Today’s Daily Lesson comes from Exodus chapter 33 verses 17 through 23:
17 And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
We all know what it is like to be around someone who talks so authoritatively about God and God’s will and way that those without wisdom might be misled into thinking the speaker has walked all around God and taken pictures. Unfortunately, much of theology and doctrine has been written with this kind of brash certainty.
There is another tradition of theology called the “apophatic” — coming from the Greek word, “apophasis”, meaning to deny or negate. The apophatic tradition is a way of knowing and describing God through negation, what God is not like, rather than presuming to know and be able to describe exactly what God is. In this tradition, God is beyond our capacity to contain and comprehend because God in fact actually transcends all being.
I recognize this is all a bit abstract, but practically speaking the apophatic tradition chastens our impulse to apprehend and reduce God into an idol or book or list of rules. God is always breaking us free from those kinds of attempts at domestication and control. God resists control, always pulling us beyond what we know, understand, and perceive to be eternal. Theologian Robert Jensen says this is the difference between a living God and a dead idol — an idol never surprises us.
Moses could see only the backside of the LORD, as the LORD passed by. There is a sense in which whatever we see or know to be true about God is always apophatic; it is always the backside of God’s glory and movement. We can never in any moment be completely aware of where God is and where God is going, but only where God has been and where God is commanding us to follow. In other words, we never see God coming but only going.
And that makes this whole faith thing — this journey with God — quite unpredictably exciting, and even these rear glimpses we get of God quite incredibly breathtaking.