My theological enthusiasm—and errors—began when I was a toddler. Somewhere in those now hazy years, I found God. I do not mean that I got religion. I mean that I located God. I’ll explain.
My home parish, Saint Joseph Church, is a beautiful, neo-gothic, limestone structure. Several arches meet over its sanctuary, and, years ago, they were covered in a brocaded wallpaper. As a very young child, I decided that the lofty pattern must be God because the priest seemed to look up there as he prayed. Those arches were clearly the top of the church. Who else or where else could God be?
The error of my toddler theology lay in thinking that God must dwell in the world, must have a place in the world.
Needless to say, the error of my toddler theology lay in thinking that God must dwell in the world, must have a place in the world, because every real thing occupies some spot. It is a mistake people still make. Some presume that nothing is real save that which can be plotted in time and space and thus be studied by science. That seems quite sensible and useful until you try to locate things like love and beauty and truth in time and space. They are real; they are surely of the world. But what spot do they occupy?
We tell children that even those things and people that they cannot see have a place in the world. We simply describe it as a remote, quite special spot. Santa lives at the North Pole. The old guy may be elusive, but he has an address. Do children know where the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy live? But if to be real is to have a spot in the world, kids do presume that there are indeed places where their teeth are archived and Easter eggs are painted.
Poor philosophers of science and toddlers are not the only ones who make mistakes about where God must dwell in the world if God is real.
But poor philosophers of science and toddlers are not the only ones who make mistakes about where God must dwell in the world if God is real. The average believer simply transfers to heaven what a child believes about Santa. It is a spot in the world, where God dwells. It is simply a very remote spot, inaccessible to us. For centuries, believers placed heaven above the clouds.
Maybe a child, a philosopher of science and an everyday believer would do better by thinking of God as the author of the story. Authors are real. Indeed, more real than their stories. But just as an author is not in her own story, God is not within our tale, not even in the last chapter, unless, of course, God chooses to write himself in. Indeed, we Christians believe that God did just that.
King David declares:
Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent! (2 Sam 7:2)
Is the king making the same mistake that I did as a toddler, the error shared by naïve philosophers of science and the average believer? Is he thinking that to be real is to occupy a spot, one soon to be built by royal decree within the world?
Maybe. Or perhaps the author of the Psalms simply understands the very human need to recognize places and practices and times where the world opens out to something beyond itself.
Christ is conceived first in Mary’s faith and then in her flesh.
We speak of God coming to dwell within the Virgin, and the most literal of us think—not incorrectly—of the God made flesh coming to dwell within her womb. When God becomes a man he must indeed be located in time and space from the first instant of his existence. Just as if the author of the novel enters his story, he must be found on these pages and not on those.
But come the resurrection and the ascension, does the Word made flesh cease to dwell within the world? Hopefully, by now, we can all agree that to be real, to be in the world, is not limited to occupying a spot within the world.
Besides truth, love and beauty, try locating your nation within the world. It is no good pointing to lines on a map. Nations only live within their citizens. If citizens stopped believing in their nation, stopped living as though they trusted in their nation, their nation would cease to exist.
Whenever God touches the world, touches us within the world, we know that the world is not all there is.
This is why standing or not standing for the national anthem is such a contentious issue. How real is a country that someone can seemingly choose to ignore? Conversely, without taking a knee, how can injustice be banished from the world, given that it occupies every spot and no spot within the world?
Ponder then the Virgin. Jesus only dwelt within her for nine months, but God dwelt within her from the first moment of her existence. This is why St. Augustine could say that Mary “conceived in her heart before her womb” (Discourses, 215, 4). Christ is conceived first in her faith and then in her flesh.
God does not dwell in the world, which is not to say that God is not encountered within the world: in sacred places, people, practices and times.
Granted, we cannot step outside the world to see God, coming into the world. Yet whenever God touches the world, touches us within the world, we know that the world is not all there is. We know that something “supernatural” surrounds and sustains the “natural.”
We recognize when we have encountered God, and all that we can do within the world is to mark that moment with word and sacrament. Like the Virgin, we must say something like, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). And having heard the Word of God and spoken our own word of response, we must then set about making the world itself into something sacred.