The world as sacrament: the Reality behind reality

Before moving on to new subjects, I’d like to stay briefly with some themes that came up in the recent theism post and which are increasingly central to my whole view of Christian spirituality.

The Reality behind reality

Over the past year or so I’ve been discovering a new (actually probably very old) set of ways of understanding and relating to God and the world – or rather to God in and through the world. These ways are best described in words like sacrament, icon, mediated presence, transcendent immanence and ‘transluminence’. I’d sum it all up as the idea of God as the Reality behind reality.

Sacrament and icon

I’m tentatively starting to see each new moment, sight, experience and encounter – the whole world and all of life – as potentially sacramental. Each new sight, meeting or creature can become a sacrament, a physical vessel or conduit of the divine presence, mediating God’s reality to us. So in and through the things of the natural world we can potentially encounter God, receive his love and grace, hear his voice.

Related to this is the idea of the world and all in it – all of physical reality – as icon. An icon is not an idol, an object of worship, but rather a channel of worship, a window through which we glimpse a little of the God whom no image can capture or truly represent (Christ alone is the perfect icon).

Anything can be an idol if put in place of God; almost anything (with the exception of that which is inherently evil) can be an icon or sacrament. Each place can become a sacred space; each moment can be a holy moment, every mundane activity can be an act of worship; every encounter can be a meeting with the divine.

God is not contained in his creation, but (for those with eyes to see) he saturates it, pervades it, shines through it so that truly ‘Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush aflame with God’. I’m calling this shining-through ‘transluminence’. You can call it anything you like. 🙂

Of course, you don’t have to be in the midst of beauty and tranquillity to experience the divine – just having an open heart is often enough. This may not give quite the right impression, but I have to confess that one or two of my most profound spiritual experiences have taken place while I’ve been on the loo. My dad said he once felt the joy of God very strongly – and unexpectedly – when he was cleaning soiled nappies.

The Eternal in the everyday

Closely linked to all this is the idea of the extraordinary in the ordinary; the miraculous in the mundane, the eternal in the everyday. Sometimes you may see a familiar face or some perfectly ordinary thing but you see it afresh, as though for the first time. These epiphanies again reveal the ordinary stuff of life as sacraments and icons through which we glimpse the divine. In my previous post I quoted from Mike Riddell’s excellent Godzone and it’s worth repeating: “Sometimes a shaft of sunlight picks out an apple on a fruit bowl, and that apple becomes the gateway to the mystery of the universe”.

Transcendence and immanence

For the supernatural theist, God is simultaneously both totally transcendent (beyond, above, over, outside, greater than) and also totally immanent (present, near, within, through, beneath). The Trinity is a potent symbol of this – God’s Spirit makes the transcendent, timeless God present within/through each part and particle of created time and space; and perhaps the Son is the gate through which the Spirit enters the cosmos, the bridge-maker between the eternal and temporal realms. (NB when I say the Trinity is a symbol I don’t mean that it isn’t real.)

Following from this is the idea that the realms or dimensions of natural and supernatural, physical and spiritual, visible and invisible are integrated, intersecting at all points – not separate but part of a seamless God-made unity. There is therefore no division between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ or physical and spiritual – each touches on the other and is a part of the other, just as body and soul co-inhere (if that’s a word). This allows us to see God as intimately involved in the physical world, acting in it through natural events and circumstances.

We therefore don’t need to make a distinction between miraculous ‘God’ events and normal, natural events that somehow operate apart from or without God. By the same token, a ‘natural’ or scientific account of some phenomenon need not deny or exclude God’s presence or activity within and through it.

We do not need, for example, to choose between Creation and Evolution – we can affirm the both/and as we can affirm that each baby is ‘created’ by God yet at the same time formed through normal, natural everyday biological processes. So belief in the supernatural is not ‘gilding the lily’ as some atheists suggest – it is merely seeing the lily in the fullness of its (sacramental) reality.

Through a glass darkly

None of this of course means that everything in nature is equally or fully good, God-filled or God-ordained. God’s good world is infected throughout and in every part with evil and corruption. Almost no object or experience is a pure sacrament or perfect icon; as yet we only ever glimpse God ‘as through a glass darkly’. But the glimpses are genuine, and it is from the matter and spirit of this corrupted but originally good world that God is here and now invisibly building his new, redeemed and restored creation – his kingdom, in which his love will reign fully and his face be seen perfectly.

Finally, if all of reality is in some way sacramental, then you are – I am – as well. We each dimly, stumblingly, often unwittingly yet uniquely reflect and transmit glimpses of God to others –  even if we don’t believe in him. There’s a thought to be going on with…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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2 Responses to The world as sacrament: the Reality behind reality

  1. David Holland says:

    Hmmm, what you say resonates (though I think the loo insights were for you alone 😉 ). The “nappie” moment I understand. As a parent I see my heavenly Father reflected in my relationship to my children and my life is richer for it.

    There is a tension between seeing God in the everyday and getting messages that way. I was much relieved by the caveat in the last section, specifically, “God’s good world is infected throughout and in every part with evil and corruption.” Having danced along the edge in the past I know the evil one hides there too. My experience is that fellowship keeps the tiller true. It says 2 or more for a reason 😉

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    • The toilet is a truly great place for spiritual reflection and insight… I seem to remember some evidence that Martin Luther may have composed his 39 Theses while in the throes of constipation. No, seriously. 🙂

      I agree that there’s a danger in individualistic mysticism based on receiving subjective ‘insights’ through everyday experience. I certainly wouldn’t want to base any major theology on a feeling I got from looking at a tree. But at the same time, I do believe we miss a lot of God’s presence and activity in the world that’s right in front of our noses. The psalmist talks about the heavens pouring forth speech, and Jesus was forever drawing lessons from nature and the everyday paraphernalia of life. I know of people who feel they’re seeing into the mind of God when they contemplate complex mathematical formulae (weirdos) 😉

      Deep down, I’m just a bit of a hippy mystic/contemplative type at heart…

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