I’ve been back at church and this week a line from one of the songs got my brain thinking:
You will always be holy, holy foreverFrom the song “Holy Forever“
Holy. It’s a word used all the time, especially in church, especially in church songs. The meaning is something like “apartness, holiness, sacredness, separateness” or “revered, set apart for God”1.
Singing about and meditating on God as “holy” is a reminder of how separate God is from us. There is something about God entirely different, foreign and “other” than what we experience as humans, and sometimes its good to remind ourselves that God is set apart, and take on a posture of reverence.
God is holy.
God is set apart.
God is separate from us.
But if there’s a scale from “separate” to “united”, or perhaps from “sacred” to “everyday”… then God is at the other end of the scale too. God is close, the name “Emmanual” that we have on Christmas cards means “God with us”. Yes, God is separate and different to us, but we’re also united with God. Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” over a hundred times, more than any other phrase in his writings2. We can hardly be separate if we are in God.
The same phrase is often translated “united with Christ”. There’s a deep sense that our goal is not separation but unity. 2 Peter 1:4 even talks about us being given promises through which we can “participate in the divine nature”3.
God is holy.
God is separate from us.
God is also united with us.
God is close.
So when I hear a song celebrating the separate, the sacred, the holy nature of God – have we got it wrong? Are we revering separateness when in fact God is close? Is it time for the pendulum to swing the other way – for us to celebrate the nearness and the unity of God?
A pendulum, swinging from one extreme to another like our interest rate cycles or political climates… perhaps eventually finding a stable middle ground… is that the way we should be thinking about God?
Instead of a swinging pendulum, let’s think about it as a paradox.
Something where both ends of the scale are true. Instead of insisting only one side is correct, or instead of feeling we’ve gone too far one way and pulling hard toward the center again… what does it look like to embrace things, and explore how far we can stretch both ends?
But even the metaphor of stretching out something elastic in two directions still implies it will come back to a single middle point. This is a classic example of dualistic thinking – that there’s a clear true and false, and so if we are stretched in two competing directions, it will one day resolve to a single point.
But paradoxes aren’t like that – we could explore both ends of this scale and discover new and transforming ways of thinking about God and knowing God – on both ends of the spectrum.
Instead of a pendulum that swings between two points, or an elastic material that stretches but snaps back to center, we could think of paradox as a national park to explore. We start at our camp site. We don’t know if its in the exact centre of the park… it doesn’t really matter. We can set off walking in any direction, and explore what we find. Be amazed at what we find. Maybe we’ll come back to our original camp site, or maybe we’ll find a new place to camp – or many new places.
The paradox is not here to be answered or resolved. Its here to be explored. To be lived in. To be wandered and to bring wonder.
God is separate and holy. God is near, and united with us. Yes, to both. Let’s explore that.
You’ll do yourself no favours if you pick a side and try hold it, or if you reflexively always swing back to a middle point that doesn’t challenge your thinking too much.
There’s a bunch of paradoxes that are part of Christian faith and life. Jesus as fully human and Jesus as fully God. Fear God and have no fear. Free will and an all knowing God. Doing good to “let you light shine” and doing good in secret.
When faced with these, instead of trying to resolve the contradiction, or trying to find the middle ground, maybe try exploring. Paradox is an invitation to curiosity, to wonder, to humility, and to God changing how we think and how we live.
These are the irreducible mysteries that no systematic theology can logically explain, and it’s best that we imitate Moses when confronted with paradox. When he stood before the bush that burned and was not consumed, he did two things: drew closer for a better look, then removed his shoes.Jen Pollock Michel
- I got these definitions of “Holy” from the website Blue Letter Bible, which has some free tools to look up the original language for a verse and see where else those words are used and get some of the feeling of their meaning. Here’s the link for Holy in the Hebrew bible (“קֹדֶשׁ” / qodesh) and in the greek parts of the bible (“ἅγιος” / hagios). I think I’d enjoy learning to read these languages properly one day.
- I first came across the importance of this phrase “en Christo” / “in Christ” in Richard Rohr’s book “The Universal Christ”. The same idea is adapted and shared as a meditation here: https://cac.org/daily-meditations/in-christ-2019-02-27/
- In The Orthodox Way, Kallistos Ware talks about the eastern orthodox idea of there being the “essence” and the “energy” of God, and we’re destined to join in the energy but will remain separate from the essence… which is an interesting way to think about it. But in line with this post, I wonder if there’s value to be found in not trying to resolve this contradiction but embrace both ends as true.