God, are you still there?

Not much of a question, from a theological point of view.  Yes.  God is still there.  A God who is everywhere is “there,” whatever you had in mind when you used that word.

But the question is not very often asked from a theological point of view.  It is asked from an experiential point of view and the circumstances that wring that kind of question out of a Christian can be appallingly bad. [1]  I have two circumstances in mind.

The first is the “presence,” the taken for granted presence of God in the life of a believer.abscondita 1  You have been taught, as a proposition, that God is there and nothing in your life has made you reconsider the proposition.  You have been taught that these feelings are evidence of God’s presence and you are taught what to do when those feelings aren’t there.  These little remedies are aspirin-sized remedies for what amounts to a religious headache.  For the person in this picture, it is not a headache.

That kind of “presence” doesn’t really answer the question because in that circumstance, no question has really been asked.  For instance, “Which way is up?” is kind of an entertaining question until your first serious bout with vertigo.  Then it is a lifestyle question.

The second is the “presence” of God when you can’t feel anything at all.  This can be acutely traumatic.  The gap between Jesus’ first prayer in Gethsemane (Is this really necessary?) and his second, (Your will be done.) shows how severe the loss of the sense of God’s presence can be in someone who has counted on it.

“Are you still there” can be a wrenching cry of the soul.  I know that.  I don’t want to minimize it in any way.  But I do want to understand it better.  To do that, I am going to offer a simple structural version of the problem and then tell a couple of stories that illustrate it. [2]

Here is the structural version

You can’t experience “God” directly the way you experience the wetness of water directly.  You have an experience of some sort and you attribute that experience to God.  It reveals the presence of God in your life (and affirms, logically, that there is such a God) or it means that God is acting on you to support you or to give you some job or other to do.  We learn these attributions as groups of Christians.  We teach them to each other; we fine-tune them for each other; we explain the anomalies for each other.  These social structures are what sociologist Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures.”  All communities of every kind whatsoever use such structures.

It does, however, conflate the experience with the attributed source of the experience.  I know God is there when I think these things or do these things or have those feelings, etc.  If you keep “God” and the means by which you experience God, separate, then you are staving off any possible disaster.  But people really don’t do that.  They make the experience and the way they explain the experience to themselves into one thing.  You know they aren’t, but it is very hard to keep them separate.

Hunt for Red October

abscondita 4There are lots of reasons to like McTiernan’s Hunt for Red October, including Alec Baldwin’s imitation of Sean Connery’s attempt to sound Russian, but I keep thinking of Courtney Vance as Seaman Jones, the sonar operator.  He knows that the Russian submarine, the Red October, is there because the sounds he hears through his headset and the squiggles he sees on his monitor tell him the sub is there.  He is listening to the sound of the engines.  But the whole point of Red October is that they have a new “silent drive” and when they turn it on and all the engines off, the Red October “disappears.”

If Seaman Jones had conflated the existence of the Red October with his experience of the Red October, the beeps and he squiggles, he would have every reason to believe that the Red October was no longer there.  He could have said, “It is gone” but he is too savvy for that.  What he says is, “It disappeared.”  That is precisely correct.

Apollo 13

Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 gives us a less savvy observer.  Dr. Chuck (Christian Clemenson)  has the job of monitoring the vital signs of the three astronauts. He can look at his monitors and read off the blood pressure, and pulse, and bladder pressure of all three astronauts because they are “wired up” with sensors and the information is communicated to Dr. Chuck in Houston.  For Dr. Chuck, the beeps and the squiggles ARE the astronauts.  These blips and squiggles are the actual experience Dr. Chuck has; it reveals to him the condition of the astronauts (and affirms logically that there really are astronauts) [3]  He completely conflates the existence of the astronauts with his current modality for experiencing them.

That makes him look like a fool when the astronauts, under considerable stress from the damage to their spacecraft, decide that they have had enough of the world knowing way too much about the functioning of their bodies, and they rip off the sensors.

Dr. Chuck, who, as I said, is not as savvy as Seaman Jones, exclaims “They’re gone!”  It is not a philosophical conclusion he has reached.  He is looking at his blank screen, the only evidence he has had of the existence of the astronauts, and his immediate reaction is that the astronauts are no longer there.  And if you conflate [4] what you know with your way of knowing it, that is what you open yourself to.  I recommended, above, “keeping them separate” (paragraph 8) as a way of “staving off disaster.”  Dr. Chuck doesn’t do that and has the immediate experience of disaster.

Fortunately for him, Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) is in charge of the operation and he knowsabscondita 7 what is going on.  “It’s just a little mutiny,” he tells Dr. Chuck.  And then adds, needlessly, “I’m sure they are still there.”  He is sure they are still there because he has a larger understanding of what is going on.  He knows how anxious and angry the astronauts are and he knows how the connection is maintained between the monitors they are wearing and the blips and squiggles on Dr. Chuck’s monitor.

Don’t be Dr. Chuck

I wish that I, as a Christian, were more like Gene Kranz when apparent disaster looms.  Unfortunately, the only times I can really count on being like Gene Kranz are when things are proceeding the way they should and my faith is not called into question.  When all the things that cause me to attribute to God a loving care for my life (and for all lives) disappear, I revert to Dr. Chuck mode.  Now, of course, I am theologically sophisticated, so I don’t say out loud what Dr. Chuck says.  I don’t say it.  But it is where I am and in my sickness of heart, I initiate whatever Plan B operations come to hand.

I wish I didn’t.  I know better.  Eventually, my Gene Kranz self—or more likely the community that plays the Gene Kranz part for me—comes back and I say, “No…I’m sure He’s still there.”

[1]  As always, I do not mean, by specifying Christians, to exclude the experience of people of other faiths or of no faith at all.  I am referring to the context I know best.

[2]  If you can get over my dealing with such an intimate experience by making references to movies, you should be OK with this essay.  Otherwise, please don’t read to the end and then get angry.

[3]  Quoting myself from paragraph 7.

[4]  It just now occurs to me to wonder if the unnecessary and potentially disastrous condition of conflating the means of knowing something with the thing that is to be known, should be called “conflatus.”  There is a certain satisfaction in that phrasing and just might help you let go of it.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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