The Void and God

18 Apr

Blog #83–the Void and the Present God

Locked down in my apartment, the image of the Void has come mind more than once. Especially on Holy Saturday, which is a space and time of emptiness, between Friday’s crucifixion and Sunday’s resurrection—a Void of its own.

The Void, or call it the Abyss, is a space of emptiness and terror, a space that threatens to destroy us, but also the place where we encounter the deepest reality of life. Job’s  experience of the whirlwind, Jesus’s time in the tomb, Martin Luther’s

tower experience, in which, full of despair, he confronted his own unworthiness—these are all instances of the Abyss. 

In the same vein, Rudolf Otto spoke of the Mysterium tremendum—our experience of the Holy, which shakes us to our very foundations. That same experiences is revelatory: God spoke in the whirlwind, resurrection came from the tomb, the word of overwhelming grace came to Luther when he was at his lowest point of despair.

My Lutheran tradition makes much of God as hidden, absent, and God as revealed. Deus absconditus and deus revelatus. But these are the two ways in which God is present to us. God is present in absence, God is in the Void.

We do pretty well in describing the Void—emptiness, despair, meaninglessness, terror. The challenge is to discover God’s presence in the Void, without dispersing the despair, meaninglessness, and terror through sentimentality, false optimism, or habits of piety. When we go to the cross on Friday, we know that it is not just a man, but God who is crucified, and we know we will wake up on Sunday singing “alleluia.” It is difficult, emotionally and intellectually, to take seriously the Void of Saturday. We know that Saturday will soon become Easter Sunday.

Actually, Luther did not know grace would come to him; Job did not know The God of the whirlwind would be his redeemer; the women and the disciples who were bereft on that Sunday did not know a resurrection was in the works. In deep seriousness, they experienced the Void, the tremendum that shook them to their roots.

I believe we are today experiencing the Void, the Abyss, and we are pressed to discover how God is present to us in our present circumstances.

What is revealed to us Americans in this avoid? The Coronavirus has brought into view just how fragile our society is; it has thrown light on evils that we tried to hide from view; and it discloses a genuine community that we may have given up on in our politicized public life.

It has been said that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. The United States does not fare well by this criterion. Both the health crisis of COVID-19 and the economic crisis reveal how badly we treat the most vulnerable. People of color are dying in numbers that vastly surpass their percentage in the general population. This is due in large part to the inferior medical care they have received prior to the pandemic.

Economically, it is the lower wage earners who bear the brunt: the first to lose their jobs (think of restaurant workers) or who cannot shelter in place,  because they are essential workers (grocery workers, gas station attendants, home health workers). Many of these workers must work in two or three jobs in order to live. It is clear how many individuals, families, and small businesses live paycheck to paycheck. 

These are characteristics of an age in which the wrath of God has descended on us. The Bible provides massive testimony to God’s concern for the poor and vulnerable. Our treatment of these groups surely calls for divine wrath. I think of Psalm 107:

“But if the people fail to prosper and suffer oppression and pain, God will scorn their leaders and let them wander in chaos. But God will lift up the poor. . . .”

The Void will not last forever, and God turns wrath to mercy and promise. The experience of the Void May be an unexpected gift to make our lives and our world different.

Pope Francis said it very simply, “Let us not lose our memory once all this is past, let us not file it away and go back to where we were.”

What is your vision of life after this Void? I’ll include them in my next installment.

(c) Phil Hefner 27 April 2020

3 Responses to “The Void and God”

  1. Richard Busse April 18, 2020 at 6:01 pm #

    After the crisis: More court hearings online and by phone. More online teaching. More time in front of computer screens. Meeting new clients through zoom. Less physical contact in general. All perhaps leading to less of a connection between people. Or perhaps just a new way of connecting. Just like your blog here. You are connecting to people through technology, not physical presence. Hope your are well. Rick Busse.

    • Liftthescreen April 18, 2020 at 6:14 pm #

      Yes, I think a new idea of what’s “real” will spread broadly. Best wishes to you, too.

      • Liftthescreen April 19, 2020 at 1:05 am #

        From Carol Albright: What I think you need to mention is the other revelation: the people who are taking huge risks to help the ill, out of love. The entire content of the latest Time magazine is devoted to the stories of such people. They include the highly credentialed people, and also those who (dangerously) insert air tubes into the lungs, or who take a sick person on what may be his last ambulance ride while his family watches, perhaps for the last time. These are dangerous and difficult jobs. Their performers demonstrate a different part of our culture, which should also be considered.

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