All things considered, I believe I grew up with a relatively healthy concept of God. The God of my youth, the God I was catechized into, was not unduly punishing, arbitrary, or judgmental. He was omnipresent, so that all of our sins were noticed and noted, but, at the end of the day, he was fair, loving, personally concerned for each of us, and wonderfully protective, to the point of providing each of us with a personal guardian angel. That God gave me permission to live without too much fear and without any particularly crippling religious neuroses.
But that only gets you so far in life. Not having an unhealthy notion of God doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a particularly healthy one. The God whom I was raised on was not overly stern and judgmental, but neither was he very joyous, playful, witty, or humorous. Especially, he wasn’t sexual, and had a particularly vigilant and uncompromising eye in that area. Essentially he was grey, a bit dour, and not very joyous to be around. Around him, you had to be solemn and reverent. I remember the assistant director at our Oblate novitiate telling us that there is no recorded incident, ever, of Jesus having laughed.
Under such a God you had permission to be essentially healthy, but, to the extent that you took him seriously, you still walked through life less than fully robust and your relationship with God could only be solemn and reverent.
Then, already a generation ago, there was a strong reaction in many churches and in the culture at large to this concept of God. Popular theology and spirituality set out to correct this, sometimes with an undue vigour. What they presented instead was a laughing Jesus and a dancing God and while this was not without its value it still left us begging for a deeper literature about the nature of God and what that might mean for us in terms of a health and relationships.
That literature won’t be easy to write, not just because God is ineffable, but because God’s energy is also ineffable. What, indeed, is energy? We rarely ask this question because we take energy as something so primal it cannot be defined but only taken as a given, as self-evident. We see energy as the primal force that lies at the heart of everything that exists, animate and inanimate. Moreover, we feel energy, powerfully, within ourselves. We know energy, we feel energy, but what we rarely recognize its origins, its prodigiousness, its joy, its goodness, its effervescence, and its exuberance. We rarely recognize what it tells us about God. What does it tell us?
The first quality of energy is its prodigiousness. It is prodigal beyond our imagination and this speaks something about God. What kind of creator makes billions of throwaway universes? What kind of creator makes trillions upon trillions of species of life, millions of them never to be seen by the human eye? What kind of father or mother has billions of children?
And what does the exuberance in the energy of young children say about our creator? What does their playfulness suggest about what must also lie inside of sacred energy? What does the energy of a young puppy tell us about what’s sacred? What do laughter, wit, and irony tell us about God?
No doubt the energy we see around us and feel irrepressibly within us tells us that, underneath, before and below everything else, there flows a sacred force, both physical and spiritual, which is at its root joyous, happy, playful, exuberant, effervescent, and deeply personal and loving. That energy is God. That energy speaks of God and that energy tells us why God made us and what kind of permissions God is giving us for living out our lives.
When we try to imagine the heart of reality, we might picture things this way: At the very centre of everything there sit two thrones, on one sits a king and on the other sits a queen, and from these two thrones issues forth all energy, all creativity, all power, all love, all nourishment, all joy, all playfulness, all humour, and all beauty. All images of God are inadequate, but this image hopefully can help us understand that God is perfect masculinity and perfect femininity making perfect love all the time and that from this union issues forth all energy and all creation. Moreover that energy, at its sacred root, is not just creative, intelligent, personal, and loving, it’s also joyous, colourful, witty, playful, humorous, erotic, and exuberant at it very core. To feel it is an invitation to gratitude.
The challenge of our lives is to live inside that energy in a way that honours it and its origins. That means keeping our shoes off before the burning bush as we respect its sacredness, even as we take from it permission to be more robust, free, joyous, humorous, and playful — and especially more grateful.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.