Belden C. Lane is professor of theological studies and American studies at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 11, 1998, p. 907. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Both Judaism and Christianity tend to view the divine indifference as a way of teasing us out of ourselves and into relationship with God.
I often tell my students that if I weren’t a Christian, raised in the Reformed tradition, I would probably be a Jew, and if I weren’t a Jew, I’d be a Buddhist. These three traditions engage me by the power of their stories, the seriousness with which they address the meaning of suffering, and their strange, even fierce, attitude toward God. The people of these faiths, formed by mountains, desert and tough terrain, celebrate, oddly enough, a sense of God’s indifference to the assorted hand-wringing anxieties of human life. In their grand notions of divine sovereignty and the embrace of the void (with its prerequisite emptying of the sell) , they undercut altogether the incessant self-absorption that preoccupies the American mind. They discover in the vast resources of divine disinterest a freedom and a joy that cut through much of contemporary pop theology.
I am increasingly uncomfortable with current images of God, as often found in books and workshops that mix popular psychology with a theology wholly devoted to self-realization. They seem to reverse the first question in the catechism I studied as a child, declaring that “the chief end of God is to glorify men and women, and to enjoy them forever.” I really don’t want a God who is solicitous of my every need, fawning for my attention, eager for nothing in the world so much as the fulfillment of myself-potential. One of the scourges of our age is that all of our deities are housebroken and eminently companionable; far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.
John Updike has carried on a running argument with this very tendency. In A Month of Sundays, the Rev. Thomas Marshfield, a lapsed vicar who longs for transcendence, attacks the marshmallowy immanence of his younger assistant, Ned Bork. He speaks of “his limp-wristed theology, a perfectly custardly confection of Jungian-Reichian soma-mysticism swimming in a soupy caramel of Tillichic, Jasperian, Bultmannish blather, all served up in a dimestore dish of his gutless generations give-away Gemütlichkeit.” Marshfield wants nothing of religion made amenable to human demands. “Let us have it in its original stony jars or not at all!” he insists. Why does such a harsh and unmeasured Connecticut-Calvinist outburst strike within us a deep chord? In a society that emphasizes the limitless possibilities of the individual self, it comes as a strange freshness to be confronted by a God of majesty, indifferent to the petty, self-conscious desires that consume us.
The three landscapes and three traditions mentioned earlier call us back to the mysterium tremendum evoked by the image of the Great Mother, Yahweh, Kali and Calvin’s God of sovereign majesty. They can teach us about the renewed importance of an apophatic spirituality, with its recovery of the via negativa, its attention to renunciation, and its emphasis on the importance of big drawn beyond ourselves into the incomprehensible greatness of God. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins. “It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” But we have forgotten. The austere, unaccommodating landscapes of desert, mountain and heath remind us of the smallness of self and the majesty of Being. They point again to what theologians once described as the aseity of God, a divine indifference that has as its goal the ultimate attraction of that which it at first repels.
It is only as the vast grandeur of the land drew him beyond himself that he began to find what he had sought. Walking one day to a remote monastery at Rde-Zong, he was distracted from his self-conscious quest for spiritual attainment by the play of the sun on stones along the path. “I have no choice,” he protested, “but to be alive to this landscape and this light.” Because of his delay, he never got to the monastery. The beauty of the rocks in the afternoon sun, the weathered apricot trees and the stream along which he walked refused to let him go. He concluded that “to walk by a stream, watching the pebbles darken in the running water, is enough; to sit under the apricots is enough; to sit in a circle of great red rocks, watching them slowly begin to throb and dance as the silence of my mind deepens, is enough.”
Compelling his imagination the most was that the awesome beauty of this fierce land was in no way conditioned by his frail presence. It was not there for him. The stream would continue to lunge over the rocks on its way to the valleys below long after he had gone. The apricot trees would scrape out a spare existence and eventually die entirely apart from any consideration of his having passed that way. Only in that moment of the afternoon sun in Ladkh, as he abandoned thought of hurrying on to the monastery, did he receive back something he had unconsciously offered. Hence he declares, “The things that ignore us save us in the end. Their presence awakens silence in us; they refresh our courage with the purity of their detachment.” Having become aware of a reality that exists entirely apart from the world of cares that keep him in turmoil, he was strangely set free. By its very act of ignoring him, the landscape invited him out of his frantic quest for self-fulfillment.
