How does one find God after losing God? I’ve asked this question a lot, mostly in view of my own crises of faith. Looking back, I see that sticking with God wasn’t one thing for me but a number of circumstances not all directly related to faith. Being a pastor was certainly one. Friends and family made a difference. Some books made an impression. But here I am, still a pastor—albeit in a different denomination and in a congregation where post-theism is a going concern.
Others, like philosopher Richard Kearney, have left and come back.
Richard Kearney’s book, Anatheism: Returning to God After God is very good. He writes, “My wager through this volume is that only if one concedes that one knows virtually nothing about God that one can begin to recover the presence of holiness in the flesh of ordinary existence.” One does so by encountering God in the stranger.
Although I enjoyed the book a great deal, I think Kearney claims too much for such encounters. And anyway, I’ve always been suspicious of people who claim divine encounters.
Still, within scripture, God often seems a stranger. There is the whole concept of holiness, for example. The divine attribute of holiness has the sense of “apartness,” or “otherness” to it. When scriptural characters meet God—and there were very few who did, outside of dreams and visions—God’s holiness usually turned them away, put awe and fear into them, because God’s holiness is a wall of unknowing.
But there is also something incongruous about how God reveals himself to Biblical characters. I’ve just reread L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz. In the first throne room scene where Dorothy and her companions meet Oz, he appears to them, in turn, as a giant head, a beautiful woman, a ball of fire, and a terrible beast. But in the end, these all turn out to be apparitions created by Oz. He is really something else, entirely.
And that is how it is with God in the Old Testament. God shows up in all sorts of guises.
God talks with Adam and Eve and walks with Enoch. Under the Oaks of Mamre, God appears as a guest to Abraham. God is a wrestler when he comes to Jacob at the Jabbok River. Gideon isn’t sure whether it is the angel of God or God who meets him, but thinks he’s going to die either way. The prophet Elijah can’t find God in the great wind, in the earthquake, or in the fire—though perhaps, oddly, God speaks in the silence. God is so bright and holy on Mount Sinai that the best Moses can manage is to get a glimpse from the back. Which one is the real God? Such encounters underline the strangeness of God.
God is a stranger in the New Testament too. Here we find the suggestion that Jesus—who goes around Palestine trying to keep his identity secret—is actually God. And then Jesus tells us that if we really want to meet him, we need to find him in the prisoner, the naked, the sick, and the stranger.
Over and over again, God is portrayed in scripture as a stranger—sometimes benevolent, sometimes angry, sometimes fearsome, and sometimes invisible.
The portrait of God as stranger is especially powerful in the non-name God gives himself at the burning bush. Yahweh.
Yahweh is probably best described as a verb that means something like “I am whoever I am.” So the name for God in the Old Testament is something like a long-running enigma or riddle—this God can’t be named, thus can’t be controlled, and can’t be explained. Every time I read this word in the Old Testament—thousands of times—I am reminded that it isn’t so much just that God hides from us as we can’t comprehend God, even if God is right before or behind us. In a way, Yahweh is saying to Moses, and to all of us, “I am a stranger to you.”
One of the ways that Jews acknowledge this distance between God and themselves is that they now refuse to say the word “Yahweh.” This honours God’s holiness and thus God’s strangeness. But I wonder if perhaps Jews also refuse to say the name “Yahweh” because they are also a bit disappointed with this apparent snub when Moses asked for a name at the burning bush. If so, I sympathize. Not ever saying “Yahweh” could be a Jewish strategy for asking God for a more personal and friendly relationship. It is a way of mourning the impossibility of a personal relationship with God. We are not on a first name basis with God. God is a cipher. God is beyond human knowing, explaining, or buddying around with. A stranger.
I don’t mean, by saying so, to suggest that we can know nothing of God. I’m sure—no, better say I’m hopeful or I have faith—that God is the ground of all being. And, by saying God is a stranger, I don’t mean to suggest that in some wonderful and mysterious way, Jesus and his path of sacrificial love didn’t reveal something of God that we can hang onto. I guess that is why Jesus once said to the disciple Philip, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him. But even here, we have not met and known Jesus like Philip did. The New Testament contains a fascinating portrait of Jesus. But this path to God is incredibly circuitous and obscured by the nearly 2000 years that have passed since these words were written. God is a stranger.
Which is why, I think, that in the Old Testament, we are told—so says Richard Kearney—thirty-six times to love the stranger, and only twice to love our neighbor.
The bottom line is that Kearney’s book has made me wonder about the strangers in my life, in the news, the aliens in our gates we marginalize by defining them as "Illegal."I wonder who lives in and with all these strangers near and far. And I wonder whether seeing them, I can believe.