A God Real Enough to Be Absent: I
Cambridge, MA. Life is particularly hectic these days at Harvard, since not only are we in the middle of the semester — a happy but exhausting time, and the business of the semester multiplies — but two other factors impinge on my time and energy. First, there is the American Academy of Religion annual convention about to occur in Atlanta less than two weeks from now, where I am involved in a number of panels and projects, ranging from the ongoing seminar on Teaching Comparative Theology and Religious Pluralism to discussions of several new academic books — Michelle Voss Roberts’ Dualities (a comparative study of the medieval mystics, Lalla of Kashmir and Mechthild of Magdeburg) and the ground-breaking Interpreting Ramakrishna by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana [a reconsideration of one hundred years of scholarship on the Hindu saint, Ramakrishna) — to panels on recent developments in the comparative philosophy of religions and a consideration of mystical marriage as a cross-cultural category. Second, I am still figuring out how to be Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions and, 100 days into the experience, I am about to give my “inaugural address.” (I may tell you more about that soon enough.) All of this is quite fascinating, but it is also frazzling.
One of the ways that I find my way back to sanity is by insisting occasionally, when I can, on a more contemplative stance, continuing my research on the Biblical Song of Songs read with the commentaries of Bernard of Clairvaux and his successors, Gilbert of Hoyland and John of Ford, along with the Hindu Holy Word of Mouth (Tiruvaymoli) read with medieval Hindu commentaries. While both classic texts can be read from a variety of angles, I am interested in how they speak of a God real enough to be absent: the lover who comes and goes, makes intimacy possible but then suddenly disappears; a God not in our control.
Why is this interesting? Both scholarly and popular authors are debating the existence of God these days, yet it seems that God is at the mercy of those who argue for or against God’s existence. In my view, it is more directly relevant — despite the skeptics — to start with the premise, insight, that God is immediately, closely present — here and now — and thus able to come unexpectedly, and depart as well, without explanation. God exists, as God chooses to.
And so I am writing a book on this topic — which will get done if despite everything else I find the time — but at the moment, jumping around from part to part. This past month, I have been looking at the very last songs in each text, where the divine beloved finally departs. Next time I will write about the last song of the woman in the Holy Word of Mouth, but in this piece, I would like talk about John of Ford’s reading of the last verse (8.14) of the Song: “Flee, my beloved, and become like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices!” (As translated by Elie Assis in his 2009 Flashes of Fire)
Of those words, it is the command, “flee” that preoccupies John: “What is it, O fairest of women, what is it that you are saying? Can it really be that you are beginning to lose interest in your beloved and that you are growing weary of your pleasures? Can it really be that you are quite unabashed in telling your beloved to flee away?” John wonders why she is not worrying about scandalizing the young women listening, when she urges him to hurry away.
Dismissing the idea that she is merely sated, bored with the good she has been receiving, John suggests instead that she is aware of his need to go — that the Spirit might come — and, he adds, to make sense of his departure at the Song’s end, that she intends to follow him: “‘Flee away,’ says the bride, “’my beloved.’ We cannot doubt that these are the words of the bride bidding farewell to her spouse and following after him as he departs to some unknown land.” (243; as translated by Sister Wendy Becket, in the Cistercian Fathers Series 47, 1984) In necessarily going away, the beloved — her Lord, her lover — nonetheless seeks her blessing for his departure. John’s reading is optimistic, that the encouragement of departure is an act of faith: “So, at the magnificent promises of Jesus, she threw away the sorrow that filled her heart and gave place to joy. She gave her hands to Jesus as he prepared to go away, and she gave her complete trust to the Holy Spirit who had been promised to her.” (244) His bodily presence must be given up, so that he can go, and then send the Spirit.
Yet even when the beloved departs, John thinks that she still wants him to remain accessible, as if to say: “So then, be exulted above the heavens, my beloved — but all the same, do not forget to be like the gazelle or the young stag that you were accustomed to be when you were with me. The splendor of your glory does not make you any less approachable to me, any less meek and gentle…” John’s rule is a striking reversal of what one might expect, yet an insight grounded in the Song’s emphasis on remembering the absent beloved: “O, the further away you are in the body, be that much closer in Spirit. Be all the swifter to answer my prayers for being so invisible to my eyes.” She begs him to go to that “mountain of spices” (the souls waiting for him) but then to return — “going away according to your custom and coming back again, speeding away in a moment and then, as usual, hastening back.” Christ goes away, her beloved; he ascends, and may later return.
The experience of love, its fragility and uncertainty, the unexpected coming and abrupt departure of the beloved — all of these moments are take up seriously, to the end, but then resolved in terms of the dynamic of the departure of Jesus who returns in Spirit.
Much more could be said on the end of the Song, and on John's commentary. All of this fascinates me, and at the moment, thinking on such things also keeps me sane. We are in a situation today where we — in our multiple religions — have to a large extent domesticated God, for or against, and we find ourselves in the position of lawyers who argue whether and how God exists. Better, I think, to see more dramatically, unpredictably, how God comes and goes, ourselves as those who do not know what will come next.
More next time, turning to the Hindu parallel.