“Godless” seems like an apt description of Cormac McCarthy’s violent and disturbing novel, Blood Meridian.
The story is based loosely on events from the 1850s near the Texas-Mexico border. It follows a fourteen-year-old “Kid” who ends up riding with a band of murders who seek Apache scalps for profit. The butchery and racism make it difficult to read.
But like much of McCarthy’s work, Blood Meridian yields theological marrow if one digs beneath the clotted surface. The foremost of these insights comes from an ex-priest named “Toby” who tries to explain the mystery of God’s silence in their nightmarish world.
LIKE HORSES GRAZING
God’s voice, says Toby, is like the sound of horses grazing in the night. We only notice it when he stops talking: “when the horses are grazing and the company is asleep … Don’t nobody hear them.” But if they cease for a moment, every soul awakes.
“God speaks in the least of creatures.” And “No man is give[n] leave of that voice.”
This claim gives reason to respect both the ubiquity and the mystery of revelation. And this resonates with my experience.
God’s voice is often like the sound of horses grazing.
HIDDENNESS AND OMNIPRESENCE
Kate Sonderegger explores a related theme in the much-heralded first volume of her Systematic Theology. Her interest is in the relationship between God’s hiddenness and his omnipresence.
Israel’s God is unique in his invisibility. He is not to be depicted by graven images like the gods of other nations. Yahweh is heard, but he is never truly seen. For this reason, Sonderegger claims that God’s hiddenness is one of the most important parts of his revelation to Israel.
He is everywhere present through His cosmos, not locally, but rather harmoniously, equally, generously, and lavishly in all places, at once, as the Invisible One. (p. 52)
the Hiddenness of God, His Secrecy and Mystery, emerge not form absence but rather from divine presence. … “Truly,” the prophet confesses, “you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa 45:15). (p. 68-69)
I don’t like Sonderegger’s writing (*tongue in cheek).
It makes me jealous, since she has a way with words that is rivaled by few living theologians. But I am serious when I say now that I did not like this particular argument initially.
At some points it sounded too much like what C. S. Lewis lampooned as the “argument for invisible cats.” Here’s my version of that logic:
“Do you see that invisible cat by the sofa?”
“I hate you.”
But this is not exactly Sonderegger’s claim.
She is not appealing to invisibility to prove God’s presence. She is only reminding us that the apparent absence of a visible “divine specimen” (graven image) is one of the things that marks out Israel’s God as different.
God’s voice is often like the sound of horses grazing. We see no “creature” in the darkness, and it is the very constancy of this revelation that can make it like a kind of “white noise.”
But when it ceases, the whole camp awakes.
I’ve written previously about this theme in a post about the “dazzling darkness” (one of my favorites, though I think few others thought so). I noted there that, for Paul, God reveals himself precisely through “invisible qualities” (Rom 1:20). Creation testifies incessantly with speechless words (Ps 19:2-3). Our problem is, it won’t shut up.
Despite my praise for this line of thinking, there are some important caveats that must be placed alongside the gospel according Sonderegger/Blood Meridian.
- God’s voice isn’t always soft and “horse-like” (Ask Saul of Tarsus).
- God isn’t left entirely without an “Image” (Re: Jesus and his image-bearers).
- God’s “silence” is sometimes the product selective hearing, since acknowledging the voice requires us to change.
(On that last point, note that the ex-priest Toby has set aside his collar for a rifle and a life of violence. He doesn’t want to “wake up” to the reality of his own murderous racism [Let the reader understand].)
Caveats aside, the scene from Blood Meridian helps me understand how two brilliant individuals (McCarthy and Sonderegger) can reach opposite conclusions based on similar data:
McCarthy: “There is no God and we are his prophets” (The Road)
Sonderegger: God’s invisibility is the mark of omnipresence.
In fact, “Toby’s” claim is closer to the truth than than the apparent view of McCarthy himself.
The world isn’t “Godless.”
But we need “ears to hear” a voice like horses grazing.
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