Seeing God from the Back

We do not get to see God face-to-face. None of us does. But we do see God’s back.

When Moses makes the request to see God, the Book of Exodus writer puts it this way:

But, God said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”

 

And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

We see God [YHWH – the Breath – “I am Who I am”/ “I will be Who I will be”] from the cleft in the rock. Rudolf Otto said it differently. We experience the Divine as the mysterium tremendum et fasciinans, Latin for the fearful and fascinating mystery.

Rudolf Otto is best known for his work The Idea of the Holy, first published in German in 1917, translated into English 1923, in which he analyzes the human experience that underlies all religion. He calls this experience the “numinous,” (from the Greek work “pneuma” (i.e. spirit), which has three components.

First and always, it is mysterium.- beyond human grasp, control, or knowing. It is, he says, Wholly Other.  It elicits a tremble. It is powerful beyond human power, experienced as an overwhelming power, the likes of which we glimpse in the terrifying explosion of an hydrogen bomb. We experience it as mysterium tremendum. At the same time, the numinous evokes a fascination the way a magnet draws iron to itself. Something in us knows we belong to it. The “it”, according to Otto, is the divine mystery’s mercifulness and graciousness.

We can only come at it through the back door, by hints and suggestions and stories that suggest its presence in daily life.

Consider, for instance, Steve Shoemaker’s verse posted earlier on Views from the Edge.

Driving Blind

 

The highway is straight

and smooth, only one lane

in each direction…

no barrier in the center,

no guard rails on the sides…

nighttime, no white lines

mark the edges of the road…

no streetlights…

all that can be seen

is the oval puddle of light

from the headlights

of my speeding car.

 

I jerk awake as I feel

the left tires bounce

on the shoulder of the road…

I have crossed

the wrong lane…I know

my wife is beside me, but

I cannot open my eyes…

I cry out, but her seat belt

holds her too tightly

for her to reach the wheel…

my eyes open for one second,

then all is dark again…

I cannot stay awake…

I whimper and shudder.

 

The terror remains

even after I realize

we are in our own bed

and I have been dreaming.

A reader responds to the posting:

I’ve been there.  Only in my dreams I’m in the back seat of a speeding driverless car and can’t get to the front, not even to press the brake.

Another reader, Carolyn, a dear friend since kindergarten, writes:

Try having something similar happen when you are awake with your eyes open! A big contributor to my retirement at the time I retired.

Carolyn goes on to describe her problem with double-vision – seeing two on-coming cars and four lanes when there were two, having to decide which was real and which was a product of her double-vision. A near accident on a winding road in Gulf Mills, a road with which I am well familiar, helped her make the decision to retire.

Mysterium tremendous et facinans.

I’m retiring. Two more sermons at Shepherd of the Hill and I’m done. Any misgivings I might have had about the decision to retire were quickly set aside by watching the YouTube video of Tabitha Isner’s sermon the Sunday I was out of town. So alive, so young, so wise, so full of energy and creativity! It reminded me what my mother kept telling my father about the need to retire. He was getting stale.

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

Then, I’m thinking of my father when a phone call comes from San Francisco asking if I am the son of the Chaplain on Saipan during World War II.

I am. He’s doing research for the past three years on the 330th Army Air Corps based on Saipan. Googling my father’s name – Kenneth Campbell Stewart – up popped the Views from the Edge post about the Cincinnati cop who threatened to arrest me for hitch-hiking on the Interstate at 3:00 A.M. before he learned I was the son of his chaplain on Saipan, “Red Stewart”. I was like a chicken waiting for its head to get cut off before mercy struck.

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

I know very little about that chapter of my father’s life. I’ve always wondered.  The caller wants to hear any stories and see any pictures or papers I might have. I dig back through the briefcase containing the packed away photos. The caller sends photos of Dad preaching from an ammunitions box on the freshly-cut cane fields following the invasion of Saipan. I shudder and wonder how he could preached the gospel from a Bible on a cartridge box.

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

The next day I serve as a chauffeur for a an aging friend going shopping for a recliner for his ailing wife now in memory care at a retirement facility. I provide the wheels. He does the shopping for the right chair that will help his wife recline and rise to a near standing position at the push of a button. We come back to visit with her in the memory care center. She greets us both warmly, as she always has. I tell her I’m retiring. She responds: “You’re going to love it; and you’re going to hate it.”

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

Life does both things. It makes us tremble; and it draws us to itself. The Mystery beyond all controlling inspires both trembling and ultimate attraction.

We’re all driving blind. We are all, like Moses, peering out from the cleft in the rock. We do not get to see God face-to-face. We see God’s glory from the back, and that’s good enough for me.

 

 

8 thoughts on “Seeing God from the Back

  1. Gordon, I think that your retirement will give you more time to reflect on the pages of your blog, which is a form of meditation/sermon that so many of us follow avidly. I know that I will continue to follow.

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    • Dennis, You’re right about the time to spend on these pages and the manuscript submissions that have gone on the back burner. It means so much to me that you not only found Views from the Edge but that you continue to follow and dish out huge doses of encouragement. More later.

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  2. Thanks Gordon. BTW, you’re not stale. I’ve been waiting for a call like the one you got asking if your father was the chaplain on Saipan in WWII. My Dad was also on Saipan in WWII. He was a Seabee so I guess not likely connected to an army chaplain like your Dad. For the 50 yrs since he died I have wondered about who he might have known on Saipan & hoped for a call from someone who did. This is as close as I have ever come to that call.

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    • Gary, it is strange how things happen. We share a common history that places us in that strange company of children whose fathers left us to serve their country as they deemed necessary. Only after many years did I come to realize the many ramifications of my father’s absence on my development. the night he arrived home to the States at Boston’s Logan Airport, he took me in his arms. I drew back, looked at him skeptically and asked “Are you really my Daddy?” He responded, “Yes. I’m your Daddy and I’m never going away again!” Two days later he was gone again to the base for de-briefing. I remember thinking, “He lied!”

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