God’s presence opens up the possibility of spirituality or religion. Believing in a distant God is like believing there is a Higgs-Boson particle, the discovery in particle physics that was announced yesterday. Although this discovery is of great interest, it will make no practical difference in our lives. In the same way, believing in a distant, theoretical God makes no difference in how we live and what we do.
But if God is present… That makes a difference.
Yet the presence of God in the Bible isn’t something you can just take for granted. To say God is in everything or that God is everywhere doesn’t really capture the biblical view. God is present where he in divine freedom chooses to be present. He can also absent himself (I use traditional male pronouns because English constructions feel awkward without specific, singular pronouns).
Gabriel Marcel, the French playwright and philosopher, concieved of God as inexhaustable presence. To conceive of God as presence does not require pantheism. It does not require that everything, including you, be part of God, just as your friend’s presence does not require your friend to be part of you. Your friend can be present. Your friend can be absent.
So I am going to blog through Samuel Terrien’s The Elusive Presence. This book was published in the 1970’s. Terrien is a little hard to classify. He writes most of the book as Old Testament theology. But at the end he has chapters on the New Testament. The academic fields that deal with the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament tend to be strictly separated. So scholars didn’t really know what to do with this book.
But, more than that, covenant or promise and fulfillment have tended to be the categories for understanding how the Bible hangs together. Terrien’s emphasis on the presence of God is pretty unique. As I implied above, this concept is useful for spirituality. But it also helps, I think, with Jewish-Christian relations. When you talk about covenant or promise you can get into disputes about who has the covenant or the promise. Has Christianity somehow replaced Judaism as the locus of God’s covenant or promise?
But it is a little less confrontational and arrogant, it seems to me, to talk about different understandings of the presence of God. God can still be present to both Christians and Jews. Nobody has to be replaced.
Anyway, I hope some will find my recounting and interacting with Terrien’s book useful.