Living in the Presence of God

Author: 
Richard Kropf

 

“In Him we live and move and have our being.” 

 

About thirty years ago, someone who had heard that I had abandoned the rat-race of academia to live alone as a hermit in the northwoods of Michigan wrote to me asking how someone might go about becoming a saint. The only answer I could come up with at the time was that in my opinion the formula was really quite simple: it was to try to be as much as possible aware of God’s presence in everything and to live one’s life according to that awareness.  And even now, all these years later, although far from being a saint, I am still convinced that it is as simple and as difficult as that – especially that second part, about the living up that awareness. This is especially a challenge in this modern age when there are so many distractions to keep us absorbed in the world around us.  It would certainly be nice if it were possible to shut off all these distractions, and to some degree, if we have enough will power, we can do so.  After all, there is no law that compels us to have to watch commercial TV or listen to all the racket that is broadcast over the radio.  And I have a few friends who seem to get along in life quite nicely without any connection to the internet or who seldom if ever watch TV.

However, I’m not sure that fighting a defensive battle against all the possible sources of distraction in life is the most effective way of trying to become a saint. In fact, such a path of negativity seems to me to be the low road to sanctity compared to the high road of seeing God in everything. This is because the low road leaves us plodding through every twist and turn, confronting one obstacle after another as we trudge toward our goal, which is often obscured by the challenges that confront us.  Thus, in the Gifford Lectures given by the ecumenical theologian Raimon Panikkar back in 1981, we find the following reminder:

Let us only recall that the traditional religious exercise of the “presence of God” is not an act of our mind distracting us from giving due attention to the activity at hand, but rather is a discovery of the divine dimension in the act in which we are engaged. God’s transcendence is only visible in his immanence. (Panikkar  2013, Lecture XII, A)  

Thus, I am convinced, especially as a theologian, that the first obstacle blocking the high road of seeing God in everything is a faulty theory or inadequate concept of God. A theory, in the original Greek sense of the word, is a product of theoria, which is contemplation of the nature and actions of God (Theos) seen as the origin of all things. Thus, a God who is depicted in anthropomorphic terms ‒ whether the high-culture Father-God of Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel, or the low-culture references to “the Man upstairs” – both miss the mark wildly, even when corrected by theologian Carl Barth’s transcendental insistence on God’s being “totally other”. Indeed, even if God is totally incomprehensible in human terms (a fact made all the more evident in the propaganda of the contemporary “New Atheism” movement) this does not excuse us from digging deeper into the theological tradition, particularly that informed or shaped by the classical philosophical reflection on the nature of being and existence.

When the evangelist Luke borrowed the quotation found in his Acts of the Apostles (17:28) with which this article began, he was drawing on a philosophical tradition that scholars have traced back to a poem said to have been composed by Epimenedes of Knossos, a 7th to 6th century BCE sage living in Crete.  If so, Epimenedes seems to have been writing what he did to defend his belief in Zeus, the high God of the Greek pantheon, who was not just a deified but dead hero as the Cretans said he was, but the living source of our existence. Thus it was that St. Paul (according to Luke’s account in Acts 17:16-34) quoted still another Greek poet, and saw this still largely “Unknown God” as being but another representation of the one and same God worshiped by the Jews and now by the Christians – and, of course, eventually by Muslims.

The same might also be said regarding religious consciousness in India and the Far East, as noted by R. C. Zaehner, an expert on Eastern religions, and the Zen philosopher D. T. Suzuki.  Although Zaehner admitted that there is no clear concept of a creator God in the earliest Upanisads, nevertheless he quotes the Chāndogya Upanisad which speaks of Brahman as “He who consists of mind, whose body is breath, whose form is light, whose conception is the real, whose self is space, through whom are all works, all desires, all scents, all tastes, who encompasses all…” comparing this concept with Aristotle’s idea of God as the “unmoved mover” (Zaehner 1960, 41).

