Oh, please show me your glory!
Towards A Theology of Contradictions
This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Exodus these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
Passover is almost here! Of course, this project has covered the story of the Exodus already; you can find all those posts in the archives, or find a roundup linked in this Twitter thread. Hag Sameach, Yidden! Sending big Easter blessings to those of you celebrating that holy day as well! In any case, we continue on where we have been, in the middle of Exodus.
In my early 20s, I began having a certain kind of experience that was so intense, remarkable and strange—call them mystical encounters or whatever other label you’d prefer—that I found myself calling into question what was, by that point, a long-held and deeply entrenched atheism.
What was true then remains true for me now: my understanding and relationship with the divine is completely inextricable from my experience of the divine. This, philosophically, puts me in the camp known as “phenomenology”—I don’t believe we can talk about God without talking about our own experiences of God. Otherwise, what are we talking about? What are we trying to say?
And yet, of course, we need to understand how limiting each of our experiences of God are. An experience of some aspect of the divine, filtered through our feeble and limited human perceptions, is by its very nature going to be insufficient.
Moses had gone up to the top of Mt. Sinai, had profound, intimate connection with God as part of the receiving of Torah, but still felt like there was so much of God that he did not understand.
In a moment of longing, he cried, “Oh, please, show me Your glory!” (Exodus 33:18)
He begged God to reveal Godself to him—even just once—in fullness, not shrouded by pillars of smoke or fire.
In this, perhaps the most intimate exchange in the Bible, God acquiesced to God’s ardent servant’s demands—but only to a degree.
And [God] answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name of God, and and I will grant the grace that I will grant and show the compassion that I will show. But you cannot see My face, for a human being may not see Me and live.”
And God said, “See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see after me; but My face must not be seen.” (Exodus 33:19-23)
The word in Hebrew for “after me” is sometimes translated as “My back,” sometimes “what is behind me,” but the essential point remains the same.
Even Judaism’s greatest prophet experiences the divine with a hand over his eyes, protected from a blinding light he was not capable of understanding, let alone surviving.
He can hope to perceive, at most, traces of God’s presence, the imprints of the effulgence left behind, lingering in the air, before disappearing.
That’s all any of us have, really. Not the opportunity to behold God’s glory in its full splendor, but rather just the chance to catch a few traces, the moment that they began to vanish.
Given that everything else in our lives is filtered through the specificity of who we are—the particulars of our story, our cultural background, our historical moment, and more—there’s no reason to think that this isn’t as well.
The context in which we find ourselves matters, and it impacts not only how we make sense of what happens to us, but, possibly, even the actual nature of our spiritual experiences as well.
And even our own understandings shift and change over time. As we have different experiences that engender new questions; or that strip us raw of our assumptions; or that usher us into unexpected ways of thinking, being, knowing and doing—whether deaths, births, traumas, transitions, healings, or something else. Times when we are unexpectedly open. Times when we go deeper into a spiritual practice. Times of transformation. Times when it feels as though the veil was lifted, even just a little.
My own experiences of God have taken many different forms over the years—and, as such, my understandings of God have, too. Of course, we all make sense of the traces we’ve been lucky enough to glimpse; we try to derive from them what we can, even if we receive contradictory information from them, even if we have difficulty squaring them with our faculties of reason.
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None of us have real claims to absolute truth—only God can know what God is like. Divine wisdom may reveal itself to us, but what we grasp of it will necessarily always reflect the imperfect filters through which we view the world—filters created, in part, by our situations, opportunities, time and place. And we each have limitations and lenses, others may very well see things that are outside our own peripheral vision. After all, we all have pieces of the puzzle.
There’s no pithy quote, no single story, that can succinctly summarize the One who is, necessarily, greater and more expansive than the human attempting to understand. How do we describe that which transcends language?
And yet, who would we be if we experienced moments in which the veil was, however briefly, lifted for us and we didn’t try to learn from them?
As such, I want to suggest that it’s an important, even laudable thing to talk of a theology rife with contradictions.
Those who want to tie God up in a neat, coherent package—and who believe that their package, by virtue of being consistent, is also true—are, in my opinion, overreaching.
