The scholar of religion Rudolph Otto was apt to describe the manner in which people relate the experience of God as being “tremendum et fascinans”, which can be translated as “fear and fascination”. God is for Otto, “wholly other” echoing St. Anselm’s description of God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought”. I believe it was the Protestant theologian Karl Barth who, musing on St. Anselm’s description, that there is an “infinite qualitative difference between God and the world”.
All this relates, in very sophisticated language, to what the Book of Exodus presents to us in the form of a story. What those great thinkers are attempting to describe, the Book of Exodus tells us about in a story.
The divine presence that is revealed in this story from the Book of Exodus is one of power, power manifested by means of the coming together of both the creative and destructive forces of nature. This power is manifested throughout the Book of Exodus as the God of Israel acts to defeat the false gods of Egypt, a defeat that was utter and complete when he moved the waters of the Red Sea to allow the Israelites a passage to freedom and then used those mighty waters to crush the armies of the god-king, Pharoh.
The God of the Israelites, is not a thing in the world that can be managed or manipulated. His power is beyond that of anything in the universe and the forces of nature move in accord with his will and purposes.
This is both frightening and fascinating.
But it is also not all that God reveals himself to be.
The Letter to the Hebrews, a New Testament book, makes reference to the extraordinary scene that the Book of Exodus describes, appreciating what the biblical author describes but also reminding us that this revelation of God was but a pre-cursor to a revelation of God far greater, far more mysterious, and far more important- the revelation of God in Christ.
The Letter to the Hebrews testifies: “You have not approached that which could not be touched, a blazing fire and a gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such as that those heard begged to be spared.”
Instead, what you have received is the revelation of Christ, who manifested his power by emptying himself of such spectacular displays of might and taking the form of a slave- being born into this world in vulnerability, accepting as his own the experiences of suffering and death, and manifesting his divine power, not in exemption from the raw and weakening facts of being human, but precisely through them.
The great mystery in all this is that God in Christ is in no way diminished or destroyed in any of this, but even in his weakest condition, he is still “that than which nothing greater can be thought”- the same power that moved the Red Sea and shook the foundations of Mt Sinai, the same power that, to paraphrase the poet Dante “moves the sun and the stars”.
God makes himself accessible to us in Christ and he meets us face to face.
God in Christ immerses himself in the human condition, accepting a human nature, and living a real human life, so that in all the events and circumstances of life, great and small, his presence is ready and waiting, saving and redeeming. God in Christ, who is that than which nothing greater can be thought, creates out of the human nature he accepted from us a bridge over the infinite qualitative difference between himself and the world.
The Fathers of the Church described this as a “marvelous exchange”- God in Christ accepting from us a human nature so that from him we might receive the gift of a share in his divine nature. Bottom line, this is what the whole of the Church’s life, her existence, her mission is all about- introducing people to Christ so that they too can share the divine gift of his life that he wants everyone to have.
Those of us who have received this gift cannot keep that gift to ourselves or that gift will diminish in us. The gifts Christ gives us increase in us only inasmuch as we are willing to give to others what we have ourselves received.
In the end, our fidelity to Christ will be judged and measured in relation to how we have shared the gifts he gave to us with others. Foremost among these gifts are faith, which is our faith in him- in his revelation, our hope, which is hope in his promises to us, and love, which is not just loving what we prefer, but loving what he prefers that we love.
This risk in all this is great and the demand even greater.
I can only but think that this is really what Rudolph Otto means for the Christian when he describes the experience of the encounter with God as one that is fascinating and frightening.