Icon images of Mary and Christ

God in the Mundane

October 5, 2017   12:23pm


Christian theology has long affirmed that all of creation speaks to the divine. God permeates through everything, from the immense horizon seen atop a mountain, to the atomic compounds that together form the peak. Big or small, nothing can be spoken of without reference to God. In his grand work De Trinitate (On the Trinity), St. Augustine takes time delineating the importance of various numbers used throughout scripture. As modern readers, we may find his interpretation of scripture on these points a bit far-reaching, but St. Augustine’s larger theological point should not be overlooked. For the bishop of Hippo, the various numbers multiplied, added, subtracted, and correlated reaffirm the simple concept that all of existence points to God. A major motif within De Trinitate is the importance of the incarnation and the goodness of creation. These two concepts are beautifully encountered in a peculiar passage where he fixates on the number 6, which is first seen in Genesis as the day humanity was made. He finds the “number of man” throughout scripture. His logic gets interesting when he considers the number 6 in reference to Christ’s conception and death.

Numbers and the Tomb

St. Augustine notes that Jesus spoke of the temple often, and that John 2:20 says that the temple was built in 46 years. As it were, 46 x 6 is 276, which is 9 months and 7 days. He continues:

[T]he perfection itself of the Lord’s body is known to have been brought to the birth in so many days [276], as the authority of the Church maintains, according to an ancient tradition. For he is believed to have been conceived on March 25, and also suffered on this same day; thus, the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no mortal person was begotten, corresponds to the new tomb in which he was buried, where no deceased person was laid, neither before nor after (De Trinitate. Book IV, chapter V).

He asserts that the numbers coincide to a greater reality, that of the eternal God’s becoming flesh, and more precisely, to his conception and death. Physical existence is so affirmed that the womb in which Jesus was conceived directly relates to the tomb in which he is buried—representing the number 6, the womb is an archetype for the place his corpse is laid. Numbers, for Augustine, point to a reality greater than themselves; yet this reality isn’t just metaphysical. It’s in a womb and a tomb. It’s here on Earth—gritty and tangible.

Hand holding pebbles

Sliding into Meaninglessness

Modern minds aren’t interested in reading numbers into greater metaphysical realities. Quite the opposite, our orientation toward the mundane, that is, the everyday happenings of life, is one that sees very little transcendence in the world at all. We either completely relegate God from the world or keep to ourselves as a subjective, moral guide. The cosmological scope of God is lost. Void of any transcendent meaning, the world becomes as an object to be controlled and mastered. Rather than inherent meaning, we see something that is reserved for consumption. In the same way that we treat the world as an object, so we treat our fellow humanity. And here lies the death of all that is good and true, when we cannot gaze into the eyes of the Other and see someone imbued with meaning.

Martin Heidegger and Inherent Meaning of Stuff

How do we avoid this trend? St. Augustine’s overarching concern is with love, and turning what you once viewed as an object to something that deserves love in itself because of its relation to God. To expand on this, however, I believe 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger provides helpful language in his notion of the fourfold interplay between earth, sky, mortals, and deities.

The earth and sky represent the dwelling of humans in the world of nature in all its forms. But, humans do not dwell within the world ‘scientifically,’ viewing nature as a collection of objects to be measured, studied, and quantified. This simply isn’t how we are meant to encounter the world. We are meant to be more poets than scientists, experiencing fruit, rivers, the drifting clouds and the blue sky as not just mere factual happenings, but meaningful encounters.

Mortals and deities continue with the poetic motif, but are something else altogether. To be mortal is to have the ability to die, to exist in a state of finitude. Deities, for Heidegger, do not point to a specific God, but are an active metaphor of a creator and sustainer that is mystically woven into the fabric of all existence. The perfect interplay between earth, sky, mortals, and deities is for humans to dwell in the world without doing violence to it, specifically, without reducing it to an object for control. To interact with a thing, for example a jug, is not to know its analytic measurements, but to sit with friends, fill it with wine, and pour it out as a libation. Even for Heidegger, who was not in any meaningful way a Christian, there is a secular and primal sense of worship about the way we engage with a thing.

Seeing God in All Things

Heidegger’s philosophy helps us understand how we fundamentally experience the world, but the Christian intuition points us to something beyond the world. The Christian orientation to the world, inherently asserting that divine meaning pervades everything, refuses to reduce even the most basic item to something that is controlled or ruled over. Instead, God is found in the most primitive and unassuming things…even a number. All of existence is a gift that points to the giver. St. Augustine believed particular numbers were drenched in spiritual meaning. What he finds in those numbers, however, keeps our eyes focused here on Earth, to the womb and to the grave. Thus, the mundane world—that which we are lulled into boredom by, and where we often fail to see transcendence—must be celebrated. The perfect interplay between earth, sky, mortals, and deities reminds us that the simplest things point to something greater than themselves all together.