Payless Theologies


Moses’ encounters with God are the source of some of my favorite biblical stories. They’re honest and down to earth, and they reveal a brokenness and vulnerability common to us all. Though I’ve never identified with Moses in his achievements, I certainly identify with him in his earlier objections to being used of God and his self-deprecation. His early formative encounters with God shed light on interesting aspects of experiencing God which I think apply to us all. And of all Moses’ encounters with God, the Burning Bush episode (Ex 3) has to be my favorite, perhaps because it’s the most revealing. I come back to it often, and here I’d like to share a couple of thoughts I’m processing.

God met in the mundane
The first interesting thing about this encounter is that Moses meets God while tending to his father-in-law’s flocks. At this point in his life he’s a shepherd in an uncharted landscape. Once known. Once popular. Once in the headlines. Once a man of power and means. But that’s not where Moses meets God, who shows up elsewhere.

Moses encounters God in the mundane. He doesn’t remove himself from the common, daily, mundane activities of secular life. Same is true of us. We are not required to leave such spaces to meet God “at Court” the way a British subject might be presented to the Crown. God’s court is creation—all of it, everywhere, all the time.

God’s court—the desert.
God’s crown—a bush.

Bushes are here today and gone tomorrow. Lilies of the field. God is at home in the most mundane, transient, throw-away spaces and moments of our lives. We don’t have to “leave” wherever we might be and travel to some sacred space to meet God.

Where’er you trod the sky is a cathedral made,
The ground beneath your feet a pew within its shade.

Wherever God is, and God is fully present everywhere, there God renders space “holy ground.” Nor does God abandon the cosmic, all-encompassing realities of his relationship to creation to be completely, fully present and invested in a bush in the desert of Moses’ exile.

On fire but not consumed
A second element of this event that must grab our attention is the strange and inexplicable fact of the bush’s being on fire but not consumed. This strange occurrence is what arrests Moses’ full attention. The bush is on fire but not consumed. Fire present in/with the bush, inseparable from it, its flames both following the form and path of the bush’s own branches and leaves but not fueled by the bush. The fire doesn’t need the bush for fuel, and that is why the bush is not consumed. This would get my attention as well.

This is transcendence. This is the myth of the secular, pure and simple.

Divine fire,
Both touching and touched by the world, neither needing nor negating it
Temporal and timeless
Burning without consuming
Located and uncircumscribed
“In but not of” the world

A ‘what’ cannot be this, cannot ‘do’ this. Only a ‘who’ is capable of such presence. A ‘what’ is a part of a whole, a slice of something, a species of a genus, a class of a phylum. But Moses doesn’t meet a ‘what’. He meets a ‘who’.

He sees the contradiction but cannot explain it
He experiences it but cannot account for it
He says it but must unsay it

It is in him (because he’s really taking it in as an experience of something) and yet he is in it (because he experiences this One as not confined to this bush, not needing it as fuel). This bush is a microcosm of the world itself. It is every bush, every tree, every flower, every human being. And we each can come to know ourselves aflame with God without being consumed by him. Less than transcendent gods consume the world, feed off it, are dependent upon its religious economies.

The burning bush is ‘categorically inexplicable’. It is ‘given’ and so undeniable, but it is only known in the combining of otherwise contradictory modes of being. Burning bushes are consumed. That’s what bushes are and that’s what fire does to bushes. And yet this fire doesn’t need the bush, and this bush isn’t consumed by this fire.

“And yet” is that moment when you connect to something you don’t have categories to possess, something you cannot turn into your cognitive property. You experience yourself as someone else’s, as ‘thought’, as ‘written’, as ‘authored’. Not other than free, of course, but ‘given’ to be free. I don’t know how to express it. It seems to me that the more analytically regimented, categorized, or logically policed a theological worldview becomes (all phrases I’m trying offering to get at our intolerance for the categorically inexplicable) the more existentially inert it becomes. Of course I can only speak for myself, but some notion of transcendence is the one thing that animates our desire for the world as a longing to know it as more than merely bushes, trees, i.e., as complex physical systems operating under the laws of physics. But without a healthy transcendence, our theologies become mere complex systems operating under the laws of created taxonomies. And by transcendence I don’t mean just a word that describes elements of the world we in principle possess but which our analysis has not yet tamed though we expect it one day shall. I mean something more. I mean the categorical inexplicability of a burning bush.

