I live in a world where something as wondrous as GPS (Global Positioning System) exists and is used by ordinary people, just like me. Global Positioning uses something like “triangulation” to identify location. A GPS receiver uses radio signals to measure the distances between satellites and to determine a specific location with respect to three points. Actually, GPS is much more complicated than that, but this is a simple model that explains what is going on.
It’s a matter of some interest to me that the satellites employed by the GPS are situated in the heavens – the place where we used to (and some still do) imagine God to reside.
Most of us find it difficult or impossible to triangulate to an actual position in time and space that could represent God. We are the generation who experienced space first-hand, or at least vicariously via video links sent by space pioneers. Ever since I saw those first video feeds from space, I find it impossible to imagine God as a “heavenly being.” Even though this is the case, we still talk about God the way that people did before humans went to space. For me, it’s a problem. I can’t grasp the imagery.
I like the fact that I can punch in a location and my GPS will choose a route for me. Sometimes, however, I end up making changes to the route chosen for me. Maybe there’s construction in the way. Maybe I just feel like messing with the voice on my windshield. The GPS receiver adjusts to the changes I have made, and faithfully comes back to me with instructions. Sometimes I get instructions to turn back, turn around, or to make a U-turn. If I ignore those instructions, eventually the GPS just finds another way for me. I have traveled some new roads – roads I may never have noticed – because of my GPS.
It would probably be easy to use the GPS as a metaphor for the God-human-world relationship. It would be too easy. I have never experienced God as having set a particular path before me with very clear instructions. I have come to a place in my life where it seems prudent to make plans and then to discern whatever might be deemed “divine opposition or approval” in the outcomes – step by step as I go along. I refer to the tradition I received – actually the traditions, since I have been influenced by more than one – in order to do this. But, for the most part I find it necessary to turn inward to consult with my conscience, which is the place for me where God, if that is whose voice it is that I hear, speaks loudest.
God, for me, appears to be more of a questioner than some provider of sound and certain instruction. I find I cannot ignore the messy situations in the world around me, which sometimes drive me to hide and sometimes bring me out of my self-imposed hiding with a passionate desire to do something in response. When I consult with my conscience about any matter, large or small, I consult with an interrogator. The questions I face compel me. If I have the strength and determination, I move forward with the work of following the questions.
The questions sound like this: “Why does that person have no food?” “Why are you so busy when you’re not doing anything that matters?” “Why are you avoiding that problem?” “Why are you buying into that lie?” “Why don’t you notice the beauty around you anymore?” “Why are you afraid to do something about this situation?” “How could you help these people?” “What do these people really need?” “What’s holding back your forgiveness?”
My GPS never asks me questions. It was created and programmed by humans. It seems to transmit information with certainty, even when it’s wrong.
I have discovered that following the questions my conscience asks can lead to insights concerning possibility. That is why I have most often described God as an opening, a beckoning into something new, a new vector of the possible moving into the future. In that way, God is more like a question than like an answer.
Conscience – the way I am using the word – is more than just a litmus test for guilt. It is a deep and abiding condition of relationship that I encounter first-hand – in inner space, as it were. I am in the world, but I am not the world (as our narcissistic tendencies would suggest). Therefore, if I am interested at all in reality, I must take seriously everything that is not me. The world is either there for me to command – as an aggressor might assume, or it is there to invite me into relationship – as a peaceful cooperator does assume.
If I choose to orient myself as a peaceful cooperator, I am the one being questioned. I am the one being accused, being accosted by the questions being asked of me. I have no right to use God as a reference point from my standpoint. It may be that God is actually doing the triangulating – inviting me into contact with the other and infusing that contact with graced possibility. From an aggressive stance, this invitation is not even heard. The voice of conscience shrivels and dies as the power of the questions fade into irrelevance. Commands are all that can be heard. The god of the aggressor is the god who commands.
God is not a technology we can control. The God of love, peace and hope is the power of communion and integration – a “weak power” who leaves us free to follow possibility or to run and hide from it. If we choose this God, we have to commit to leaving the gods of our own invention behind. Our human power becomes known to us as the power of the response – we can either answer the invitation, the question, or we can ignore it. We arrive at a crossroad. We can respond to the invitation, or we can try to destroy the interrogator, which is what the destruction of human conscience amounts to.
Sometimes we use God as we would any other technology that we have developed. We put God in God’s place, and decide how God will be useful to us, and conveniently, we blame God when our plans don’t work out. Like all technology, a god like this has a shelf life. Inevitably, we will find this god useless and irrelevant. We will move on to new technology, new certainty – more refined golden calves.
I don’t know any other way to move beyond this problem but to continue knocking down idols, and poking holes in idolatrous images of God. Idols are powerless in the quest of facing our internal interrogator – our consciences – and at this point, I believe that is the only way forward for the human race. We have to avoid being distracted by silly images of God so that we can pay attention to the real questioning of our most moral and spiritual selves. That happens deep within the person who dares to come face to face with a robust and well-developed conscience.
An encounter with conscience requires more than a simple exercise in triangulation. It occurs during times of serious reflection, with contemplative searching and sincere attention to the claims being made upon us by others. Maybe this is what Jesus was talking about when he said to go to a quiet room to pray. Be with yourself, but don’t be alone. Encounter the interrogator if you dare, and follow the questions into full relationship with God and neighbour.