Life presents at least two major spiritual challenges. The first is: Where is God? The second is: Where is God not? The second is harder.
‘I am the Lord your God’ declares the first of the Ten Commandments, which we read in the Torah this week. To some this is life’s most unshakeable certainty. To others it’s a patent absurdity, manifestly confounded by the realities of history. To yet more it is a question, sometimes all but irrelevant, at other times urgent, piercing to the heart: ‘God, are you? God, where are you?’
I was invited to a class of seven-year-olds who’d prepared a series of questions about God: ‘Is God a person?’ ‘Is God a he or a she?’ No, I don’t think God is a person, not a he nor a she. ‘So, what is It then?’ at which point one of them mercifully chirped up with ‘God’s in everything.’
That’s what the mystics thought: ‘Leit attar panui minei – there’s no place empty of God’. God fills all space, is present in all things and transcends all things, hence the famous Dudele song of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak of Berditschev: Only You, solely You, wherever I go it’s You’. It’s based on Yehudah Halevi’s great poem 700 years earlier: ‘God, where shall I find You? And where shall I find You not?’
The question of God is thus a matter of the sensitivity of heart and soul, rather than solely an issue addressed to the mind. Do I sense your presence, God, in my fellow human beings, in the breathing of the forest, birds, squirrels, deer? Do I hear you speak, or cry, or scream, in all creation and all destruction?
For you are the spirit, the energy, the consciousness which fills all life and all existence, always One, yet infinitely differentiated in this world of matter and substance, things, people different in innumerable ways.
That leads to the second question. It pursues us, challenges us in every true encounter.
Aren’t you there, God, in the hospital ward, the ICU, the fragility of birth, illness and dying?
Aren’t you there in the loneliness of the empty moor, bare rocks, mountains and water?
Aren’t you there in the thriving life of the woodlands, even when the chain saw cuts down the living trees?
Are you absent in this refugee, just seventeen, who fled here (Greece, Calais, London, Jerusalem) from the Sudan or Eritrea? Are you not there in those who try to care for her? And in those who are set to deport her?
These were the questions which made the prophet Jeremiah, determined to stop himself from constantly saying what no-one wanted to hear, cry out: I’m trying to be silent, but your word burns like fire in my bones.
This was the awareness which made the Psalmist sing: To you, God, silence is praise’, hearing God in the pre-articulate wonder of dawn, and at the spring where the gazelles come silently to drink.
But this leaves open the issue which bewilders us most often: So, God, what about your agency? What do you actually do? (There’s no obvious answer to the question. God’s in hiding. God is waiting; God could if God would. God used to intervene in history and shall one day again: Such explanations don’t help me. They make history seem even more unjust. They don’t take me further in God’s service.)
The answer which is most meaningful to me, which haunts and harasses me, is the counter-question: ‘And what about you?’ I believe God asks this question of us constantly, not from heaven, but from the lives of everyone we encounter, from their suffering, their joy, and above all from their needs. ‘What are you doing with the part of Me in you?’
The only true answer is what we do with our lives.