There is something clean and spare about this invitation to relinquish self and desire. But for many of us, so anxious to experience and possess everything, it is also fraught with terror. That is why, in the spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism, there are so many fierce Bodhisattvas: saint-like figures who harshly treat the ego with indifference. In their earthly lives, the Bodhisattvas had extinguished the candle of desire, but instead of relishing nirvana, they returned to help others along the same path. These peaceful representations of fulfillment in the spiritual life sometimes also manifested themselves as Terrifying Ones. Yamantaka, for example, the most powerful of the “eight dreadful deities” in tantric lore, was pictured with flailing arms in an aura of red flames and smoke. He could evoke a sense of menacing terror in those clinging to their own ego, but his purpose was to “rouse the deluded spirit to inward contemplation and reversal, to purification and, after the conquest of fear, a safe passage through terror” (Detlef Ingo Lauf, Tibetan Sacred Art: The Heritage of Tantra [Shambhala Publications, 19761, p. 171) In the frightening experience of having our fragile egos ignored, we are thrust beyond fear to a grace unexpected. Such, at least, was the experience of Andrew Harvey in the mountain-enclosed desert of rock that is Ladakh. There he was stunned to joy by rejecting the self-dramatizing intensities by which he had lived.
This is a strange dimension in Jewish spirituality. It is Moses’ experience at Sinai (Exod. 19) , Elijah’s in the cave on Mt. Horeb (I Kings 19) , and Second Isaiah’s as he offers “comfort” to Jerusalem by pointing to an awesome God entirely removed from the vanity of human fretfulness (Isa. 40) This is the God who “sits above the circle of the earth, with all of its inhabitants like grasshoppers.” It would be easy to miss the subtlety of this religious experience by dismissing it as scare mongering patriarchal primitivism. There is more to it than that. What ancient Israel found in this context of untamed landscapes was a Fierce Mother, as well as Gentle Father, who woos her children to a relationship of deeper maturity. One is astonished, in standing nakedly before the divine resplendence, to discover that a grand and new wholeness comes to replace all that has been lost. John Newton, the ex-slave ship captain and hymn-writer, knew this well when he spoke of a “grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.” The indifference of God turns out at last to be but another form of God’s insistent love.
Within Christianity, the theme of divine majesty is celebrated most characteristically in the Reformed tradition. From Calvin to Barth has echoed a thundering fugue on the glory of God. Calvin found in Job and Isaiah the finest examples of God’s praise through the turbulence of sea and skyscape (Institutes, I.V.6) He knew the Lord God to be one who “comes with might,” “who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span” (Isa. 40:12) On the wide heaths of Scotland and the rocky shorelines of New England, a baroque grandiosity would come to characterize this Reformed spirituality. In its excesses, it led some to exult in their willingness to be damned for the glory of God. But its finest exemplars, like Jonathan Edwards, never viewed the divine indifference as an end in itself. Walking over his father’s farm in the western Massachusetts woods, he found that the fear of God’s grandeur unleashed in wild thunderstorms led ultimately to grace (cf. Edwards’s Personal Narrative of 1740).
In the fixed idea of divine sovereignty that forms the heart of Reformed spirituality, one must discern more than a worn-out devotion to a stern God of patriarchal splendor. Ernst Troeltsch argued that such a theology was also rich in implications for the understanding of the self. A focus on the divine majesty brought with it a corresponding tendency to de-emphasize the ego and its inordinant concern for self-aggrandizement. In Calvinist spirituality, “a constant preoccupation with personal moods and feelings is entirely unnecessary.” For Calvin, the chief concern was not with a self-centered personal salvation, but with the glory of God.
This offers an important corrective to the simplistic self-help theologies in religious circles today. To be engrossed in the self is, paradoxically, to lose it altogether, as Jesus suggested (Mark 8:35) Reformed theology would insist that the liberation of the true self in Christ comes only by ignoring the false self, as it is overshadowed and driven to utter silence by a God “in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.” When the self has been wholly abandoned, only then is there the possibility of seeing it restored in Christ. Having lost one’s life, it comes rushing back as divine gift.
