I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s new book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, and it has me thinking about how limited we, humankind, are when it comes to understanding the concept of God. Our minds are too little to grasp infinity, too clouded by what we think everyone else means by “God” to sort out what’s projection and what’s Real, and probably too poisoned by what we were taught about God when we were children. God is the ultimate Paradox, and we don’t sit comfortably with paradoxes. (I pride myself on my ability to perform Escheresque logical gymnastics, but hit me with a paradox as big as God and my brain is too GLaDOS [“Don’t think about it don’t think about it don’t think about it!”] and not enough Wheatley [“Um, true. I’m gonna go with true”].) Anne Lamott writes about how some of her friends understand God:
I had a great friend named Jack, who has since passed, who was all but destroyed by the Catholic Church. So when he began a new, sober life, he turned in prayer to our local mountain Tamalpais, the sleeping Indian maiden whom the coastal Miwok worshipped. I love the memory of this plump salesman from St. Louis worshipping a sacred mountain, beseeching and praising and turning to God in Her distressing guise as a forested landmass.
I have a brilliant friend with a master’s degree who experiences God as a low-seated easy chair whose arms are very long and upholstered and actually hold her. I know a person with a Ph.D. who goes to a church based on Star Wars: May the force be with you.
A year or two ago I would’ve raised my eyebrows at this — new-age relativist hippie crap — but rereading the nativity stories from the Bible and talking them over with my kids have me seeing anew the way God gathered the broken threads of humanity’s utter misunderstanding of God, drew them into something better. I don’t think the Old Testament Israelites had a much better notion of God than the mountain-worshipping guy or the easy chair woman, honestly, given all the genocides and oppressions they committed in God’s name; reading through the Old Testament I can see Him trying to reveal Himself, glimmers of the Divine, but mostly it seems to me to be the story, unreliably narrated, of how humanity’s understanding of their Holy One slowly grew and evolved as God gently brought them closer and closer to Him.
And but so, a couple of different things have had me thinking about how God takes our imperfect, flawed understanding and makes it more perfect. One is this blog post discussing how the medieval Church piggybacked on winter solstice celebrations to celebrate Christ’s birth:
It’s no coincidence that Christmas occurs so closely to the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year. In premodern rural cultures, the lengthening of the days (i.e., the “rebirth” of the sun) was a significant sign of hope for the coming spring and reason to celebrate. The parallels between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the Son were simply too easy for the church to ignore them. . . . Why not use an already existent holiday that celebrates hope and light to celebrate the birth of the true Hope and Light of the world? It makes perfect sense.
Further, it’s an example of some of the ways in which the early medieval church surprises us in its progressivity. It did not reject the celebrations and feasts of its surrounding culture (though there were certainly factions calling for that); rather, it adapted them, understanding that condemnation wins fewer converts than a measure of accommodation on non-essential issues.
I do agree with what he’s saying here about conversion-via-accommodation, and the whole post is worth a read; but what really interested me about this post was that it’s another instance in a long history of God taking humanity’s beliefs and practices and reshaping them into something that points toward Himself. Not unlike the way He shaped the Ancient Near Eastern creation myths into an account that revealed Yahweh to the children of Abraham (which we now know as the book of Genesis). And not unlike the way God worked within the belief system of the Magi – who were Persians, probably followers of Zoroastrianism, and whose beliefs had nothing to do with Judaism – and gave them a sign in a way they could understand it, i.e. astrology, to tell them about Christ.
This is a God who, rather than condemning us for our limited understanding, works within it, reshapes it, redeems it. And when that, too, fails, reveals Himself to us in a tangible way: Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. I find that beautiful.