The Otherness of God

For some time I would seek Him yet would find my self. Now I seek my self and find Him.

--Khwajah 'Abdallah al-Ansari

In G.K. Chesterton’s 1908 allegorical spy novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, none of the characters is who he appears to be, except for the poet Lucian Gregory. He claims to be an anarchist so that no one will believe he actually is one. His friend and fellow poet, Gregory Syme, also claims to be an anarchist but is actually an undercover agent for Scotland Yard. Syme infiltrates the ruling council of an anarchist society, each of whom is code-named with a day of the week. Syme is called “Thursday;” hence, the title of Chesterton’s novel. In the course of the story, each of Syme’s fellow council members is unmasked in turn as a Scotland Yard agent, leaving their leader, a mysterious presence known only as Sunday. They chase him down, and he reveals he was the unidentified figure in a darkened room who had recruited each of them for their undercover work. Their entire operation had been a ruse, but toward what end? Have all their tribulations been for naught?

The six Scotland Yard agents have converged on Sunday’s estate and are told they will be attending a fancy dress ball with costumes supplied by their host. They assemble in the garden, each wearing a long flowing robe decorated to represent one of the six days of biblical creation. Syme is described as being “for the first time himself and no one else” – not a poet, not an anarchist, not an undercover agent. Leave it to his onetime friend Gregory, now stripped of all earthly trappings, to identify the assembled council for what they truly are, these lords of creation with Sunday at their head. “You are the seven angels of heaven,” Gregory says, a fallen angel himself, condemned to play the role of accuser. “I curse you for being safe,” he cries. “You sit in your chairs of stone, and have never come down from them.” Syme knows this to be a lie, and he says so. He and his colleagues have suffered greatly over many lifetimes to uphold the world. But what about Sunday, who has also been unmasked? “I am the Sabbath,” he tells them. “I am the peace of God.” But does he know what it is like to suffer as they have? Sunday’s great face grows to colossal size, filling the entire sky, before the world is plunged into darkness and a distant voice is heard: “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?"

This, of course, is the question that Jesus had addressed to two of his disciples, James and John, after they asked to sit at his right hand and at his left when he came into his glory. He and his disciples were already on their way to Jerusalem, where Jesus would soon be tortured and killed. Knowing what awaited him, he went with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. His agony was so great that one of the gospel writers described sweat falling from his body like great drops of blood. He prayed that the cup might pass from him. In short order he was made to drink it down to the dregs, crying out in his death throes, “My, God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Suffering has long marked the fault line between God and humankind. To the extent that theologians emphasize the otherness of God, they have created an opening for accusations that the Lord has permitted human suffering that he himself is immune from. They can point to passages like this from the Prophet Isaiah: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways." And yet this same God has taken pains to make clear that he is anything but absent from his own creation: “Do not I fill heaven and earth?"

Our mistake is in seeking God outside ourselves. Like the undercover agents in Chesterton’s novel, we are ignorant of our true nature and go chasing about in the world for we know not what. Know thyself, the sages say. In penetrating deeper and deeper into the core of our being, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish between ourselves and the one in whose image we are made. Sooner or later we come upon the paradox identified by the Sufi master Khwajah 'Abdallah al-Ansari: in seeking God we find ourselves, and in seeking ourselves we find him.

Matthew 10:38
Luke 22:44
Matthew 27:46
Isaiah 55:8
Jeremiah 23:23-24
Khwajah 'Abdallah al-Ansari, "Discourses"

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