On Finding God on Good Friday
Paul O. Ingram
Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
Thomas Merton thought that religious practice should be about “entering the silence” because that’s where we find God. I suspect that God is found everywhere, including the noise of our lives. Merton would have probably not denied this. But most likely, it is God who find us because human beings experience God most often in silence—Jesus in the silence of the dessert for forty days, the Buddha sitting in meditation for forty-nine days (although he didn’t name what he found in his silence “God”), or in the silence of Good Friday. I am certainly not an accomplished mystic like Merton or the Buddha or my favorite medieval Christian mystic, Margarete Porete. But like Merton, I have come to think that the silence is all there really is. It’s the alpha and Omega. It is God brooding over the face of the deep, the blended notes of ten thousand things, the whine of wings, the music of Bach and Mozart, the physics of Einstein and Bohr. We take a step in the right direction to enter this silence, where all distinctions blur and we quit our tents and begin praying without ceasing.
It was probably Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who was one of the first scientists to realize that the current scientific picture of the universe that began emerging in the early twentieth century is that the cosmos is an unfinished narrative. The universe up to this point in space-tine fourteen billion years after the Big Bang is still in its infancy, or perhaps adolescence. Nor is the universe a fixed body of “things” created in the past, but more like an unfolding drama. Space-time is not a frozen conglomeration of spatially related objects, but rather a “genesis” of continually creating processes grounded in an unfathomable depth Teilhard called the “Omega Point”—his name for God—that like a magnet draws the entire history of the universe into a final conclusion in which everything attains completion in interrelation with everything else in God’s creative experience. The universe is “persuaded” into this ultimate state, never coerced, as Whitehead phrased it, because God is love, not a dominating engineer. Maybe this is why, as St. Paul declared, “death has lost (or is losing) its sting.”
In other words, we live in a universe which requires Christians to engage in theological pluralism. The essential difference between theological pluralism and relativism is that pluralism is based on the principle that there is an absolute truth. Persuasive ideas and values exist, so theologians and philosophers must say “no” to irrational systems and ideas, particularly to fundamentalist ideas of any sort or kind. Theological pluralists affirm absolute values but have come to know their limits. Like a Zen koan or the experience of non-saying that Christian mystics encounter in contemplative prayer, theological pluralism is a recognition of its own limitations.
This is why I think pluralism names the religion experiences and insights recorded in the Tanak, the New Testament, the Qur’an, indeed, the scriptures of all the major world religions. This means there is much for contemporary persons, whether or not they identify themselves as “religious,” to consider. For far from regarding “revelation” as fixed and unchanging, some Jews, Christians, and Muslims know that “revealed truth” is symbolic, that scripture can never be interpreted literally, that sacred texts had multiple meanings that could led to entirely new insights. Revelation is not an event that happened once and for all in the distant past but is an ongoing process, a creative process that requires human response and ingenuity. The sages understood that revelation did not provide human beings with infallible information about God—or if one is Buddhist, Emptying or a Hindu, Brahman, or the Dao in Chinese religions—because God however named is beyond our capacities to fully understand. This seems to me a “scriptural” foundation for the practice of theological pluralism. For Christian theological reflection, the word “God” is elusive. Accordingly, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sages, insisted on the importance of intellectual integrity and thinking for oneself. Instead of clinging nervously to insights and past teachings and doctrines, they expected people to be inventive, fearless, and confident in their interpretation of faith. In this sense, Martin Luther did not so much “invent” the priesthood of all believers as inherit it.
So where does one find God in all this pluralism. According to Luther, you don’t because God hides from human beings where they most often expect to find God—in doctrines, institutions, political systems, moral behaviorism, ritual systems deemed “holy”—anything and everything human beings have constructed as religious boundaries surrounding God’s presence. This is the message of Good Friday. God actively hides from all places human beings seek to confine God. At least this was Luther’s opinion and I agree: “this is most certainly true.” But I disagree with Luther to this extent: to be sure, human beings find God only where and when God wishes to be found, but I suspect some of these “places” include Jews who wrestle with God like Jacob did at the river Jabbok, or in the lives of Muslims surrendering to God’s will in a mosque, or the other places where other human beings have experienced God under different names and circumstances. It’s all a matter of grace. But once grace happens, once we experience God who is beyond anything we can say or know but only “unsay,” as Margarete Porete has it, one’s life ceases to be conventional because all places become places for encountering God—or places where God encounters us—or both. Even on Good Friday. Then, as the Quakers say, our lives become a dance.