We live not by what can be seen but by what cannot be seen, writes the Apostle Paul. But I seem to live most days far more preoccupied with what I can see than what I cannot. And so do those who live and breathe and walk beside me. What do we look at and live by? We watch the stock ticker. We look at USA Today. You don’t really read USA Today. We go to the movies. We show off the latest digital photo. We walk and gawk at the canyons of LaSalle and Michigan Avenue. We stare at the stage of Lyric. We scan the ads of Gourmet and the New York Times magazine. We ogle our neighbor’s new auto. We follow the Bears up and down the field.
But mostly it is the tube we look at- seven hours a day for the average American. Studies indicate that we get most of our information about the world, ideas about life, attitudes towards others by watching the box.If there is any dimension of modern life that has lifted up the image and submerged the invisible, it has to be TV. The late Neil Postman, professor of Media Ecology at New York University put it quite vividly.
“To put it as simply as one can, people watch television. They do not read it. Nor do they much listen to it. They watch it. This is true of adults and children, intellectuals and laborers, fools and wise men. And what they watch are dynamic, constantly changing images, as many as 1,200 different ones every hour. It is well to remember that the average length of a shot on a network television program is somewhere between three and four seconds, the average length of a shot on a commercial between two and three seconds. It requires seeing, not reflecting, perception, not conception. The often missed irony in the remark that television programs are designed for a twelve-year-old mentality is that there can be no other mentality for which they may be designed. Television is a medium consisting of very little but “pictures and stories.”
We certainly seem to live by what can be seen, what we observe day in and day out. Some say we are the most visually overstimulated age in history. Which may be why we have such difficulty with the invisible, the unseen, the intangible, as in the Biblical faith. For this old story the realm of the divine, the Spirit, God cannot be known through images, either on the wall or in the head. Hence the second commandment. Hence the strict forbidding of images in Judaism and Islam. Hence the subordination of the image in Christianity, especially in the Protestant Reformation.
The insight behind the commandment is the conviction that we can’t get our minds around the true God by conceiving of him.
Any attempt to image or comprehend is a form of domestication, control. And the true God transcends human understanding, and control. We do not understand God. We stand under him. So we encounter the divine in listening and speaking. We even close our eyes. One little fellow added, “Especially when the minister is preaching.”
Moses on Mount Sinai, begs to see God. “Please give me just one good look.” It is the same question Woody Allen asks when he says, “If only God would give me one solid clue like depositing fifty thousand in my bank account.” It’s the questions all the skeptics ask when they say, “Where’s the evidence?” But God can’t be known that way, says the old story, precisely because he transcends the material and mundane and visible. Precisely because he is God and we are not. Therefore you cannot make any images of him, make him visible. One wonders about that commandment in a world where the image has become all pervasive and powerful.
We might turn to creation and hope for some intimation of a divinity behind it all, but the world around us is spectacularly ambiguous in this regard. Think Katrina in the midst of the glories of Autumn. But in this old story it is as we are addressed that God is known as real.
According to the Apostle, in spite of all that dismays and decays in the visible world, there are invisible realities by which we truly must live if we are to retain our humanity and future, as individuals, as a community. One invisible reality that we neglect to our peril is the the moral law within experienced as the word and will of the invisible God. Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” But do we any longer hear that voice as the voice of the eternal?
Psychology has not so much shut down the voice as it has demystified it, made it visible in a way, made it a mundane and tangible part of the psyche. As a child I was taught that the voice of conscience was the voice of God, a voice to be obeyed with little questioning. And if I violated it, I felt guilty and deserving of judgment. With Freud and an enlightened education, I learned that conscience is but a dimension of the brain, made up of injunctions pressed upon us by parents and culture, no more infallible than we are, to be dispensed with as we find them unhealthy and inconvenient.
Like the story of the man who went to a therapist and said, “My problem is this: I am miserable. I feel awful. I have these high ideals and I am not living up to them.” “So,” says the psychiatrist, “You want me to help you improve your performance.” “No way,” says the client, “I want you to help me lower these darned ideals.”
Now admittedly, our ideals, our moral standards, come to us through the process of parenting and enculturation, and are certainly subject to distortion and exaggeration. But how is it that we all have this capacity for self-monitoring and self-control. And where did mom, dad, and culture get this input? And why is the gist of it pretty much the same in all human cultures?
Moreover, there are a couple of other invisible dimensions of the conscience that are essential to our humanity and community.
Conscience presses upon us not only the conviction that there are certain things we ought to do and ought to avoid, but the truth that we do have a measure of free will, we are responsible creatures who shape our life and future by our decisions. And conscience is the internal sense that there are consequences to what we choose and decide, even eternal consequences. These are invisibles that have the authority and reality of the divine.
And without a powerful sense of the reality of these invisibles, moral order, free will, ultimate consequences we lose healthy psyche, stable community, ultimate future. As no less than the devout Lutheran and great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, insisted, these are the axioms that cannot be questioned without destroying truly human existence. And yet they are precisely the axioms that a scientific materialism abroad in our culture today does call into question because they are not concrete, testable, visible, and can therefore be seen as mere human conventions.
