In the beginning of Isaiah chapter six we find an account of the prophet’s vision of the heavenly throne: Isaiah sees the Lord, he hears the seraphs, he is cleansed and called. I wonder how you experience reading a biblical passage like this. My guess is that many of us love the majesty and the smoky mystery of the vision. At the same time, we find it hard to take the actual substance of the claim seriously. Isaiah saw God? Isaiah was called by God personally? It may seem more like an excerpt from a fantasy novel than a historical report.
When it comes to Isaiah’s vision, for many of us at least, we do and we don’t. There is a lot of this ‘we do and we don’t’ in contemporary spirituality. On the one hand many of us do care deeply about matters of justice. The issues we identify might differ a bit, but most of us would say there are things that are absolutely wrong in the world and that these should be made right. We do believe this is more than just our preference; we think these things are actually wrong. It’s a part of our spirituality. It’s the ‘we do’ part.
The ‘we don’t’ part of contemporary spirituality is this: we don’t think God will get very involved in these things. These issues might matter to us, but we are not convinced that God has a similar sense of justice. If God does, we don’t think divine involvement will make much of a difference. More to the point, the thought of God applying universal justice makes us squirm. Divine judgment, the sort of thing that shows up in Isaiah 6, is to many of us quite a disagreeable concept. When it comes to spirituality and justice we do and we don’t.
It’s the same when it comes to prayer too. We do like to know that someone is praying for us. We might even think that the practice of prayer and contemplation is a stabilizing force in our lives. Yet we don’t think that God will actually get involved. We would find it strange to get too precise about crediting God with a response to our prayers. When it comes to prayer . . . we do and we don’t.
It is through this we ‘do and we don’t’ space that we enter this report of Isaiah’s vision.
Isaiah says tells us, “In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty . . . .”
“Sure you did Isaiah,” we might respond, “if this is helpful for you, stick with it.”
“There were seraphs,” he tells us.
“Yup,” we say, checking our phones for Ben Mulroney’s latest tweets.
But Isaiah is insistent, “They had six wings. They said ‘holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts’.”
“But the thresholds,” he says, “and the smoke, and I need to tell you about my lips, my unclean lips.”
“Here’s a napkin Isaiah.”
“No,” he says, “there was this coal and the seraph cleaned my lips. And the Lord asked someone to go for ‘us’. God’s personal reference was in the plural. It was a hint at the Trinity. The Triune God needed to send someone.”
We reply, “I think ‘the Lord’ should try advertising on Indeed.com Isaiah.”
“No, I said I would go. And the Lord said I should make sure they didn’t understand. I should distract them, so they wouldn’t repent and be healed. It’s time for judgment.”
“Your Lord sounds like a jerk, Isaiah.”
“But no, the Lord is holy. He’s radically different. The rules don’t apply.”
What is going on? Why would Isaiah’s extraordinary vision fail to move us?
Forgive me for this nerdy intrusion, but I think the philosopher Charles Taylor is helpful here. Taylor uses two key terms that might be beneficial to us: the “porous self” and the “buffered self.”
The porous self, Taylor says, is the ‘self’ of an older period. It is a way of being that is inherently open to encountering the transcendent. People of an earlier era, people who bore this self, simply assumed that they could be influenced by demons, visions and sacred scripture. They assumed they could encounter something real through these things.
Many of us, though, bear Taylor’s second ‘self’, the buffered self. If we sense something divine in prayer or in a vision or in our reading of scripture, we think more about ourselves having that experience than about God. We are spiritually self-conscious in a way our ancestors were not. We might find personal significance in spiritual practices, mystical experiences or biblical texts—but we have a hard time crediting them with universal significance.
Inhabiting the world through the buffered self means we can’t relate to a biblical character who has a vision of God that launches his vocation. We would second-guess it. We would be conscious of the fact that others have visions too, that they aren’t any weirder than we are and that their visions don’t line up with ours. We find it hard to live fully within a particular set of beliefs, even the very beliefs that gave our spiritual ancestors a sense of meaning. This, again, is the ‘we don’t’ side of our experience of this passage from Isaiah.
Yet, that’s never all there is. Our ‘we do’ response is found in the fact that we can’t not be intrigued by belief. The world seems to us too beautiful to only be machinery. Life begs for meaning. We are pressed, then, between this ‘we do’ and ‘we don’t’.
Here’s an example of what I mean. The NBC show “The Good Place” was created by Michael Schur (who had a small role playing one of the beat farmers on “The Office”). The premise of “The Good Place” is that the main characters realize that they are dead. To their surprise, they find themselves in the good place. (the following is a spoiler if you haven’t seen the first season of the show).
At the center of the story line is Eleanor Shellstrop. Eleanor believes she has been sent to the good place by mistake. She was not a great person. A young man, a social-justice volunteer, once asked her if she had a minute to talk about the environment. She responded by asking if he had a minute to eat her farts. She was not a good person. She knows that.
As the show progresses we realize that Eleanor and the people she gets to know are not actually in the good place after all. They are in beta version of a new version of hell. The concept was developed by a demon named Michael. He thought that true torment would come from being doomed to spend eternity with people you didn’t like. What surprises Michael is that this group of people are made better by being together. He even begins to like them. In fact, Michael decides to smuggle the group through a special portal to have their sentence reviewed by the all-knowing judge.
When the group arrives in the courtroom it is empty, except for a burrito on the judge’s desk. The group waits, and then concludes that the burrito itself is the all-knowing judge. They begin to plead their case to the burrito. Eleanor is part way through her speech when the all-knowing judge, named Shawn of course, shows up.
“The Good Place” is witty and smart show (it’s also crass at times). I think it shows the way many of us do and don’t believe. Stacked up against the beliefs of our neighbours the specifics of our faith seem a bit silly. So we contextualize and second-guess our convictions. We chew of the tradition, but we’re pretty careful not to actually swallow it. We are likely to laugh at a burrito being mistaken for God, but we find it hard to take Isaiah’s vision seriously.
Our inner selves are buffered against direct contact with anything beyond the world we can see and touch. Why not imagine that if we see God, we might see a burrito? It all seems so idiosyncratic and narrow. And yet, like the creators of the “The Good Place,” we can’t let go of questions about the afterlife and morality and justice. We can’t ignore the sense that our experience points to something beyond. We can’t walk away. We can’t ignore Isaiah entirely. It might not reflection our experience directly, but something about the story’s very otherness strikes us. We are still drawn to the mystery and majesty.
What do we do with this—this great gap between ourselves and Isaiah?
I can’t see an no easy answer to that question. The only answer, I think, is a hard one. And it’s only a sign on the trail pointing us forward. It comes in the form of a gospel story assigned to us today.
We didn’t read the gospel text this morning, but it was to be the story of Nicodemus. Nicodemus, you might remember, goes in secret to see Jesus. He can’t quite believe what Jesus is saying. It doesn’t fit with experience of the world. And yet, Nicodemus sees something in Jesus he can’t ignore.
All Nicodemus can do is open himself to a question: What if I’ve been too closed? What if I’ve missed something more beautiful and loving than I ever imagined? What if there is a hidden power at work in the world? What if my assumptions about what’s real and possible . . . . The story trails off, leaving only a suggestion, a sign, a hint.