Samuel Becket is famous for the play “Waiting for Godot,” which a critic once noted “achieved a theoretical impossibility—”a play in which nothing happens.” (Vivian Mercier, Irish Times, 18 Feb 1956). The play follows two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who are waiting for Godot, but he never arrives.
It is hard to tell what Beckett’s intentions were and the play is remarkably open to all sorts of interpretations. However, it seems that Beckett (who was well versed in scripture) was commenting on the seeming absence of God. Godot is a French diminutive term obviously in reference to God—and Becket may well be implying how pathetic a thing it is to be waiting for this character who should save the day,
but never appears.
Bible readers have long noted a kind of progressive evolution in God through the pages of the Old Testament. At first, God is remarkably active. He creates the cosmos and regularly enters into the very fabric of creation. He walks with Adam and Eve, talks with Abraham and Moses, wrestles with Jacob and appears at the top of Mount Sinai. Yet gradually, the biblical narrative changes, and instead of speaking directly, God begins to speak through the agency of human prophets. By the time of Esther, God is entirely absent; not mentioned at all in that biblical book. Protestants sometimes refer to the 400 years between the Old and New Testaments as the years of silence.
400 years of silence.
Today, many Christians regularly live their lives as if God were absent; as if we had waited for him, but he never appeared.
Several months ago, I met with some Christian friends to discuss ethics from a Christian perspective. Later that night, it occurred to me while driving home, that we had never asked God for His opinion. It was as if we could discuss crucial matters of life and death without consulting the One who is the source of life. Looking at the marvel of His creation displayed on a rare clear Los Angeles night—the stars peering through the darkness of a seemingly infinite cosmos—I cried out,
“God, why are you so pathetic?”
Why are you so absent? The actor who never takes the stage? The understudy behind the scenes? The director who never appears in the movie? Beckett, whatever you may think of him, touched on a real and tender theological nerve. God’s self-concealment is very much a biblical theme.
The Incarnation: 2,000 years ago, God appeared in history.
The religious characters of the day who were eagerly awaiting God’s deliverance failed to recognize Him. Why? Because He appeared sharing the same flesh and blood as us. He became like his brothers and sisters in every respect. The incarnation is God’s self-concealed entrance into the pages of human history.
At the same time, the incarnation is God’s greatest self-revelation. The Son, who is superior to the angels in every respect, condescended to become human, lowering himself to the ordinary and mundane. And those who were expecting a glorious messianic entrance onto the stage of human history, failed to recognize the divine in an ordinary human baby born in a stable, laid in a manger, in a tiny provincial town on the outskirts of the Roman empire. God reveals Himself in surprising ways. The Word became flesh, Immanuel, God with us…
For the earliest Christians, the humanity of Jesus was a difficult doctrine to grasp. Influenced by Hellenistic dichotomies between flesh and spirit in which the flesh was equated with everything evil and the spirit with everything good, it was extremely difficult for them to conceive of God as fully flesh. An early Christian heresy known as Docetism affirmed that Jesus merely seemed to be human. This would later be associated with a religious philosophical system known as Gnosticism which held that all matter is evil. By the fourth century, Apollinarianism held that Jesus shared only some aspects of humanity, namely mind and spirit, but was not fully human. Against this, the anonymous writer of Hebrews states, He became like his brothers and sisters in every respect, He shared the same flesh and blood as us. Jesus was fully human.
Nowadays, people have no trouble seeing Jesus as a human being. Our difficulty lies in affirming His divinity. So the doctrine of the incarnation affirms that the second person of the Trinity became human without losing his divinity. He is fully God and fully human, the one and only God-man. By taking on flesh and blood, God subjected himself to the same frailty and mortality of human existence. By becoming fully human, He subjected himself to death—even death on a cross—so that through His death he could liberate us from the power of death itself.
In a nutshell, since the Son suffered in His humanity, He has solidarity with humans and can therefore serve as our compassionate and merciful High Priest. The suffering of the crucified God may well be a scandal to some, but nevertheless, it is the power of God revealed. Namely, Christ crucified reveals the true character of God. No longer can we understand God as Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover: transcendent, unchanging, unemotional…
And I thought back on my question to God on a cool Los Angeles evening, “Why are you so pathetic?”
