Does God exist? How do we know and how do we think about this question, if we even think about it at all? The story of the burning bush, read this week in chapel, sets before us a profound image of Revelation. The bush is burning and yet is not consumed; out of it God speaks to Moses. It belongs to the ways in which things are made known to us, even things that go beyond human thinking and yet engage our minds.
An arresting scene, it gets Moses’ attention and, perhaps, ours, too, but it belongs to an understanding that is part of our world. Here the Judeo-Christian and Islamic understanding is at one with modern ‘science’ in denying the divinity of the natural world, despite the viewpoint of the English Romantics, though even Wordswoth admitted that “The world is too much with us; late and soon, /Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; - /Little we see in Nature that is ours; /We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Yet this was but a way of returning to nature as divine as something lost in the rationalism of the enlightenment and in the later material progress of the 19th century. It has its counterparts in various moments in the environmental movement, caught in the conflict between humanity and nature.
The story of the burning bush, burnt but not consumed or destroyed, is an image of Revelation, the idea of things made known to us which are not the constructs of our minds, but which engage our minds. A bush that burns but is not consumed is not natural. Exactly. It is about what is beyond nature as that upon which the natural itself depends both for its being and its intelligibility. And yet communicated to us through the medium of the natural. In that way, it is sacramental.
Things are made known to us in various ways. The idea of Revelation does not override and contradict other ways of knowing; rather, it complements them and gathers them into the underlying premise of all our knowing. We can’t know without the assumption that things are knowable and that turns upon an intellectual principle. It is articulated here in the Moses story from Exodus.
God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush. It catches his attention, to be sure, but more remarkable than this image of what is beyond nature is what comes out of it. God speaks to Moses and reveals himself; first, in terms of things that are tribal, familial and personal - the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - but then and most profoundly, in terms of what transcends the tribal, the cultural, the national and the racial, namely, the universal, the principle upon which the whole of the cosmos and our humanity exists and exists knowingly. “I am who I am” is the holy ‘name’ of God. It is about what God says about himself as distinct from the various social constructs that arise out of our minds. Here something is revealed for thought that engages our minds without being a product of our minds.
The phrase has caught the imaginations of the great philosophers and theologians down throughout the ages, not the least of which is Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, who places this phrase within the whole project of education and thought in his Summa Theologica. It begins not with the question about God’s existence but about whether beyond philosophy any other doctrine or teaching is required; in short, whether things are made known to us in some other way than what belongs to human reasoning. This lays the ground for the question whether God exists (Question 2, art. iii).
In every part of the Summa, the argument takes the form of a question followed first by a set of objections logically ordered, then a statement to the contrary, sed contra, followed by an argument, the respondo, and then responses to the objections. The turning point in this logical way of proceeding is the sed contra, a statement counter to the objections to the general question. The sed contra of Question 2, art.iii is strikingly concise. It is simply this phrase from Exodus: “I am who I am” as said “in the person of God”.
This provides the counterpoint to the two objections to the idea of the existence of God, points of view that sound remarkably modern but which have a long history. The first objection is about the presence of evil that seems to contradict the goodness of God, a commonplace argument. The second averts to the idea that either nature or human thought explains not only itself but everything else. The counter to that presumption is the great and defining statement of Jewish religious philosophy and which carries over into Christianity and into Islam in a variety of registers. “I Am Who I Am”, God says to Moses, opening out to us the idea of what is universal beyond the limitations and confines of cultural, ethnic, tribal, linguistic, and national identities to speak to our humanity as a whole. It is found in God speaking to Moses in just this way and in setting him upon a mission. The mission will be the exodus, a journey of education. In the Summa, it marks the transition to the respondeo, Aquinas’s famous ‘cosmological proof’ of God’s existence in five ways, largely a summary of arguments from Aristotle about motion but also from the 11th century Islamic theologian Avicenna on necessity and contingency. Thus, philosophy complements and engages with what is known through revelation.
This, too, is what chapel is about: reminding us of the different ways in which things are made known to us. Revelation is about what comes from God to us. God is not the figment of our imaginations. Regardless of our own particular identities and faith or non-faith commitments, chapel exposes us to ideas that belong to the larger history of human culture and life, ideas that challenge our thinking. In matters of religion as in education, you cannot be coerced into thinking a certain way. You can only take the ideas that are presented to you and engage with them.
There is something majestic and humbling in the story of the burning bush. It signals the divine will to reveal and make known its own truth and dignity, not for itself but for us. It signals the challenge of our humanity to engage with what is set before us. But such is education of which these considerations are a critical part.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy