have met the challenge and dealt with it (isn't logic wonderful?)

First, let me explain why this is not only a common occurrence but also one that worsens during certain phases in human societal development (such as it is). The most fundamental thing to understand is that these doubts and disconnects between the faithful and God are a natural adverse reaction to the problem of limited life span and humanity's obsession with death. In other words, being limited to a life span and having been created to cope with a certain set of circumstances (matter, energy and limited time), the human brain just is not cut out to grasp even the concept of God. Sometimes the more one thinks he or she understands God, the more he or she needs to question how that actually would be possible. The human brain is made up of energy, matter and time (in other words, it processes information and grows, or diminishes, through sequential changes over time). Just the process of thinking is time based, since your brain receives information one moment, processes it, compares it to other information, and then decides on an appropriate response. However, God is not at all comprised of matter, energy OR time, and in fact, he created all of the above, yet resides outside of it.

At some gut level all humans understand that they cannot possibly understand God at all! And so, unconsciously, humans tend to stop trying. Notice I say "unconsciously." Consciously they do the opposite: they cut God down to a size that they can "understand him." They then lose nearly all the opportunity to actually comprehend God's essence, as they trade in difficulty in understanding for understanding something easily, but false, or cartoonish. So the first problem may be summarized as being that humans at a gut level understand that God and human nature are so opposite in substance that unconsciously humans give up too soon in trying to understand God, and thus do not feel him as he does indeed day to day exist in their life and in the world. The second problem is that what people will do is decide to "believe" or "not" a version of God that they feel is not challenging or difficult.

Some decide if they can't "understand" or "hear" him and that if he's so difficult to understand, then he must not exist. Think about how arrogant that is, ha. "If I can't understand God then God must not exist." Hmm. Not Einstein of the Obvious. Good thing I don't feel that way about complex machinery, because if I only used what I understood down to the nuts and bolts, I'd be living outdoors in a sleeping bag I guess. But the first obvious reaction to the instinctive awareness of God and his awesome and immense difference from humans is to refuse, then, to even believe in him. It's like some people feel it is a lost cause to try to understand something that ultimately cannot be understood, and so they abandon all effort and thus belief.

Those who feel the same way but do not abandon in total belief in God thus, then relegate God to a storage place. "God exists but he is not involved in the world" is the usual cop out reasoning. I'm not trying to be mean here, but there is an irony that God cares enough to have dictated a lot of history and printing press ink to faith history and yet, to some people, is deemed to be "a God that is not involved".... ha ha, has anyone given that the logic test? The leap of faith would be as simple as believing that the scriptures (Torah, Bible, Qur'an) are divinely inspired. If they are divinely inspired (meaning guided by God to express his truth), ummmmm, does that not kind of indicate a God who is involved indeed with humanity at some real day to day detail? If an detached and unknowable uninvolved God dictated the events and text of the Torah, Bible and Qur'an, imagine what a busy body God he would be if he was REALLY involved, using that line of thought. That would be the God I described in analogy recently who does not just create the fibers that curtains are made from, and the wind that blows them, but stands outside your house and using his divine hand waves the curtain back and forth.

The middle ground are those people who sincerely believe and who have experienced the transformative power of God in their life, and yet, they often reduce God too, this time to somewhat cartoonish dimensions. The God who is just the one who one asks favors from is an example of God as Santa Claus. The God who is like a big generous hippie who is groovy and does not care what antics people are up to so long as they are "nice" is another cartoon that many supposedly serious believers have. The God who keeps a computer spreadsheet of whether you say the right words about Jesus and good deeds, and then decides you earned enough points for heaven is another cartoon of God, held by some surprisingly serious people. The God who is "on your side" but "against the other guy on your behalf" is another cartoon God. And then there is the spoil sport God who just exists to send trouble your way and pick on you, since you find things difficult and figure that God is maker of a "cold, cruel world" where it is "dog eat dog." That is the cartoon of the cold God who "makes life a vale of tears."

