“I don’t experience God at all.” A church-going friend shared this with me recently. Life has been tossing her more than her fair share of struggles and disappointments.
She talked to me about her tenuous health, her dwindling finances, her crumbling career, and her family heartaches. And in the midst of all this, God seems to have left the building.
Since I’m a bishop, you might suspect that I responded with my how-to-pray pitch, pointed her to some appropriate Scripture passages, or witnessed to her about the power of Jesus in my own life.
Nope. I just listened.
Eventually my friend asked, “Well, do you ever experience God?”
I hesitated. Not because I didn’t know the answer or because I felt awkward talking about my spiritual life. Instead, I paused because I perceived that compassion was needed here. And my honest answer could easily sound like condescension and judgment.
After a few seconds I gave her the simple truth: “Yes. Every day.”
Even as I said it I realized how unusual and perhaps even unbelievable this might sound. Richard Rohr, for instance, is fond of saying that God is always present and that awareness is what is missing for most of us.
Alternatively, Friedrich Nietzsche said that God is dead. What he meant by this is that our largely secular, materialistic eyes have grown unaccustomed to seeing the mystery at the heart of all things.
Fortunately, my friend knows me and trusts me. She responded with, “I wish I did. How do you do that?”
The truth that I shared with her is that I have no magic formula. Sure, my life is shaped by some long-established spiritual practices. They include prayer, worship, study, and works of mercy.
This is pretty standard Christian stuff. And while these practices do figure in my relationship with God, something else has played a crucial role in heightening my awareness of God’s presence in my everyday life. An intentional, honest self-awareness has led me to see all of life “against a divine horizon.” (Looking for God in Messy Places, pp. 123-127)
By self-awareness I don’t mean a sort of self-absorption with my feelings or a narcissistic obsession with my personal story. Instead, I mean something like what the 19th Century thinker Friedrich Schleiermacher had in mind when he wrote, “The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence.”
Here’s what he was getting at. Philosophers and theologians distinguish between necessary being and contingent being. A necessary being—in other words, God—needs nothing else to exist. God cannot not exist, as my old metaphysics professor used to put it. Nothing created God and God cannot pass out of existence.
By contrast, you and I and everything in the entire cosmos is a contingent being. Our existence is absolutely dependent upon God at every instant. We are like children in our mother’s womb. Or, as Jesus put it, we are branches that draw their sustenance from the true vine. (John 15:1-7)
But we can do more than merely comprehend this as an abstract theological concept. We can also feel it in our marrow, grasp it with our heart and soul as well as our mind.
That I exist at all—that I wake up in the morning, walk my dog, show up to work, lay my head on the pillow at day’s end—all resonate with the presence of God in my life. That’s what it means to be aware of myself as a contingent being.
When I wake up each morning—especially as the Delta Variant drives a resurgence of the pandemic—I am viscerally aware that it didn’t have to turn out this way. That I am alive today means that God is at work. I am absolutely dependent.
As my awareness of myself as contingent—as fragile and fleeting—grows, I am able to see the same about everyone and everything around me. Whatever presents itself to me on any day tells me that God is actively present.
As I have written elsewhere, “We can recognize how God has been lovingly, intimately involved in our life all along. As a result, we grow in our ability to discern God’s presence with us in the here and now.” (Looking for God in Messy Places, p. 123)
Love what you’ve shared about contingent being! Through your blog you introduced me to the concept, later reinforced through a particular experience, as you know. Yesterday I posted this photo of my OH walking on a local bush track and titled it Walk in the light. When I look at this scene I get the feeling of transition, from being blind to the divine presence, to Seeing life against a divine horizon. Hopefully photo will show below if I’ve done things right, or at least a link…
Thank you for this! You present an excellent viewpoint on the presence of God in our lives. In particular that we are contingent people – very needy of God’s grace. God is alive and active in our lives every second. God just is. Paul prayed that the Ephesians “may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,”. God is truly unknowable yet he seeks and provides for each one.
Thank you for these wise, caring words.