Ed Farley and the Present/Absent God

Ed Farley made it hard to rest easy with a simplistic faith in God. He embodied for me the phrase “God is God, and I am not.” He also made it hard to rest easy with a simplistic unbelief in God. He wrote in his book, “Divine Empathy: A Theology of God:”

“The task of setting forth the way God arises into belief-ful conviction faces the same problem that confronts any and all language that would concern itself with God. Every available term sounds too strong. One hesitates to claim ‘knowledge’ of God or ‘experience’ of God. One hesitates to say that God is simply ‘present’ or that a ‘revelation’ of God has taken place…To say God is present only reminds us that God is ever absent…To say that we experience or know God only reminds us of the vast difference between what we in fact do experience and know and the way we relate to God.”

Dr. Farley introduced me to the poet Wendell Berry, whom he quoted frequently, including this prayer/poem:

“That we do not know you

is your perfection

and our hope. The darkness

keeps us near you.”

Ed Farley is not often lumped together with those who are called “Reformed” theologians, but he was consummately Reformed in the way he absolutely refused to allow God to be minimized or contained in any doctrine (including Reformed doctrine) or ideology, no matter how popular. The reality of God is a problem for faith and for people of faith, because the subject continually slips our grasp and will not allow us to capture God, but only be captured (Dr. Farley would say “founded”) by God.

This refusal included the doctrines and ideologies that inform what Farley called “genuine atheism.” He wrote, “An act of denial, rejection, or the withholding of belief is never merely general or contentless. Like belief it requires a referent. Here the atheist is in the same situation as the believer.”

God simply is. In the end, believers and unbelievers are in the same boat regarding the God who simply is. They cannot capture this God. They cannot dismiss this God. They can only approximate in both their beliefs and their rejections the God who will forever elude.

Dr. Farley’s teaching opened a world to me, and in my current Doctor of Ministry studies I find myself coming back to his work again and again. He has enriched my ministry and given me language for my own experience of the God to whom I long to keep near.

I think Dr. Farley was in many ways ahead of his time. One of the best things that can be said about him in the public arena is that none of the so-called “new atheists” ever deign to deal with his work. If they ever did, their straw-man arguments and inadequate images of God would be exposed as the secular idols they are. Farley didn’t mind exposing idols – his, mine, the church’s, the nation’s, and yes, the atheists.

He also sang bass in his Presbyterian church choir for decades, was a favorite high school Sunday school teacher, and a committed participant in the ministries of his congregation and his presbytery. The fact he knew he would never know all of God there was to know did not stop him from faithfully acknowledging God’s continually “coming forth as God” (another of his frequent lines) to him. It seems he knew it is only when the idols are cleared away that the human heart is ready to welcome the God who comes to us.

Dr. Farley died on Saturday. May he experience what Paul proclaimed, “Then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”




Matthew says it was just one star.

I can only imagine what the evening sky looked like in those days, when there were no electric lights to hide the brilliance of millions upon millions of stars and galaxies. It must have been like a Hubble photograph every night, free to anyone who took the time to simply look up.

But Matthew says in the midst of this brilliance, the magi noticed only one. When they saw it rise, it captured their imaginations, stirred an ancient hope, and sent them on a long journey. After a rather naive and deadly stop in Jerusalem to ask the current king of the Jews where the new king of the Jews had been born, they make their way to Bethlehem.

And that’s when this one star the magi’s trained eyes had spotted in a sea of stars does something stars don’t do. It leads them along the desert road like some kind of flare for five and a half miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. And then it stops. The lone star stops right over the place where the child was, like an ancient Google Maps flashing that blue dot right over the house.

This is one of those stories that drives some people crazy. You have to suspend all kinds of rational thought to believe it, not least of which is the idea that stars behave in this way. Lots of ink has been spilled trying to explain it, or apologize for it, or add it to a rather long list of all the reasons why people of faith are knuckle-dragging morons clinging to an obscure myth in the face of reality.

I love nothing better than engaging in lively conversation about this and lots of other stories with friends and family who would identify as conservative believers and hard-core atheists and befuddled agnostics.

But in the end, I don’t think Matthew wrote these words to engage us in an astronomy lesson or to convince us that stars move about in the night guiding travelers to specific locations. No, I think Matthew’s words are meant to guide us like the star to a very specific place in the text:

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Before they ever go in the house, they are filled with joy. Before they verify anything, they allow their hearts to open in anticipation. Before they know, they risk belief.

And what they believe is not that a star is capable of leading them. What they believe is that somehow the hopes and fears of all the years are met in whatever child is waiting for them in the house bathed in starlight. The star itself is not the thing. The child is the thing.

I want to count myself as part of the company that allows itself the joy of believing that in this child love overcomes hate, and peace overcomes violence, and hope overcomes despair. And that has nothing to do with stars that defy the laws of physics and everything to do with this one star, shining off the pages of Matthew’s story, pointing to the child who still brings joy to the world.

Holy Family

I wrote this piece after Room in the Inn at First Presbyterian. We had as guests a young couple and their infant child.

I saw them earlier in the evening,
He with the baby on his hip –
Eyes wide and distracted
By the steady hum and easy jostling
Of church-folk in a food line.
Soon someone offered to hold
The Little One
So dad could more easily
Get enough hot ham and cheese
Sandwiches to sustain his little
Homeless family of three
One night more.

So many were perplexed,
Surprised at such vulnerability,
An infant and young parents
In from the cold,
Looking for a room in the inn.
As if we hadn’t heard,
As if we didn’t know
He would come.

The children take the stage
Singing Rudolph and Jingle Bells,
And the fragile baby,
Passed around like found treasure,
Held tightly among them.

Silent night, holy night
Sleep in heavenly peace.