The difference between “appearing to” and “being seen”

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Alex Grey’s artwork can be unsettling. I keep coming back to it, however, not in a freak-show kind of way, but because his work silences me and makes me reflect in such positive ways (on the meaning of existence, the essential connectedness of all things, the transcendent presence of the One doing the seeing, etc.). Sometimes a work of art will inspire my thoughts. Other times I have thoughts that inspire the choice of a particular picture. With this post it’s the latter. I went looking for an image that would capture my thoughts and – no surprise in this case – Alex Grey came to mind.

There is a difference between “appearing to” and “being seen.” The latter is consistent with being a passive object of perception. I can be seen without permitting it, without even knowing it. God cannot be seen (objectified) in this passive sense.

The only way to see God is to see him seeing you

…to have him “appear to” you, to apprehend him through the experiencing of being apprehended by him. But radical, gracious givenness infinitely precedes every progress we make toward beatific vision, which is always a “being seen.” It’s meant to unsettle us. If it doesn’t, then you’re mistaking something created and finite for God, which is what we give the name idolatry to.

We are thought by him, not he by us. Our best ‘third-person’ reflections (what we call “God-talk”) are really only vestiges of a divine invitation preceding our first thought, crumbs left to guide the hospitable and seeking heart on a journey that ends with us in full view of him, not him in full view of us, where we discover that finding him is to find oneself apprehended by him.

The same is true with the resurrected appearances. Christ “appears to” but is not passively observed. Christ gives himself to be seen. He is, to borrow Robinette’s phrase, “tactile and transcendent.” Because the resurrected Christ is the end and fulfillment of Creation, because he is the Age to Come, because the resurrection does not return him to his former state of existence, the entirety of his embodied existence becomes the Eschaton. He cannot “be seen” passively by this present age, “uncovered” by us. The Eschaton cannot be spied upon. This reversal is a spiritual exercise – a learning how to “be approached” instead of “approaching.”

The loss of control is unsettling. Like a Grey painting, it overwhelms our horizons and perspectives. When you see that your seeing is a ‘being seen’ (graciously and benevolently), there remains no place or location in the painting that affords your perspective any measure of autonomous control. You are beheld, and in being beheld become beholden to the immeasurable love that sees you and all things.

This is what I take ‘apophaticism’ to be, without which being seeing gets reduced to our seeing, and that gets the creator-created order of grounding, nature and grace, creation’s freedom and final end, entirely (and despairingly) backwards.

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3 comments on “The difference between “appearing to” and “being seen”

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