There are moments when you awaken to God’s presence as the simplest and truest thing about you, simple as in prior to everything else; not prior in the sense of it being something you leave behind when the drama of life demands you give your attention to worldly engagements. Rather, prior in the sense of always being true before anything else is true about you and so the measure by which the truth of every other experience is exposed and known.
What squeezes me into being reminded of this so explicitly is personal loss. I lost something dear to me last week. Never mind what or how. It doesn’t matter. But the loss presses in on my heart and mind without relent. In such times you discover yourself in the abiding truth I just described. And as I sit here contemplating my own loss, I feel as if I’m sitting in the eye of the storm.
Do I hurt? Sure. Am I in pain? Yes. I feel the wind. I’m soaked by rain. Things I cared for and helped to build are removed from view. But even on the inside of that, there’s a deeper and truer place where I sit typing this, a place that I didn’t build, a place that builds me, a space and presence that is purely ‘gifted’ by God and which only God and I can occupy. No one else. Nothing else. And there God tells you who you are. It’s where you experience yourself as being spoken into being out of nothing (ex nihilo) by love. I don’t know how else to describe it.
Few find this place, and the reason I suspect is that no false self can bare the truth of it, and we live so much of our lives under the direction of the false self. I know how many false selves can inhabit a heart. I continue to confront my own. But false selves cannot survive the journey to true space. In fact, their death is the way into the eye of the storm. Why can’t false selves occupy that eye of the storm? Because they are the storm.
I sit here in pain, and yet the laughter is on my side. The pain comes from all those ways my living is conditioned by a fallen world. That’s the world we inhabit. But the laughter comes from all those ways my living is unconditioned by that world, and that’s the world that inhabits us. We only get to enjoy the latter by painfully dying to the former. We have to leave the storming false selves behind to enjoy the peace of experiencing our very existence and well-being as graciously given, as spoken out of nothing and into being by God in love.
I love Jean-Luc Marion’s notion of the “saturated phenomenon.” A saturated phenomenon is an “excess of divine presence,” a presence that so overwhelms you, you’re “unable to objectify the source of this saturation and enclose it” within our powers of reasoning or our categories.
Also, I circle round time and time again to Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 3. The burning bush is such powerful imagery. It communicates on so many levels. I explore them a bit here.
As I thought on the burning bush as an embodied form of transcendence, other less helpful ways of imagining transcendence came to mind. Strangely, black holes came to mind from recent conversations, and I ended up just contrasting the two: burning bushes vs black holes. I wonder how many are stuck thinking about divine transcendence as a black hole rather than as a burning bush.
Black holes devour, crush, and consume whatever ventures beyond their event horizon. The weight of created gravity disassembles, deconstructs, and devours. There are some who view God’s transcendence as a theological black hole. The idea that God is beyond or transcendent or not reducible to or circumscribed within the horizon of a certain kind of categorical predication makes God out in some minds to be a kind of black hole. The closer one gets to the truth of it, the more dismembered language becomes under the weight of such a consuming vision. In the end all is lost.
But transcendence as burning bush is different. It still evades certain kinds of capture. It still mystifies. It still leaves us speechless. But it is anything but consuming. Quite the opposite. Precisely because the fire doesn’t need the bush for fuel, it does not consume the bush. And precisely because of this the bush can be ablaze without losing itself. This is no consuming black hole. This is being fully alive.
From earlier thoughts on Moses’s encounter with God at the burning bush:
Moses sees the contradiction but cannot explain it. He experiences it but cannot account for it. He says it (/bərniNG bo͝oSHē/) but must unsay it because the semantics disallow it. It contradicts the prevailing definitions of ‘fire’ and ‘bush’. We don’t have definitions for “fire” and “bush” that can meaningfully accommodate “burning bush.”
The burning bush is ‘categorically inexplicable’. It is ‘given’ – there it is – 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. All our textbooks say so. And yet this fire doesn’t need this bush, and this bush isn’t consumed by this fire.
That “and yet” is the 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 by, as written by, as spoken into being. I don’t know how else to express it.
Burning bush transcendence is not black hole transcendence. Where the latter disassembles and devours, the former frees and fulfills. If burning bush transcendence represents the categorically inexplicable, it is not on account of that existentially inaccessible (the way black holes are). In a black hole there are neither bushes nor fire. In God both coexist. In God bushes can burn without being consumed. The event horizon of black hole transcendence represents an absolute intolerance of created diversities. Beyond that horizon waits the crushing gravity of a dialectic totality. But the horizon of a burning bush is an ever expanding horizon where all creation is set ablaze by God without diminishment to either.