We love the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. As the football season gets underway, we are reminded of our fascination with such signs and wonders, with spectacle. Watching a game in a massive stadium pulsating with the energy of 100,000 fans makes us feel alive. We may decry the hype surrounding football—especially the Super Bowl—but nonetheless we find ourselves drawn to the bright fireworks, nervous camera work, gigantic specimens of athleticism, sexy cheerleaders, roaring crowds, and excited announcers whose voices suggest that what is going on down on the field is history-making stuff.
Naturally enough, we try to bring earthquake, wind, and fire to church. God is the god of life, after all. We should feel it, no? This, of course, is one of the draws of megachurches, which, because of their size, can do mega-things. Bumper-to-bumper cars streaming into the parking lot. People eight or ten abreast rushing to get a good seat. The voices of thousands raised in song. Lights, video, booming bass and pounding drums, projection screens making it all literally bigger than life—it all adds up to a powerful spectacle.
I, like most Americans, am a sucker for spectacle. I've gone to my share of religious extravaganzas—from Christmas programs to evangelistic crusades. I'm actually a fan of the megachurch in many, many ways. And I dare say that an Easter vigil I attend each year at my church is indeed spectacular! There is something wonderful about sitting with a large crowd of fellow believers praising God. It harkens to the kingdom of heaven, the vision of the 144,000 worshiping the Lamb (Rev. 14:1-3). What could be better than that?
And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him (1 Kings 19:11-13).
The problem with spectacle, especially religious spectacle, is that the steady, repeated, raucous noise will eventually make us hard of hearing. And that will make it impossible to hear God's normal tone of voice. He is not usually found in earthquake, wind, and fire, but in the small whisper, heard only by those who enter with Elijah into the dark cave.
This whisper is difficult to hear in the din of our culture and religious life. It is also frightening to even to try to listen for it, because to do so we must, like Elijah, enter the dark cave from whence the whisper emerges. That means stepping into mystery.
When you try to practice Elijah-like spirituality, says the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, you will at first
feel nothing but a kind of darkness about your mind, or as it were a cloud of unknowing. You will seem to know nothing and feel nothing except a naked intent toward God in the depths of your being. Try as you might, this darkness and this cloud will remain between you and your God. You will feel frustrated, for your mind will be unable to grasp him, and your heart will not relish the delight of his love.
Withdrawal from the noise and glitter of religious spectacle sounds like a formula for spiritual suicide—how am I going to even experience God without the pounding of the music and electricity of the crowd and inspirational message of the dynamic preacher? "But learn to be at home in this darkness," says this author, "For in it, in this life, you hope to feel and see God as he is in himself, it must be within this darkness and this cloud."
Why does God come in the whisper, in the darkness, through a wayward Middle Eastern nation, in the vulnerability of a Bethlehem baby, and the lonely groan of a crucified rabbi?
So that we will abandon all our preconceived notions of divinity, so that we will be left possessing nothing but our ignorance, so that we won't confuse God with cultural idols, so that we will be ready to meet the true God.
"Now God is beyond all that exists," writes Orthodox theologian Vladimir Loski. "In order to approach him, it is necessary to deny all that is inferior to him, that is to say, all that which is. If in seeing God one can know what one sees, then one has not seen God in himself but something intelligible, something which is inferior to him. It is by unknowing that one may know him who is above every possible object of knowledge."
Regularly retiring to the dark cave, to the fearful quiet of silent prayer and mediation, to listen to the whisper is the first step in breaking free from addiction to religious spectacle. It is the first step on the path to unknowing. I grew up reading bumper stickers that described conversion with the phrase, "I found it." This should be matched by another many miles down the spiritual road: "I lost it." That darkness opens up whole new vistas for us, and gives us the ears to hear the whisper.Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker).