There at the Numinous Headwaters

By Gregory Mobley

The richness, the wisdom, the knowledge of God—

those are deep waters.

God’s justice, it’s unfathomable;

God’s currents, unchartable. (Romans 11:33)

I can’t believe I took the bait, “Write X amount of words about the future of God.”

As I write, it’s late March and not one of my NCAA tournament predictions came true—and I know a lot more about basketball than I do the mysterium tremendum ets fascinans, the German philosopher Rudolf Otto’s definition of “the Holy” as the mystery that induces trembling and attracts fascination. 

Let us wade into that water, the Four Rivers of Eden, where tides of homecoming and journeying, mercy and anger, caress and wound, and grace and judgment, swirl around us.

Still, with the short memory of a compulsive gambler, I chase the following long odds: 

… That the stream of trends already unfolding in religion and theology will continue, though often in more deformed or perilous ways. Neither the Axial Age nor the Enlightenment has bedimmed the sparkle of astrology. All those First Baptist churches may become the last Baptist churches, but somewhere there will still be altar calls and, in my beloved Appalachia, snake handlers. The term “psychedelic chaplaincy” is new, but the practice is not. Back in the ’60s Timothy Leary included a couple of Andover Newton faculty in an LSD experiment (they read Ezekiel while tripping). But now archaeologists have analyzed traces of cannabis remains from an altar in Iron Age Judah, which might well explain the source of some of Ezekiel’s hallucinatory visions. 

… That, lo, a brave new world is nigh. Images of and discourse about God will be transformed by the digital age. Personalized designer canons will become as common as customized congregational hymnals. Out goes Leviticus; in goes, according to your bent, Black Elk SpeaksThe Turner Diaries, or some new testament from an AI chatbot. Alphabetic literacy was the medium through which the “religions of the book,” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, emerged on the world stage. The digital age, at the least, will usher in transformations of these styles of monotheistic meaning-making. At the worst, digital consciousness threatens to vaporize all worldviews through a collision with the cyber-meteor of an uncontrollable Singularity, that omega point for human consciousness as we know it and alpha point for transhumanism. The aliens have already landed in Silicon Valley.

The Very Stones Crying Out

Here’s one positive development I see as I attempt to read the palm of the nail-scarred hand. Further insight into non-human consciousness—how the roots of trees message each other, how elephants pound vibrations to each other by stomping their feet—will enlarge our view of the horizon of divine activity. As it turns out, there are biblical resources for blessing this growing knowledge of the agency and personality of natural phenomena, all those references to the heavens declaring the glory of God, trees and fields clapping their hands, shed blood crying out from the ground, heaps of stones witnessing to promises people have made, the ground swallowing sinners, mountains writhing, vines languishing, and the earth mourning.

Enough predicting. Let me tell you what I hope the future holds for our understanding of God. I hope that we gain a new appreciation for the God of the Hebrew Bible. 

The Godshine in the Real World

A passage from a learnéd outsider to biblical studies, the historian Donald Harman Akenson, captures the subtle fascination that YHWH might still holds for those who would dare, like Moses, to catch a glimpse of the glory, the kavod, the Godshine emanating from the divine presence.

The reason the god of the ancient Israelites is so convincing is that, as he is  limned in the covenant, he is the perfect embodiment of what is: of reality.  Whatever controls the lives of individual human beings (and there is an infinity  of philosophical debate about such matters), it is not consistently nice, benevolent, predictable, or even understandable. Yahweh personifies the ultimate reality exactly. Life is bounteous, so too is Yahweh; life is unfair, so too is Yahweh (just ask Job). Yahweh is the name for reality invented by Hebrew religious  geniuses who paid attention to the way the world works.[1]

Sometimes you can see things more clearly in their raw state before the issues get obscured by prettifying theologians. For me, the Hebrew Bible, all those consonants without vowels, with its spaces, with its ambiguities, with its silences, narrates a story of God that will stand, a story as rich and twisty as life itself. It names Ultimate Reality as “the One Who Is.” Let us meet YHWH again for the first time.

Whispers and Whirlwinds

The stakes are high. In our time, we are reopening the cold case file on Divine Love and Cosmic Evil. We must swim against every tide—the trend of the religious right to retribalize the biblical God and the overly politicized discourse of the religious left which would reduce the Creator of the Universe to the leader of whatever social movement is in vogue—and direct our attention upstream to the perennial question of whether Anything Matters. 

There at the numinous headwaters of the Four Rivers of Eden, we just might—if we are lucky, if the mood is right, if the moon be in a favored phase—glimpse none other than YHWH, the God of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus, the God who is fire and love, the God of whispers and whirlwinds. Let us wade into that water. Wade into the deep water where tides of homecoming and journeying, mercy and anger, simplicity and complexity, innocence and experience, caress and wound, grace and judgment, and life and death swirl around us. We will need to hold each other’s hands if we do not want to get swept away by the deluge of downloaded novelty. Baptized with water and fire, there let us seek to be born again.

Gregory Mobley is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Congregational Studies at Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School. Mobley’s teaching interests include Judges, prophetic literature, Job, the Bible itself as a story, environmental sustainability, and interfaith learning. An ordained American Baptist minister, he is the author of  The Return of the Chaos Monsters—and Other Backstories of the Bible (Eerdmans, 2012) and other books.

[1] Donald Harman Akenson, Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds (Harcourt, 1998), p. 98.