Friday, March 15, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 2

2. God is surprise 
—David Steindl-Rast, Benedictine monk
The definition is itself a surprise! Throughout this list we've felt the continual undercurrent of God as other, unknown, and what God is not—even to the point of not existing. Now we find interfaith Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast asserting, "The only name that does not limit God — is Surprise." From the moment we are born to the moment we die, this is how we know God. From existence to science to imagination to, well, life, it's one surprise after another. And even the repetition of, say, the sun coming up each morning, is a surprise beyond anyone's wildest imagination. Heaven is always depicted as solid on a deep foundation of serious and stable truth—in short, boring. Where does that come from?—not from our experience. I picture heaven as an infinite ring circus where each surprise tops the last. God is action, creativity and riddles.

Surprise is eye-opening action, and only through God's act can we talk of God, said Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Like others we have seen, he preached that God was, by definition, 'wholly other'. However, he not only stripped away the metaphysical doctrines of the church fathers, but also the mythological and historical stories of the Gospels—surprising for a Biblical scholar. In this Bultmann may have gone further than any other theologian in opposing idolatries of God. You would think that no theologian could go beyond "God does not exist", but Bultmann, it could be argued, asserted that everyone, who thought of God as something, or even acting, in the world, was an atheist or idolater. "To be sure, it is wanton and shameful to proceed from some fixed concept of God.", and "God is not the essence and origin of the word of mind of which humanism speaks.", and for Biblical scholars and pantheists, "God's revelation can never be in history. . . . God's revelation is not at the beck and call of human criteria: it is not phenomenon within the world, but his act alone."

According to Bultmann, we can only speak of what God does to us. "Since human life is lived out in time and space, man's encounter with God can only be a specific event here and now." To my mind, 'surprise' seems to capture the essence of that event. Bultmann writes, "Indeed, what is God, if not the infinite fullness of all the powers of life that rage around us and take our breath away, filling us with awe and wonder? . . . who is full of creative might and joy, of endless forms and riddles?" God is not only surprise, but your own personal surprise.

Surprise is not an idea or thing, but an event; it is not just an event, but our personal reaction to an event; it is not belief or dogma, but a challenge to accept and understand. Surprise, by definition, is born of the unknown, but it is we who give it meaning.

For some surprising reason, until recently, we thought that assigning a logical explanation to how the heavens go, i.e. planetary motion or evolution or electromagnetic fields, explained away the (God of) surprise—as if consistency denies wonder. Even Chesterton, the prince of paradox, did not go far enough. He believed "mathematical and logical sequences" are fundamentally true and necessary in Elfland as in our world. "Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit." He couldn't foresee that science and quantum logic would surprisingly question human logic. (No cards or letters please. I, and more importantly Bultmann, do not imply that the loss of current human logic in any way proposes that God is now back running the universe, as some 'religious' people believe. He may or may not be, but theologian Bultmann says only science explains the universe, not God, and if you think God runs the universe, that is idolatry.) The point is, if you think everything can be explained logically, be prepared for a surprise.

God is even surprise to holy men and theologians and, yes, atheists. It's surprising how much our notions of God have changed over the years. Certainly it's surprising to an atheist to discover that he has been both right and a believer at the same time when he learns from Tillich that "God does not exist." It reminds me of an old sufi story (on which I will take poetic license):

Mullah  Hodja sat on a river bank when an atheist shouted to him from the opposite side: "Hey! how do I get to the other side?"
"You are on the other side!" Hodja shouted back.
And here's another sufi surprise:
Mullah Hodja was serving as qadi (judge) listening to a case. (It may have been about God's identity.) After hearing the plaintiff present his side, Hodja remarked, “You’re right.”  
Then, after the defendant had presented his case, Hodja again remarked, “Yes, you’re right.”   
All the people in the court rose up and shouted, “that doesn’t make any sense—how can both the defendant and plaintiff be right?” 
“You know what?” the mullah responded. “You’re right, too!”
As theologian Karl Barth said, "The Gospel [God] is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths."

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Big Myk said...

Once again, we see similarities in the Abrahamic faiths. Fiddler on the Roof was based on the writings of the Yiddish humorist and writer Sholem Aleichem (pen name for Solomon Rabinowitz). This is obviously from an older source:

Mordcha, the innkeeper: Why should I break my head about the outside world? Let the outside world break its own head….

Tevye: He is right…

Perchik: Nonsense. You can’t close your eyes to what’s happening in the world.

Tevye: He’s right.

Avram, the bookseller: He’s right, and he’s right. They can’t both be right!

Tevye: (Pause). You know, you are also right.

James R said...

This is from Esquire via Kottke. It comes from an interview with Michel Gondry, movie director, who talks about time travel:

ES: In your real life. If you, Michel Gondry, found a time machine and could go anywhere, to any period in history, where would you take it?

MG: I would travel back a few years ago and fix some screw-up I did.

ES: A personal or professional screw-up?

MG: In my personal life.

ES: Can you be more specific?

MG: I would come back and say yes to a girl. That's all. Actually, I find the whole idea of traveling back in time to be profoundly depressing.

ES: Really? Why so?

MG: Because I know the future. Living in the past, it would feel weird to know what's going to happen next. You couldn't escape it. That future's already in your head. You know it doesn't get better.

ES: You'd rather not know about the future?

MG: The future is about hope. If you travel from the present to the past, you don't have that hope anymore. You know how everything turns out.

ES: There are no surprises.

MG: No surprises, exactly! To me, that just sounds so... depressing.

Apparently, time travel would be Godless and without hope. Now that would make for an interesting movie!