How do you discern the movements of God’s presence?
In a recent essay, Ben Quash draws on Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew” (1599-1600) to probe the various ways in which theology makes reference to God’s presence. In “The Calling” (below), Jesus stands at the head of the tax collector’s table pointing to Levi and the rest. The only hint of the divine here is the shaft of light intersecting with Jesus’ outstretched finger and this, Quash contends, is precisely the point. In making God’s activity ‘less obvious’ Caravaggio provokes us to think about how grace appears in human situations and how it’s presence is discerned.
[H]ere, as elsewhere, Caravaggio proves himself notably reluctant to depict grace or divine agency in obvious ways, unlike many of his artistic predecessors and a good number of his contemporaries. Divine agency in his paintings does not normally arrive in a well sign-posted manner by being somehow ‘extra’ to what the world already contains; we do not usually encounter it in the form of a ‘supernatural’ agent like an angel, or a celestial window onto heaven, or the visible transfiguration or ascent of saints.
The discernment of the divine is thus not made an easy business in Caravaggio’s hands. There is no paean of the unmistakability of divine action in human life. God’s self-disclosure – his saving power and action – does not take a form that can clearly be differentiated from other objects and actions and pointed to in straightforward distinction from them. It has to be discerned in the irreducible interactions of people with each other and with their material environment.
…What he honors in his approach is something of which Christian theologians down the ages have been acutely aware…God is not just one more thing in the universe. He cannot be described in relation to and distinction from other creaturely realities as if he were one such reality himself ... So to avoid showing us anything ‘extra’ than the normal run of creaturely realities, as Caravaggio avoids it, is to ensure that God is not distinguished from creatures in the way that creatures are distinguished from one another. He leaves the light as itself, whilst opening a possibility that it may simultaneously mean more than itself” (‘Revelation”, The Oxford Handbook on Systematic Theology, p. 326f emphasis mine).
How does this provoke you to think about revelation? About grace? Or, about the ways in which we try and identify God in the world? Are you drawn to Quash’s presentation or do you think we should say something else? Are there exceptions to which we might point (such as the incarnation or ascension) and do they force us to reevaluate his view? Or, does his stress on transcendence secure something for us that we too rarely hear these days – that God is not the world?