The middle ground is also occupied by people of genuine faith, and a balanced understanding of God who yet, still, have genuine crises and aridity of faith. They are the ones who need faith, pure faith, to partner with reason because they are the ones who feel that tug between believing in God, truly knowing he exists, but that gut level feeling that they can never really know and feel him. Faith is what makes the bridge between what is humanly understandable and accessing some genuine understanding of God and living in communion with him possible. Faith is an active ingredient, a real trait and energy (for lack of a better word), not an inert "giving up that one can't really understand God but 'ought' to."

See, many people feel that "faith" means "ought to." That is why atheists are often wrongly dismissive of the power of faith. Atheists think that "faith" means a person forces themselves to believe and feel something they think "ought to" or "should" be done. But faith is not a vacuum that is bridged through dull duty and enforced belief. Faith is an actual accomplishment based on reality, not a suspension of reality.

Here's an analogy. Think of faith as the bridge over a gap between one's self and God. Those who don't understand faith think of it as ignoring the chasm that exists and just taking "the leap of faith," to use that common expression. But that is wrong because the bridge does exist, but it is built as you walk upon it, one invisible glass brick at a time. So to use the analogy, both faith and reasoning build a brick bridge between you and God. When one uses facts and reasoning, one is able to see the pre-existing red brick bridge and walk on it with confidence. When one uses facts and faith, one is on one's knees, with the gap in front of you, but you feel with your hands and put in place one glass brick at a time, step on it, then place the next glass brick, step on it, further and further, with confidence of faith, as the bricks really are there, but without the confidence of having the pre-built visible red brick bridge in front of you. With faith you are using facts and spiritual insight to create each customized invisible glass brick for yourself, putting it in place, and stepping onto it before putting the next one in place.

How to better understand this with some sympathy for the human condition? Think of the Israelites, freed by God through Moses from Egypt, and into the desert on the Exodus. God actually traveled with them, and was visible to them, most dramatically of course in the Great Theophany when the might of God descended upon the mountain, Mount Sinai. Every man, woman and child saw God's physical presence. Yet, when Moses went up the mountain to meet with God, receiving the Ten Commandments, how long did it take people who actually saw God descend to run off and worship an idol? Days, my friends, days. When Moses did not return right away, these people made the idol bull calf and started their dancing and worshipping of a pagan graven image. Um, where do we begin to explain that? Yes, many scholars point out that the people were genuinely celebrating God's presence and thought they were honoring him with the extra "compliment" of being strong, as symbolized by the bull calf. Right. God had just about shook down and consumed a mountain, and the natural reaction is to think, wow, God's like a really strong calf? Let's dance and worship it?

These were not stupid people, nor were they rudderless and shallow in faith. Human beings have a screw loose in their brains and there is just no polite way to put it. It is, as I said, a natural condition of survival instinct, which is not to cope with or believe in what is not in front of you and hitting you on the head with a hammer all the time. This the problem that God has with humans, to put it succinctly, which is that beings that are created from matter, energy and time cannot understand and have great difficulty motivating themselves, under any circumstance, to understand God, who is unknowable, not being of time, matter or energy.

You then get to the really dippy extreme reaction, which is related to the cartoonish reaction somewhat. Some equate "unknowable God" with "bizarre God." Here's how this, erm, "thinking process" goes:

1. We can't understand God.
2. God's "really out there."
3. Let's imagine really crazy and bizarre stuff that might be "out there."
4. Wow. That crazy and bizarre stuff we imagined must "be God."

That is where you see manufactured sci-fi and fantasy approaches to "faith," plus the obsession with both theoretical aliens and with quantum mechanics and physics (the so called "God particle," but oops, God is not comprised of matter, so no particle is a "God particle," duh.) You also see the distortion of genuine faith traditions, such as Buddhism, into directions that confuse traditional spiritual detachment with a new "what the heck" and thus giving up on a genuine relationship with God. None of these are really pleasing to God, who has gone through a lot with extreme patience and mercy to make himself know to humans, not to be ignored or manufactured with Halloween masks on him.

