Spiritual Grandeur

I have this theory. It goes something like this: You can gauge the way people feel about God by the way they feel about inclement weather. As for me, I appreciate storms. Windy days invigorate me, and volatile weather — lightning storms, torrential rains, blizzards — enthrall me. Even though they make me uncomfortable or frighten me, I am moved by the display of power; storms remind me of my relatively humble place in the cosmos.

Others, I know, dislike violent weather. They have a marked preference for moderate, serene, and placid climates. A few people I know go even further – if it were up to them, nature would remain at a constant 72 degrees with a 3 MPH wind.

And I suspect, if I were to do a poll, I would find that people feel about the same way about of a disturbance in God as they do about a disturbance in the weather. For those of us moved by the power of nature, the idea that God becomes righteously indignant at the behavior of people does not trouble or offend us. On the other hand, I imagine that those who are disturbed by intemperate weather are likewise uncomfortable with the idea that God get angry.

The Great Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel would characterize this as the difference between having a sense of spiritual grandeur vs. a desire for spiritual serenity. For the latter, he writes, “Spirituality means…ethereal, calm, moderate, slight, and imperceptible…, that God is lovely, tender and familiar.” On the other hand, for those of us who are receptive to the Bible’s portrayal of God’s spiritual grandeur, we embrace the many attitudes of God like we embrace the many possibilities of nature: as both comforting and unbearable, as simultaneously sublime and frightening.

This analogy between God and the weather, while hardly perfect, can be taken even further. God, like the weather, is a life-giving force. But that being the case, it would a mistake to trifle with either, or take them for granted.

Where the analogy breaks down is on the issue of purpose. For despite its beneficent role in human life, the weather is mindless; whether rain brings weal or woe to people is not its business. By contrast all expressions of God, from that of soothing love to that of awesome anger, is driven by purpose; by a passionate caring for His creatures.

The question of whether it is appropriate to ascribe anger, or any emotion at all, to God is an ancient one. Both Christian and Jewish thinkers, most notably Origen and Maimonides, have rejected the pathos of God. Confronted with the language of the Bible itself, they allegorized and otherwise paraphrased away God’s feelings. Others, like the Christian Lactantius and the Talmudic Sages, have embraced the importance of Divine passion to living a spiritual life.

But having said that God has affect, the Sages are quick to reassure us – the God of the Bible is not a God of anger. Wrath is not an attribute of God, it is only a reaction, a response to human moral failure. And this is where most of us fail to understand what the Bible is truly saying. Unlike our anger, which is often detached from our reason, God’s anger is entirely subservient to God’s moral purpose. What is more, it is wholly contingent on our choices. God, the Bible reassures, is the master of His anger, but so are we. The Bible is explicit on this point: God’s love endures forever, but whether God is angry is entirely in our control. Maybe it is our fear that we are responsible that make us want to escape from it.

Some see God as passionate, others as serene. Both approaches to God have their satisfactions, intellectually, ideologically, and emotionally. But the belief in the placid God has one potentially devastating limitation: that it is a self-delusion. While it may be very comfortable, like the climate-controlled buildings we create for ourselves it is really an artificial construct. When it comes to the weather, eventually we have to leave our manmade air-conditioned dwellings and deal with the world as it really is. And the analogous spiritual reality is this — God cares what we do and how we behave. Retreating into the notion that God only endorses, but does not criticize, does not ultimately solve the problem of human living. So knowing that can be angry with us may not make us terribly comfortable at times, but it has this compensation: it means that what we do with our life really matters. And what greater gift of love could we ask for than that?

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