For Martin Luther King, Jr., God didn’t become a living reality until he discovered the presence of God in his everyday experience. Not until he had felt an inner calm (that he believed was not his own) and had discovered resources of strength (that he believed were not his own) did King conclude God was at work in his life. Not until he had felt a sustaining hope (that he believed was not his own) in spite of threats to his life, discouraging setbacks, and the hardships of a bitter struggle, did he conclude God was at work in his life.
Some call the calm and strength and hope King felt, salvation. Others, resurrection. They experience tranquility in the face of tragedy, the whence of which they can’t explain. They experience courage in the face of danger, the whence of which they can’t explain. They experience hope in the face of failure, the whence of which they can’t explain. They become convinced the whence is God. God has saved them. God has resurrected them.
Is God at work? Although we can argue about the whence of such experiences, the experiences themselves cannot (and should not) be denied.
Before he discovered God’s active presence in his life, King had believed that God was a metaphysical category, a remote form without content. Many persons, not just King, have a God who seems remote, removed from our everyday lives, removed from our ordinary problems and concerns, removed from our deepest sorrows and greatest triumphs, ‘out there’ somewhere, seemingly unreachable, seemingly unconcerned.
The technical term used (not just by naked theologians) for this kind of God is ‘transcendent’ because that God lies outside or transcends the human realm.
If a quick glance at our history can serve as a reliable guide, most human beings have little tolerance for vast distances between themselves and a transcendent God. Even a theologian like King who enjoyed and excelled in abstract thinking could not leave God in the heavens—God did not become a ‘living’ reality for him until he perceived God as present in the commonplace–in the human realm.
The technical term used (not just by naked theologians) for this kind of God is ‘immanent’ derived from the Latin, in manere, ‘to remain within’.
The history of human theological ideas shows that human beings who believe or have faith in a transcendent God often find ways to ‘reach up’ to God or to understand God as ‘reaching down’ to them. This human-God distance has been breached in creative ways—think of Moses who sees God’s backside. Is prayer not also a way to breach the distance? Contemplation? Reading Scripture? Practicing Kabbalah? The list is long.
When King writes, “in many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope,” he reveals that, for him, God ‘reached down’ and transformed him personally. King’s God has a loving purpose and controls the universe; God is a cosmic companion in the struggle for righteousness; God is a benign power with feeling and will; God is responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart (though King does not say how).
Is King’s God still too distant or too immanent?
Whether too distant or too immanent, King’s God sustained him in his work to secure a different, better world.
How do you bridge the distance (if any) between yourself and the divine? How does your God sustain you? How does your God sustain you in making the world a better place for more people?
It’s your turn to expose yourself.