Divine & Human

Prelude in C (BWV 547) J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

A couple Sundays ago Sandy discussed Jesus’ divinity vs. humanity, how this conundrum was at the top of the agenda at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, and how they resolved that Jesus was “both fully human and fully divine.”

Although that doctrinal question may have been settled millennia ago, to me it still seems very unsettled in terms of practice and experience. Which is hardly surprising: when faced with paradox, we finite human beings tend to be drawn to one side in practice, even though we might intellectually acknowledge the other in theory.

One polarity for describing God is that She is ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ (Latin for ‘Tremendous Mystery’): completely beyond our comprehension and can’t be described except to say what He is NOT: ‘not finite’, ‘not gendered’, etc. In other words, His lofty Divinity. The other polarity is that God is ‘My Friend’: “He walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own”. In other words, His down home Humanity.

Now, Mysterium Tremendum vs. ‘My Friend’ are hardly either/or — it’s more like a spectrum with folks tending towards one side or the other. The Medieval Church  leaned toward “Mysterium Tremendum”, whereas the contemporary Church leans toward “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

I can’t help but wonder if the side of the paradox you find attractive corresponds to how tough life is for you. The Medieval Church existed at a time when life was hard and short. 17th century Germany is another example: it was ground zero for the especially grim 30 Years War (1618-1648), and even by Bach’s time (1685-1750) life was still hard — his own statistics were sadly typical:

  • J.S.Bach was orphaned at 9 years old
  • His wife Anna Magdalene died age 23 of unknown causes. Bach was away on a month-long gig and returned to find his wife dead and buried — communications were that poor.
  • His children: Maria Sophia died 1 month old
  • John Christoph died at birth
  • Leopold Augustus died 1 year old
  • Christiana Sophia Henrietta died 3 years old
  • Christian Gottlieb died 3 years old
  • Ernestus Andreas died 1 month old
  • Regina Johanna died 5 years old
  • Christiana Benedicta died 4 days old
  • Christina Dorthea died 1 year old
  • Johnn August died 1 day old
  • Johann Gottfried died 24 years old
  • Gottfried Heinrich outlived his father but was ‘special needs’ — never able to live on his own.

Five children (besides Gottfried Heinrich) out of twenty survived him. Imagine burying almost three quarters of your children. A grim norm of his day. Small wonder that in 17th century Germany the biggest Holy Day of the year wasn’t Easter, or even Christmas, but Good Friday.

The idea that “God is My Friend” arguably finds its popular beginnings with John Wesley (1703-1791) and his ‘heart strangely warmed’ in 18th century England. To be sure life in Wesley’s England was still hard for the average bloke, but things were looking up as the Industrial Revolution was dramatically improving the standard of living. And in the early American colonies when survival was still precarious we find “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (in which Heaven is never even mentioned!), but as we became more established we seem to have migrated towards a “My Friend” theology, namely “that Old Time Religion”.

And we see this express itself in various other ways: musically speaking what better expresses ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ than a pipe organ in a cathedral? Meanwhile, guitars and folk-style music express ‘God is My Friend’ far better. For Mysterium Tremendum, wearing a tie to church is a bare minimum, but to your friend’s house you dress casual.

I’m not saying that either point of view is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. What I AM trying to say is that we inevitably see God through the filter of our own personal experience. How can we not? Ask five Christians to describe God and you’ll get six descriptions! I personally am deeply drawn to ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ because of my own life experience, which also unquestionably informs my music and wardrobe inclinations and more. EVERYONE’s mileage varies!

One might be tempted to think that our contemporary consensus view that “God is My Friend” is because we have ‘outgrown’ that ‘old outmoded theology’ and we’re more ‘enlightened’ and ‘advanced’ than folks in ages past. I’m not so sure. Adapting phraseology from the story of Joseph (Genesis 41), we have certainly been enjoying ‘seven fat years’ for the last couple centuries here in the United States. One wonders were we ever to experience ‘seven lean years’ if the pendulum of our collective theology mightn’t swing back towards Mysterium Tremendum.