Archive for the ‘God’ Category


Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017


Reading Rowan Williams The Wound of Knowledge. It is so difficult to find something spiritual which I can stomach.

The first point he makes is the radical and shocking otherness of the Christ event. At the time no one in their right mind could have imagined such a divine intervention.

But then ‘otherness’ is, more often than not I think, the first striking characteristic of an experience of God.

He is the Wholly Other, beyond anything we could ever have imagined.

Likewise his actions. He reveals himself not in powerful theophanies but in weakness and failure.

Not an attractive notion, not an idea one can comfortably welcome.

We are all too aware 0f our insufficiency, of the three brute facts of existence – powerlessness, contingency and scarcity.

The last idea we would want to welcome is one which counters our instinctive drive for autonomy,

to achieve some measure of power and control over our own lives.

Nietzsche despised what he considered Christian weakness and quite rightly said,

‘God is dead’,

i.e. the kind of god he imagined God to be, a God of power and might.

Such a god never existed, though he continues to exist in the imaginations of such as Richard Dawkins.

The drive for power, autonomy and control must always end in failure because of the contingency of our existence.

What Jesus revealed was a way of being which ultimately leads to transcendence. The God Jesus revealed is utterly transcendent and at the same time immediately present in the act of loving.

God does not exist over and against us, out there, up there.

God is encountered within, within oneself, within Himself.

In  the mornings I sit in darkness,

darkness without, darkness within,


Half remembered lines of R S Thomas come and go.

He too knew this darkness, this absence, this silence.

It is a sacred time,

a time of stillness, of expectancy,

like the withdrawing water, the hush,

before the incoming wave smothers the shore.

No sign of the wave yet,

but it’s out there –


Creation and the hidden God

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Came across this the other day by Simone Weil –

La création est de la part de Dieu un acte non pas d’expansion de soi, mais de retrait, de renoncement. Dieu et toutes les créatures, cela est moins que Dieu seul. Dieu a accepté cette diminution. Il a vidé de soi une partie de l’être. Il s’est vidé déjà dans cet acte de sa divinité; c’est pourquoi saint Jean dit que l’Agneau a été égorgé dès la constitution du monde. Dieu a permis d’exister à des choses autres que lui et valant infiniment moins que lui. Il s’est par l’acte créateur nié lui-même, comme le Christ nous a prescrit de nous nier nous-mêmes. Dieu s’est nié en notre faveur pour nous donner la possibilité de nous nier pour lui. Cette réponse, cet écho, qu’il dépend de nous de refuser, est la seule justification possible à la folie d’amour de l’acte créateur. Les religions qui ont conçu ce renoncement, cette distance volontaire, cet effacement volontaire de Dieu, son absence apparente et sa présence secrète ici-bas, ces religions sont la religion vraie, la traduction en langages différents de la grande Révélation. Les religions qui représentent la divinité comme commandant partout où elle en a le pouvoir sont fausses. Même si elles sont monothéistes, elles sont idolâtres.

* Texte repris dans « Attente de Dieu », préface de J.-M. Perrin, La Colombe-éditions du
Vieux Colombier, 1950. 

I am not sure whether it is possible to have a ‘less than God alone’, but I can see where Simone Weil is coming from in saying that in the act of creation God caused something to exist which was not himself. There is a profound truth here which says something about the humility of God. And about the nature of love. Love is not coercive. It always includes the possibility of rejection. In order to give us this freedom God hides himself – a very anthropomorphic way of putting things. It reminds me of the story of children playing hide and seek. One boy hid himself so well that after a time the others, who couldn’t find him, got fed up and went off. Eventually the boy emerged and, dismayed at being abandoned, went crying to his father, a rabbi. The rabbi, when he heard what had happened, wrapped the boy in his arms and said, ‘Now you know what it is like for God. He is hidden everywhere but no one is looking for Him.’

What a complex process this journey through life is. The Ten Ox-herding Pictures beloved of Zen describe it well – again in simple anthropomorphic terms. The important thing is the initial insight, moment of curiosity, question, call it what you will. And so often the beginning of the journey is full of excitement and discovery. But as the journey progresses the going gets more difficult and we have to shed so much baggage just to keep going (useful at the beginning but now a hindrance). Or perhaps it is the case that our baggage is taken from us and we are left, bereft of all that consoled, encouraged and comforted, alone with darkness all around.