Similarly, Suzuki , although he admitted that Buddhism never uses the word ‘God’, nonetheless used that same quotation from Epimenedes and wrote that

Buddhism outspokenly acknowledges the presence in the world of a reality which transcends the limitations of phenomenality, but which is nevertheless immanent everywhere and manifests itself in its full glory, and in which we live and move and have our being. (Suzuki 1983, 219)

If so, then this emerging monotheistic tradition seems to have been as old as, or possibly even older, than the stories found in the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus, at least in their written form, which biblical scholars date back to the 6th century BCE exile of the Jewish people in Babylon.  And while much of the unwritten sources of the first five books of the Bible, is undoubtedly older, the fact is that the very first biblical books to be written, such as Joshua and Judges, and the stories about the earliest Hebrew prophets, amply illustrate that the ancestors of the Jewish people were still far from being unanimously monotheistic during that earliest period of their history. In any case, while it may be argued that belief in a single God is the most characteristic of biblical religion even back in an era when the world was generally awash in polytheism, still it was not entirely unique.  In fact, as far back as the 5th century before the present era, the philosopher Xenophanes is said to have remarked, even when he lampooned the forms by which the multitude of gods were depicted by the various nations, that the only true God would have no form whatsoever. 

All this becomes even more clearly seen during the 4th century BCE with the advent of the high classical period of Greek philosophy initiated by Socrates (d. 399) who was condemned to death on the charge of having corrupted the youth of Athens by his relentless questioning and his rejection of the polytheistic state religion.  His pupil and spokesman Plato (d. 347/8), seems to have been more discrete and have spoken of divinity in more abstract and idealistic terms as “the One”, “the Good”, or as the creative power (the “Demiurge”) that expresses itself in the production of the material world, while Plato’s pupil, Aristotle (d. 322), proceeded in the reverse order, reasoning that the physical world of change can be only explained in terms of a first cause which he called an “unmoved mover”, and which, although multiple in its expressions, is ultimately an entirely immaterial being that thinks everything else into existence. Thus Aristotle wrote:

 

And life also belongs to God; for the actuality of life is thought, and God is that actuality; and God’s self-dependent actuality is life most good and eternal. We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God. (Metaphysics, XII, 7)

Given all this philosophical background, it is no wonder that one of the earliest defenders of Christianity, the self-described Christian philosopher Justin Martyr (d. 154), when asked to disclose at his trial where the Christians assembled, answered that it was “Wherever one chooses and can…because the God of the Christians is not circumscribed by place; but being invisible, fills the heaven and earth, and everywhere is worshipped and glorified by the faithful” (Schraff  1885, Justin, Martyrdom, II).

Nor was this insistence on the ubiquity of God confined to Christianity. It was over a century later that the Neo-platonist philosopher Plotinus (d. 270 CE), although not a Christian, nevertheless argued with mind-boggling eloquence that,

 

If God is nowhere, then not anywhere has He “happened to be”; as also everywhere, He is everywhere in entirety: at once, He is that everywhere and everywise: He is not in the everywhere but is the everywhere as well as the giver to the rest of things their being in that everywhere. (Enneads, VI, 8, 16)

 

I have italicized part of the above quotation for several reasons: first to get the main point across, and second, to emphasize the influence of Plotinus and his thought in the thinking of, and in fact, the conversion of Western Christianity’s most influential theologian, St. Augustine (d. 430), who confessed that before he read Plotinus, he had been unable to grasp the concept of any immaterial being of any sort, much less of one on which the existence of all other beings depends.  After this moment of enlightenment, it was Augustine who in his definition or description of God a “Being in itself” (ipse esse) was to set the whole future course of European theological thinking and spirituality. And even though Christian theology was to remain almost completely under the spell of Plato and Platonist idealism for the next seven or so centuries, even the great 13th century theologian, Thomas Aquinas, adhered to this basically Augustinian definition of God, albeit with a newly introduced dynamic twist under the rediscovered thought of Aristotle –reintroduced to the West thanks to the influence of the Muslim philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd).  Thus Augustine’s rather static concept of God as “Being” in and of itself became transformed into Aquinas’ more dynamic description of God’s primary attribute, which is to support his own act of being (ipse actus essendi subsistens) as well as the existence of everything else in the process.

However, lest the main and most essential point be missed in this history of what philosophers used to call (before they became distracted by more peripheral concerns) “ontology” – meaning the science of being – is that there is a vital and all important difference between being and existence, even though in everyday speech the two are generally confused, as noted by philosopher David Bentley Hart (2013, 106-08).  “Being”, or “to be”, is simply that – all by itself, dependent on nothing.  “To exist” or “existence” are terms that combine two Latin words, ex meaning “from” and sistere (the Latin verb meaning “to stand”). Thus existence or to exist denotes or implies reliance on something or someone else for its being. So we might even go so far as to say that God doesn’t “exist”; instead, God simply is. Without a clear distinction between being and existence, our understanding of our relationship to God, or perhaps to anything else, becomes hopelessly muddled, like that of the little child who, being told that we have been created by God, cluelessly asks, “But daddy, who made God?” Instead it is the other way around. Our existence is but a borrowing of God’s eternal being, loaned to us for the short term of our life.