Anthony de Mello, in a tale from his recent book One Minute Wisdom, describes this paradox. “Before I was 20,” he says, “I never worried about what other people thought of me. But after I was 20 I worried endlessly — about all the impressions I made and how people were evaluating me. Only sometime after turning 50 did I realize that they hardly ever thought about me at all.” So often we presume ourselves to be at the center of everyone’s attention, and end up performing for an audience that isn’t there. Our chief loss, in the process, is having missed the gift of blessed indifference offered to us all along. “We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us.”
The inattentiveness of the desert provides an inexplicable healing. Meinrad Craighead found this in her experience among the sandstone flats and underground kivas of the Pueblo Indians. “When I came to New Mexico in 1960,” she wrote, “I found the land which matched my interior landscape. The door separating inside and outside opened. What my eyes saw meshed with images I carried inside my body. Pictures painted on the walls of my womb began to emerge” (The Mother’s Songs: Images of God the Mother [Paulist Press, 1986], p. 67) She discovered the Great Mother in the awesome beauty of the desert, brooding over a world still in the process of being born. She found hope where others might have experienced only despair. In being ignored, she was unexpectedly given back her truest self.
Fierce landscapes can be read in many ways. Always unpredictable, they are frightening as well as indifferent, a terror to some and a solace to others. They offer no guarantee of God, even though the three traditions considered here are accustomed to experiencing the sacred in the threatening emptiness of space. Not everyone discerns the holy lurking as a dread presence in a dark canyon before a summer storm. Edward Abbey was one who exulted in the fact that the desert offers absolutely nothing. Its hold on the imagination is the power of subtraction, the abandonment of all names and meanings.
Abbey died recently. He was as lean and rough-edged as his prose, and he had no use for religious interpretations of landscape. Yet his descriptions of the “Great American Desert” often bring to mind the lush emptiness of John of the Cross or the harsh images of Kierkegaard, echoing over the Danish moor. He insisted that people must be half crazy to think of going into the desert, given all of its dangers and discomforts. He wondered why he even bothered writing about it. Yet something irrational and unexplained required it of him.
Visiting the remote gorge of Nasja Creek in Arizona one summer, Abbey walked along its amber stream in the deep shadows of canyon walls towering hundreds of feet above on either side. At one point he made his way toward the distant sun in a slow and pathless ascent along the east wall. No human being had been that way for years, he thought, maybe never. But as he reached the canyon rim, breaking into the bright light of the vast desert floor, he saw the remains of an arrow design laid in broken stone near the edge. It pointed off to the north, toward more of the same purple vistas and twisted canyons that he had seen for the past week or more. He searched in that direction for some irregular line on the distant horizon, an old ruin or sacred site to which the ancient arrow might have pointed. There was nothing. Nothing but the desert. . . and its blessed indifference. Nothing but a desolate silence that filled the earth with its emptiness. Nothing. With a savage and unaccountable joy, he descended the gorge once again, knowing why it was that he had to walk and write about deserts. The sheer nothingness of it refused to let him go (The Journey Home [Dutton, 1977])
The power of Abbey’s encounter, and others like it, is found in the fact that what is met cannot be named. It can be painted perhaps, as Georgia O’Keeffe learned, giving a spare beauty to the dry bones of the New Mexican desert she had come to love. But it can’t be named. Fierce landscapes offer none of the comforts of reason. At the extremities of geography, beyond the civilized precincts of all that is safe, we enter the dread terrain of our own extremities as conscious selves. Yet in that fearful ending we discover also a joyous new beginning.
Stretched out over the edge of a deep precipice, one hand clutching the branch of a blue Juniper growing from the rock, we peer down as far as we dare. We see nothing — only the motionless soaring of red-tailed hawks in the canyon far below. We are drawn, though, by an indifference, whose other name is love. We sense an invitation to emptiness. It begins to grow in us, like a vast silence. There is fear, knowing that in hanging there, we will be destroyed. The roots of the Juniper begin to loosen from their crevice in the rock. Yet a senseless joy bids us stay. And when we fall, it is a long, slow descent, feathers being unfamiliar to us. We wing our way across the borders of a new consciousness, adjusting uneasily to warm-air currents drifting upward. The circling hawks we had studied from above have drawn us by their indifference far more than we might have imagined. With them, we become part of a great void that seems strangely akin to love. The sky opens out into a thin, orange line over the dark horizon and we head with the others toward home. “We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us.”