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply.It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

R. S. Thomas


Monday, December 19th, 2011

En faisant de Dieu un événement de l’histoire, en inscrivant sa Présence au cœur de l’humanité, Jésus-Christ a intériorisé Dieu. Dieu n’est plus une puissance cachée derrière les étoiles, Dieu est au-dedans de nous. (Maurice Zundel)

[08-16/10/11 – Droits de l’homme, droits de propriété.]

This idea of God, a power hidden behind the stars, is quite striking, and pretty traditional.  It is a simple graphic idea, quite easy to grasp and it deals nicely with the problems of coming to grips with a God who is utterly transcendent – the idea of a being beyond, but relating to, the visible cosmos. A problem occurs, however, when it comes to Jesus Christ. Even though we have may have accepted the idea of the Incarnation – that this being has become man – we don’t really dwell on the utter contradiction of Jesus Christ, God and man. Either God, or man, but God/man – that is the greatest contradiction of terms. God is infinite self-sufficiency; man is contingent matter. To say that one is the other does not make sense. The cognitive dissonance involved in such a gross contradiction means that, rather than grappling with it and trying to understand its consequences, we tend to accept that God, the transcendent power hidden behind the stars, is present in some way we don’t understand in Jesus Christ. And that, probably, for most of us is as far as it goes.

But Zundel does not look away. He follows the logic. If God is in Christ then God is immanent. He is within humanity. He is within us. This is a novel and startling idea. It is not, first of all, our common experience. Indeed, we would look very suspiciously at anyone who claimed that they were aware that God was within them. Yet Zundel is quite serious, as Paul was quite serious when he said, ‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ (Gal 2:20) One might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps this might be the case but that it applies only to a selected few great mystics. However, the tenor of the New Testament implies that God’s immanence in humanity is universal. The presence of God within us is not just for the select few but for all. In what way, then, is God within us? And what does it mean – especially since it is not our common experience?

Zundel does not pose this question, neither does he answer it directly. Instead he comes at it in a roundabout way by looking at what it means to exist as a human person. He says, Exister, c’est être l’origine et la source de soi-même.’ (To exist is to be the origin and source of oneself.) The emphasis here is on the self. Only God is the origin and source of his own being. But for us, to exist as human persons in the fullest sense consists first in becoming aware of what it is that makes us persons. This awareness is not necessarily conscious and explicit. More often than not it is instinctive and implicit. It is the awareness that I, the person me, am an amalgam, a nexus of relationships. And secondly, that the person I am is determined by the manner in which I reciprocate in, respond to these relationships. Our modern consumerist culture, with its attendant social changes and secularisation of religion has led to the dominant idea (at least in the West) of possessive individualism.  C. B. McPherson described this as,

Every man is naturally the sole proprietor of his own person and capacities (the absolute proprietor in that he owes nothing to society for them).*

By the mid-twentieth century, after two devastating wars, the old societal bonds and values were crumbling and their value open to question. At its best the possessive attitude is neatly summed up in Fritz Perls Gestalt Prayer

I do my thing, and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you and I am I

And if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.

If not, it can’t be helped.**

This is a sad distortion of the nature of things. It is not the way we are, although it does reflect the way which the impersonal anomie of our urban culture often forces us to be. John Donne is much nearer the mark when he says,

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as a manor of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The truth is that we, as persons, are interdependent. We are social beings. We depend for our existence as mentally and emotionally healthy persons on the quality of our relationships with others. One of the worst things one can do to another person is to imprison him or her in solitary confinement. One of the worst things that can happen to a child is to suffer neglect and rejection. Without human interaction we cannot grow, or flourish. Without love we become empty husks, shadows of what might have been.