Is not the problem of our culture then that vast numbers, even many who think of themselves as believers, who now feel free to dismiss what pangs of guilt they do feel, until they no longer feel them at all, no longer hear them as the voice of God?
We live not by the things that are seen, but by the things that are unseen. Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone has the will to do God’s will, he will find out whether I am from God.” Harold Loukes writes, “There seems to be two aspects of my life that make me want to say God instead of psychology. One is a sense of being in God’s world on a frontier, somewhere beyond which I cannot see, but yet sensing a reality in that beyond. The other is a sense of being challenged, of meeting some sort of imperative, a command that comes at me again and again, that I haven’t made up for myself out of my education or dreams.”
The invisible God is present to us as the challenging voice of choice and conscience. The invisible God is present to us as the impulse to care. God said to Moses, “You cannot see my face, but I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” We encounter the invisible in the inner gift of love.
If law is the gift of the invisible God of the Old Testament, then the gift of the invisible God in the New Testament is its fulfillment in love. Even Carl Sagan, the well known scientific materialist of television fame – someone said that his program “Cosmos” was more about Carl than it was the Cosmos, but even Carl before he died admitted that love was one reality truly invisible but real that would not submit to scientific investigation.
Often on a Saturday afternoon a couple will stand before me and I will wonder at how they understand what they are doing. I can’t resist a story I read recently. The Rev. Bryan Akker was performing a wedding at Christ Family Church in Davenport, Iowa, and the groom’s cellphone went off. Turning away from the congregation, the groom took the call, then reported to those gathered, “You won’t believe this, but it was my insurance man. He heard I was getting married and wanted to know whether I wanted to upgrade my policy.” But no one could convince the young couple that what they are about is merely a matter of chemical reactions in the brain. I invariably call to their attention the reality that the love that brought them to this altar is a gift of God. They did not decide it. They did not invent it. It just came as an invisible but no less real gift. And they seem to have no difficulty embracing that as the truth about their relationship.
So this old faith goes far beyond scientific skepticism when it comes to the origin and reality of this thing called love. Real love is the gift of self-transcendence in earnest care for the other, their hurts and needs because it is the gift of the invisible God who is love, the kind of life become most transparent in the life and death of Jesus. A son in Philadelphia passes on the words of a businessman, “’The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,’ Jesus said. And yet a good part of my life I didn’t really realize this, but when I did, my whole world opened up in a new way, as I realized that…God is ever present, and this gave me a new understanding, a sense of power and confidence and humility that wiped out all doubt, fear, and limitation. It is so different and calming to know this ever present truth.”
But interestingly, the old faith insists that the presence of this invisible God often becomes most real to us, as we reach out with such love toward others. Whenever we feel called, impelled, led, driven to get out beyond ourselves, our own preoccupations, our own needs and into the needs and sufferings of others, we also experience the invisible presence of God. He is no longer hearsay or intellectual problem. He becomes intensely real.
Which is perhaps why one of the most common occasions for the experience of this invisible reality tends to come with the entrance of children into our lives. At least I have observed that this is when faith tends to take on renewed urgency and reality. Tom Lacey, a young man who grew up in this parish and then went on to become a minister, once wrote me a letter which I still have….. “this has been quite an eventful summer for Wendy and me. The highlight came on July 25, when our daughter, Emily Ruth, made her entrance into the world. Well, Emily is over a month old now, and I am beginning to understand what so many people meant when they said to me, “Your life is never going to be the same!” Of course, I knew that they were right. Still, all the advice, all the reading, and all the child-birthing classes in the world can’t really prepare someone for the real thing — the life-changing experience of becoming and being a parent.
“In that one instant when I first saw my daughter, my life was changed dramatically in a way I could never have imagined. The moment I first laid eyes on Emily, I was grasped, shaken even, by a sense of love for her that was beyond choice, beyond reason, different
and deeper than any love I had ever felt before. I immediately knew in a way I could only have guessed at that I would do anything I could to protect her.
“It occurs to me now that this is the way God designed it — that with the great responsibility of parenthood, we are given, as a gift in the truest sense of the word, the ability to feel and express the only kind of love that is strong enough to enable us to fulfill that responsibility (and haltingly and only partially at that)— a love that is unconditional, that is not a response to anything that our child has done or not done, but is rather a spontaneous, instantaneous response to our child simply because that child exists and is ours. And it is remarkably like the kind of love Jesus tells us God has for each of us.
“So sure, my life is different now because of the ever-present realities of diapers, feedings, getting by on less sleep, and the fact that even the simplest excursion to the grocery store is a major production. But the aspect of parenthood that has most changed me is the love I first felt at 3:47 a.m. on July 25, which I carry with me and know I always will. What a wonder! What a gift! Wherever love is, God is there — wooing us, reaching out to us, transforming us. It is in such times and places that we encounter God’s love, and we cannot be touched by that love without it changing us.”
But it is a gift we must yield to in faith, pay the price for, and pass on. Old John the Elder writes to his friends in his little New Testament letter, “all love is from God; everyone who loves knows God.” So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away — this becomes more and more obvious to some of us with each new year — our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For we live not by the things that are seen, but by the things that are unseen, for the things that are unseen are eternal. And love never ends. .