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He Rises Above Us

One of the things I liked to do when we lived in Vancouver was snoop around in used bookstores.  The options aren’t as plentiful over here on the island, but there are always treasures to find if I’m willing to put in a little effort.  I like used books.  I like their well-worn appearance, I like seeing others’ notes and underlinings.  I like old editions of books that have strange covers and use weird fonts and smell funny.  And I like it that they’re cheap!  It’s pretty easy to take a chance on a book when you’re only paying a couple of dollars.

Among my recent acquisitions was a collection of three decades worth of diary entries, poems, and musings by Swedish diplomat and author Dag Hammarskjöld.  I’ve come across Hammarskjöld’s name enough times to be vaguely familiar with him, but I had never read his book.  Because it is a diary and because it covers a long period of time it obviously has a kind of fragmented feel to it (at least on a casual reading) but there are more than a few memorable passages.  Here are a couple of quotes from Hammarskjöld’s Markings:

God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.

On the bookshelf of life, God is a useful work of reference, always at hand but seldom consulted.  In the whitewashed hour of birth, He is a jubilation and a refreshing wind, too immediate for memory to catch.  But when we are compelled to look ourselves in the face—then He rises above us in terrifying reality, beyond all argument and ‘feeling,’ stronger than all self-defensive forgetfulness.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent quotes. Thanks for sharing!

    April 25, 2010
  2. Ken #

    Re: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

    The “death of God” is a metaphor once used for ceasing to believe in God, not just in a “personal deity. No one who used it meant that “God” had literally died, so I am not sure what he is saying here or to whom he is saying it. His saying that “we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by …” may be his way of describing the nihilism that other writers said came with disbelief. But I am not sure whether he saying that or not. He may be saying that God is not a “personal deity” but rather another word for “wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

    And I am not sure either why he says, “we die on the day our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason” rather than just saying “we die on the day we stop believing in God” unless he considers those two phrases equivalent and the latter just more poetic, or unless he is making the point that God is not a personal deity but rather wonder beyond reason. My understanding is that he was inspired by mystics, so perhaps the two phrases are equivalent to him. His phrasing does sound numinous and poetic. I cannot tell, however, whether he uses the word God to refer to something that is divine or to something that is numinous in an aesthetic sense or in an irrational sense, as in “beyond reason.”

    What do you think he means?

    What do you mean when you use the word “God?” Is the idea of a “personal deity” part of what the word means to you?

    April 25, 2010
    • I suspect he’s probably writing with the “death of God” theological movement in mind and that this is, as you say, mostly a poetic affirmation of the obvious. We do not kill God. But part of us dies when we do not live our lives in response to the God who made us—when we are, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, alienated from our origins. For me, the quote was a poetic reminder about keeping things in proper perspective. Our pronouncements about the existence or non-existence of God are less significant than we think they are.

      The idea of a personal deity is certainly part of what the word God means to me. I think that one of the mysteries of the universe is that the wonder beyond reason is personal in nature. For me, redemption is at the heart of who I understand God to be. And redemption is always personal.

      April 26, 2010

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