For some time in my younger days I worked for a market gardner in Burgundy, Pierre Oriol. He was a home-grown philosopher. When I asked him once what philosophers he read, he said, ‘Je ne lis pas. Je pense.’ Perhaps it was because he did not read that his thinking was so fresh and original. After the Saturday morning’s work he would invite us up to his house to be paid and over a glass or two of pastis he would challenge us with some of the ideas he had been mulling over. One Saturday the argument extended well into the afternoon. Pierre challenged us, ‘L’amour n’existe pas.’ Of course love exists, was the reaction. But for Pierre love, essentially, is pure self-giving with no hint of self-interest. All that we generally call love, as far as he could see, is inherently selfish and therefore is not, properly speaking, love. I did not have much experience of life then and could not refute his argument. Since then I have seen the unsparing commitment of individuals to the sick, the vulnerable and the suffering. Since then I have experienced what it is like to love and to be loved. I would not now try to refute his argument but rather take it to another level. Perhaps there is no such thing as the pure love Pierre intends and of course there is no love which does not involve self, but as the Japanese philosopher Nishida explains, ‘The centre of the self is not limited to the interior of the individual; the self of a mother is to be found in her child.’*** Which brings us back to Zundel. The self of the Father is within the Son, the lover within the beloved.

(To be continued.)

* Mapherson, C. B.  The Political Theory of Possesive Individualism, OUP, Oxford, 1962,  270

** PERLS, F.  Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Bantam Books, London, 1971

*** Nishida Kitaro, Zen no Kenkyu 1921. Translated as An Enquiry into the Good by Masao Abe and Christopher Ives. Newhaven CN: Yale University Press 1990.

Bright darkness

Monday, August 15th, 2011

Gustave Thibon referring to charismatics –

“Always this need for revelations, for miracles, for living and palpable proofs of faith. I don’t judge it but I instinctively turn away. I can no longer do other than adore the dark and silent face of God. An essence without impact on existence – except perhaps that of total night on the bright-darkness of the Cave… My prayer is not a cry for light but an acceptance of the night. I can do no other. I no longer want to drag in my cowardly, my impure need for assurance and consolation. I would rather drown in an ocean with neither a lighthouse, nor a port, than anchor myself to a God too much like myself.”

L’expérience de Dieu avec Gustave Thibon By Gustave Thibon, Benoît Lemaire, Fides, Quebec, 2004 p. 102f (my translation)

It seems like everyone I read lately, Thibon, Zundel, Hillesum, Weil, Merton – all people seriously seeking God – find, not a God that can be expressed or experienced, but a dense and penetrating darkness. And with the darkness the conviction that in his absence God is more real than in any palpable presence. That sounds paradoxical. How can absence be more real than presence? A question impossible to answer in a coherent way. The only way I can express it is by saying that in the broad sweep of the attention, in conscious thought and ratiocination, in feelings and emotions, in ordinary everyday life God is absent – not just absent – he doesn’t exist. But in the interstices, in a fleeting moment of distraction, of absent mindedness, as a grace note to some pressing emotion, a presence is felt. But just for a moment, a fleeting intuition like something half seen out of the corner of the eye which disappears when looked at. The strange thing is that the flavour of that moment persists. It resonates like a forgotten memory which will not come to the surface. These are moments for wordless prayer because prayer itself and meditation have become impossible.


Monday, February 2nd, 2009

Thinking about God as I was going to sleep last night… The death of a cousin the other day had the effect of turning the mind towards attitudes to mortality and in Ireland death is not a secular event. I really do not like much religiosity. Most of it is false – both in the sense that it does not reflect the true nature of things, and false in the sense that a lot of it is a pose adopted because it is felt to be appropriate. Funerals are occasions where religiosity is much in evidence. I am not referring to the grieving family and friends now. Their grief is sincere and belief in God and the next life a great comfort. I am referring to those who otherwise never venture near a church and to those who thrive on rituals and ceremonies, gestures and incense. Ireland still loves its rosaries and medals, statues and holy water. These pious social rituals make me feel very uncomfortable and it is difficult to explain why because to do so would involve a discussion of the nature of God.

The problem with God is that he does not exist. This, of course needs to be explained. I am not an atheist. God is, but he does not exist. I suppose if you are not comfortable in dealing with paradoxes there is no point in embarking on this sort of conversation. To exist, literally, means to stand out, to appear over and against other beings. God is not a being like other beings. He is not even the greatest of all beings, the greatest being that could possibly be imagined, as St. Anselm would have it. God, literally, is nothing, no-thing.

