A God-shaped hole
November 27, First Sunday of Advent
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
“I don’t believe in God,” she said to me.
“Well,” I said, “tell me what kind of God it is that you don’t believe in.”
She looked at me quizzically. “What do you mean?”
“What kind of God is it that you don’t believe in? Because there’s a good chance that I don’t believe in that kind of God either.”
I’ve found in my years of talking to people about God, that it’s often easier to start with the negative. With what we don’t believe.
I don’t believe God is like Santa Claus. I don’t believe God is an old man with a beard. I don’t believe God talks to you through the radiator.
We all have images of God in our heads, or most of us do. We hear these narratives of Isaiah and Jesus and we might have some image of “the house of the Lord.” God sitting in judgement. The Son of Man returning. Images that come from art we have seen, or other stories we have heard…very often they are images that come from our earliest childhoods. Asking, “what was your earliest image of God?” can be an interesting conversation starter—with people you already know…I don’t recommend it for the stranger standing in front of you at the local coffee shop.
We all have a variety of images of God in our heads, but we rarely access them. And so, starting with what we don’t believe can help give shape and contour to what we do believe about God.
Starting with the negative can also be helpful because a number of our positive images of God conflict with the reality we experience. “God is good,” we might affirm, but then experience something terrible and wonder if that’s really true. Thus the perennial question of “why do bad things happen to good people?” How do we understand, for instance, the “goodness” of God in light of this story that given two remarkably similar individuals, “one is taken and one is left.” And is it better to be taken, or left? God is still good, but apparently not in the way we typically understand that word.
Using both positive and negative statements about God…our images of God can continue to grow and develop, morph and clarify over time. Those childhood images might still linger…and might still be potent…but I hope that other images have been added to your repertoire. We can’t ever fully know or explain God, but the broad outlines can become clearer. Part of our work here is to help one another clarify and refine our collective images of God. We do this through hymns and sermons, through formal liturgy and casual discussions.
Throughout most of the church year we get a lot of positive statements about God—the fancy theological term for this is “cataphatic”—from the Greek meaning “to bring down so as to speak of.” This is the dominant mode in western Christianity. Our primary proclamation of faith, that God, the creator of all, the transcendent, immortal, eternal has become incarnate, human, mortal, time-bound, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is a “cataphatic” statement. The Nicene creed—is a positive, largely cataphatic statement of faith agreed upon by the ancient church. Our hymns, and our eucharistic prayer are all primarily positive statements about God and God’s activity in the world.
But no amount of positive pronouncements will ever encompass the totality of a description of God. Because we are simply too limited in our capacity as humans, and God is simply too unlimited, too inexpressible. The opposite of “cataphatic is “apophatic,” or the via negativa as it is sometimes called—the way of negations—This mode is more prevalent in Eastern Christianity—and it simultaneously reveals greater clarity and unveils deeper mystery. The apophatic mode describes not what God is, but what God is not…God is not confined to time. God is not confined to space. Thus, “about that day and hour no one knows…not even the Son.” God is not evil. God is not created. God is not like us. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
In the visual arts there is both the object and the space—the negative space— around the object. It is not just the notes but the notes and the rests—the silence and the sound—that creates music and speech. Advent is a rest…a kind of negative space…for giving shape to the form of the Incarnation at Christmas. Advent is a time to work on clarifying the contours of the God-shaped hole in our souls.
That’s a striking image, isn’t it? A God-shaped hole.
It’s an image that comes from the seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. You’ve undoubtedly heard of Pascal’s wager…
Either God exists or God does not. And since human reason will never be able to finally determine this you must wager on the outcome. If you bet that God exists and you’re right—you win everything. If it turns out you’re wrong, you lose nothing. If on the other hand you bet that God doesn’t exist and it turns out you’re right, you don’t gain anything, but if you lose…
A lot of people simply stop here. Guess I’d better bet that God exists and try to make the best of it. Which results in a lot of people saying they believe that God exists and then behaving as though God doesn’t exist. Or that God is really absent from most of life.
Pascal also argues that we all seek happiness. And yet it is something that continues to elude us except for perhaps brief moments. We desire things and then we suffer because we cannot achieve that which we desire. What this tells us, says Pascal, is that, “there was once in [us] a true happiness of which there now remain[s] only the mark and empty trace, which [we] in vain try to fill from all [our] surroundings,”
We have tried everything, he says to fill God’s place…”the stars, the heavens, earth, the elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, serpents, fever, pestilence, war, famine, vices,…“Some seek good in authority, others in scientific research, others in pleasure.”
“But these are all inadequate,” he says, “because the infinite abyss [in us] can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God.”
The shape of that hole, I believe, is unique to each individual…like a lock…keyed to each of our souls.
We tend to think of Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas. With trees to trim, and presents to buy, and too many holiday events to plan for and participate in. But Advent is really an invitation to prepare for God’s presence to come among us. For that God-shaped hole to be filled. This year, I want to invite you into an Advent that is shaped by an absence…by a longing that is waiting to be filled. I invite you to become more aware of God that is inexpressible…God that is infinite…beyond comprehension…transcendent…and I invite you to find space and time to wonder about how that infinite, ineffable, the shape…the contour…of the God-shapped hole in you. So that every heart can prepare God room…let’s clear a space for the God who was, and is, and is to come to be born anew in us and through us.