God is pathetic in the true sense of the word pathos; but indeed, not in our modern, negative sense. We have been so influenced by Aristotelian metaphysics that pathos—the quality of suffering, the emotional sympathetic solidarity with all of life in its existential angst—is thought of as a negative character flaw.
The logic is simple.
If God is perfect, He cannot change, because change in perfection would imply change for the worse. Sympathy moves God away from perfection because it implies change. Therefore, classical Christian doctrine, following Aristotle, affirmed God’s impassibility: God is unable to suffer. Such a view, however, has more to do with Hellenistic ideas rather than the Hebrew God. Against this, the Incarnation teaches us that God suffers. God sympathizes.
God enters into our very existence.
That makes God biased toward human beings. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” God concerns himself with human affairs. God is passionate, moved, sympathetic, inclusivist, loving, just… These qualities of God are revealed in the incarnation.
I have a great love for music. It moves me deeply in my spirit when I hear something as beautiful as Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, the Sonata Pathétique. When I was young, my mother bought me a guitar, largely at my persistently dogged insistence, and I have fallen in love with that instrument ever since.
Something very interesting happens when you pluck a string on the guitar. You notice that other strings vibrate on their own in conjunction with the one string you actually plucked. Psychoacoustic science tells us that sound waves cycle at set frequencies and when these frequencies match in cycles they cause other strings to vibrate creating additional sounds in addition to the prime tone. This strange musical phenomenon is called
and it is hardly perceptible to the human ear. If you dampen all the strings and pluck only one, you cannot tell the difference. Yet these sympathetic resonances do exist and make a huge difference in the quality of the music we hear. A virtuoso musician has basically mastered the effects produced by sympathetic resonance so that when he or she plays their instrument, it sounds completely different from other musicians, even when the notes on the score are the same. One performance moves us to breathtaking heights of emotion, the other leaves us bland and detached.
Now bring the concept of sympathetic resonance from a single instrument to the complexity of an entire orchestra and one realizes that so much of what moves us to a deeper emotional state in the musical performance comes from something we can hardly perceive.
They say the human ear is capable of hearing sounds in a limited range from 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz. A lot of the resonances fall in the range of 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 9th order harmonics that are far beyond that range. Yet they make all the difference in our perception of what makes music good. Resonance makes music ‘thick’ and gives substance which it would otherwise not have.
The book of Hebrews tells us that because God shared in our humanity, He is able to sympathize with our plight. Because He was tested by what He suffered, He is able to help those who are being tested. Hebrews tells us that the surprising thing about God is that He shared the same flesh and blood as us, and those who were expecting some grand, magical entrance failed entirely to see the divine in the human Jesus of Nazareth.
Nazareth? What good can come from Nazareth?
The answer is the self-concealing God, the God of pathos whose greatest revelation is a sympathetic resonance with all of His creation that though hardly perceived, makes all the difference in the world.
Which brings me back to Becket and his famous play. Becket is right. We live in a world where God seems absent. But Beckett is only partly right. It is not that God is absent, He pervades every facet of creation with a divine humility that masks his divine presence and yet resonates and thickens our human existence.
If Vladimir and Estragon would only get off the bench, and stop the endless philosophical chatter, and go out into the world, they would perhaps see God resonate in every act of kindness that bends the universe toward justice. They would see God in the boy scout who helps an old lady across the street. In the soup kitchens and homeless shelters. In the African-American prophet who dared to dream a dream. In the countless thousands of anonymous Christians at work for the Kingdom of God in every corner of the world.
This pathetic, self-concealing God resonates sympathetically in all our acts of kindness.
The divine presence is hardly perceptible, but it makes all the difference in the world. And though never mentioned in the biblical book of Esther, God nevertheless pervades every scene and every act in the story of the fearful yet brave and beautiful Jewish girl who saved her people from extermination.
In the book of Esther, God is like the mother sitting in the audience watching her young daughter stumble through the Christmas play, all the while beaming with pride. She is not on stage, of course, but her presence in the auditorium makes all the difference in the world to her daughter.
A scientist once noticed that every atom, every quark, every irreducible material element in the cosmos is constantly vibrating, mostly at speeds we cannot comprehend. These vibrations incessantly produce sound waves. Surprisingly, there is never a moment in time when
The cosmos constantly sings. In Paul’s words, all of creation groans in labor pains, not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:22, 23).
14 “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested (Hebrews 2:14-18 NRSV).
Those who have ears, let them hear!