Most of the time I feel quite fortunate. The nature of my job requires that I read books and other things. Because I have the privilege of teaching, I have to assign various books. And then I have to read them and think about the material before I see students who interact with the material. Sometimes I know those same students groan about having to read the things. And I want to say, “Really?” “Would you like to have a boring job instead?”
As I was reading last night in preparation for a class, I ran across these words from the Qur’an (Koran) which was quoted by one of my textbooks. I don’t know the Qur’an very well, so I was glad to get unexpectedly something from it. The quotation was simple. It said, “Wherever you turn, there is the face of God.” (Walsh, 173) Having read it, I now get the opportunity to think about it. In many ways this is a spiritual discipline.
First of all, let me say I must have immediately thought I understood the passage, because immediately I thought that it was true. What this means is my understanding of the passage resonates with my own theological understanding of God and how I think God is present in the world. Let’s unpack that a little more.
Clearly this important part of the Qur’an quotation is the idea of the face of God. Those are simple words, but the concepts are not so simple. Obviously the language is metaphorical. This merely means that there is a God in my view; God exists. But I don’t for a minute think God has a literal face. God does not have a body with a face, two arms and some legs like you and I do.
I still prefer the idea of “Spirit” as the best description of God. Because God is Spirit, God is like the wind or like breath. I can know and understand the concepts of wind and breath and affirm that somehow God is just as real---just as present. So why bother with the metaphor of “face?” Why bother to talk about “God’s face?”
We bother---and the Qur’an bothers---because it is important to be able to describe things about God. If I want to be able to describe for you how it is I experience God, then I will need some words. And if you also have experiences of the Divinity, I hope you will want to share with me. And you also will need some words. Because humans are capable of some complex thinking, we have learned to talk with each other in metaphors, analogies, figures of speeches, etc. Actually our English language is full of these kinds of descriptions.
So when the Qur’an says that wherever we turn, there is the face of God, it means that God is everywhere. No matter where we turn our gaze, God can be seen. Clearly this suggests that much of the time when I am looking around, I am not really seeing. So often in my looking around, I would claim that I do not see God. So is God not there or do I not see God? The Qur’an suggests the problem is with me and not God. I would agree!
The real issue in this quotation is the phrase, “the face of God.” As we noted already, this is a metaphor. But why choose the metaphor of “face?” The key is in the role that we give to a person’s face. Let me suggest that we often think that if we see someone’s face, we thereby “see the person.” We can go into a little detail.
It seems to me that the first thing we generally see when we meet someone is his or her face. There are less distinguishing features in our hands or our knees! So the face---my face and your face---is the most distinguishing feature. You can tell it is I when you see my face. That is why twins are so difficult!
We also talk about seeing the “face of something.” The face of a building is called the façade. We know that a façade can mislead us. Things behind the façade might not be like the façade would suggest. In fact, sometimes we hear about someone who is putting on a façade. This means we cannot take who they are or what they say at “face value!”
Now back to God, we see what is at stake when we see the face of God wherever we turn. I connect the idea of façade here. Let’s imagine that nature is the façade of God---the face of the Divinity. When I walk through the beauty of the autumn trees, I see seeing the face of God. When I become enamored by the first winter snowfall, I contemplate God’s face.
One of the surest façades of God is the newborn baby’s smile. It is simply divine! There is power in that infant smile. It is the power of God. It is as if the Divinity Itself has once again become incarnate---become flesh---and we behold the Divine Glory. I believe in one real sense this is true.
Having said all this, I realize I need some more work in “face recognition.” I need to be more aware and more alert to see the face of God wherever I turn.