Over the last century our view of the world has expanded exponentially. The invention of the Hubble telescope and with it an awareness of the vastness of our universe, coupled with the introduction of the internet has dramatically enlarged our vantage point. We have a greater sense of the earth’s complexities—it’s august beauty and its terrible woes. Yet while our awareness of the vastness and complexity of the world has increased, our ideas and language about God have stayed the same.
For one who believes in God, knowing that there could be up to two trillion galaxies in the observable universe, while simultaneously being privy to information in real time about the horrifying war in Ukraine, not to mention the catastrophes happening in our own back yard—knowing all this can overwhelm and dim how we see God’s involvement in life, both up close and far away.
The result is that we begin to wonder (unconsciously) if God is equally overwhelmed by the vast and complex problems we face. This can pose an existential crisis, which often leads to a form of agnosticism—unbelief even among believers! Which brings me to my third musing about what is going on when God seems far away. This musing, admittedly, will be a bit different from Part I and II.
#3: Simplistic ideas about God are woefully inadequate to address the complexities of our world.
The vastness of the universe and the complexities of the problems we’re facing today (climate crisis, racism, famine, extreme poverty, migration, war, authoritarian regimes, to name just a few) overwhelm our limiting definitions of a God who is “all-powerful and in control.” If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t God do something? If God is in control, then what the hell is going on?
When we translate concepts like “all-powerful and in control” through a literal, Western, and often masculine lens, what we expect to see is an overpowering God who always gets his way (I.e. a bully)! And that obviously isn’t what we’re witnessing on the world’s stage. So it appears that God doesn’t just seem far away, God seems non-existent, or at best checked-out and uninvolved! Our simplistic ideas about God are woefully inadequate to address the complexities of our world.
Here's one of the problems: We’ve been taught to “know” God primarily through simplistic ideas expressed through simplistic language. But there is a different way of knowing God, a knowing that is not through the language of the left brain—words (which will always fail to describe the ineffable), but through a heart knowing that is intuitive (right brain) and embraces the mystery of God. Let me explain by way of a quote:
Russian Orthodox Bishop Theophan the Recluse, in the 19th Century wrote,
“To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever present, all seeing, within you.”
To pray is to locate the mind, the place where we store all our ideas about God, and move with it into the heart, the place where we experientially know God. From the heart, the core of our being, we bear witness to the image of God (face) and discover a God who is both within us and all around us. Suddenly, God doesn’t seem so far away after all. (Romans 8:10-11)
If I’ve lost you at this point, allow me speak from my own life and experience. This kind of prayer has become the most important and meaningful prayer for me as I face the vastness and complexities of life. This kind of prayer is what grounds me in my experience of being held by a pervasive and invincible Presence who is Love. In this prayer, I know in my heart a God who is recognizable and mysterious; who is beyond all and in all. A God who is not overshadowed by the vastness and complexities of the universe but moves creatively and inexplicably in them.
I realize this might be a stretch for you if prayer of this sort is a new concept. May I recommend a book? Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird is the most excellent book I’ve read on the subject of contemplative prayer. If you’re struggling to believe in God these days because God seems far away or incapable of engaging with the enormity of life, maybe it’s time to descend with your mind into your heart.
And if I were your spiritual director, this is what I would recommend. Of course, you always have the choice to ignore me. :) Take good care, and stay tuned for Part IV, the final (I think) installment.