What's Tony Thinking

A Sense of Presence


I’ve been following up on each session of our webinar on “UnApologetic” with a blog and a link to the podcast of the previous week. 

Last week’s session was based on Chapter 3 of Spufford’s book, titled “Big Daddy,” where the topic is God. Spufford continues in his venture of describing the emotional experiences that give rise to faith and find expression in Christian doctrine (an oft-maligned word which simply means “teaching”).

So here’s a bit from that chapter in which he seeks to convey what an experience of God’s presence feels like:

“Someone, not something, is here. Though it’s on a scale that defeats imagining and exists without location (or exists in all locations at once) I feel what I feel when there’s someone beside me. I am being looked at. I am being known; known in some wholly accurate and complete way that is only possible when the point of view is not another local self in the world but glows in the whole medium in which I live and move. I am being seen from inside, but without any of my own illusions. I am being seen from behind, beneath, beyond . . .

“I have been shown that though I may see myself in the grim optics of sorrow and self-dislike, I am being being seen all the while, if I can bring myself to believe in it, with a generosity wider than oceans . . . This is comfort, but it is not comfortable.”

And a little later,

“For me, it means that I’m only ever going to get to faith by some process quite separate from proof and disproof; that I’m only going to arrive at it because, in some way that is not in the power of evidence to rebut, it feels right.”

In the margins of that last bit I wrote “true for me.” Faith is not something proven with evidence or logic, or disproven in the same ways, for that matter. This sense of the presence of God is simultaneously, as Spufford says, “so elusive you can’t put your finger on it, and yet at the same time so strongly felt, when it is felt, that it illuminates the world and reorganizes a life.”

It is really and by definition true, that God and God’s presence remain forever beyond our capacity to define or describe or pin down. The finite cannot describe the infinite, the creature cannot delimit the Creator. God, as Christian tradition teaches, is simultaneously as close to us as our own breath, as distant from us as the furthest star. It transcends our categories and exceeds our words, leaving us lost in praise and wonder. Such experiences began for me in childhood — which is not to say there’s something super spiritual about me. There isn’t. I suspect many children have such experiences.

In the webinar conversation Jason suggests that Spufford makes a believer feel “seen.” I liked that and think it true, really, of the whole book. It’s a graceful, intelligent, non-defensive defense of faith; in an era when both faith’s loudest defenders and deriders are often neither graceful nor intelligent.

In tomorrow’s episode we move to the next chapter, “Hello, Cruel World,” in which Spufford takes on the problem of pain or suffering. If God is good and God is all powerful, what gives with all the suffering and pain in this world? It is a question that is, alas, always relevant, but perhaps especially vivid as we witness the resistance of ordinary Ukrainians to the highly trained combat troops of Russia. Hello cruel world, indeed.

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