There’s nothing like a good magic show. Whether it’s rabbits pulled out of hats or the beautiful woman being sawed in half, we love to see the magic. Even though we know it’s all illusion, we get caught up in the mood created by the dark theater, the dramatic lighting, the smell of the smoke, and the intense concentration of our fellow audience members. We know that the woman’s torso isn’t really disconnected from her legs that have now been wheeled to the other side of the stage, but it’s all so convincing, isn’t it? We can’t really see what’s behind that curtain, so our minds play a little trick on us, letting us think that the staged image is reality.
The human mind is a powerful thing.
In her book Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism, Marjorie Suchocki writes about the idea of “radical incarnation” that exists in Christianity versus the “abstractions and conceptions of God” with which Christians are often more familiar. She points to American philosopher William James and notes that in his text A Pluralistic Universe,
[James] argues that the power of the intellect is its ability to control reality through defining it. But definitions are not reality. They are useful abstractions from the messiness of lived experience that leave the fullness of that experience behind. The power gained over the world through these abstracted concepts is so beguiling as to lead one to think that what is really real is precisely those abstractions: the rational, in pure, unchanging, controllable form. (Suchocki, Divinity & Diversity, 41)
We then make matters worse by deciding that the intellect is “the prime model of reality,” and conclude that “there must be an absolute intellect that embraces all concepts. This projected Absolute Reality, often named ‘God,’ becomes the substitute for the more unmanageable sensible reality of everyday life.” (42)
Who wants to stay in everyday life – where babies cry, adults get sick, jobs get boring or lost, parents die, and pain is an ever-present reality – when we can sit in the darkened theater and watch the magician wave his hand to make it all disappear?
When we sit in church where we might smell the incense, stare at intricately stunning stained glass, taste the Eucharist on our tongue, and sing and sway to hymns that transport us to a larger Reality, isn’t it often tempting to want to make that Reality absolutely pure, absolutely clear, absolutely powerful, absolutely wise, and absolutely untouched by the darkness and despair we see all around us, the messy stuff that lies behind the curtain?
But maybe that seduction is a danger.
“As James pushes the notion of absolutism to its extreme,” Suchocki writes, “he shows how it yields the notion of a God totally disconnected from the world…” Once we define God with attributes “so foreign to finite experience” we end up with a God who cannot meet human experience.
James argued that the conceptual God of Absolutes belied the intimacy and reciprocal relation that appears to happen between God and human beings in religious experience…If we take mystical experience seriously, James said, it witnesses to a possibility within the human spirit for an openness to that which is more than the self, and yet which empowers the self: God. The witness is not to a remote deity, but to an immanent deity at the very edges of the self. Such experience suggests that the God constructed through absolutes is hardly more than an invention of the human mind, whereas the God at the edges of the self confronts us in the midst of our reality. (42)
In the midst of our reality. Right here. Right now. In this very darkness.