God as Infinitely Intimate
July 21, 2002
And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord's commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?
To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today.
Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. He is your praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. Your forefathers who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky. (Deuteronomy 10:12-22)
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13)
Some of you may know the true account about one of the first Soviet cosmonauts. The Russians were the first to go into space, you may recall. And as this cosmonaut sailed through the sky in his capsule, he radioed down to earth triumphantly that he had been traveling through the great open spaces beyond the sky for days, and there was no sign of God anywhere!
The Greek word used in the Bible for heaven means "sky." Ancient people had all kinds of theories and myths about the sky and what it was made of. The sky has always symbolized something beyond human experience.
With the first Russian flights, we had our first human glimpse of heaven. And there was nothing up there but empty space: no air, no clouds, no pieces of solid matter, not even much light. It was just an empty vacuum of nothingness. While many an ancient mind believed that God literally dwelled in the sky, the modern mind knows that God is apparently nowhere to be found up there. Heaven, as it were, is vacant.
In theology, the idea of heaven has traditionally been used to convey God's transcendence, not only of this world but of this plane of reality. God is too high, too holy for us to truly know, according to traditional theology--and this is why idolatry is the greatest sin in the Bible. In the ancient Hebrew view, it is either ignorance or pride to attempt to make God something from our own limited experience; something we can mold and deal with on our terms. We must deal with life on God's terms.
And besides, God is beyond anything that can be represented in a recognizable form. God so completely transcends all of this that the ancient Hebrews felt it was deeply wrong and disrespectful to make graven images, or any representations at all, of God. Even the place where God was said to dwell, the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, was basically an empty space. Except for a few sparse furnishings, God lived there invisibly and intangibly at God's own good pleasure.
This was a completely foreign idea to every other nation. The consensus view was that an invisible god was no god at all. So when the Babylonians came to destroy the Temple, the swaggering and brutal soldiers broke into the Holy of Holies and triumphantly declared it to be empty. They had the same reaction as the Russian cosmonaut: by exposing the apparent absence of God, they thought they were exposing the whole religion as a fraud.
What the modern cosmonaut and the ancient soldiers failed to grasp was that the emptiness and vacancy of these places is, in a very essential way, precisely the point. The ecstatic prophets of the ancient Judaic culture are generally credited with being the first monotheistic theologians: those who finally ""got it"" that the divine source that gave them life was the same God who gave all life--and was, in fact, everywhere. Heaven, or the sky, which seems to go on forever, is perhaps the only linguistic possibility for God through which they could suggest something intelligible while referring to something that was utterly transcendent.
After all this, then, what does Jesus mean when he has us pray to our Father "who art in heaven"? Did Jesus think that the Father God to whom he so often referred literally dwells in the sky somewhere? Or was he speaking metaphorically as a device to invoke God's transcendence; as a way to say that God is not here, that God is distant and remote from our experience on earth? Or was his intention something else?
Today, we can draw on new scientific insights to understand the emptiness of space and take us into another mind-blowing dimension. We now know that not only is our earth sailing through empty space, but the earth itself is mostly empty space.
At the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, scientists are building a giant apparatus designed to catch and measure tiny subatomic particles that are zooming through the galaxy. These particles can only be perceived after they slow down from passing through the earth's atmosphere, and then through the earth itself! So this giant device is supposed to collect particles from space that have sailed right through the planet--cruising through the vast spaces within the molecular structure of the planet just as breezily as a home run ball sails across Candlestick Park, or as the earth zips through the enormous spaces of our solar system.
Swedenborg understood this fully when he anticipated Einstein's atomic theory by 200 years in his most significant scientific work, The Principia (First Principles). He declared that the natural plane is mostly space and motion. The hardest stone is actually quite similar to heaven, for both are simply motion and wave patterns that create certain types of spaces. Both are mostly made of nothing on the physical level, as are we, and everything that exists.