All of this is a long way to walk you through a few concepts I wanted to introduce you to, starting with the human nature reason that God seems so remote to some people, and why even believers have real crisis or aridity of faith. People need to be kind with themselves and each other and understand that human nature is not tolerant of understanding something that is not matter, energy, time based and, indeed, controllable in ANY way: God. When one is a matter, energy and time based being, one has a serious inability to understand God, and that is a fact. Fortunately, God, the Creator of all, obviously understands everything there is to know or ever know or could be known, and thus God provides ways to make himself known TO humans. God provides the materials for the bridge, God gives humans the map, and God crosses over the bridge to the human side all the time, day by day, second by second, person by person. God is on the same side as humans, since God is of course everywhere. It is one's understanding of God that is on the other side of the bridge. God walks alongside of each human as they cross that bridge to arrive at the other side, which is greater and greater understanding of God.

Think of it this way. When you are wondering if God really exists, and if he cares about the world, and if he is "out there," and whether or not he "cares" about you, he is standing next to you at that moment, where he always has been present! So you are both standing there looking over the gap, while you are thinking you are trying to see if God's there on the other side, and he's standing right next to you already, all along. It is kind of funny in a way and I'm saying that kindly. You think you are gazing into the distance trying to perceive God across the gap, and he's standing right there next to you, and humoring you by looking across the gap with you. But on the serious note, what God is looking at, in the place where you think you are trying to see God, God is looking at where you hope to be, and will be, in your understanding of God. It is your own understanding of God that stands across the gap, not God himself, for he's there already with you.

If there were actually some sort of gap, how, then, can anyone call upon God just by doing so, by speaking or thinking his holy name? "God" is all one has to call, in one's head and heart, and you are in communion with him; he is standing there next to you. Christians who have trouble praying, all they need to do is call upon "Jesus," just his holy name, and they are in communion with him through the authority of God in Jesus Christ.

So, let us think of that analogy of the facts and faith forming one glass brick at a time. You might ask me, what is the first faith brick I can make? That answer is simple. It is the Second Commandment.

"You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. For the Lord will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain" Exodus 20:7.

Here's what you need to understand. This Commandment is a statement of what not to do, but it of course presumes that something exists that could be abused, and that something is the power of just the name of the Lord, God. By power I do not mean magic power. Speaking the holy name of God is the most basic and fundamental first prayer. When one says "God," it is like one is a small child again, saying "daddy" or before one can even speak, tugging on your father's sleeve for his attention. When you say the name "God," you have used the power and holiness of God's name to speak a prayer, seeking his attention, asking him to regard and notice you.

The Israelites, of course, had centuries of knowing that. Thus the Israelites knew the power of the name of God as their first word, the only word, they needed to speak, as it is their call to God's attention. There is nothing magical about God's name as God is holy, not occult. So one is "summoning God" or performing magic with God's name. Likewise there is no magical or symbolic significance to whatever language one is using, and how linguistically God's name is spelled. How do you know that? Because a deaf person who never heard how his language spoke the name God can and does still call upon God by thinking of "God" as his address, just as a baby does not know daddy's full name and how it is spelled or pronounced!

What you need to remember, then, that to call upon God by addressing him by what you understand to be his name is HOLY. It's not the combination of sounds, letters, pronunciations, that make God's name holy; it is the fact that you are calling upon God, addressing him, and the ability to call God, to address the Most High and the Most Holy is a holy act, the most fundamental prayer.

This is why God warns his people, who have known for a long time how to call upon him by his name (the version that they used), not to take his name in vain.

Thus the first transparent, pure clear glass brick based upon fact and faith is that you can call upon God by his name. If you believe or understand nothing else, if you really are on the one side of the gap and see nothing available to you to believe in or understand God, then believe and understand this and therefore make your first glass brick: If you think or speak the name God, you are addressing yourself to him and you have his attention. That is a fact.

See, this is how faith is built based on factual and actionable foundations. It takes very little effort to know and believe, and to understand the logic of this, that when you invoke in your thoughts "God!" you are calling to him and obtaining his attention.

Two more things to explain before I wrap this particular blog post up for now. Regular readers know that I did a series on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. I have added that series under that label on this post so you can easily reference them again, or see them for the first time. What I have just shown you is an example of the gift of Knowledge. I have taught you that through the scriptures (courtesy of the Holy Spirit) that you can call upon the name of God and you have his attention for a fact. That is an example of a piece of the gift of the Holy Spirit, Knowledge, that you now possess, truly. If you start to prayerfully and regularly call upon the name of God, just as comfort, as a statement, as an outreach to him, just to touch him, to reach out to him, by thinking "God" in that mindset, you will also be adding to the gift of Piety.