Or to make the same point in a more professorial way, one might quote the 20th century French philosopher Jacques Maritain who said that without the “intuition of being” one can never grasp metaphysics – hence will never understand the most fundamental question of philosophy or “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (Maritain  1966, 19).

Admittedly, this last question is tough to answer, even when one supposes, as did the ancient philosophers, for example Plato (inTimaeus, 51a) and even the earliest biblical authors, that there always was something or other (like  the tohu w’bahu, or “trackless waste” of Genesis  1:2)  that God or the “First Cause” acted upon. Even today, when the science of cosmology (at least when it sticks to the scientific method apart from speculative flights of fancy) seems to have established that  before “the Big Bang” there was literally nothing, this concept of pure “Being” in and of itself is difficult to grasp.  Perhaps this “intuition of being” is something like the satori or enlightenment sought by the practitioners of Zen, which even when experienced defies description. Nevertheless, without it one remains on the surface of things.  In any case, if without it one can hardly philosophize, it is even more critical when it comes to theology or anything resembling a deep spirituality. Thus, without this grasp or awareness of God as the very “Ground of Being” – as the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich defined or described God – we are in danger of marginalizing the whole concept of God, or at best, we are confined by the anthropomorphic descriptions of God found in the Bible and most other sacred literature.  In fact, even Tillich’s understanding of God as the “Ground”, which seems to have been inspired by the 14th century Rhineland mystic and preacher Johann Eckhart, may still be too earthbound.  Knowing now what we do about the origins of the universe, and the picture given to us by contemporary physics, I’m inclined to think that what a modern spirituality might need is a better understanding or update of the theology  once taught by the 7th century Greek theologian Maximus the Confessor.  In his view, although God’s essence remains unknown, God’s activity can be described in terms of an uncreated energy giving rise to the universe of created energies.

In much the same vein, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson quotes the 17thcentury Hasidic Rabbi Moshe Cordovero who wrote:

The essence of divinity is found in every single thing – nothing but it exists. Since it causes everything to be, no thing can live by anything else. It enlivens them; its existence exists in every existent…Do not say, ‘This is a stone and not God.’ God forbid! Rather all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity. (Cobb 2012,18)

Granted that the above quotation lacks the fine distinction between God’s essence and his energies or activities, or between being and existence, nevertheless, I think it forcefully illustrates the point that both Rabbi Artson and I am trying to make, that the presence of God in everything (what modern process theologians call panentheism – as distinguished from simple pantheism, or that everything is God) is the dynamic core of existence.

Perhaps to better appreciate the power of God’s presence in these energies or activity, we might turn to the implications of Einstein’s famous formula, E=mc².  If energy (E) is equal to mass (m) multiplied by the square of the speed of light (c), then it follows that mass, which is the amount of matter in any material object, has the potential of being converted into nearly unimaginable amounts of energy.  For example, according to the PBS Nova website devoted to exploring the implications of Einstein's formula, an ordinary paper clip, if we knew how to convert it into pure energy, would yield the equivalent of 18 kilotons of TNT – which is the approximate amount of energy released by the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.  Or there is the astounding estimation that a 2.2 pound chunk of anthracite coal, if completely transformed into pure energy, could keep an old-fashioned 100 watt incandescent light bulb (given enough replacement bulbs) burning for about 29 million years.

Obviously, given these comparisons, we are barely scratching the surface of a deeper reality when we try releasing energy from the fuels that we use to produce heat or energy in its various forms.  In fact, all we are able to do (as expressed in the first law of thermodynamics) is convert energy that is in one form into another form.  The same goes for matter or mass: according to the basic laws of physics, it can be neither created nor destroyed. Even when we employ nuclear energy in various ways, be it bombs or power plants, all we are really doing, even when we are splitting atoms, is releasing only a relatively small amount of the strong force that binds atoms together. A complete transformation of mass to energy, as described in the previous paragraph, appears to be beyond human capabilities – a good thing, as it has been estimated that the mass contained in a 60 ton building, if it were to be instantaneously converted entirely into pure energy, would be, if strategically placed, sufficient to split the whole planet Earth in half! 