Take your shoes off
Why the shoes? (Joshua had the same experience; Joshua 5.15) If it’s true that God burns in and through all things, if God is not offended by any created thing or place, either ‘bush’ or the ‘dirt’ out which we are made, what’s the problem with shoes? I had my suspicions, and a brief search of a few resources confirmed it sufficiently for me. A few suggest that removing shoes here is a token of recognition and respect, like standing when a lady approaches or leaves your table, or tipping your hat to a lady. No doubt we recognize and respect God, but that’s not the point here. Something far more profound is at work.

paylessWhat are shoes? Why do we make them? What’s their purpose? We make shoes to protect our feet from the dangers of traveling barefoot upon rough ground. Shoes are a layer of protection between us and the world, a man-made technology that separates us from dangers to our feet. Shoes mediate the world to our feet, but only by first screening out threats. You get the idea.

True, we perform formalities of token significance in the presence of earthly royalties. You don’t sit in the presence of the Queen of England unless she gives you leave to sit down. You don’t extend a handshake to her unless she initiates. You certainly wouldn’t take your shoes off in her presence. But you would take your shoes off in your home, or in the presence of family and close friends, where you feel safest and ‘at home’. But God is no earthly royalty. And where we observe formalities for kings and queens when in their presence, God commands no such division of behavior into formalities we perform to honor him on occasion and our most ‘at home’ behavior. He’s no less God, and we are no less ‘at court’ in his presence, in our most relaxed, dressed-down moments in our homes than we are in Church before the altar or partaking of the Eucharist. Moses takes his shoes off not to divide life into places where formalities are to be performed which honor God and other places we let our hair down. He takes his shoes off because God invites him to be at home in him. Welcoming him into the ease and rhythm of the mundane is the formality God seeks.

When we come into an experience of God, then, we take our shoes off. We expose ourselves. We strip. We become vulnerable to divine fire. Nothing of our making stands between God and us to mediate God to us. God is not to be managed by us, mediated to us by us, screened and vetted by us for our safe travel. God is not sifted through filters—physical or conceptual—that secure our well-being from dangers posed by walking barefoot through the terrain of the divine. We must be vulnerable before a transcendent God, for being aflame with divine fire is our most natural state. The bush was more, not less, itself when manifesting the divine presence explicitly. Moses saw not an exception to the rule. He saw the rule. That he ‘saw’ it is exceptional.

Theology should be about this—pursuing it, articulating it, encouraging it. Theology should be shoe-removing. But much of our theology is so much shoe-making and shoe-selling, and so ‘Payless’ theologies.

Prayer: O fire who does not consume, “Here I am.” Take my shoes. I remove them. Burn in and through me. Let me occasion you in the world, as the world.

3 comments on “Payless Theologies

  1. malcolmsnotes says:

    Awesome post Tom. Especially the bits of poetry:

    Divine fire—both touching and touched by the world, neither needing nor negating it

    is profound. Is it yours? Your post reminded me of a passage from CS Lewis, which I’ll quote below.

    “It is well to have specifically holy places, and things, and days, for, without these focal points or reminders, the belief that all is holy and “big with God” will soon dwindle into a mere sentiment. But if these holy places, things, and days cease to remind us, if they obliterate our awareness that all ground is holy and every bush (could we but perceive it) a Burning Bush, then the hallows begin to do harm. Hence both the necessity, and the perennial danger, of “religion”.

    Boehme advises us once an hour “to fling ourselves beyond every creature.” But in order to find God it is perhaps not always necessary to leave the creatures behind. We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is 101 crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”

    Again, I thoroughly enjoyed what you have here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. apophaticallyspeaking says:

    Good reflection!

    The Burning Bush is such rich grounds for theological reflection.

    It is interesting and not coincidental that in the ancient Orthodox tradition the Burning Bush is the type foreshadowing the requirement of creaturely consent to and participation in divine self-disclosure, and through this synergy depends the possibility of our salvation! In the akathist hymns and prayers the symbolic language of a two-way bridge and ladder is frequently employed to describe the fulfillment of the Burning Bush, an ascending and descending movement to/from heaven, exemplified by a creaturely cooperation par excellence. This is a particularly beneficial and timely contemplation for Holy week.

    A prayer for our friends in Belgium:

    Protect thy city, spotless Mother of God, for in thee it faithfully reigns, and in thee is made strong, and through it conquers and routs every trial and temptation, and spoils its foes and rules its subjects. – Theotokion from the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete

    Liked by 1 person

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