I speak of God in terms that are contradictory and complex, messy and unclear—I embrace the fact that not everything might add up by our reckoning. I believe this messiness is a fair and even possibly quite good thing.
A few people who read my post from a few weeks ago have let me know that they interpreted it to mean that I was saying that experiencing the divine viscerally, or striving for deep connection during prayer, meditation, and so forth was a bad thing. Far from it! What I was trying to say, anyway, is that mysticism is not the point. It is not where we are ultimately meant to go. It is not the final destination.
Of course, powerful experiences of the divine can open us up to the work that we must do in the world; help us to experience our interconnectedness as not just theoretical, but as a fact that enlivens our obligation to care for one another. It can nourish and sustain us, be the wellspring from which we draw as the work of fighting for a more just world grinds on. It can offer us a more expansive vision of what is, and what can be.
That is worth a great deal.
What I meant to say then, and what I will say now, is that if we end with moments of connection and do not take those insights out into a world in need of healing, out into our obligations to everyone, most especially those who our systems have not served—we are, in fact, missing the point of the whole enterprise.
In religion, symbology is inescapable. The divine, and the human relationship with the divine, is vast, complex, and beyond language. There’s no way to explain God in direct words. Rather, as a way of pointing at and expanding our notion of ultimate existence, linguistic symbols create a kind of shorthand. As Jewish theologian Neil Gillman put it:
“We borrow aspects of familiar human experience to express a complex set of truths about a reality that transcends everyday experience.”
How could it be any other way? We use what we have.
This, of course, explains why there’s so much anthropomorphism in our sacred texts and liturgy to begin with. Rabbinic texts tell us that “the Torah speaks in the language of humans,”; in other words, language is a tool to help us access the One that defies human description. That’s all language is—a tool. It is a tool that can be, and has been, exploited by those in power to inscribe and reinscribe hierarchies, but it is only a tool nonetheless.
Sometimes we introduce new language to upend those hierarchies.
Sometimes we use new readings of traditional language, or deploy traditional language in novel ways, to subvert those hierarchies.
And we must always ask: how do our metaphors create our experience of the divine? And when do we allow metaphors for the divine—new, traditional, or something else—to bind us to a certain way of encountering God? How can we allow for the messy complexity of the human encounter with the Holy One? Do we allow room for contradiction, for the possibility that our experiences of the Divine might include new information that challenges the easy, comfortable assumptions we used when we created these metaphors in the first place?
But there are times when, perhaps, we need to hold our metaphors for God lightly, lest we become so tangled up in them that they become our experience of God entirely.
A theology of contradiction doesn’t presume the experiences we have when we enter into conversation with God; God should surprise us. Who are we to think that we know everything? God should challenge us, and challenge us again, cause us to rethink and rework our assumptions about life, other people, the world, ourselves and God Godself.
If we’re so tied to the idea that God is, necessarily, a compassionate, loving parent figure or a peacemaker or some other thing, we’re going to miss vital information that God sends us that might contradict our neat little labels.
We have to find ways to meet the God who dwells outside of our metaphors.
The magic often happens when we allow the porousness of texts to open themselves to us. When we embrace their complexity, when we make room for contradiction, we may find ourselves able to embrace an understanding of the divine that doesn’t line up as conveniently as we might hope.
Perhaps that is what will enable us to hear God sing to us, tell us who God is.
“compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness,” (Exodus 34:6)
as Moses heard, or something else entirely. Something bigger, beyond language, into the realm of pure experience.
The rabbinic aphorisms of Pirke Avot remind us that with Torah, we must
“turn it, and turn it over again, for everything is in it.”(Pirke Avot 5:25)
Metaphors are prisms that we can turn and turn and turn again, and the light and the color refracts and reflects, brightly, into our hearts, each time a different color.
Perhaps we can then give God the space to contradict everything we once thought true. And as we learn to do this with God, as we learn to embrace the porous messiness of the transcendent divine, we may find our own ideas about people on the ground become less fixed as well.
And then who we are, one with the other, becomes more open to holy contradiction and sweet, sweet surprise.
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