Few occasions exist in which it is a comfort to read Jeremiah. He was the ultimate complainer, though he had good company with most of the other prophets. He gave his name to the fire-and-brimstone sermons of early American history that we call “Jeremiads.” Nevertheless, today Jeremiah brings a word of comfort. For we live in a time of great wild forces over which we have little control, and we need something to trust. Once upon a time people could trust their families to keep them safe and economically supplied. For most of us, that is no more. In some poor countries such as Rwanda, even having a family sets you up to lose in clan warfare. Americans put great trust in education as an institution that trains and increases the power that individuals and communities might have. Yet in most American cities, including ours, the educational institutions are so unequal that the rich get farther ahead and so many of the poor just drop off the charts. Americans have trusted the federal government to support the poor during times of economic hardship, to protect the environment from destruction by greedy exploitation, to protect us from the ravages of war, especially unnecessary war, and to protect our honor among nations, yet on all these fronts things are getting worse fast. Americans have trusted themselves individually, with a fierce pioneering independence and yet, as Jeremiah said, the human heart is perverse. In sum, Jeremiah said, “cursed are those who trust in mere mortals.”
Jeremiah’s solution, of course, is that we should trust in God. Psalm 62 says: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.” Surely it is good Christian piety, Jewish and Muslim piety too for that matter, to trust only in God, knowing that human institutions and individuals are not trustworthy. Yet when we back away from the piety of this sentiment, the picture is not clear. Two items of unclarity are mixed together: how do we imagine the God in whom we should trust, and just what trust is about.
I use the verb “imagine” advisedly, because we think of such things as the God in whom we trust in terms of images. The Bible and the Christian traditions have many images of God. Last week I spoke about Isaiah’s vision of God as a huge man set on a kingly throne the hem of whose robe filled the Temple, a very anthropomorphic image, like that of God the warrior who leads Israel out of Egypt. Some Christians imagine God as a kindlier, gentler version of the Grand Old Man in the Sky, while others continue with Isaiah to imagine God as a judgmental king.
Counter-images of God in the Bible seem to be deliberate deconstructions of the anthropomorphic images. For instance, when God descends on Mount Sinai to deliver the commandments to Moses the finite environment almost breaks apart, not being able to contain the Holy One of Israel. The mountain shakes violently and a sound as of mighty trumpets rises and rises and rises. The foot of the mountain is roped off so people will not come close and be destroyed.
Then there are images of God as creator of the entire world, higher than the distinction between light and dark, form and chaos. John goes so far as to say that God is love, not a being who loves but love itself. The early Christian theologians quickly noted that God as creator transcends any distinctions, creates time and space, and is not to be represented in images or concepts except through symbols that don’t quite apply. The author of Colossians, for instance, says that Jesus Christ, the incarnate logos, is the first visible image of the invisible, that is unimaginable, God.
Without being frivolous, let me characterize this spectrum of images in the following way. Toward the anthropomorphic end of the spectrum we have a small God who can play roles as a finite character in the story of Israel, or in our own stories. Toward the transcendent end we have an immense God, where “immense” means not only very large but immeasurably so. “Immense” means not-measurable, hence not describable except in carefully controlled symbols. The Christian theological tradition by and large, and rightly to my mind, has said that the real God is the immense one, not the small one. The images of the anthropomorphic God are mere metaphors, and we should be very careful with them, however important they are in many areas of religious life; the images of the immense God are serious efforts to grapple with a profound mystery.
The meaning of “trust” in God is obviously correlated with the spectrum of images of God. When we imagine God in anthropomorphic ways, thinking of God as an agent separate from us, within time and space, and interacting with the rest of the world, playing roles in our histories and lives, trust means expecting God to do things for us. Sometimes we imagine God to behave like a righteous king governing history, rewarding the good and punishing the evil, with a little mercy thrown in for the penitent. The Bible tells the story of God covenanting with Israel. Other times we imagine God to be interacting with us like another person, responding to prayers like a good big person would. The news about these images of the small God is very bad, I fear. The good people are not always rewarded and the evil are not always punished. God’s promises to Israel as the chosen people, interpreted in strictly historical terms, have not been fulfilled—quite the opposite. David’s dynasty has not been kept intact. Jesus did not return in the time-frame the Bible laid down. Good people, even innocent children, sicken, suffer, and die, despite our deepest prayers. However much parts of the Bible suggests that some finite God runs the universe like a righteous kingdom, that is empirically false, and other parts of the Bible admit that. We cannot trust some small God to make us secure, to reward moral behavior, or to control history according to some preconceived and promised plan. Instead we ourselves need to work directly to make our own families, institutions, governments, personal characters, and skills trustworthy. However faulty they are now, they can be improved. This is our public and personal moral responsibility. And we cannot hope for more in the management of life as it is played out in time. If our only images are of a small God, trust is vain, and the only realistic course is practical atheism.
