The Human Face of God

Rosa Parks on the Bus, copyright

What if God was one of us? Hans Gerald Hödl asks precisely this question.

In 1995 Joan Osborne had a big hit with (What if God was) “One of Us”, a song written by Eric Bazilian. Later on it became the title song of the TV Series “Joan of Arcadia” (2003-2005), which deals with a teenager who meets God in various disguises as human beings. She is given tasks by God she has to fulfil which—even if they seem to be petty—have a positive effect on other people’s lives. This seems to be a plot loosely based on the lyrics of “One of us”, notably using the name of the singer for the protagonist of the series. In real life, Joan Osborne, raised as a Roman Catholic, turned away from Roman Catholicism when she realised that she couldn’t become a priestess of that religion because of the gender-construction prevailing in it.

The lyrics of the song mainly deal with the questions (a) what one would expect when meeting God, (b) what one would ask God in this situation, and—notably—(c) the difference between the glory of God and the human face God showed if he was one of us (the later theme explored in more detail by the TV series).

As to the first aspect, God’s glory, it is linked with the question one would ask:

If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face?
If you were faced with him in all his glory
What would you ask if you had just one question?

Clearly, this suggests that seeing God in his glory is normally not for human eyes and that it was not that easy to find the one question to ask God—whose greatness is affirmed by the lyrics of the bridge (“Yeah, Yeah, God is great”) that leads to the chorus—in this situation. Now, if God was one of us, with a human face, wouldn’t it be easier to put that question? This is the theme of the chorus:

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home

And then the second (and last) verse puts the question whether one would like to see the face of God if that implied to believe in “things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints and all the prophets. In my opinion, one could read this as the question whether “institutionalised” religion was a prerequisite to meet God. That links—in a way—the lyrics to Joan Osborne’s real life (who turned her back on institutionalised religion) on the one hand and to an actual discourse in sociology of religion, theology, and religious studies on the other, dating back to Thomas Luckmann’s “Invisible Religion”. The main theological question discussed in this song seems to me the one of the relationship of transcendence and immanence of God.

The immanence of God—or, the „Sacred“ and similar scholarly constructions of ultimate transcendence—can be understood in a variety of ways, as the study of religions shows us: residing in a temple, manifesting itself/him/herself in a ritually treated statue, a natural site, or the like, taking possession of a medium and so on. In Gen 1, 27, we read:

God created man in his own image,
In the image of God he created him,
Male and female he created them.

(New International Version)

Leaving out the many interpretations this verse has yielded in the history of Theology to me it seems that its main message is, that God’s image is not to be found in the temple, but, in the face of the fellow human being, male and female alike. On the contrary, the theme of the first verse of our song—god’s transcendence and, in a way his/her remoteness—is also strongly manifest in the bible, be it in the story of God’s revelation on Mount Sinai or in the opening vision of Ezekiel (to name two prominent passages). The later text has exerted influence on Jewish mysticism, mainly early Merkavah mysticism, with the mystic being an especially talented person in dealing with transcendence, or, the remote Godhead. So there seems to be a tension between God’s aloofness on the one hand and his/her immanence on the other, a tension, which is also present in the discussions that early Christian theologians led so ardently, concerning the relationship of the divine logos and humanity in the Christ. That God has become a human being might be looked at as a transgression of strict Monotheism, as far as a “second” person in God is supposed, distinct from the father and creator, but also one with him from all eternity on.

However, would you have to believe in Jesus (as the Christ and Son of God) to see the face of God in the face of the other? Would you need someone proficient in mystical techniques for that purpose? Or a person trained in ritual procedures that serve to connect other people to the Godly realm—a specialist like a Roman Catholic priest who has to be male in order to be ritually pure for the undertaking? One could turn to Emmanuel Levinas and to Philosophy of Dialogue here. Is it necessary, say, to believe in “Jesus and the saints and all the prophets” to follow the ethical rules pointed out in Matthew 25, 31-46? Interestingly, it is the “Son of Man”—ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου (ho huios tou anthrōpou), also rendered as “Son of Adam” by some scholars—of whom it is said in verse 31ff, that he will return in his kingly glory to judge mankind according to how they have treated their fellow human beings. The text implies that the Son of Man is present in even the humblest human being in some way.

If that is so, and it is the way how God is met—apart from the question, how the Son of Man is thought to be present in those poor and afflicted humans—one could also consider, whether this topic of the human face of God was a good choice as a theme within the dialogue of religions, maybe between Monotheistic (or, at least Abrahamic) ones. How do we conceive of the שְׁכִינָה (schechina), the way God is present among his people? Teachers in the field of Religious Studies, Theology, or Ethics could use the song presented here to start the discussion of the topics merely touched upon in this little pièce.

Rat-Blog Nr. 13/2020

  • Hans Gerald Hödl ist Mitglied des Forschungszentrums RaT. Er ist a.O. Universitätsprofessor am Institut für Religionswissenschaft an der Katholisch-Theologischen Fakultät der Universität Wien. Außerdem spielt er Schlagzeug.

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