And if He [God] is neither goodness nor being nor truth, what is He then? He is nothing [nihtes niht]. He is neither this or that. Any thought you still might have of what He might be – He is not such at all.  (Eckhart: German Sermon 23)

There is nothing new in any of this. It is negative, or apophatic theology, as opposed to positive, or cataphatic theology and it was all thrashed out hundreds of years ago by Maximus the Confessor and Dionysius the Areopagite among others. They were addressing the problem – how does one talk about the transcendent God? Their solution was first to approach the discussion of God in a positive way, piling superlative upon superlative until you realised that nothing you said, or could possibly say, bore any relation to God. Words, thoughts, concepts are all utterly inadequate and seen to be so. The only thing to do then is point out everything that God is not. God is not anything that could be thought, said or imagined. We are left with a vast emptiness, an emptiness filled with mystery. It is only then that we begin to approach God as he really is.

God is transcendent in the sense that he is totally other, beyond any reality that we could know or understand. Which means that he does not exist in the terms of our material existence, in terms of our cosmos. And yet he relates to us. He is, as Augustine puts it, intimior intimo meo, more intimate to me than I am to myself. This is the ultimate paradox. How can there be a relationship between the utterly transcendent God, the beyond the beyond, and this ephemeral, contingent ‘me’? This is not something that can be explained logically or by any metaphysical system. And yet there are times when it is a fact of experience. I can hear the sceptic saying, ‘What you think you experience cannot possibly be the transcendent God. It must be the result of your imagination, or some chemical imbalance in the brain. You cannot experience what is not there and by definition God cannot be there, or anywhere.’

My common sense self cannot refute the logic of this argument. And yet there have been the experiences, so real, so absorbing, so unlike anything anything hitherto experienced. And these experiences fit in with what I believe and with what others down the centuries have experienced and believed. So real are these experiences that one is left with the conviction that it is logic and philosophy which  are inadequate. And that would be OK if one’s daily life was filled with the experience of God but this is rarely, if ever, the case. There may have been just one, or two, a few such moments and then nothing. And not just nothing. Just as after a flash of brilliant light the darkness seems more impenetrable than before, so too now with regard to the possibility of God. For a while the darkness was luminous, numinous in its attractive yet terrifying intensity and then that faded to a sort of grey, foggy obscurity which deadens the feelings and dulls the mind.

And so, here I am in my dull everyday reality, a reality which, if you think about it, excludes the possibility of God, where some people perform their pious words, gestures and prayers – anachronistic behaviour, tolerated but not really understood by the majority, or perhaps even by themselves. A comforting blanket wrapped tight to keep out doubt. I do not doubt. I do not understand but I have no doubt. God is, but I am at a loss to explain why I find these pious rituals so distasteful, so unGodlike. I keep silent therefore. I acknowledge my ignorance, my inability to understand. Let R. S. Thomas say what I cannot.

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just

Spiritual life

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

I feel a great fellowship for all others who are searching and who are trying to be genuine.  I feel nothing for those who are shallow, hypocrites, or who are egoists.  I should.  They too are part of the whole, even if they are dancing to a different tune, but it is not always easy.  I can understand the Pope’s desire to have absolute control, but by the nature of things that is an impossible desire.  It is one thing to have a vision; it is another for others to interpret the vision in their way, give it a different tone and emphasis.  The only honourable choice for him is either to abdicate his absolutism (paradoxically, I think this would enhance his authority) or become a hermit.  The key is relationship.  Nothing is sole and of itself, not even God.  

I find it more and more difficult to pray to God as someone in Heaven or wherever.  God is subject, intimior intimo meo, as St. Augustine said.  Words help at times but wordless prayer goes deeper, goes to the heart.  To say that God does, plans, designs etc. is too crude.  More, it is false.  God is the ground of all relationships.  Not in the way that the Spirit is the relationship of the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father.  Every loving relationship creates its spirit, the tertium pars which is the link, the bond.  Somehow the Spirit is interwoven with the weaving and interweaving of these myriads of relationships.  God is not outside making and directing.  He is within.


Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

Came across this in McGinn yesterday:

[Mystical] experience is presented as subjectively different insofar as it is affirmed as taking place on a level of the personality deeper and more fundamental than that objectifiable through the usual conscious activities of sensing, knowing and loving. There is also an objective difference to the extent that this mode of the divine presence is said to be given in a direct or immediate way, without the usual internal and external mediations found in other types of consciousness. [The Presence of God, p. xix.]

This is more or less what Lonergan says. It would be very easy to wax poetic and get carried away, but I think we need to be very circumspect in what we say about God. There is all the difference between the God of experience (or rather, non-experience) and the God of theology. The God of experience has no names or labels.

Absence of God

Monday, April 28th, 2008

On the face of it, the absence of God would seem to be the major problem for those who seek Him. Especially those who have started out on their journey as a result of religious experiences, those who have caught a glimpse of the footprints of the ox. These awaken something within, something previously unknown and unsuspected – a hunger, a yearning, an emptiness which nothing can fill. From time to time there are glimpses, a sense of a presence, a feather-light touch, of love undreamt.


And then comes darkness. One stands at the edge of a void and feels the vertigo of an irresistible attraction. And then there are only memories of what once was. The sense of presence fades and is gone. The desire and the hunger and the yearning fade and then are gone. There remains only emptiness and the absence of desire. And yet…


Thursday, April 24th, 2008

Came across this by Rilke

What will you do, God, when I am dead?

I am your pitcher (what if I should break?)

I am your drink (what if I should perish?)

I am your robe, your craft,

You lose your meaning when I am no more.

When I am gone you have no home…

What will you do, God! I am afraid.

Rlike was very struck by these thoughts of a monk he encountered on his Russian trip. Prater* chides Rilke a bit for this conception of God as an artefact of the human imagination, but I think he has captured here something of the nature of God. Perhaps it derives from something he acquired in his exposure to Russian monasticism. It is not a million miles away from Athanasius’ remark that God became man so that man might become God. The idea is of God extending himself (if you can put it that way) into all of nature and especially into people. As we live, grow, mature, becoming less ego centric and more and more open to others, to the Other, to loving and being loved, God is born in us (as Eckhart puts it). Well, in many, perhaps countless thousands, who knows. Some do not respond. Some cannot bring themselves to respond and perhaps it is these who die to God. Read like this the poem points up the poignancy of God whose love is rejected by those he made.

*Prater, Donald; A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1986 p. 56


Thursday, April 17th, 2008

I think the life of the spirit mirrors the intellectual search for God. We start off with a rich profusion of anthropomorphic images, symbols and metaphors. We delight in the stories of the Old and New Testaments. Slowly we discover that these are inadequate. They say something about God, by analogy, but they fall far short of the reality. So we proceed to use more philosophical and abstract terms. Theology opens up a whole new way of thinking about God. But it too fails us. It can be cold and unsatisfying. We end by having to deny that anything we can conceive, think or say can come anywhere near the reality of God. God is utterly beyond and yet he is also utterly close or how would we ever come to suspect the power of the intellect to understand. 

Likewise with our spiritual life. We begin with warm sentiments and feelings for a close and personal God – a very self-centred spiritual life. Gradually we become aware of the numinous, of the Mysterium tremendum. We become aware of an all-embracing love that transcends subject-object, inner-outer, time and space. The world becomes translucent inhabited by a Presence in whom all differences and divisions are resolved. And then, gradually, over time, all these feelings, the awareness of a sense of presence, all this atrophies and dies back. One is left with a naked faith and occasional glimpses of what once was felt so strongly.

 And I can see the logic of this. This dialectic, the cataphatic-apophatic process applies not just to the intellect but also to one’s psychic and emotional life. I think often of Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross. He had to go through it. So have we.

Somehow, although in theory it is impossible, we become aware (without being specifically, or consciously aware) of the Transcendent. I suppose it is something like Michael Polanyi’s ‘tacit knowledge’. It is there beneath the surface. If you look for it there is nothing there, try to put you finger on it and it slides away. I shouldn’t say ‘it’ because it is not impersonal. On the other hand personal pronouns don’t fit either. Can the tacit ever become explicit? No, and that’s the problem. We can be tacitly aware of the Transcendent but never explicitly. Only on the other side of death will we know as we are known.