What are we to make of such verses?
“To you I life up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens.
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he shows us his mercy.
— Psalm 123:1-3
Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, God reveals himself in glory.
Our God will come and will not keep silence, before him there is a consuming flame, and round about him a raging storm.
He calls the heavens and the earth from above to witness the judgment of his people.
“Gather before me my loyal followers, those who have made a covenant with me and sealed it with sacrifice.”
Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause, for God himself is judge.
— Psalm 50:1-6
“As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he shows us his mercy.” My first reaction to this characterization of God is to recoil in disgust, not fear. I react against what seems to be the “mean old man in the sky” revelation of God. “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”
For one thing, it hardly paints God as an ideal master — or, in a rare moment of inclusive language, a beneficent mistress. Slap me, beat me, make me write bad checks! At least there’s not the masochist’s joy in pain (which is better than where some medieval mortification canticles end up).
There may be a different way to hear this, however: as the growth in our understanding of God. Having come to an awareness that God is One — that it isn’t a bunch of gods, but a God — we are naturally fearful of such a One. Like a dog that has been kicked around by Ba’al, Demeter, and Osiris, we flinch at even the thought of the hand of God. And we remain skittish even once we are in the loving care of our Holy Mistress. (Which sounds deeply kinky following the “masochism” thought, but let’s let go of that for now. Perversity is, at heart, a distraction.)
But like a dog with a loving master, we may initially flinch at the hand of God, expecting it to be raised against us, until we sniff the hand and discover it holds a treat. Our mistress, whose face is too far in our limited sight to be seen clearly or its intent discerned, opens her hand and soothingly strokes our back and scratches our ears. We are being trained: in discipline; in good, orderly direction; but also in the love and mercy of our Owner. Aaarf. Mmmm. That tummy rub feels pretty good. Happy sigh. Is there more chicken?
Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause, for God himself is judge.” Echoes of Psalm 119, which is just one long echo after another about how awesome — no, really, you’ll love ’em! — are the judgments of our God. His commandments are just, his word is our salvation, his law is our reward, blah blah blah.
But if he is the holy Kennel Keeper to us mutts, this would seem to be far more benign and loving. But I think Psalm 119 is, at heart, a Zen poem, a reminder at each verse to return to What Is, as revealed by the It Is What It Is, the great I Am.
I will always, I think, have a problem cloaking my theodicy in an acceptance of What Is. But theodicy needs a Why It Is What It Is — it is a human, cause-and-special-effect magical thinking story that may be so limited in its aggregation of inputs as to be false in its outputs. “The death of a child” is the classic rail against God — or the destruction of thousands of lives, innocent or otherwise, as in a typhoon, earthquake and fire disaster. I haven’t dug too deeply into Zen understandings of tragedy…except to suspect that true “compassion” may best be seen as a response, whereas a “tragedy” is a story we tell ourselves to force our compassion to the front of the line, ahead of our fear, our anger, and our relief at still being the protagonist of our story, the one who can react with outrage at the tragedy we have suffered and have witnessed.
But I Am decrees It Is What It Is: “It’s not about you, Job.” And perhaps the human yearning for an answer to “why” — the drive behind our literature and poetry, our science, our philosophies and our laws — is the cause of our tragedy. To bear witness is not to place blame; compassion is not reserved for the deserving, but for the creatures in pain from all the “be-causes.” There is little compassion for the stone and stream, more for the rook and rodent, still more for the hound and human. The less organic and arrayed in its architecture, the more we disregard its pain and suffering. Even a Buddhist monk will bruise a rock to fashion a stool, a stoup, a statue of the Buddha.
“Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause, for God himself is judge.” It is what it is, because I Am is the ground of what is and not what is not.
Faith may be nothing more than a trick of the mind, as the atheist might say. Yet it is the trick that has stood the test of time to reveal that what is is what is and not, even at its best, what is merely and only the story in our head.