Like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, God never seems that interested in showing himself.
God’s invisibility–or, more properly, his nonphysicality–can be, for skeptic or for saint, at the very least an impediment to faith: all that is visible (or, at least, sensory), all that is truly concrete–a tenderloin steak, a Colorado sunset, the caress of a loved one, Bach’s cello suite #1, the scent of a Frasier fir at Christmas, Bailey’s Irish Cream–these are the things we can truly grasp, right?
Some months ago I had been teaching on how good things can become “gods”–i.e., replacements for God, also known as idols. In response, an honest congregant wrote to me, saying, “When I see the dichotomy between an invisible, non-physical Creator and a visible, physical creation, a cynical part of me says that it is the ‘idols’ of this world that I can grasp ahold of, that I can see, taste, touch, embrace, not the King immortal and invisible, the only God.”
That is, it’s the tangible stuff that is more comprehensible, more (even literally) graspable.
So why is God invisible? Both the skeptic and the struggling saint may go so far as to wonder: Is “invisible” just another word for “imaginary”?
In response it would be helpful to consider a statement by the Apostle Paul. Writing of the fact that “outwardly”–i.e., physically–“we are wasting away” while “inwardly we are daily being renewed,” he makes the following statement that to the majority, even overwhelming majority of his contemporaries (Christian, Jew, or “pagan”) would have been entirely uncontroversial:
“…what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Whoa! How could that be uncontroversial? Here’s how you know you’re reading a text from a different century, culture, and continent. This is one thing I love about reading the bible: its numerous “books” confront us with worlds very different from our own.
And unless we are proudly ethnocentric, utterly persuaded of the superiority of our own culture’s times, norms, perspectives, sensibilities, etc., we may–like travelers to a foreign country–actually learn something. Not only something about the “other” but something about ourselves–not merely myself and my story but my culture and its story–its values, norms, sensibilities, including (foot stomp, foot stomp) what is plausible and implausible and why.
In this particular case we learn that for many of us 21st-century Westerners something is more real, more ultimate, more “graspable”–why?–because, being 21st-century Westerners, we are, generally speaking, empiricists, materialists, and sensorial hedonists. In more than one way the invention of the HDTV–no, the smart HDTV; no wait, the smart UHDTV with a curved screen–captures our culture and its criteria for what is more real.
What was it that made the invisible, or nonphysical, more real, more ultimate to many in the 1st-century Greco-Roman world?
Well, for starters (and to speak in generalities), all that is physical has one common characteristic: it degenerates. It doesn’t last. Even precious metals eventually corrode. Hence, the physical is subject, at the very least, to change. And not only is the physical degenerative, it is also dependent: in and of itself the physical, like a puppet, needs something to animate it (e.g., when bodies die, they “die” because they lose that “invisible” animating force). Further, all that is physical is necessarily constrained spatially, temporally and culturally. A still further critique of the physical is that it is almost always flawed. It rarely, if ever, reflects the ideal: e.g., even the healthiest among us humans have some impediment (e.g., poor eyesight, hearing, agility, hand-eye coordination–to speak nothing of our aesthetic appeal, or lack thereof).
“Growth and Decay” by Lucy Harding
Again, we’re speaking in generalities: ancients influenced by Stoic or Epicurean thought would have disagreed, but many “philosophers of the people”–like Cicero, Philo, or Aristobulus–would have embraced the above perspective, being more or less faithful heirs of Plato.
But in a sense even we 21st-century Westerners have sympathies with this perspective–on at least two levels.
First, even the most staunch empiricist among us still deduces and makes abundant use of nonphysical realities–which we usually call formulae, theorems, theories, principles, laws, etc. This is well-illustrated by the following story:
While I was serving as a “rock scientist” for the U.S. military, a good friend and coworker, who had a PhD in chemistry (in, of all things, laser spectroscopy), was an atheist. We were on a business trip somewhere, and he said to me, “You know what I love about the laws of physics and chemistry? They are invulnerable. No matter what happens, they are the same–always and ever. Gravity is gravity is gravity. They won’t change, they won’t wear out, they won’t give up on you.”
