“God did not simply give being to creatures at the beginning,” wrote the French philosopher Étienne Gilson (1884 – 1978), “but is giving it to them at every moment... and if God withdrew support from creation, everything would cease to be at once, like the song when the singer stops singing.”  Like Gabriel Marcel, he liked the musical analogy and drew it out, imagining a Bach solo sonata suddenly ceasing to exist because the violinist stopped playing.  Nearly all our images of God are visual, even though we say that “faith comes by hearing.”  Sight distinguishes and separates, but music is about harmonies and the search for harmonies.  God is a kind of harmony, St Augustine said (who used images from all five senses when he wrote about God).  Of course, the moment you begin to think about harmony you are at the mercy of every disharmony in the world.  If your ear is sensitive to harmony you will suffer all the more from disharmony.  Speaking in this way of God, you cannot avoid the problem of evil; somehow it even seems to cling more closely to God than when we use visual images. 

Imagine an artist, said someone else, whose inspiration and performance were always at their peak: “a Shakespeare or a Mozart continually pouring out masterpieces.”  This, they said, is how one ought to think of God.  What do you think?  Does God ever have a bad day?  What about mosquitoes, for example, and rats, and poisonous snakes: are they masterpieces?  What about earthquakes, typhoons and floods?  Or the million sicknesses, and death?  Not only are these things not masterpieces themselves, but even if the rest were a masterpiece these would be enough to spoil it completely.  Can you imagine a noisy motorbike as part of a Bach sonata?  So, critic, take up your pen.  You have seen the show; what do you think of God’s performance? 

It’s a rather absurd position to take up, really: defending God.  But of course that never stopped anyone from taking it up.  We expect God to defend us: “Defend me, O God, and plead my cause” (Psalm 42).  What are we doing pleading the cause of God?  The most talkative and the clearest defenders of God were Job’s Comforters.  Their position was clarity itself: God rewards the good and punishes the wicked; Job was suffering, therefore he must be wicked.  (This wasn't watertight logic, but it was persuasive enough.)  There was no question yet of a next life, so reward meant prosperity in this life, and punishment meant poverty and suffering.  Job did not think much of this position.  “I have heard many things like these,” he said.  “Miserable comforters are you all!” (Job 16), “worthless physicians, all of you” (Job 13).  He may not have attained to any clarity himself, but he recognised superficial talk when he heard it; he was divinely embarrassed to an extreme degree; but his rambling speeches threw up gems that will live forever:
            I know that my Redeemer lives,
            and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.  (Job 19)

It is not, I think, that mosquitoes etc. are sent to try us, but finding themselves here they pass the time by doing just that.  Yes, many notes in God’s musical score (not just the semi-quavers like mosquitoes) are discordant.  No one pretends to understand it, except Job’s Comforters and a professor I once had.  (That professor once gave a semester course on the problem of evil and never mentioned Christ!)  If we could understand the performance it would seem to have been put on for our entertainment; but it is not for that, it is for our making and unmaking.  Many things, most things, in us have to be made and unmade and remade, and I do not have a conductor’s overview of the whole performance.  If I could see the point of everything I would not have to trust God (or anyone) and I would not be tried, and so I would not come forth looking anything like gold. 

People who make pictures can do so at their leisure and in private, but music is always somehow live.  The picture is a completed performance, but the piece of music is always at the mercy of the live performer.  The search for harmonies, for auditory images in speaking of God, is sure to lead to even greater divine embarrassment, because we are not simply spectators and God the performer.  We are part of the performance ourselves. 

We are part of the performance: we are all persons in the Trinity, in a sense, and the Trinity is the shape of our life and worship; all of God is in us and all of us are in God, as the fish is in the ocean and the ocean in the fish (St Catherine of Siena); we are poured out and yet we remain within (Meister Eckhart).  We cannot speak of God as we would speak of an object ‘out there’, and at the same time we cannot reduce God to a cipher in our own consciousness or our will.  The easy road would be to avoid altogether the embarrassment of talking about this impossible God, and to talk instead about religion or spirituality or methods of prayer or spiritual aspiration: all of which are ways of talking about ourselves. 

God protect us from people who are incapable of embarrassment: God protect us from ourselves! 

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.