So you have received 1) the Knowledge of the Holy Spirit that God hears and gives his attention to you whenever you call his name and 2) that you receive the gift of Piety if you cultivate the calling upon God with humility.

My second point is then to think back to the Second Commandment. That is so misunderstood because many people today think that means "don't cuss or swear." That is a misunderstanding that is due to the passage of time where it is part of what is lost in context. People today think it is "sinful" and "disrespectful" to "cuss" or "swear" using God's name, and they think that is what the Second Commandment is about, but they think that because they have lost the context that I just explained, which is that stating the name of God is the first and most fundamental prayer. When you state "God," you are tugging on his sleeve, like a child tugging daddy's sleeve, seeking his attention, and God guarantees that if you state his name you got His attention. Get it now?

God is telling his people through Moses to not call upon him lightly and in vain.

That is what the Second Commandment means, my friends. It presumes that the believer already gets the fact that stating God's name all by itself, in speech or thought, is making the presumption of making one's attention known to God by using his Holy Name to say, "Hey God, connect with me." God has already shown this to all throughout faith history, from Adam to Moses, that he can be called upon just by his Holy Name. And this is why in the time of the giving of the Commandments, God is saying not to mess with his name lightly, calling attention upon one's self in vain. So sure, cussing's not a good idea, but those who think the Second Commandment is about cussing have totally and completely missed the point of what the Second Commandment is talking about, which is the most fundamental and first prayer, which is to state or think His holy name: "God."

When you realize that messing with God by calling upon him in anything but reverence is a bad idea, then you have obtained a piece of the first gift of the Holy Spirit: Fear of the Lord. When you understand that the mention of God's name is the first form of prayer, the most fundamental form, and it is by Covenant (both Old and New) one way that one is guaranteed to have God's attentiveness, you realize that you should be somewhat fearful of doing so lightly. The loss of understanding the holiness (because of its status of God's attentiveness) of simply the name "God" is one of the greatest omissions of strength in modern faith. It's not the cussing or not, it's the forgetfulness that God has given humans his Holy Name the statement of which by itself is a most serious calling upon God for his attentiveness. It is one of the greatest gifts from God, the comfort and assured consolation and attentiveness from him of calling on his name, God, God, God..... yet it's not only forgotten but cartoonishly made into being about cussing. Cussing is a symptom, not the point. The Commandments are the lists of "not to do's," but they come centuries after what God told people TO DO, which is to call upon his name in FAITH.

Think of it this way. God is the person you really want to receive the job of a lifetime from. You have his phone number. Would you call him on the phone and then do a series of crank hang up calls? When you know he has the ultimate caller ID? God's Holy Name is like having his phone number. You use his Holy Name when you want his attention. "God" you say. That is all you need to say or think, and you have God's attention. How dumb do you want to be once you have his attention? This is what the Second Commandment was warning against. I hope that the inevitable telephone modern analogy helps :-)

God's Holy Name is often the only thing that a person paralyzed by fear, by doubt, by affliction, by persecution, by death's door, by unsolvable human problems can state in appeal. Faith history in the scriptures shows the bond of the simple stating of names, God's and his servant's. If you have aridity in faith, or moments you don't feel God, or long periods where you doubt he is even involved with humans, then you have simply forgotten this, or never were taught it, that all appeals and all communion with God begin with his Holy Name, just stating "God."

Every path and every road to knowing "where" God is and "hearing" God in reply starts with understanding anew or remembering and regaining from old the initial brick of fact and faith which is to call upon God for his attention and comfort, just for the communion of togetherness, simply by stating his name.

Another way to understand why God's name is Holy is to understand that one's name is not magical, but it is a statement of purpose. You see this in Isaiah 49:1-3:

Hear me, O coastlands, listen, O distant peoples. The Lord called me from birth, from my mother's womb he gave me my name. He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me. You are my servant, he said to me, Israel, through whom I show my glory.

