Discerning God’s Presence – Unmistakable or Mundane?

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?

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3 thoughts on “Discerning God’s Presence – Unmistakable or Mundane?

  1. God, help me walk by faith today. Attempting to discern anything more becomes Mt. Everest. I really like the quote; it wraps up where I stand right now.

    “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.”

    Caravaggio is on my desktop as a reminder to see God in the subtle.

  2. Your reflection, Kent, reminds me of an older interview between Ken Myers (Mars Hill Audio) and a poet, addressing the ability of poetry to capture realities of life that cannot be apprehended through the “scientific” mechanisms of Enlightenment sensibilities.

    This also connects with a comment made by Richard Dawkins in the recent movie/documentary “Expelled.” Toward the end of the film Ben Stein poses to Dawkins the question, “What if after this you die and there is a God and He says to you, ‘Richard, what were you doing? Look at all I did for you.’ What would you say?” Dawkins recollected that Bertrand Russell had answered a similar question by saying that he would say to God, “Why did you hide yourself?” Caravaggio forces us to examine the epistemological lenses we use to spot God’s activity in the world at large and in our own particular lives. How easily I adopt a certain myopia that is simply blind to God’s presence and activity if it does not register on some kind of straightforward, blatent fashion.

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