Trust in the immense God is a different matter. Here we relate to the eternal creator of space, time, and history, the creator of all things that can be conceived to act within the historical cosmos. The question of trust in the immense God is not about safety or success as measured by the temporal unfolding of our lives, by “the world,” as the New Testament calls it. Trust is about whether we are sustained so as to be fulfilled in relation to the immense God. Here is the very heart of the Christian gospel: within time we should expect troubles and crosses, as well as such benefits and satisfactions as we can secure by luck and our own limited means: within the eternity relating us to the immense God we are resurrected to a richer sense of life than temporal life affords. The cross and resurrection are the defining themes of the Christian Way. As we approach Lent and Easter we shall ponder these themes often.
What does it mean to trust the immense God? It means that God’s eternal creativity within which we already and always live, move, and have our being gives us the power to live rightly and in fulfillment before God. Nothing in the world can prevent that if we trust that creativity and use th
e power. To live rightly before God requires living justly: we always have the power to seek justice and commit our substance to it, even if justice cannot be achieved fully and every apparently just pattern also has its injustices. The world can prevent success but it cannot destroy our search for and commitment to justice, which is righteousness. To live rightly before God requires living with pious deference to every creature, appreciating its value regardless of how it might be reduced to merely instrumental value for human life: our ecological environments, our clans, and our primitive passions are all due the piety of deference even when we order them for higher purposes. The world cannot destroy our piety, though it is easily lost through our own thoughtlessness. To live rightly before God requires living with the faith that our own situation can be engaged with courage, no matter how painful, frustrating, ephemeral, and distasteful. We do not have to pretend to be rich, beautiful, and in Shangri La, nor to complain about being poor, bald, and cold in Boston. The world cannot destroy our faith to engage our actual lives, it can only make them vain by worldly standards. To live rightly before God requires organizing our lives with the hope that we can achieve something of value ultimately considered, something that makes a contribution to the divine life. The world might frustrate our hope to achieve what we want, but it cannot deny us the hope itself and its organizational power for our lives.
Righteousness, piety, faith, and hope are the virtues for living before god, and together they add up to something more, however fulfilling they are on their own: they add up to love. Love seeks the best for its object, appreciates its object for its own value, engages the object with full devotion, and organizes itself so as live with its object in a way that enhances the good of all. Any love that lacks such righteousness, pious appreciation, faithful engagement, or directing hope is deficient in obvious ways. No matter how poor and incompetent we are, by our very created existence we can live with righteousness in pursuit of justice, with piety in deference to the worth in each thing, with faith in our situation, with hope to live before God well, and with love in the image of God. The world cannot take these away.
Whom do we love? God and our neighbors, of course, and the whole created realm. The particular shape of loving neighbors comes from just who your neighbors are, especially those who are your enemies. There is no such thing as righteousness in general, only justice for these people, no piety in general, only deference to these things, no faith in general, only engagement with your situations, no hope in general, only your path with these pilgrims. Love is of the particulars.
God is the greatest particular, the singular creator of this crazy universe, who gives you your sunsets and flowers, your songs and dances, your successes and failures, your odd friends, your resolute enemies, your pains, your ills, and your death. God, your vastly fecund creator, gives you your life, threaded with others through a cloth of only unique strands that bears all risings and ceasings, all starts and stops, all joys and pains, all births and deaths. The immense God is not some small deity dedicated to doing only nice things. Loving the singular creator of your existence is hard. Loving your enemies is necessary practice for loving the God of Immensity, because whereas your enemies only might kill you, God surely will in the end.
To be a lover, loving our God, loving the persons, friends, and enemies of our neighborhood, and loving the whole of creation that we can know, is to be in concord and consent with God’s own act as creator. To love is to be in harmony with God, the completion and fulfillment of the divine creative act, and it is to add a harmony lacking when love fails. The whole of Christian discipline and practice is aimed to create communities and individuals that image God as creative lover. God gives us the power to love in the gift of our creation itself: no matter how much we suffer and lose by worldly standards, we always can love. That God creates us with the power to love no matter what, is what we can trust for the good of our very being, despite all the troubles of the world that crucify us.
One final thought. When we do trust the God of Immensity and move on toward perfection in love, the knots and tangles of our fights with life fall away and the powers of divine fecundity move through us like music. We move with the flow of creation rather than against it and have more patience for righteousness, more perception for piety, more courage for faith, more energy for hope, and more wild passion for love. Although our lives will still be filled with troubles as well as joys, and have many dry times, trusting God and loving in consent to creation we shall not be like “a shrub in the desert” or “live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.” We “shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” Trust our immense God, our creator and eternal home, and despite everything you will have abundant life here and now. Amen.