The unlonely God

April 11, 2007

Let me begin in this way: this Easter, just past, was an occasion for rejoicing. It was, first of all, Easter, the festival of festivals, the triumph of life over death, and the foundational warrant for all rational and wholehearted celebration of whatever form. More specifically, this Easter was an occasion for rejoicing for me because my good friend W crossed the Tiber and was received into the Church. Easter was a joy too, in a more personal way, because I remembered, as well I might, my own baptism and reception into the Church just four years ago. Soli Deo Gloria!

Nothing I now say changes any of this.

A great truth about Catholicism is that at its best, when it is most fully itself and truest to its nature, it is a trysting place of goodness, truth, and beauty. A sad but unavoidable truth about Catholicism is that it is not always, or even often, at its best. The liturgy of the Easter Vigil that I attended this year makes a good case in point, for it mingled the sublime and the appalling with insouciance. True, the singing of the Exultet was dignified and majestic. True, the singing of the choir was ragged and grating, and their choice of material almost invariably banal. One takes the good with the bad, always remembering (and also reminding oneself over and over) that these people mean well, and are doing their best, and that while of course the Mass ought not to be an aesthetic horror, aesthetics are not the most important thing.

Fine. But sometimes something happens in the liturgy that cannot be grinned-at and borne. Sometimes the tastelessness or sentimentality oversteps the aesthetic and begins to burrow its undying-wormy head into the foundations of things, and then it has to be stopped.

As I said, I sat at the Easter Vigil, the glorious tones of the Exultet still hanging in the air. I prepared myself to hear the first reading, which is the great hymn of creation in Genesis 1. I was temporarily bewildered when I saw no-one in the lectern and instead heard a strange swoop, hum, and tinkle from the audio system. It took a moment to recall that someone had mentioned that the first reading would be played as a recording, rather than read. I had thought this odd at the time, and was beginning to think so again, when the narration began. It began in this way: “In the beginning, God was lonely”.

I nearly had a seizure. The ‘reading’ went on; I don’t want to belabor the agony. It had God saying to himself things like “I’ll make me a world!”, and kneeling down and forming the clay into his image, and other horrifying offences. But nothing was more horrifying to me than the thought that somebody had thought this notion of God’s loneliness a fitting thing to be uttered in church. I had a vision of the great edifice of the Catholic theology of the Divine nature lying in ruins, and nobody caring, or even noticing. I looked around, hoping to see an insurrection rising, but I was disappointed.

This has been bothering me ever since, and I need to cleanse my ears with some sound teaching. Tonight I am turning for solace and edification to David Bentley Hart’s amazing book The Beauty of the Infinite. Let’s hear what he has to say on the subject:

Here, in the most elementary terms, is Christian metaphysics: God speaks God, and creation occurs within that speaking, as a rhetorical embellishment, a needless ornament.

Thank you. It is good to have that elemental plank in Christian metaphysics back in place. Just so we’re quite clear that the world was not created to console God or to bring meaning to his otherwise dull and empty life, perhaps another dose is in order:

A God whose very being is love, delight in the glorious radiance of his infinite Image, seen in the boundlessly lovely light of his Spirit, and whose works are then unnecessary but perfectly expressive signs of this delight, fashioned for his pleasure and for the gracious sharing of his joy with creatures for whom he had no need (yet loved even when they were not), is a God of beauty in the fullest imaginable sense.

Amen to that. But what are we to make of this idea that God somehow needs the world, or that it, and we in it, add something to him? Why would we tolerate it, or even endorse it?  Well, Hart has some thoughts on this too:

…the theologians of the ancient and medieval church had the wisdom and strength not to desire such a miserable, imperfect, shadowy god, but to long rather for a God of superabounding and eternal might, life, joy without any trace of pain, the inexhaustible fountainhead of life and light and beauty, a God of infinite ontological health. They were clearly capable, that is, of an ascetic passion that could cultivate real charity by making them seek a well-being and a truth outside their own affections and disaffections and vanities, and so they understood the gospel of divine apatheia as revealed in Christ; and they knew that pain – like resentment, ignorance, or cruelty – is essentially parasitic, a privation of being, capable of enriching or perfecting nothing; they thirsted for the wine of divinity, not the bitter lees of their own indignation. Then again, they did not arrive to late in the history of nihilism as we have, they were not as fragile and devoted to therapy, they were not so very near to the ‘last man’.

I think I agree with him.

I’m feeling a little better.

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