The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 47: The Paradox of God

 
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Daqing Science and Technology Museum Optical Illusion Pillars, 2018, by Jason Zhang, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Overcome with his vision, Arjuna bows and worships. He says,

Lord of the gods, you are the abode of the universe. Changeless, you are what is and what is not, and beyond the duality of existence and nonexistence. (BG, 10:10-12)

There are two statements here that I think bear exploring. The first is that God is “changeless.” The second is that God is beyond “the duality of existence and nonexistence.”

Let’s look first at God’s changelessness. This is a common statement in both the Gita and the Bible. In the Bible, James says that God is one “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17, NRSV). The author of Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (13:8). Likewise Krishna says in the Gita, My true being is unborn and changeless. (BG, 4:5)

The tricky bit about this assertion is that we are saying it in spite of evidence to the contrary. In Arjuna’s world, Krishna is his chariot driver… which means there was a time when he was not employed as his chariot driver, which means he changed. In Christianity, Jesus was a man who was born and grew up. Are these not changes? He is a man who died. Is death not a change?

Not from a timeless perspective. Jesus has always been both alive and crucified, because he is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).  All times are available to God, and God’s mercies are “new every day” (Lamentation 3:23). So while God is changeless from a perspective outside of time, God has joined us, and we are very much present within time.

The claim of incarnation is that God has chosen to dwell with us in time. God is still a God of history, who acts to free slaves and liberate the oppressed. The very act of creation and intervention makes God subject to time. It is an act of self-limiting, of creative destruction, which is present in every kind of art. The changeless one becomes subject to change, and this is one of the primary points of process theology. I quoted the Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler earlier: “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”

Our understanding of God must accommodate these paradoxes, which brings me to the second one: God is beyond the duality of existence and non-existence. A God who is both changeless and becoming something else means that God must contain both being and non-being. This was theologian Paul Tillich’s main theme. God is not a “supreme being,” which would make God simply a thing among other things. God is Being Itself, or the “Ground of Being.” God is the Ultimate Reality, to whom even those who have died and no longer exist are still alive. We finite beings exist somewhere between being and non-being, and God dwells here with us, even as God contains both our being and non-being.

That’s a lot to chew on.

Prayer:
Changeless God of Being and Non-Being, your mercies are new every morning.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 46: What Arjuna Saw

 
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The Universe, by Hildegard of Bingen, from WikiArt

 

Krishna has told Arjuna who he is, but Arjuna insists on seeing for himself. Krishna then grants Arjuna a beatific vision, a theophany, and Arjuna is overcome.

Here is how Sanjaya, the narrator, describes it:

[Krishna] appeared with an infinite number of faces… clothed in celestial garments and covered with garlands, sweet-smelling with heavenly fragrances. If a thousand suns were to rise in the heavens at the same time, the blaze of their light would resemble the splendor of that supreme spirit. (BG, 10:10-12)

Arjuna continues by describing Krishna’s terrifying and complex form, filled with fire, surrounded by heavenly beings, “ancient sages and celestial serpents” (10:15). He goes on: your presence fills the heavens and the earth and reaches in every direction… the gods enter your being, some calling out and greeting you in fear. Great saints sing your glory, praying, “May all be well!” (10:20-21).

There are several similar visions of God in the Hebrew Bible.

I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. …They shouted to each other, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)

Above the dome over [the angels’] heads, there appeared something like lapis lazuli in the form of a throne. Above the form of the throne there was a form that looked like a human being. Above what looked like his waist, I saw something like gleaming amber, something like fire enclosing it all around. Below what looked like his waist, I saw something that appeared to be fire. Its brightness shone all around. Just as a rainbow lights up a cloud on a rainy day, so its brightness shone all around. This was how the form of the Lord’s glory appeared. (Ezekiel 1:26-28).

Even though the Ten Commandments forbid making images of God, there are visions of God in the Bible. They don’t go into detail about God’s face. They spend more detail on what’s around God. Visions of God tend to focus on God’s enormity. There are references to bright light, impossibly colorful garments, jewels, odors, and often lesser divine beings who worship the Divine Presence. The whole experience is overwhelming.

But there is always the sense that this vision is just that: a vision. Our finite senses cannot adequately register the infinite. We are blinded by the sun, or we are seeing a funhouse mirror version of God, something distorted because we cannot fit God’s glory into the box of our understanding.

I’m reminded of the hymn “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” by Walter Chalmers Smith. The author points out several times that God is only invisible because God is hidden by light: “In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes,” and “’Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.”

We tend to think of God as somewhere else (like heaven), or as invisible, because we cannot see God. But God is hiding in plain sight—“in light inaccessible”—in the reality in front of us. We have to step outside our usual ways of seeing in order to see. This is why God is both hidden and revealed. The bright light and the glory are always present.

Prayer:
Lord, show me your glory.