Philippians 2:5ff: “Have this mind also among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who… emptied himself…and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
Last week, I started to read Stephen Hawking’s “Brief History of Time”—for the second time. This time I have made it to Chapter Three. The book begins with a preface by the astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan concludes, “This is also a book about God…or perhaps about the absence of God.…Hawking is attempting…to understand the mind of God. And this makes all the more unexpected the conclusion of the effort, at least so far: a universe with no edge in space, with no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do.
In a similar spirit, molecular biologist Francis Crick writes: “The plain fact is that the myths of yesterday…are too rickety to stand as an organized interlocking body of beliefs. Yet most of the general public seems blissfully unaware of all this.”
Carl Sagan, Francis Crick, Jacques Monod, Richard Dawkins. The list of cosmologists and biologists taking turns to dance on God’s grave grows weekly. Sometimes people of faith are hurt by what seems like ridicule.
Should we be hurt? Should we be surprised? Carl Sagan has put his finger on something very important about God. He has discovered a truth about God that our soft-centered Christianity, hell-bent on the Easter Bunny, has forgotten. Sagan gets what we often don’t. Carl Sagan, and those who share his passion, have discovered that the search for God leads us first to the absence of God.
What Carl Sagan may not get is how profound and how real that absence of God is. It is not simply that God doesn’t suddenly appear at the end of the intellectual quest of cosmology. God doesn’t show up here when he is needed either. “Where is God?” cried the Jew as he watched a young boy dangle on the gallows in Auschwitz. Only those with no soul can fail to feel the absence of God. Where was God in Rwanda? Where is God at the mouth of the tomb?
This Holy Week begins a pilgrimage to the very heart of the absence of God. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,” writes St. Paul. He who was equal with God, he whose whole being was driven by the love of God, now enters the final stage of the pilgrimage that takes him into the heart of the deepest absence of God. Two thousand years before Carl Sagan, Jesus went right to very edge of the known universe, to the place where there is no God. “Being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” “He descended into hell,” we recite in our baptismal creed. “Were you there?” we sing. Small wonder “it causes me to tremble.” “Eli, Eli, lema sabacthani?” “Where is God?” ask the people at the foot of the cross. “Where is God?” cries his Son from the cross.
Logic fails at Calvary. “Taste and touch and vision fail,” we sing in a hymn of Thomas Aquinas. Philosophy cannot embrace the reality of the cross. It is a mystery that we can only glimpse in story. The stories and drama of the Holy Week make us look again at the darkness of the real world. To those of us who live in valley of the shadow of death, there is but one sign that there may be a reality worth calling “God.” If there is a God, it is a God who meets us in the love which took Jesus obediently to the cross. “Obedience” is the only word for it. Who in their right mind would choose to live through Holy Week? If there is a God, God is found in the love which meets us in the darkness. “Where is God?” asked the Jew as the young man hanged upon the gallows of Auschwitz. “Hanging on that gallows” was another Jew’s inspired reply. I don’t begin to understand it, but it is that love that speaks to me of the reality of God in very darkness of the absence of God.
Hawking writes of the “mind of God.” So does Paul. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” writes the apostle. The obedience of Jesus calls us to the same pilgrimage. The people who understand Easter best, are those whose lives have found love on Good Friday. How can we begin to approach the darkness of the absence of God? One 14th Century English writer said simply “Fire a dart of longing love into the cloud of unknowing.” We are called to take love into the graves of our world.
“Now abide faith, hope and love”, says Paul, “these three; but the greatest of these is love.” It is love that sustains faith and keeps hope alive in the absence of God. “For us and for our salvation” the love of Jesus took him even down to hell. If that isn’t “God-ness” I don’t know what is.
Francis Crick is right: “The myths of yesterday…are to rickety to stand as an organized interlocking body of beliefs.” That’s true. But the love of Jesus does not call us to be “organized” or “interlocking.” The love of Jesus calls us into the darkest places, to the places where God is absent. It calls us to the very fringes of the known universe. And it calls us to nothing more sophisticated than to pierce the darkness with the dart of longing love. If Stephen Hawking draws more people to discover the absence of God sooner rather than later, then he is doing Jesus a service by undermining our Easter Bunny culture.
Ridicule of our faith isn’t new. Scratched on the wall of the Palatine on Rome there is an early cartoon. It show an ass, a donkey, fastened to a cross with a stick figure worshiping it. Underneath is the inscription “Alexamenos worships his God.” Clearly someone thought Alexamenos was some kind of simpleton for his foolish discipleship of one so asinine as to get crucified.
But our brother Alexamenos had discovered the only reality that can sustain life and meaning in the universe. He had discovered what Paul calls “the foolishness of God.” Alexamenos had seen a glimpse of a love that is worth dying for. It doesn’t really matter whether you want to call it “God” or not. It is a power that fascinates us and calls us.