Notice three names referenced. First of all, Isaiah reports that "The Lord" called him from birth. Do you notice that the scriptures never go for extended times just referring to God as "He?" Those who wrote the Books of the Bible carefully use God's name, God, or The Lord, over and over. This is because they are referring to God by his Holy Name, which is also his office. God is The Divinity, that is what God "does." God's "occupation" is to be Holy and Perfect. God is a Holy Name because it is the Office indicator of the one who is All Holy. God is thus the one word statement of perfection and holy authority. Scripture writers therefore did not save ink by saying "He said this and then he said that to me, and he created the world and he did these deeds." Rather, they repeat over and over the name of "God" or the "Lord" because each use of God's name is like a sealing of that statement's Holy Authority. Thus Isaiah says "The Lord" called him from birth even though he just referred to God as "the Lord" in the sentence before. We'd know he meant God if he said "He," but that would be an incredible thought to the people of God who understood the frequent use of God's name as Holy and as sealing the statement with his Holy Authority.

The second example is that Isaiah states that The Lord gave Isaiah his own name from Isaiah's mother's womb. What does that mean? It does not mean that God instructed Isaiah's mother to call her child Isaiah. What Isaiah meant is that God gave to Isaiah his particular calling, his service and office to God as prophet, from the womb. This is a way for you today to understand why names were important: not for magical reasons, or numerology, or good luck, or symbolic "meanings," but because they are in imitation of God, whose Holy Name is his Holy Office. It is not that Isaiah was named I-S-A-I-A-H, but that he would be "that" Isaiah, that one called by God to that office of prophet. That is why the name Joseph has great meaning, for example, even when it was the most popular name for boys and millions upon millions had that name. It is not the spelling and the lettering and the language and the prounciation, it is the linkage of name-to-person, and then the service to God, from whom all names must be subordinate.

Then Isaiah mentions a third name, taking it upon himself, the people of Israel. Isaiah is through name now almost the agent or broker for Israel as a whole with God. God is addressing the entire nation of Israel by name through Isaiah. God said to Isaiah, "You are my servant," but instead of saying ", Isaiah," God said, "Israel, through whom I show my glory." Isaiah thus has his office of linking God to Israel, and Israel has its office of being the vessel through which God shows his glory.

I'm trying to simplify for you the whole understanding of why names are reverential and indeed holy. It is not the spelling because Isaiah would be just as holy a prophet as if he were called Fred or Abdul. But giving a human a name (or giving animals names, as Adam did in Genesis) is an imitation of God's Holy Authority and Office that is expressed in his name alone. God is the only one who has always existed and always will, and he of course knows himself by the name of his own choosing. Understand, then, that the practice of giving people names is an imitation of that which cannot be duplicated. Only God can be God. Many people can be named Isaiah. But only one Isaiah was the one chosen by God for that office. That is why a person's name is considered holy and of power, but not because of any magic or secular empowerment inherent in the lettering, language or sounds. Rather, all names are in imitation of God's first and only example, of him being not only named God but The One God. God taught naming to Adam and that is why naming should be equally reverential among humans, understanding where the meaning of naming derived, directly from God's hands.

I went into some detail here but that has been on my mind to get rid of that superstitious and often ridiculous modern view of naming (the nuttier the better), which is not, now that you understand this, as harmless as many think. When humans become idiotic with their own naming it only distances themselves more from understanding faith and the role of God's name and the dignity of humanity's imitation of God's role modeling. Further, naming has not just become silly but it also has promoted erroneous occult beliefs as people forget what scriptures mean when they emphasize the power of names. Scripture does not mean that names are manufactured and manipulated sources of power at all. Scripture means what it has always mean but people no longer understand, which is that humans name in imitation of God, whose Holy Name is also his Holy Office. When you speak God's name you call upon him as God. You do that no matter what the theoretical spelling of God's name in a human language might be. Only Moses ever heard God's name spoken by him anyway (except Jesus of course). No, when the scripture comments about the importance of human names the authors are doing so in the context of a time when millions shared the same names and simple traditional ones they were: the power is not in the name but in the understanding of what a person's name represents as a small fragment of the example of dignity that God himself has made available to humanity in imitation of Him.

I hope that you have found this helpful!

(Hi young people!...)