My friend was a thoroughgoing naturalist, and yet what he “loved” (in an ironic, perhaps even contradictory way) was actually nonphysical.
But a second reason that we 21st-century Westerners can at least sympathize with this ancient perspective can be expressed by a simple question: If you made a “Top 5” (or even a “Top 10”) list called “What I value most in my life,” what would it look like?
My strong suspicion would be that almost every, if not every, item on that list would be nonphysical.
But that can’t be right, can it?
Most of us would surely put persons on that list (e.g., a loving parent or significant other). But, of course, as much as we may (and should!) value and enjoy a person’s body, it is not primarily (I hope) their body that is the reason we value them. What we love about them most of all is their personality, their character, countenance, common sense, charm, etc., none of which you can examine under a microscope or grow on a tree: they are invisible, nonphysical.
Huh. So even we 21st-century empiricists and naturalists still may find ourselves most valuing–most “loving”–what is actually immaterial, nonphysical.
But if so, several questions arise: First, how can these empiricists and naturalists really prove that these “beloved” nonphysical realities actually exist? Theorems and theories, character and countenance–not to mention a whole host of nonphysical realities (like love, justice, the concept of number, hope, equality, human rights, humor, creativity, reason, volition to name just a few)–cannot be empirically verified.
Second, why are these empiricists–whether skeptic or saint–often so uncritically willing to regard the existence of (nonphysical) theorems and theories, character and countenance–and the host of physical realities just mentioned–as a given (they just exist, apparently), while at the same time regarding the existence of a nonphysical being called “God” as iffy at best, because, after all, “God” is invisible or nonphysical? Is this not a double standard?
In stark contrast the ancient Israelites joyously, if fearfully and reverently, celebrated Yahweh’s non-physicality. In Psalm 139 King David exults in the way that Yahweh’s non-physicality enables incredible intimacy:
You have searched me, LORD, and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
In a sobering yet deeply consoling way, Yahweh’s non-physicality means that He knows no constraints, including no constraints to relationship. (Contrast that with the frequent miscommunication and resulting frustration and alienation we experience in interpersonal–i.e., embodied–relationships!) Yahweh is present, able to “guide” and to “hold fast” the king, wherever and whenever–even as an infant in the womb of his mother (see vv. 13-16).
The beauty of this intimacy between Yahweh and David is matched by its astonishing condescension: David actually believes that Yahweh was interested in David in utero.
It is against this “backdrop” of the invisible being more real and more ultimate that the Incarnation is not only unexpected but unthinkable. The non-physical is everlasting, unchanging, omnipresent, untainted, untiring. Why ever would the invisible God take on flesh? Why would he take upon himself the constraints and limitations of bodily existence?
As astonishing as it is that Yahweh would condescend to be interested in David in utero, it is unfathomable that Yahweh would condescend to be incarnate as the son of David in utero. The Creator himself crosses the line between Creator and creature and experiences not only the constraints of the physical but the constraints of a cursed physical world.
The Incarnation, thus, irrevocably declares that the Unconstrained One is with and for us. Whereas David in Psalm 139 declares that Yahweh “knows” David through and through, in the Incarnation God “knows” us even more deeply–by sharing in our experiences. Unconstrained, he mysteriously comes under duress, hardship, “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”
Unfathomably, Jesus “became flesh.” That is, he did not temporarily assume flesh. His Incarnation was the beginning of an everlasting high priestly ministry, as the author of Hebrews explains:
“…he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might be a faithful and merciful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”
And Jesus’ priesthood, as the author says repeatedly (quoting Psalm 110), is a permanent priesthood: “the LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever.”
In sum, Christian Scripture presents us with an invisible–i.e., Unconstrained (infinite, eternal, unchanging, all-present, independent)–God who became flesh, dwelling among us in the form of a slave–i.e., the epitome of constraint, who in his death became a curse in our place, and who rose victoriously as the firstborn from the dead, the epicenter of a new creation.
No wonder he is the Father’s beloved Son:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sing:
“Glory to the newborn King!”