So this house of God, is it any more than a piece of poetry, a fancy way of talking about ordinary matters, a mystification?
Certainly it’s a way of speaking, derived from the Bible, where it refers to the theological idea that God can dwell in places and people; and that people before and after death can dwell in God. So it depends on a language already established which speaks of God as part of the experience of human beings. So language of God’s house is a metaphor based on the more fundamental metaphor of God. But do I intend it as a description of biblical language or as a description of human experience?
I have referred to the richness and variety of the biblical “house of God” language elsewhere, for example in emmock.com oikos; and emmock.com bible blog 289; which the reader can access.
If I want to use it as a description of human experience, I should explain first of all what I mean by the person as a dwelling place of God. Jesus told a brilliant story about an evil spirit who has been expelled from his human dwelling place, but later returns to find it clean and tidy and vacant. He goes and gets his mates and they take up residence. This story pictures the human being as a house which has room for more than the self, and can therefore be tenanted by destructive powers, or by God’s nourishing spirit. No house is void for long. As Dylan sang, “it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve someone.”
This fits a modern view of the self, which sees it as an identity only defined in relation to other identities both personal and societal, and as something always being negociated between new experience and memory. But often the indwelling spirit of God is then pictured as a disembodied gloop that somehow comes to take up space within the person, or as a psychological influence which has a superhuman origen. Neither of these appeals to me as they are both magical and I don’t believe in magic.
Instead I would ask the reader to take seriously Paul’s quotation from an anonymous poet, “In God we live and move and have our being” and imagine that this space within Godself, from which God has withdrawn so that the universe can exist, is analogous to a mother’s womb, from which she is absent, alhough it is sustained by her life. If the child in the womb could be fully conscious of its existence, it would realise that its developing self was continuously nourished and enabled by another life, in symbiosis with which it can reach perfection and be born. The faith that God’s spirit dwells in us, is our awakening to our true environment as nurturing and to ourselves as a developing perfection.
Our willingness to be a house for God is also the knowledge that God is a house for us. God’s house is a place where God’s children are born, like God’s child Jesus, whose birth happens through crucifixion and resurrection. For being born as a child of God is not some mystic spirituality but a representation of God’s life in the face of all the worldly powers; suffering is inevitable, but the child of God hopes that the life is invincible. The conflict and the suffering are signs that God’s house(hold) is a worldly fact and not a pipedream; the hope of invincible life is the conviction that the bouse is an eschatological reality, already present under the constraints of evil, but not yet the place where God wipes all tears from her children’s eyes. This fulfillment can only be apprehended by faith, which is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11)
The universe is in God, as in a womb, held and nourished by God’s life but not interfered with, not prodded in the direction God wants, but created with all the means necessary to be born as God’s child. The non-human universe will, according to St Paul, share the glorious freedom of God’s children. The story of evolution of which we know only a few isolated chapters, is the story of the birth of God’s child. In order for this development to take place God has granted utter freedom to the universe down to the smallest particle, as our science has realised. This birth is desired by God but the perfected universe is no more known in advance by God than a mother has full knowledge of the child to which she gives birth.
The birth and its perfection are intended by God, but not as if by an engineer with a blueprint. Each new develoment of the universe is an emergent property which issues from the interdependence of all its elements, like the stages of growth of a human being. The development is always more than the sum of its parts and cannot be fully predicted in advance, but it does not come about by magic or by supernatural guidance. When I say that the house of God is an escahatological reality, I mean that those fruitful emergent properties I see in people and communities are for me tokens of the emergence of the universe as God’s child.
In understanding what is a fruitful development I am guided by my trust in the Jesus of the Gospels as the wisest teacher and best example of fruitful living I have encountered. There is nothing religious or mystical about his teaching or life story; he dealt always creatively with the most recalcitrant powers of social and personal life without ever losing the passionate sanity which is the distiguishing mark of his character. He lived out the ethics of God’s household, refusing to depart from them even when threatened with death, a death through which there emerged the community of faith called the church or assembly of Jesus, which proclaims that he too, has emerged from evil and death, to inhabit the household of God in the world and to prepare their dwelling places in the everlasting household.
When the church looked back on his life and death in Palestine, it portrayed it as an eschatological event, as an emergent reality which would not be subsumed in the final emergence of God’s household, but only confirmed. That’s why their Gospels tell the story of Jesus as if in his actions God’s household has arrived in its fullness. Each act of kindness or healing is a transformation, each confrontation with evil a victory, until the last confrontation, which in a wordly perspective is a defeat. The fact that even Jesus’ victorious risen body bears the scars of defeat, is a recognition that the household of God and Jesus the first child of God, are still part of a conflicted history. The reader of the Gospels has to read back the wounds of Jesus into the stories they tell.
The Bible has many ways of presenting the household of God as an eschatological reality, amongst which the Letter to Hebrews is one of the best. It defines faith with the phrase quoted above, “the substance or things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” and goes on present Abraham and his family as the great exemplars of this quality. Abraham becomes a traveller with no fixed abode, because God commands him to journey; he and Sarah are childless yet they trust in the promise that from them will come descendants, “as many as the stars in heaven for multitude or as the sand which is on the sea shore, innumerable.” They and people like them, who journey away from one dimensional life are said to be “strangers and sojourners on the earth,” and to be in search of a “city with firm foundations”. We are told that God is “not ashamed to be called their God for he has prepared for them a city.” This city or house of God is the true dwelling of people who have faith and do deeds of which “the world is not worthy.”
The author gives an eloquent account of those who trust in the eschatological promise and become the emergent reality of God’s house.