From the Psalter:
How long will you hide yourself, O Lord? will you hide yourself for ever?
how long will your anger burn like fire?
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 89:46 (BCP Version) – February 17, 2014.)
When I was studying for ordination, one of the more interesting thinkers I read was the French Reformed theologian Jacques Ellul. Ellul was a lawyer and a sociologist; he was heavily influenced by the work of Karl Barth and of Søren Kierkegaard. He adopted a dialectic approach to theology and argued that only such a method could lead to understanding of Scripture; we cannot understand the Biblical text, he asserted, except be seeing it as a network of contradictions, a history of crises and the resolution of the crises, a series of apparent abandonments and the hope which arises from and resolves the abandonment.
I think of Ellul and his dialectic when I read a verse like this one from Psalm 89 (the second half, today’s evening psalm) — the God who would be in relationship with his creatures hides from them; the God who loves his children burns with anger toward them. It is, as Ellul suggested, a network of contradiction.
Ellul was also a poet who published one collection of verse entitled Silences. In that title, we see Ellul’s appreciation for the mystery of relationship, of human beings with one another and, especially, of the human creature with God; those relationships are often characterized by absences, by silences. For example, we see in this Psalm humankind confronted with death; in that confrontation, God seems absent, yet we wait for God in faith. In the Psalmist’s tragic and mysterious world hope dawns: it is hidden as God seems to be hidden and yet it is revealed in and through that same apparently absent God.
When God seems to be absent, when God hides himself, we sense no escape from death and oblivion; there is nothing to cling to. That is when true hope was born. Only when God is perceived as absent are human beings capable of getting to the end of our false illusions of hope. Only when we give up false hope do we become capable of discovering authentic hope which is found in wakeful and persistent expectation, and in prayer in which we wrestle with and demand that God become apparent once again, that God speak. Ellul offers a brilliant analogy of the ocean — its surface waves, its deep stillness, and its intermediate currents. On the surface of human lives are the superficial, transitory current events; beneath those we find the reality of the main currents in human society; and below those, we find ourselves in the depths of metaphysics and philosophy.
The “network of contradiction” which resolves this sense of absence, is found in the morning Psalm today (the first half of this same Psalm 89) where we are reminded that God “rules the raging of the sea and still the surging of its waves.” (v. 9) God is not absent, though God seems to be hidden. Though God may seem to be angry with his creatures; “righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne, and love and truth go before him.” (v. 14) Even though we may be unable to see it, God rules the raging of human society and stills the surging of its affairs. In our inability to see this is our empowerment to demand that God speak; in this we find hope . . . hope for righteousness, for justice, for love, and for truth.
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.