My wife and I fostered a cat for eight months for a woman who had run into hard times and found herself in a shelter. We already had a cat. Our cat was a he, and her cat was a she, and they became quite fond of each other. He would groom her, and she would tolerate it. They would eat side by side and switch bowls and eat each other’s food. They would sleep together at night on the couch in a big pile of fur. They would wake up together and run around and knock plants over just for the hell of it.
But all things pass. The woman in hard times found better ones, and her cat rejoined her in her new home. And our cat was alone. No one to groom or eat with or sleep with or play with. He’d look for her, but she was nowhere to be found. He’d wait by the door, expecting. But she’d never come back, and she never will.
I wanted to explain to him what had happened and tell him that she was all right. But what can you say to cats? They don’t speak our language.
Our relationship to God is not so different.
The Gospel of John tells us that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What John refers to here is not human language, but rather the divine Word, “through which all things came into being.” It is the creative power of the universe, which is related to the power of human language, but is greater than that. You and I have the ability to tell stories, like the one about my cat; God has the ability to bring those stories into being. Our words are a shadow of the divine Word. They are not the same thing. We speak different languages.
Here’s another story: At the beginning of all this — when, through his Word, God first brought us and everything else into being — he would walk with us in the form of a man and speak to us directly, almost as though his Word were our word.
But it wasn’t, and try as we might, we couldn’t really understand. We lacked knowledge. And so, despite God’s warning that it would only make things worse, in an effort to understand more, we forsook him. All of a sudden, we could see the world and each other in a different light, but God didn’t walk amongst us anymore. He was distant, unseen, and the distance grew as time went by.
At first, he’d send messengers, even seeming to pop up as himself from time to time. But soon he started appearing only in natural phenomena such as fire, storm clouds, whirlwinds. Finally, he spoke only through prophets, some of whom were more reliable than others.
And then a young girl from Bethlehem got pregnant, and the Word became flesh, and God walked amongst us again for the first time in thousands of years. He spoke in deceptively simple aphorisms and healed the blind and worshiped with the poor and dined with tax collectors. A group of people looked to him as the Messiah and expected him to conquer their enemies. He seemed to speak our language. But, again, he didn’t, and try as we might, we couldn’t really understand. And so we forsook him just as we had before and nailed him to a tree. God had kicked us out of Eden once; now we tried to lock him in.
It didn’t work, of course. You can’t kill God. But you can push him away. And so we’ve spent the last 2,000 years trying to do exactly that. We don’t have much in the way of prophets now, and we don’t see fire as being terribly divine, and if someone told us that they had just engaged in a naked wrestling match with God, we would probably be fairly aghast. Still, we have prayer. We have churches. We have works. We have all these old stories. We have art and music. All of these can give us a sense of connection to God and his Word.
Nonetheless, it can seem at times that we are farther from God than ever before. In the face of this, some nurture a sense of victimization and throw their faith behind an apocalyptic eschatology in which God will return once again in the flesh and destroy their enemies, despite the way God did exactly the opposite of that the last time he came.
A few others suggest that, no, God really is dead and fading away, and the world is better off for it, despite there being no particularly good reason for thinking so. We tend to spend a lot of time looking for people to blame for the world not being everything we wish it were.
Most people, though, don’t concern themselves with such battles most of the time. We’re too busy living our lives. But the back-and-forth pull toward and away from God is borne out in our lives. When things are going well, we might thank God or we might just view him as kind of a nuisance. When things are going poorly, as they so often seem to — when we lose a job or our marriage falls apart or a loved one dies — we might look to God for help or turn away in anger. We might think that maybe it would be easier if only God were here with us, like he was all those centuries ago.
But, in truth, it wouldn’t be. We don’t speak his language, and try as we might, we could never completely understand. There aren’t easy answers to these things. Because in the end, we are all Jobs standing before the whirlwind, alternately swinging our fists to push it away and reaching our hands to touch the God inside.
Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his blog burnstheair.blogspot.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.