In his autobiographical novel, ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, the celebrated Irish writer James Joyce talks about his childhood religious education. Joyce describes a childhood that was a mixture of grinding poverty and humour, a family life dominated by alcohol abuse, hunger and Latin verbs, and the wild delight of discovering sex and Irish folklore – and the time a hapless young priest tried to explain to his class of adolescent boys about the mystery of the Holy Trinity. It being Ireland, St Patrick was the ultimate authority. Aware, perhaps, that his explanation wasn’t deeply helpful, the priest explained that God was like a shamrock, the Irish white clover leaf, also a sure-fire protection against snakes since St Patrick had driven the snakes out of Ireland. I actually read the other day that St Patrick’s explanation of the Trinity remains one of the best there is, so there you have it. God is like a clover leaf, unless you’re unlucky enough to find a four-leafed one, and then you’ll just have to settle for a leprechaun and a bag of gold.
Since before recorded history, men and women have wanted to know what God is like, or what the gods are like, and have painted or sculpted or drawn their gods on the walls of caves not, I think, because they made the mistake of confusing their own handiwork for the divine but because they sought reassurance that – whoever or whatever God was – that the mysterious life of God was somehow connected with their own life, that the force that moved the stars and sent the seasons, the sun and rain that determined the growth of crops and set the seasons also of human life was not arbitrary or malicious but familiar and domestic, or at least approachable. Anthropologists believe that the primitive deities we still find scratched or painted on the walls of caves represent the earliest attempts at theology, the attempt to understand and so to limit, control and domesticate what our ancient ancestors experienced as mysterious and terrifying.
Our reading from Exodus tells of the second attempt by Moses to take delivery of the gift of the Law, the gift of the template for how to live in life-giving connection with the source of all life. The first set of tablets lie smashed, as on his return from the mountain Moses finds the people partying, led by Moses’ own brother, Aaron the priest, who has got them all to melt down their golden trinkets to make a calf that they can worship. The God that Moses has introduced them is too scary, known as much by his absence as by his presence, hidden in the clouds that ring the tops of the mountains and speaking in the rumble of an active volcano. The people want something at once more tangible and more familiar. No doubt they don’t think the golden image of a calf that they themselves made is an actual god, but like all good nomads they yearn for a god who will guarantee the fertility of cattle. We smile at this, but the truth of course is that we ourselves routinely make gods of our own obsessions, we make a fetish of youth and idealised images of beauty, of money and power, we escape into the fantasy of movies or look for security in material objects or medical technology in order to distract ourselves from our awareness of our own fragility and foolishness and ultimate mortality.
There is even a Christian equivalent of melting down our jewellery to make a golden calf, and it can be quite seductive. When we get more attached to our own religiousity than to God, when our religion becomes less about God and more about defending the right beliefs or the right way to celebrate the sacraments, having the right traditions or singing the right hymns – then our religion can become a sort of golden calf of our own making and we lose sight of who God is, and who we ourselves are. Even the intellectual pursuit of theologians trying to explain God as a Trinity of three persons becomes idolatrous, when we get so attached to our own creations, our own words, that we forget our awe for the God who is deeper than the mystery of our own existence.
So Moses cuts two new stone tablets and climbs back up the mountain, into the silence and darkness of God, and he waits for God’s self-revelation. This is where we sometimes find ourselves, at defining, powerful moments of our lives, when we face a difficult choice or a terrifying outcome. And the deepest wisdom tells us that at such times we need to embrace the silence and the apparent absence of God, and to wait in silence for the one who speaks out of the emptiness.
The people of Israel wanted to know what God was like, they wanted to know whether God could be trusted, whether God was reliable, and they were always looking for evidence that God was really there for them. And at first they thought that God was a god of the trackless desert, or a god of war or of fertility who could be appeased and cajoled. And Moses, who waits in the darkness for God, hears God’s name: the name that Moses hears in the rumbling of the mountain, the name that the Hebrew tradition refuses to write in full or to speak out loud. “I am”.
God is the one who is, the one who is at the heart of the universe, and at the centre of who we ourselves are. The heart of existence is God, God is being itself. Perhaps it’s just symptomatic of the modern tragedy of self-cancellation that atheism – actually a fairly recent trend, as these things go – manages the grand oxymoron of asserting that the ground of all being – is not.
But what sort of deity is this “I am”? And God proclaims to Moses what sort of deity the people of Israel were to expect – through his love for all that is, God transcends their tribal and all our own self-serving categories. The one who is at the heart of all that is – is compassion. God reveals himself – or herself, or itself – Godself – as steadfast love and faithfulness. The heart of the universe, of all that is – is love. Reality, then, is to be understood as fundamentally good, not hostile or capricious or meaningless or cold – because the underlying logic and structure of the universe is love. Which, when you are wandering in the trackless desert, as the Israelites were, or when the bottom falls out of your world, as it does for each of us some time, is deeply reassuring. God, the fabric and design of all that is – is love. To know this – deeply and certainly – orients us, puts us right way up. To know this about God is to know that our lives matter, and that it matters what we do with them. To know that the God who is the ground of our own being – is love – gives us the courage to act in ways that are loving even when we feel frail or foolish or defensive.
It seems to me that the point of Christianity has never been to define God out by tricky doctrinal axioms, or to prove God’s existence, but simply to experience God. The only question that matters is the same question it always has been: how do we know God? Where do we find the courage to live and the strength to love? How can we be at home in the vastness of the universe and be confident that our lives have meaning?
If we wander outside at night on a crystal evening and look up, there are stars and constellations and meteors, there is a sliver of moon, and Mars and the Milky Way, the great belt of our own galaxy of which we are on the very tail end. And this is just the infinitesimally tiny part of the universe we can actually see, ours is just one of between 50 and 100 billion other galaxies. What about the dark depths of space above our heads and under our feet, the unknowable heavens that, as the psalmist reminds us, are like God?
Because in the part we cannot see, in all that lovely black non-empty sky, beyond the stars and Milky Way, there is still God by all the names we know him – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Energy, Wisdom, Light, Justice, Hope, Perfection. In all that we see and know, and in all that remains a mystery to us, there is God, hidden, yet eternal.
There is both a smallness to us human beings, and a largeness. The smallness is our finite existence, our self-centred lives, but our largeness is the capacity to dream and imagine and ask questions that transcend our own limitations. The more we open ourselves to the largeness of our own selves, the deeper we are drawn into the mystery of God whom we find to be – if not comprehensible – a satisfactory answer to all our questions.
And yes, if we look carefully – we do see God in a three-leafed clover.