THE GOD WHO GOES BEFORE
An unskilled forger of notes is no problem; the troublesome fellow is the one who is able to produce something very like the real thing, which of course is not the real thing. Some gods are so false that no one could really take them to be God; when St Paul told the Philippians that there were some whose god was their belly, neither he nor they imagined that those bellies lived on prayer and praise. Likewise the “calf of molten metal” would not have fooled those Israelites if they had not been desperate. But the falsest gods of all are bound to look and sound very like the God we worship.
The ancient Jews considered the name of YHWH too sacred to be pronounced. Vowels are not written in Hebrew, so in time no one remembered how the name of God should be pronounced if it were to be pronounced. Modern scholars surmise that it was pronounced Yahweh, but no one can be certain of it. Likewise YHWH would not be represented in images of any kind, nor likened to anything in the visible world.
What meaning can we find in this today? Perhaps, among many other things, this: the refusal to liken God to anything in the visible world can also be seen as a refusal to identify God with any status quo, whether in one’s personal life or in the life of a people. God is the one who goes before us and leads us into the future. In Hebrew the past, present and future tenses work differently from the way they work in modern European languages, so the name “I am who am” in Exodus 3 can also be translated “I will be who I will be.” God does not follow us, or adhere to our agenda, or confirm our status quo: the God we worship is the one who “goes before us.”
We are quite capable, we know, of creating a false god out of our needs, our fears, our desire to punish.... Such a god will surely follow us, and agree with everything we think and say, and be perfectly obedient to us at all times. We will be able to use that god as a way of crushing other people, or silencing them, or making them feel that they are outsiders. False gods are always very busy doing our work, because they are our creatures and we are their creators. Thomas Merton wrote: “Just as we have a superficial, external mask which we put together with words and actions that do not fully represent all that is in us, so even believers deal with a God who is made up of words, feelings, reassuring slogans, and this is less the God of faith than the product of religious and social routines. Such a "God" can become a substitute for the truth of the invisible God of faith, and though this comforting image may seem real to us, he is really a kind of idol. His chief function is to protect us against a deep encounter with our true inner self and with the true God.”
The word ‘God’ is a ‘good’ word, and so it is a perfect cover - like the word ‘love’ - for all kinds of shameful attitudes that sometimes need a good place to hide and sometimes a big name for their banner. But we have to bring everything to our own door: I have to see if I am only using the name of God to give a kind of ultimate patent to my own preferences. If I have a conservative cast of mind, my god becomes a conservative, and we offer praise and thanks to each other for everything that is stopped. If, on the other hand, I am a liberal, we give our joint blessing to everything that moves. But the Scriptures tell me I am not to judge myself (nor anyone else) against any foreground features that are stopped or moving, because only God is my judge, and everything in my life is shown up against that ultimate background. God is my judge. God takes no responsibility for anything that I do, nor can I for anything that God does.
The transcendental God. The God who can be manipulated and used by no one. The God who can only be invoked in prayer, not in anger, not in self-righteousness, not in command. The God who made heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in it. And the God of grace. Grace...which feels just like chance, which cannot be organised because it is for no reason; grace which feels like gift, and is no part of commerce. Only the transcendental God can seduce me from making my life a little business, a shop, paying in and paying out and balancing the two. It is beautiful that God is my judge. If God were not my judge I would be at the mercy of the smallest-minded, the most partial of all judges: my dear self.