N is for Nothing

 I know this is going to sound odd, but bear with me. God is nothing.
    As I was coming to the end of my time at Saint Thomas in New York City, a friend identified a few themes that run through my teaching. One of them, he reminded me, I had set forth in my very first class there: God is nothing. Years had passed, but nonetheless, he said, he was still finding new ways to see that truth.
    So, okay, here goes nothing.
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    First, God is no-thing. Any thing there is, is some thing. Things are made—ultimately, they are made by God. God is not made. God is the reason there are things.
    I’m writing this at a wooden table in one of my favorite neighborhood hangouts. The table is attractive to me, because I can see the seams of the boards that someone spliced together to make it. I can see signs of its maker. There’s another table touching it, but its wood is spliced at different places.
    So there are signs of the maker of this table, right here in the table. But the maker didn’t make the wood: it was there. And the maker didn’t make herself (or himself, but for simplicity let’s assume the maker is feminine). So both she and her materials are themselves made. Who made them? Ultimately, we have to say, God made them.
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    Parents have many times told me about teaching their children about God. They teach them that God made everything. The child then asks—quite predictably—Then who made God? Parents have asked me how to answer.
    “Shut up and eat your spinach” does not seem satisfactory. Nor does “That’s not a well-formed question,” although actually that is a good answer. There are lots of badly formed questions, like “How much does Thursday weigh?” and “How much money does 2 o’clock have in the bank?” They look like good questions, but if you know the meaning of the words you know that a day of the week doesn’t have mass and a moment in time is not a being that can have money.
    So it is true. Because God is the maker of all things, God is not himself made. God is not a noun that we could put in the question “Who made ...?”
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    A problem with saying “God is nothing” is that it sounds like we’re saying “God is unreal” or “God is nonexistent.” But those statements don’t follow. God is more real, more existing, than any thing.
    Maybe it helps to come at “nothing” from the other side. Think of gifts you can give to another person. Gifts are nice, but they always come with a certain weight. I know grown people who give other grown people gifts that they think will “improve” them. Someone gives you a bicycle, for instance, knowing you don’t ride a bike, but with the subtext that you really ought to exercise more. A bicycle even under those conditions can be a nice gift, but it has a weight to it, no?
    We can see that gifts can be burdens. Do they have to be? The best gifts are those that help us be ourselves. A really great gift comes from someone who knows you well and knows you will like what she has to give you.
    God’s gift to us is the gift of existence: God is the reason we exist at all. But existence is, in a certain sense, nothing. Herbert McCabe says that “God gives us the priceless gift of nothing.”
    Another way of looking at that: when God made you (the gift of nothing), he gave you himself (nothing). And that mysterious giver and that mysterious gift is the most important thing about you.
    The gift of “nothing”—the gift that lets us be ourselves, the gift of existence—is the most important gift of all.
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    Out & About. I preached at Incarnation in Dallas on Leviticus 19 (the reading ends with “love your neighbor as yourself”). I’m not ready to write it, but I think there could be a book: “Up with Leviticus.” (Surely it would be a best-seller!) The sermon is here: https://incarnation.org/sermon/up-with-leviticus/
    Martin Thornton influenced me several decades ago to desire Eucharist on Sundays and major feasts. Our cathedral is livestreaming a Eucharist on major feasts, the next weekday one being Saint Michael and All Angels, on Tuesday, September 29, at 5:30 p.m., at which I will deliver a ferverino (a brief homily). On F*book @StMatthewsCathedralDallas.
    Thornton also underlines the Anglican standard of daily Morning and Evening Prayer. Incarnation in Dallas (like many other congregations) has these services online on most weekdays. Generally on Fridays at 8 a.m., I lead Morning Prayer. Whether you join in with an online service or say it on your own, I commend highly the keeping of daily Morning Prayer (and Evening Prayer, if you can), particularly the reading of the assigned Scripture lessons. I have an article on this shortly to appear in The Living Church.
    I will be teaching a three-Sunday online class at Incarnation in Dallas starting October 11 at 10:15 a.m. The class is “Three Things God Didn’t Want but He Got Used To: cities, politics, and sacrifice.” Details to come.
    The fall theology lecture will be Sunday, October 25: “What’s Special about Anglicanism?” This also will be livestreamed.

 

M is for Music


    In the divine alphabet, M is for Music. But first, let’s think about nouns and verbs.
    If I ask you what’s in the room where you are right now, you might answer that there are four chairs, a sofa, some lights, a pile of magazines, a piano, and two cats. (My sympathies to you about the cats.) You would tell me the things that are in the room.
    That’s how we think of the universe as a whole: we speak of the nouns first. Then we’ll talk about what the things do, the verbs. First nouns, then verbs.
    Which is to say, we think of the world as composed of stuff which then goes on to move or act.
    Alfred North Whitehead—a philosopher who died nearly a century ago—tried to do it differently. He said the constitutive bits of the universe are not things (e.g. atoms or even subatomic particles) but events. To ask what’s in your room right now is to ask what’s happening now. It’s as if the verbs could come first, and then the nouns later.
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    There’s a grammatical form called the “cognate accusative.” Don’t let the term frighten you; I’m not sure what it means either. I just know that it appears in Genesis 1 when God gets around to grass. He says (in Hebrew of course), “Let the earth grass grass.” The “grass grass” is the cognate accusative. It’s something like asking the dancer to dance a dance. It wants the earth to be at one with the grassing of the grass, for there to be no space between the actor and the action.
    It doesn’t happen, alas. The text tells us that the earth put forth grass. The earth wasn’t able to do what God wanted.
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    God himself, however, has no space between who he is and what he does, no space, that is to say, between the noun and the verb. Whatever we say about God is just God. There’s no difference between God thinking and God speaking and God being wise and God being beautiful and God being desirable and God being frightening. The God of thunder is the God with the still, small voice. Cognate accusatives, it seems, really work for God.
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    And that’s why I want to say, in the divine alphabet, M is for Music. God just is music.
    Music is one of those things where the noun and the verb are united. What’s in your room right now? Well, perhaps, someone is sitting at that piano you mentioned and playing a little ditty that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart threw off in the sixteen minutes between his first cup of coffee and his second cup last Tuesday. You know, that infuriatingly brilliant Amadeus. Someone is playing your piano, and the music is real, it is happening, an event, it is somehow all there stretched out over time; and the musician is at one with the music, as Eliot says, for as long as the music lasts. It can be true of the listener as well. “You are the music, while the music lasts.”
    God is that way. Thomists like to say he is Pure Act: not a being who acts, but a being whose being is to act.
    I don’t know what it means, but I like the music.
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    Out & About. This Sunday I am to preach at the outdoor 8 a.m. Eucharist at St. David of Wales, in Denton, and also at their livestreamed Eucharist at 10:30 a.m.
    Next month, I will be teaching a three-Sunday online class at Incarnation in Dallas, starting October 11 at 10:15 a.m. The class is “Three Things God Didn’t Want but He Got Used To: cities, politics, and sacrifice.” Details to come.
    The fall theology lecture will be Sunday, October 25: “What’s Special about Anglicanism?” This also will be livestreamed.
    I have recently enjoyed meeting with various groups, both here in Texas and also in Canada (our neighbor to the north that isn’t Oklahoma). If you have a group that might like to read and talk about Friendship: The Heart of Being Human, I’m all ears.

 

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."