An infant learning to play peek-a-boo comes to understand that an object or another person doesn’t cease to exist merely because it is hidden from view. The child may take a while longer to realize he is not hidden from others just because he covers his own eyes. This is essentially the lesson those de facto newborns, Adam and Eve, learned in the Garden of Eden when they tried to hide from God. Once they had filched the forbidden fruit, they figured they had better stay out of sight when they heard him coming. Their mistake was in thinking he couldn’t see them just because they couldn’t see him.
There are numerous encounters between God and humankind in the Bible but almost no face-to-face meetings as such. The Old Testament deity was a rather fearsome gent, and the local superstition among the ancient Hebrews was that you could not look upon him and live. This is why Moses hid himself in the cleft of a rock on Mt. Sinai when the Lord passed by, and he never caught more than a glimpse of God’s backside. In the New Testament, St. Paul encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus but was blinded by the light. Jesus said only the pure of heart can see God, which may explain why so many of us don’t.
If the truth be known, a face-to-face encounter with God is quite impossible, and not simply because he is invisible. As the late Douglas Harding liked to point out, we also are invisible. The face that I present to the world is really an empty space between my shoulders as seen from the inside. From my unique vantage point, I can see everything in the world except my own face. I can even see a face I call my own reflected in the mirror. But that one is not attached to my shoulders, and the hair is parted on the wrong side.
My face-to-face encounters with God or anyone else are pretty one-sided affairs, since all I can actually see is the other’s face. There is a metaphysical principle here that becomes apparent if we take it a step further. We imagine self and other as two objects in space but what I actually perceive is only the other contained in that empty space between my shoulders. The self I imagine occupying center stage is no more tangibly real than the invisible face I present to the world. If I want to see God, I have to be able to see through myself. There is no I-and-Thou relationship with God, only Thou.
Douglas Harding, The Headless Way