the God of the living

(Lk 20:27-40)

God is the God not of the dead but of the living. I have a missal in my cell that I use for liturgy planning and it has a little homiletic blurb at the beginning of each day’s Mass readings. I usually don’t read them but for some reason today’s caught my eye: “Reflecting on the next life can help me live better now.” That’s okay as far as it goes but my immediate response to that was, “But this is not the God of the dead, this is the God of the living!” Not even “the God of the deceased, but the God of the living.”

We should be struck by the fact that Jesus is recalling God’s self-introduction in the burning bush in Exodus 3, “I am Who I am.” Christian philosophers and theologians, at least since the time of Thomas Aquinas all the way up to Paul Tillich and Etienne Gilson, interpret this to mean that God is not a being but that God is Being Itself, and so the ground, the font of all being. And we can assume that, just like Moses and even more so, Jesus is speaking with the authority of experience––his interlocutors certainly recognize this and dare not ask him anything else––the authority of someone who has himself encountered the ground of being.

There’s both a negative and a positive side to encountering being-itself, the living God. The negative side you might say is the mystical side and the experience of the mystic. It’s the neti neti of the Upanishads, “the not this, not that” of Meister Eckhart, the apophatic depth of God which is experienced as an abyss, the abyss of the godhead, the dark night of the soul, which is a kind of death in and of itself, the seed falling into the ground and dying before it yields a rich harvest. On the other hand, the positive side of this mysterious ground is the resurrection experience that follows the experience of the abyss and that follows on not only physical death, but psychological death and even spiritual death, the dark nights. Here that mysterious abyss also becomes the power of being, the power of conquering non-being, which is our ultimate concern as human beings[1]––the power of being over non-being, Bergson’s elan vital which meant so much to Teilhard, the God of the living and not of the dead. And if God is Being Itself that means that God is opposed to non-being and anything that is non-being.

Folks like Teilhard or Paul Tillich had mistrust of what they understood of Asian mysticism, and Teilhard had a suspicion of mysticism in general. Tillich says that the mystic tends to “plunge directly into the ground of being” and leave the concrete world behind, “the world of finite value and meanings.”[2] I certainly would not want to ward off mystical contemplative prayer, but I think this can serve as a fair warning to us, that the experience of the death of self is only a station on the journey, a return to recover the dynamism we lost, a re-establishment of right relationship with the ground, only in order that we may re-emerge more vital, more human, and more divine. And this, if it doesn’t seem too obscure, is one of the profound differences in the understanding of the nature of the abiding self between the prophetic traditions of the West and mystical traditions of the East. Mystics from East and West experience this abyss of the godhead in their own ways, but our interpretation of and conclusions from that experience vary a bit. Whereas advaitans might posit that the self disappears into the Great Self like a drop into the ocean, and Buddhism would suggest that there is no self at all anyway, the Christian experiences that abyss as both a tomb and a womb, not just at death but in all the little deaths along the way. What feels like annihilation is actually only the metamorphosis of self as chrysalis to self as butterfly, the annihilation of the false self being burned off in the moment of the real self being born out of the flames like the phoenix. Teilhard would argue that if evolution, cosmic and individual, is an ascent toward consciousness, and an ascent toward the constellation of a unique beautiful individual self, and if the arc, thrust, and direction of evolution has been toward the manifestation of this amazing human self-reflexive consciousness––if this indeed is the high point of evolution as we know it––then what would lead us to believe that the supreme point of this evolution would be the dissolution of that consciousness? God is the God of the living not of the dead.

Even in this strange reading from the Book of Revelation that we hear today (Rv 13:4-12)––these two witnesses who have authority to prophecy and authority over nature itself, who are then slaughtered by the beast who comes up from the bottomless pit––can be seen as an image of this God of the living. This is an image that hearkens back, to the second story of creation in Genesis; like Adam, the creature made out of clay, gets the breath of life breathed into it ‘til it becomes a nephesh–a living being, so too prophecy and authority itself have to die, but will be revivified by the breath of life that in some way re-creates them. But it’s a new creation this time.

Teilhard offers us instead the image of the Omega Point, the whole Christ, which is the convergence of all those amazing beautiful perfected individual consciousness-es. He is the god of the living, not of the dead. As John Main says, concerning meditation.

…as we become more deeply rooted in the ground of our being we have our being clarified and affirmed in the purifying silence of the mystery present to us in our heart. We are no longer outside creation or outside God because through the power that dwells in the open space in the centre of our being we pass beyond ourselves into the fullness of being.[3]

[1] Systematic Theology, 110.

[2] The Courage To Be, 186.

[3] John Main, from The Present Christ quoted in Silence and Stillness in Every Season, (New York: Continuum, 2002), 277.

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