With this insight comes a new level of appreciation that space is not just "out there"; It is also all around and within us. The sky does not begin where the atmosphere leaves off; it permeates everything. Space, heaven, is something that is at once very close to us and very far away, just as modified and accommodated forms of love may be very near to our lives even while their highest and purest form--which is the very divine--is still infinitely beyond our human experience. Swedenborg writes in True Christian Religion #30, "God is in all space without being bound by space, and in all time without being bound by time."
The ecstasy of Christian theology understood this from the beginning. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus never meant that he left this plane of reality to be far away in the sky with God. The ecstasy of Pentecost ignited through the knowledge and inner experience that from the very essence of God, Christ had fused together all the dimensions of being for the spiritual salvation of humanity and the evolution of a newly emerging consciousness. Up, down, inside out: the Lord's healing Spirit was everywhere--tangibly, palpably, kinetically.
When we can experience both of these poles of the divine presence we gain a rich texture in our spiritual life. God as the "divine esse," as Swedenborg refers to it, abides in a plane of reality that we will never fully experience. God's transcendence in one sense is utter and total. But at the same time, we must also know that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Maybe it is not too much to say that the God of heaven, while infinite in his and her transcendence from us, is also so intimate with us as to inhabit the empty spaces between our cells, molecules, and atoms--and the empty spaces between our thoughts and our feelings.
It makes for a richer spiritual life to know and to relate authentically both to the infinite and to the intimate aspects of the living God; or in theological terms, to God the Father who is utterly transcendent and to God the Son who is totally immanent. Many people seem to compress their relationship with God into one or the other. Some people display a chirpy God-is-my-buddy style of faith. Intimacy is there, but sometimes with a dismaying casualness. There seems to be no deep and profound sense of the Infinite God. Others seem to worship an austere, "high up there" God--respected, but remote.
The New Testament is founded on a potent and powerful combination: an omnipotent and omniscient God whose being in its essence transcends our finiteness, but who wondrously, miraculously, exquisitely also becomes so personal and intimate that knowing this God becomes utter joy in an eternal relationship.
I have always been partial to what is called Big Sky country--especially the big sky of the plains states. Bicoastal types sometimes show disdain for the middle part of our magnificent land. But while lakes and mountains can be beautiful beyond belief, and coastal scenes can offer spectacular imagery, for me nothing quite matches the Big Sky in the evocation of the holy.
I remember a time when God as infinite and God as intimate came together for me very powerfully. I was in the tenth grade or so, and I consider it to be my coming of age, theologically speaking. It was the very first time that sticks in my conscious memory of having a powerful "ah-ha!" insight about God.
I was out walking, when I looked up at a huge autumnal sky, surrealistically decorated with wisps of clouds. It seemed to expand infinitely away from me in all directions. And I felt awe, causing me to muse about God. I don't remember all the twists and turns of my reflections, but one of my cherished spiritual memories is when with the warmest feeling, it suddenly occurred to me that every impulse that I feel to do something good is God's very essence within me--an essence that is other than me; an essence that I could not create myself, but only say "yes" to.
It was then for the first time that I really grokked the flip side to the famous "God is love" theology: "Love is God." I had never felt so intimate with God before, standing there under the blue heavens. God was in my soul, filling the spaces within. To the extent that we can participate in that exquisite divine esse (and the best word we have for it is love), we are one with God.
To pray to a God "who art in heaven" is to believe that the God who is infinite seeks to be infinitely intimate with us. To pray to a God "who art in heaven" is to desire that divine love and wisdom flow into the empty and lost places of our souls. To pray to a God "who art in heaven" is to recognize that the emptiness all around us--in our souls and in our culture--can become places where God's love is even now ready to fill to overflowing.
Infinite God, Creator of heaven and earth, and of each one of us, we lift our minds up to you, always reaching upwards, always seeking what is beyond our ability to grasp. Yet you reach back down to us, showing yourself, becoming personally present with us, filling the empty places of our souls. Give us the sensitivity to feel your presence more fully above us, below us, around us, and within us, as our infinitely intimate, divinely human God. Amen.
Rev. Dr. James Lawrence