What is God like?
Bewilderment often impels me to ask this.
I listen to the teaching and preaching of the church, and noting (amid its well-meaning and good-hearted reverence) the signs of superstition and narrow muddled thinking, inconsistency and vested interested, I turn aside discontented from its packaged doctrines and odd specific implementations of general morality.
I believe God created everything that is, that the one-song (uni-verse) poured forth from the Spirit’s life urge in a tumbling cornucopia of myriad self-expression. I believe tsunamis and ticks, sunsets and scabs, Pacific waves and putrid waste all tell me something about the divine economy and what one might call the 360o point of view of the Living God. But every now and then something makes me stop and think, “Yikes! God! What are you like?”
This happened yesterday morning when we were discussing over breakfast the necessity of implementing the cats’ next flea treatment. Casually observing to my beloved spouse the connection between fleas and tapeworm – that fleas carry tapeworm eggs and, being small and streamlined, can crawl freely in and out of an animal’s anus and deliver tapeworm to its gut by depositing the eggs in its rectum – once more I found myself lost in the old question, contemplating the ways of mty Creator, asking “God . . . what are You like?”
The church is quick to offer me answers, but I find most of them are like carrying water in a paper bag – they don’t take you very far.
Over the last several weeks I have followed on television a series about British teenagers having a taster of Amish life. At the same time I have been reading Joe Mackall’s Plain Secrets. Both the TV series and the book puzzled me deeply. I think of a community prepared to take a human being brought up separate from ‘the world’, having no ID papers allowing him to make his way alone, lacking the social skills to swim easily in the mainstream, not even a social security number or a home, and condemn him to excommunication and shunning, forbid his family to speak to him, insist not only he but also his parents will surely be damned by God to hell – because he prefers to drive a tractor . . . because he prefers the common-sense option of a car on the freeway rather than the impossibly vulnerable buggy to transport his children . . . because he wants to use a cell-phone . . .
I read of the Swartzentruber Amishman taking his injured child streaming with blood from English house to English house for someone who could give them a lift to the hospital and, finding no-one home, resorting to taking her to the vet to be stitched up (the vet did a good job). Very resourceful under the circumstances, and no doubt the Amish are steadfast, admirable, faithful and courageous, with much to teach us who have been trapped and infected by the Mammon-tangle – but to say the Ordnung originates with God? Can I believe that? I don’t think I can.
In the case of a number of other lifestyle issues, I watch with bemusement the stockpiling of proof texts and tortuous application of biblical literalism necessary to arrive at predetermined evangelical points of view, and I ask myself - can I believe that? More to the point, does it take me any closer to the God who created fleas creeping in and out of anuses and hermaphrodite snails and volcanoes that will freeze a living city in death in the blink of an eye? Does the God who made the shark who stripped the flesh from the terrified swimmer care how he wore his braces or how short she cut her hair?
There are people who will, with kindness, courtesy and restraint, explain to me exactly why it matters that a menstruating women must not be allowed past the man-made rail that separates this patch of ground from that patch of ground lest she contaminate by her approach this wood/stone/concrete man-made table where the consecration takes place of the wafers they call ‘bread’ that were made far away in a press by other menstruating women set aside from the world in enclosed convents . . .
I listened as the Amish-woman on the TV said that it freaked out her children to see her British visitors hug each other goodnight (because that included hugging people of the opposite gender). She cautioned the girls over how they should bend down when they were picking tomatoes in the field, lest inadvertently, despite the modest dress they had been given to wear, men might see their breasts or legs or whatever it was that she was bothered about men possibly seeing.
The Bible says that God looked at everything that He had made, and pronounced it good. Everything. Breasts and legs, hermaphrodites and homosexuals and heterosexuals, volcanoes and quicksands and tsunamis, carbuncles and the ebola virus, grief and death and sorrow, fear and pain: God made everything, and said that it is good. Laughter and singing, the smell of rain on summer dust, the terror and splendour of sheet lightning, those seriously weird fish that live right down at the bottom of the sea. Hydrothermal vents and giant tube worms.
God pronounced good the octopus that found the crevice in the corner of the tank in the sea-life centre through which it escaped by night into the neighbouring tank to eat the fish that God had also made before creeping back into its own tank again before morning.
What are You like? God, what are You like? You are like something that is not adequately addressed by kapps and aprons, by monastic Rules, by the Athanasian creed or the Ordnung.
And human beings, in enshrining the holy, comprehensively get in the way.
I almost (this is a long story) ended up co-ordinating the flower rota at church. God, seeing this, acted swiftly and mercifully to prevent its occurrence because, you see, God knows me. But when I thought I was going to be the flower lady, I bought a book about arranging church flowers; and there, near the front, was a paragraph explaining to all would-be flower arrangers that they must charge the congregation all that they could for their expenses – car parking fees, petrol, foam block – anything and everything, because (this made me blink and read it again to check I’d got it right) the more they charged the church the more the church would benefit. Only a natural theologian could come up with so perfectly opaque a piece of reasoning. At first I put the book on a high shelf where I could hardly see it. But it still made me feel physically ill to know it was there, so I took it to the charity shop.
But puzzling about what God is like, bewildered by the perceptions and assertions of religious people, I glanced out at the woodpile, built against the garden wall. The seasoned logs, provident and neatly stacked, representative of forward thinking and orderly life, and the wall beautifully re-pointed by Joe and Kevin to last another hundred years, spoke to me of shelter and peace. And here I see the meeting point of the Amish Ordnung and the monastic tradition, mother Church and her dogma, holy ecology and the Divine mind. The ways of Mammon are essentially chaotic – even where they are systematic they tend towards chaos. The ways of God exhibit divine order – the bee lives for the flower as the flower lives for the bee, and each unfolds the inherent nature of what it was called to be. Order and peace are interconnected – mutually proceeding from each other.
And I know from personal experience, by the touch of His Spirit upon my life, that the presence of God is peace.
Therefore I have discovered at least this: that inasmuch as it strive towards order, religion with all its blindness and cruelty shows truly a yearning and twisting of the soul growing up toward the light.
If I work to put (and hold) in place order and peace in my life, then there will be some small thing thing in resonance with the one-song, the still small voice, the eternal Word. I think. I hope.