My point, in relating these examples, but without confusing God’s uncreated energy with the created forces of nature, is to suggest that these fantastic amounts of nuclear energy locked up in the structure of the material universe testify to the creative power of God’s presence. Add to this the sheer immensity of our universe, stretching at least 13.8 billion light years (186,000 miles x 60 x 60 x 24 x 365 x 13,800,000,000) in all directions. All this almost defies comprehension. 

And yet, this mind-boggling challenge to our imaginations is even further compounded by another realization, which is that in addition to our attempts to grasp the immensity of God’s presence in creation, we have the challenge of coming to grips with the intensity of this same presence when measured on the scale of evolutionary complexity. And it is at this point that I think that our attempts to live consciously in the presence of God are most likely to be severely challenged. 

To give an example, in practically all religious traditions, those who would seek conscious union with God are usually instructed, or even impelled by their own instincts, to go off on their own into the desert or wilderness to discover the presence of God in nature, beneath the stars at night, or the burning sun by day, often within the starkest or most barren landscape.  Why is this?  Perhaps it is because it is in such locations that one finds less distraction than in the surroundings of everyday life.  There one is faced with the most fundamental fact of our existence – that it depends entirely on something or someone greater than ourselves. In fact, unless one becomes grounded first in the precariousness of our existence, a lush landscape, teeming with life, might even become a distraction, for unless we learn to see God in the smallest of plants, mosses, or lichen, we probably will not find God among the tallest and most magnificent trees.  Likewise, it is also much the same when it comes to animate life. Unless I can learn to appreciate the expression of God’s gift of life in even the smallest bug or insect (even if it is trying to bite me) I may be in danger of failing to see it in its most impressive forms, such as in the eagles, elk, deer, and the elusive bears that roam the forest around me.

And this brings us to what is probably for most of us, the greatest challenge, seeing God in our fellow humans.  “Animals know”, said the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, which means that they are consciously driven to do what they must do to survive, which in turn means that we can more easily forgive them when they make our life inconvenient.  But as Teilhard added, humans “know that they know” (Teilhard 1959, 165) – in other words, we have the kind of reflective consciousness that affords us free will, and with it, the ability to love or to hate, to do good or do evil.  And with this ability, comes the challenge of seeing God in my fellow human beings, even when they may seem to disregard or even despise me.

Thus, it would seem that the greatest test or challenge of becoming a saint is not so much learning to see God in all things.  Retreats, meditations, prayers, mantras, etc. are all great helps, but the ultimate test is putting this realization of God’s presence into practice in our dealings with the world of ordinary people.  Perhaps this is why the culmination of the spiritual life has generally been seen, in practically all religious traditions, as being reached when the holy person is able to return into the world of ordinary life as an enlightened one, a sannyasa, a bodhisattva, a wali or a saint in one guise or another, bringing a message of peace, forgiveness, and understanding.

 

 

Sources cited:

Aquinas, Thomas. 1945.Basic Writings of Thomas Aquinas. New York: Random House.

Augustine. Collected Works, ed.1886.Philip Schaff. Amazon Kindle Edition.

Cobb, John B. Jr. ed..2012.Religions in the Making: Whitehead and the Wisdom Traditions of the World. Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Hart, David Bentley.2013.The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Maritain, Jacques.1966. Existence and the Existent. Translated by Lewis Gallantiere and Gerald P. Phelan. New York: Vintage Books.

Panikkar, Raimon..2010. The Rhythm of Being: The Unbroken Trinity. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/power-tiny-things.html.Accessed 5/30/2016.

Plato.2011.The Complete Works of Plato. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Complete Works Collection.

Plotinus, Enneads.1991.Trans. Stephen MacKenna. London, Penguin Books.

Schraff, Philip,.1885 Ante-Nicene Fathers. Christian Classic Ethereal Library,.Amazon Kindle Edition.

Suzuki, D. T.1963. Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism. New York: Schocken Books.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre.1959.The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper & Row.

Zaehner, R. C.1960. Hindu and Muslim Mysticism. New York; Schocken Books.