What is the nature of the God you believe in or put your trust in? That is the question Bruce Epperly raises as he returns to offer this meditation upon Nora Gallagher's latest book: The Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic. Readers may know Nora's name from two earlier books: Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith and Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace. I invite you to enter into Bruce's meditation and consider the question of the nature of the God you entrust your life to, and do so in light of Nora's own reflections on her own experiences with illness.
From Almighty to All-loving:
A Meditation on Nora Gallagher’s “Moonlight Sonata at Mayo Clinic”
Nora Gallagher’s memoir of her experience with a mysterious and medically baffling illness, related to inflammation of the optic nerve, describes the intimate relationship between physical and spiritual well-being. In the course of dealing with unexpected vulnerability, including the possible loss of sight, Gallagher embarked on a spiritual as well as medical journey, and found God just as mysterious as her diagnosis. Old images of God and religion died and new and tentative images of the Holy emerged.
Often people think the most important religious question is “Do you believe in God?” Readers of Gallagher’s book may come to the conclusion that belief in God per se is not the issue, but rather “What is the nature of the God that you believe in?” Gallagher finds that she can no longer recite the traditional creeds. As she puts it, the God we discover in Jesus may be “the opposite of the God as King celebrated in Christian churches. God is not the Almighty.”
Gallagher’s inexplicable illness brings to a head a process that had been subtle going on for years, the loss of believe in an almighty God and “a faith based on an empire’s pleasure and not a young man’s compassion. I lost what faith I had in a faith based on conquest and not on discovery.” For her, the God of unilateral power died – the God, imagined by the grand theological tradition that saw divine perfection in terms of power, determinism and predestination, and distance from the pain of the world. She also lost faith in the God, celebrated in Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, who plans all the important events of our life, including our genetics and family of origin, without our consultation, and who presents challenges, including health issues, family traumas, and tragic events, to grow and test our faith.
The God Gallagher seeks is profoundly relational, “the fellow sufferer who understands” (Alfred North Whitehead), and the joyous companion who celebrates our achievements. While God will always remain the Great Mystery, ironically, many people who celebrate God’s mysterious infinity (the apophatic path) still end up privileging images of divinity as unchanging, impersonal, and ultimately distant from human need. They perceive the earthier and kataphatic images of a “God with skin” as far too personal and intimate. Many followers of the apophatic way (God without images) seek to journey from transitory imperfection to unchanging perfection. But, the word made flesh is changing, touched by pain and joy, and even the Risen Christ is known by his wounds and not his glory. The kataphatic (God with images) path may lead to localizing God, among literalists, by the kataphatic vision celebrates embodiment, change, and relationship, the very stuff of incarnational faith.
Our images of God shape our understanding of the nature of the church and our response to the tragedies. Belief in the sovereign, perfect, and abstract God, leads to the denial of death and illness, and often the ostracism of the vulnerable and hurting. A God who feels no pain and for whom our imperfection and mortality is a problem is little hope for those who suffer incurable and chronic illnesses. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is right in saying that only a suffering God can save. Only a vulnerable God can be there for us when all hope is lost and only a vulnerable God can inspire a community that treasures rather than scorns our vulnerability.
In describing the church she needs, Gallagher yearns for a living body of Christ, where the health of the whole and parts are interdependent, where tears are shed and pain is felt and we don’t hide from the realities of mortality and loss. “What I want from a church, or any faith community, I see now, is a look between human beings that says we are knitted together, standing in a circle, holding each other up, waiting for the next ax to fall, rather than persons following a crowned Jesus, believing in an oppressive creed and tinny, false hope.”
Here Jesus the healer becomes our model. The one to whom all hearts are open and all desires known experiences our pain first-hand and intimately, denies no one and welcomes all the helpless, hopeless, hurting, and unclean. Jesus is not only known in the least of these; Jesus is the least of these; and this Jesus – to use Benedictine language – inspires us to see and treat everyone as Christ, regardless of their life condition.
Luther knew more than he thought when he asserted that grace is experienced in the theology of the cross and not the theology of glory. Sadly, Luther shrunk from his own cross-shaped theology: his God was still sovereign, could harden Pharaoh’s heart, and pass by much of humankind, abandoning them to the eternal damnation. A suffering God does not damn lost souls, nor is a suffering God limited by the reality of death; God pursues the lost sheep until it is found, even beyond the gates of death. God is not limited by the hells we experience or create and though we may face the consequences of our behaviors, God’s love is stronger than our waywardness or pain.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual teacher, pastor, and author of twenty five books, including Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel and Emerging Process:
Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He will begin as Pastor of South Congregational Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA, on Cape Cod in July.